Sharon knows how to share. She shared her modest college home with a refugee family from Cambodia. She shared her home in Montana with children from a hospital for mentally handicapped. She has shared homes with foster siblings and foster children and exchange students. She currently shares her home with her husband and her 85-year-old mother. Most recently, she began sharing this home with two wonderful women who suffer from mental illness. She cooks dinner for them each night, offers support and training, and provides a safe place for them to live and grow away from the cold confinement of a mental hospital. She is living proof that one woman’s sharing can be a wave that changes the Big Ocean of the world. She shared this poem which has been her mantra for years. It is exactly what Big Ocean Women believe and live. It could have been written about her and her sharing ways. She is well-spoken so we have chosen to use her words to share her story.
Little drops of water,
Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
And the beauteous land.
Julia Carney, 1845
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
As a Girl Scout, I was taught to leave every place a little better than I found it. As I grew older, I turned that into a goal to leave every person I meet perhaps a little happier or more comfortable from our encounter. My parents and church taught me similar values. Each person has talents and natural abilities and I think my best talent is the ability to love and care for others. I have always received great joy in doing so.
I was a teenager in the 1960’s when President Kennedy told us, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” I married young and hadn’t served in the Peace Corp or accomplished my desire to make a difference for those in need in the world and was a bit disappointed in myself. After I married and had my first child, some special opportunities came my way. My husband was a special education teacher and grant writer and we found that there was a grant available to take children out of the Montana State Institution for the Mentally Handicapped. He wrote the grant and we started the first group home for severely mentally handicapped children in our own home. I ran the home and the training programs until just before the birth of my third child, when we moved to Utah so my husband could work on his PhD at Brigham Young University.
We had kept one of our kids from the group home as our first foster child. As a student family with four children and significant financial challenges, it was easy to feel discouraged at times. I was an often-exhausted mother with a rarely-home husband.
The news at the time was full of the genocide in Cambodia. Night after night the screens were filled with the tragedies, the massacres, the starvation, the refugee camps. My heart ached for them but what could I do but add the situation to my prayers?
Then an ad in the daily paper mentioned a meeting for those interested in sponsoring a Cambodian refugee. I decided to attend and get information for later, when our financial situation improved and we could help. The social worker in charge explained the needs and indicated it usually took many months, sometimes years, before people who signed up would get their refugee. When I was reassured we could share our own home rather than pay for a separate apartment, I signed up, confident that in six months to a year our financial problems would be over.
In under a WEEK, I got a call from a social worker. He was at the Salt Lake Airport and said that our refugee family was there and they needed directions to our house. I stammered out the directions and quickly figured out where we could squeeze in three more people. I was grateful I had already experienced sharing our home with numerous foster children and exchange students over the years.
A mother and father and their one surviving child were at my home within the hour. They got out of the car, shivering in the layers of all the clothes they owned–3 shirts and a pair of pants each. They clutched small plastic bags from the Red Cross with toothbrush and paste, a comb and hotel-size bar of soap. As the translator told me some of their history, my personal pity party dissolved quickly.
Technically I was serving them, but they were a great life lesson and paradigm shift for me. Within hours, I started seeing my life as full of incredible blessings. The food storage we were living on that I had viewed as meager was a miraculous bounty to Su Eng who had lost two children to starvation. I had the opportunity to be impressed with hot water, indoor plumbing and flush toilets, a shower, a stove to cook on with just the turn of a knob, a refrigerator and freezer (with food in them), a roof over our heads that kept out the weather and a door that locked. Most of all I had four healthy, rosy-cheeked children and a place to keep them safe.
There are needs all around us when we pay attention. I believe that no one can do everything but everyone can do something. I haven’t done any great earth-changing things in my life. I have just shared what I have. However, I believe my drops of water have made a positive difference in some individual lives and have been a great blessing in my own.
