One question that we are most frequently asked is "How did the Next Step Center get started"? That is a good question and we have a wonderful story from someone who was there throughout it all.
By Ernest D. Withrow
I recall awakening early one winter morning and driving to the office seeing icicles glistening in faint sunlight as they hung from trees and porches. The sunlight reflected off the snow covered ground lending character to a beautiful winter landscape. The scene looked as if it had been taken from a picture in a winter wonderland. The moment was quickly interrupted as I turned my car radio on. The news broadcaster had just announced the death of an elderly woman who had frozen to death during the night. A grim reality reduced the snowy fairy tale to the cold temperature it represented.
Born on that cold morning, the Next Step Center took it’s first breath. It was the vision of two people, both in awe over the senseless death of a human being who had lost her life due to a lack of heat or a place to escape from the bitter cold.
I remember attending the first board meeting April 27, 1995. We gathered in the dining room at Kings Restaraunt. All the participants were eager to see results. Our task was to show evidence that Somerset County needed a shelter for those who found themselves homeless. This committee compiled statistical data from local agencies and some as far away as Harrisburg. The planning stages of a shelter quickly proved to be a monumental undertaking and we often found ourselves multitasking.
As part of the advisory board, I met with many people from several committees throughout Somerset. Some were more willing to welcome a shelter than others. It was the responsibility of the advisory board to analyze the concerns of the community at large. Many people felt that a shelter would bring un-wanted residents to the neighborhood. Thus, the committee vowed that the shelter would only provide housing for Somerset County residents. This single fact seemed to ease the conscience and concerns of all. That was just the beginning.
There were more crucial allocations to be addressed. First and foremost, we needed funds and we needed a space. As the member and Chair of the fundraising committee, we set out to raise the necessary funds to purchase a house to be called a shelter. One of our concerns is that if any one of us were ever to need shelter for whatever reason, this would be a place where we ourselves would be welcomed and would feel comfortable. Little did anyone know that it was during the fundraising period that those involved saw fit the need and want for a homeless shelter in our County. The committee engaged in selling raffle tickets, hosting dances, sponsoring arts and craft shows and the list goes on.
This one most valuable lesson was learned during that part of the opening of the shelter:
There are many people who set out to do good for others and there are many people wanting to contribute to a worthy cause. However, the complicated part of fundraising is joining the cause and those wishing to contribute to that cause together. The supporters are liken to a rose waiting to blossom. Just as the rose needs water to blossom, people wishing to give their support need to know where their support is needed. The Center is the only emergency shelter in Somerset County and is now going on it’s 7th year of being in operation. We have served as a host house to over 313 families, individuals, and children.
I am humbled by the support and generosity of all those who have helped and nurtured the homeless population of Somerset County.
By Ernest D. Withrow,
Member of the founding committee
and ex CEO