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Reston's 'Crown Jewel' Marks Anniversary

For 15 years, the Embry Rucker Community Shelter has been looking out for the area's "forgotten residents."

The Embry Rucker Community Shelter celebrated a milestone Tuesday morning. Opened in 1987, the Reston shelter has housed some of the area's neediest individuals and families for 15 years. And Tuesday, community members took time out to recognize the shelter's decade and a half of service to Fairfax County.

Calling it the "Crown Jewel of Reston," state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32), one of shelter's earliest supporters and promoters, praised the efforts of the staff and volunteers who keep Embry Rucker in business. "I am so proud of everyone here," she said. "But the fact that we need a shelter at all is an indictment of our society."

Stella Stokes is a former resident of the Embry Rucker Shelter. She is one of an estimated 7,500 people who have spent time in the shelter over the last 15 years. While taking care of her three grandchildren, Stokes initially entered the site reluctantly. "I was elderly and I had just gone through surgery and I guess I wanted some pity," Stokes said. "I didn't get it. The staff had no pity for me, instead they pushed me forward."

Walking through the doors of this nondescript, brown brick building was the best thing she could have done for herself and her family, Stokes said. "If it hadn't been for their push, I would not be here today."

The shelter's volunteer coordinator, Ashley Garecht, said people like Stokes, come to her shelter as a last resort. "They utilize other resources first like their families and friends before they come to us," Garecht said. "People don't turn to us until they are at their lowest point."

With a countywide waiting list of nearly 65 families, Garecht said the shelter must turn back many potential clients. Embry Rucker is one of three family-friendly shelters in the county. Families typically stay for a period of about three months; individuals stay on average 30 days. "We want to make them self sufficient," she said. "That is our primary goal."

Once inside, Garecht says, residents can expect to be treated with dignity and respect. Ruth Schrott, of Reston, volunteers at Embry Rucker, and she says her experience has taught her many valuable lessons. "Talking with these people makes you quickly realize that they are not a 'they,'" Schrott said. "When you treat them with the dignity they deserve, you realize 'they' are an 'us.'"

<b>HOWELL WAS PRESIDENT</b> of the Reston Community Association in the 1980s when the idea of a homeless shelter in Reston was first floated. Howell, who was a member of the Reston Interfaith board at the time, told Tuesday's audience about the early history of the shelter. "In 1983, we began getting reports from local clergy about homeless people in Reston," the senator said. "We were aghast. They were living in the woods, under underpasses and in churches."

Churches tried tackling the problem themselves and even developed a schedule where churches would, on a rotating basis, take in and shelter the area's homeless. "Eventually, the churches got wore out. They were exhausted," Howell said. A group of community volunteers and clergy, including Howell, went to the Board of Supervisors and requested that Fairfax County put a homeless shelter in their backyard. "We want a homeless shelter," Howell remembers saying. "And we want it in Reston."

In the end, 21 Restonians, Howell said, spoke in favor of the shelter, and only one argued against it.

Reston is still standing up for its shelter, said its director, Anita Bonick. "Without the community's support, we simply couldn't do what we do everyday," Bonick said. "Reston and the surrounding area have been phenomenal. Because Reston actually wanted this shelter, I think the community has taken a lot of pride and ownership in its success."

<b>THE EMBRY RUCKER</b> shelter, a 60-bed facility with separate wings for families and individuals, was built by Fairfax County which opened the then North County Community Shelter on Bowman Towne Drive next to the library Nov. 30, 1987. Two years later, according to Reston Interfaith, the Board of Supervisors renamed the shelter in honor of Embry Rucker, a long-time Reston resident, minister and member of the Shelter Advisory Committee. Run by Reston Interfaith, under contract with the county, the shelter employs 18 full-time and 15 part-time staff members who provide 24-hour service to its clients.

The chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Kate Hanley, said the Embry Rucker shelter is more than "just a roof." She pointed to the shelter's numerous programs, from alcohol and drug services to job training activities, as examples of what the shelter has to offer.

Hanley also lauded Reston Interfaith for bringing in corporate and community partnerships to help fund many of these programs, like British Telecom which presented a check for $7,000 to Reston Interfaith Tuesday. Earlier this year, Comcast donated computer equipment and a cable Internet connection to the facility. Bonick said the shelter has received around $240,000 in in-kind contributions for the last several years. "Government can't do it all," Hanley said, adding that Fairfax County will be moving forward with a new shelter for the western edge of the county.

Supervisor Kathy Hudgins (D-Hunters Mill), praised the efforts of the shelter's staff and also commended the entire community of Reston. "The fact is, we have a community that continues to respond after all these years," Hudgins said. "It says something about what we are as a community."

Schrott agreed. Schrott has volunteered at the Reston shelter for more than six years. "This proves that Reston has really lived up to its original goals."