2. How did you get involved in providing housing for those with mental challenges?
Like most of us, I was aware of mental illness, but I did not understand the major health crisis it is in our country and how many services are lacking. I remarried nearly three years ago and two of my husband’s sons struggled with mental illness. They were both adults and had significant challenges. My husband and I took a Family to Family class from National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to learn more about the illnesses. I began looking for services for them, including housing programs. I made dozens and dozens of calls and was shocked and saddened to learn that there were few housing options and those that were available were full and have long waiting lists. The more I searched, the more I discovered how deep the need was. Many wonderful professionals expressed the need for much more housing for both men and women and many parents who needed housing for their adult children.
To me it seemed that it should be fairly simple: A safe place to live, food, and a way to shower and have clean clothes for those who are not able to provide those things on their own. Unfortunately finding such a place is not simple.
I have a basement apartment in my home that was occupied by family members for years. When those circumstances changed, I had planned to rent the apartment as a typical 2-bedroom apartment. I am a woman of faith and felt prompted that I was to use the apartment for those with mental illness. While initially I planned to have at least one of my stepsons live here, everything pointed to housing women instead. That is what we have done.
At this point we have an apartment for four women. Rent is all-inclusive, covering utilities, TV and Internet, laundry facilities, household supplies and food. I prepare the evening meal. We assist with daily needs and transportation. The two ladies we have now have been in the state hospital. Institutional living creates some learned dependence and loss of daily living skills so we help with skill building as needed. My husband has retired so he does much of the driving, physical work and day to day help. I work full time from home so I am also available when needed.
Sharon meets regularly with tenants for planning and training.
3. What are some of the challenges of this endeavor?
In some ways, it has been much more difficult that I imagined. First, it took twice as long and cost much more than I anticipated to remodel the basement apartment. Next, the budget is a challenge while we have just two residents. It is difficult for them to understand boundaries and respect other people’s time and rights and property. My husband and I like and enjoy interacting with both ladies so fortunately the challenges are more than balanced with positive experiences.
4. What inspires you to keep going?
I realize these ladies are like flowers, unique and worthy of love and opportunities to be their best kind of beautiful. It is very rewarding to see them stretch and grow and be released rather than forever trapped in a less than ideal situation. I see God’s hand in this as I recognize the past experiences in my life prepared me to do this. My husband is a great support and reminds me to be patient and calm.
The good we can do down the road keeps us going. We want to provide more housing as soon as we can. We plan to have two large homes that can serve 15-20 women and 15-20 men in each with live-in house managers and a supportive, extended family style environment. If the need is there after that, we would create more homes.
The bottom line, though, is that I feel it is exactly what I am supposed to be doing right now. I believe that when we feel a prompting from God to do something, then a way will open to enable us to do it. When I looked at it prayerfully from the “how” perspective, I realized I could not do it on my own; but if my husband stayed home and worked with me, we could do it together. It is hard at times, but it is possible and is very worthwhile.
Tenants, like these flowers they will help plant, are unique and beautiful and require different ingredients to grow.
5. If someone wants to join in and help, how could they do it?
The first huge need is to be compassionate and accepting of those with mental illness. If we don’t struggle with mental health challenges ourselves, we all have friends or family members who do. Becoming educated is an important step. Some mental illness is not readily apparent and is suffered in privacy and silence while other forms may show up as behavior that doesn’t meet our social expectations. Each human being has a right to be valued and treated with kindness.
I have founded Oasis Housing, a 509 a2 non-profit corporation, and donations of any kind can be tax deductible. The goal or big picture is to find Angel Investors who would provide a suitable home that could meet the residents’ needs that we can rent for a fair and reasonable cost so we could move forward with the next homes. As an intermediate step, we need to find homes with 5+ bedrooms near public transportation that will rent to our untypical project at a fair and reasonable cost. We need some Angel Landlords.
My dream is to have two new homes built with floor plans that work for a large group that we could rent or, with sufficient fundraising, own. Interested donors could donate funds earmarked for that.