Every three or four months, the chairs and projectors are removed from the conference center at St. Anthony North Hospital in suburban Denver. In roll the privacy partitions, lamps, beds, tables and a few TVs.
Time again for the hospital to host a week of overnight shelter for homeless families.
Since 1999, the hospital in Westminster, Colo., has taken turns with a growing number of north-suburban churches to provide temporary sleeping quarters for homeless families with children. They do so through Growing Home, a community organization that Kathleen Drozda, the pastoral nurse coordinator at St. Anthony North, helped create. She remains one of its driving forces.
Growing Home helps the families with counseling, job searches, food and other assistance during the daytime at its center two miles from the hospital. Growing Home served about 5,000 families with at least some of its services in 2010. It houses homeless families through a network of 26 area churches, St. Anthony North and Denver's Regis University. Each week, one of them serves as the host site for food and lodging.
When it's St. Anthony North's turn, Drozda draws from her list of 50 or so regular volunteers to help care for the families. A few volunteers always stay overnight. The hospital provides the families with free breakfast and dinner in its cafeteria, just across a hallway from the sleeping area, and it sends them on their way each morning with sack lunches.
Families arrive at the participating shelter about 5 p.m. each day, stay overnight and then return to the day center at 7 a.m. for other programs. Children take buses to school.
Drozda and Teva Sienicki, executive director of Growing Home, said they believe St. Anthony North may be the only Catholic hospital in the country that provides overnight shelter to homeless families within its building. Drozda said that direct act of mercy gives extra meaning to the hospital's mission.
"This hospital doesn't just put its mission on billboards and buses. When we look at the poor, we know we're supposed to see Jesus Christ. This makes it more real. We see the faces of families who are like us, except they have fallen on hard times," Drozda said.
Drozda, a registered nurse, was director of the hospital's neurotrauma center before taking her current job in 1995. One year later, she noticed that a young woman and her two dogs were living in a Subaru station wagon in the hospital parking lot. Drozda introduced herself, got the woman a meal in the cafeteria and helped her find a job and apartment.
Drozda's pastoral role put her in regular contact with charities and community groups in and around Westminster. She helped create the Adams County Interfaith Hospitality Network (later renamed Growing Home).
The first six participating churches agreed to take turns providing lodging to homeless families. Drozda thought the hospital should be in the rotation, and she made that case to top management by promising the shelter would not interfere with hospital operations and could serve as a direct expression of the hospital's community service. St. Anthony North hosted its first families in November 1999.
Drozda said the hospital and Growing Home schedule the shelter far in advance, avoiding any times when the conference rooms are needed for big events. She gets a small budget from the hospital for necessities such as linens and food. Because the family groups who spend the week in the conference area usually don't exceed 14 people total, the hospital covers as many as 1,200 cafeteria meals, including the sack lunches, each year.
Senicki, of Growing Home, said participating families look forward to a week at St. Anthony North because they can go through the cafeteria lines and select tasty, nutritious, hot meals. "They feel like they're being treated to a night out at a restaurant," she said.
The hospital provides participants with medical care in case of emergencies, but family members cannot use the emergency room for colds and aches. Drozda said the hospital once delivered the baby of a participating mother who had gone into labor while spending a night in the hospital's shelter.
Families staying in the hospital's temporary shelter have access to nearby restrooms, but they take showers and do laundry at the Growing Home day center. "We do not get in the way of the hospital,"
Drozda said. "It has become an easy sell for the administration."
Barbara Carveth, acting president and chief executive at St. Anthony North, said that's because Growing Home allows the hospital to provide a special ministry to its community without hindering the medical mission. Carveth praised Drozda as a "master of seeing a need and finding a solution.
"We have never had any problems or regrets," she said.
Carveth said any hospital considering a similar program should find someone like Drozda, who will be committed to ensuring a smooth process for all. "Her planning skills and attention to every last detail allows us to host the families without disturbing our operations, while also respecting our guests' privacy," Carveth said.
She said hospital employees have embraced the program with gifts and volunteer hours. Drozda said one nurse makes toilet kits for each family before they arrive. Other employees bring toys and school supplies for the families. Two employees brought vases of flowers on a recent Mother's Day.
"People see the need with their own eyes and are happy to help," Drozda said.
And the woman living in the old Subaru? "I hear from her every year," Drozda said. "She's doing great."
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