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Residents Learn about Reston Interfaith

Community members tour three facilities.

Wallace Felts takes a group of roughly 20 curious visitors through the door with a sign, "Women's Dorm." This is where at any given time 10 single female homeless people sleep, eat, drink and live.

"It's not fancy, but it's comfortable," said Felts, a manager at the Embry Rucker homeless shelter in Reston, showing a room of four bunk beds covered with recently washed sheets. The room is neat, but empty. Every morning at 10 o'clock Embry Rucker guests are asked to leave their rooms until 3 p.m. The shelter almost always operates at capacity. "We had a lady leave this morning, but the bed will be filled by this afternoon," said Felts.

Embry Rucker's director, Marte Birnbaum, also led a tour group of roughly 20 people. Felts and Birnbaum took their groups to both the singles and family wings of the shelter. Embry Rucker is the only homeless shelter in the Fairfax County system that hosts both single clients and families. The visitors, a little more than 40 members of the Reston and Herndon communities, had a chance to acquaint themselves with Reston Interfaith programs last week on Wednesday with a tour of its facilities. The tour started at the shelter.

Birnbaum said Reston Interfaith's services for the homeless population increased as levels of poverty and homelessness increased as well. "Nobody is even denying the growing disparity between the rich and the poor," said Birnbaum.

CEO of Reston Interfaith, Kerrie Wilson, said Reston Interfaith started in 1970 as an organization fighting for affordable housing. "Our mission grew because we learned of other needs," she said. The tour, which continued in the evening at Reston Interfaith's Food Pantry and Laurel Learning Center, was also the first gathering of the Friends of Reston Interfaith.

WHILE RESTON INTERFAITH'S programs and services are well known in the community, the organization hoped a tour of its facilities might better acquaint community members with its services. "You will learn and see some things you will be surprised about," said Vade Bolton, member of the Reston Interfaith board, as he addressed Embry Rucker visitors prior to the tour.

Felts took his group to the family wing first. "This is the neediest part of our homeless population," he said. Felts said most of the parents from families staying in the shelter are working parents. "Kids go to daycare while parents work," said Felts. There are 10 rooms in the wing, most of them accommodating families of four to six people. A typical stay lasts 60 to 90 days, but Felts said some stay longer than a year. He said there is a long waiting list for family space in the county's shelter system. "There's never an empty room in this place. The demand is far greater than the resources we have," he said.

The singles wing of the shelter provides space for 10 females and 20 males. There is also a medical program in the shelter, which offers services of a nurse's aid from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. "We are helping people who can't help themselves until they get physically better," said Felts. The clients also have an option of meeting with an employment counselor available to them.

"I did learn a lot more" from the tour, said Teresa Clark. She attended the tour with a group from the Great Falls United Methodist Church. "I've never seen the inner workings of the family room," she said. Clark added she was pleased to see the emphasis Reston Interfaith placed on the security of its clients.

Another member of the church group, Mary Anger, said she and her church have been involved with the Reston Interfaith for several years, and had the basic understanding of the services provided in the shelter and some other programs. The tour helped her understand the impact Embry Rucker has on people in the community. "You don't understand the impact until you see what goes on behind the scenes," said Anger. She added that one way she learned the community could help Reston Interfaith is for supporting groups — churches and others — to build up funds Reston Interfaith could use in emergency situations. If something breaks, for example a washing machine in the shelter, Reston Interfaith could go and buy a new one knowing there is a fund somewhere in the community from which they could be reimbursed.

EMBRY RUCKER CONTINUES its operation as a service-oriented facility, but the shelter may need some service for itself. For example, there are reoccurring plumbing problems in the building. Felts said the building was built for residential use, but the impact of the use has reached that of commercial proportions. Due to constant operation at capacity, the number of times the toilets are flushed, for example, are wearing down the plumbing in the building. "Care is needed and it's urgent care," said Felts.

The Reston Interfaith tour continued in the evening at the facilities at Lake Anne. Food and Emergency Services manager Ellie Moody presented the food pantry and the self-sufficiency program to about 10 visitors. She said the food pantry serves about 800 clients each month, which translates into roughly 250 households, 85 percent of which have children under the age of 16.

Moody said the program would like to receive donations of canned meat, toiletries and diapers, among other things. Cereal is a staple, and since the program serves so many families with children cereal is always a popular item. The program also helps some clients pay rent and utilities.

The visitors then made their way upstairs to the space occupied by the Laurel Learning Center, where Bernie Bennecoff, an enrollment and administration officer, gave the tour of the day care's facility. Bennecoff has worked at the center for almost 23 years. "I said I'd work till the first snowstorm, and I'm still waiting for the right one to come," she said. Laurel Learning Center is a day home for 138 students, a large percentage of whom are under the subsidized childcare program. "When I started here we had 22 kids total," said Bennecoff.

In 2000 the center opened a program for infants. The program accepts babies from the time they are six weeks old, and the infant room has a capacity for 14 students. Currently there are 12 students in the infant program, with an 8-week-old starting on Friday.