By Lauren Zaepfel and Joshua Maloni
You have a dream.
You're walking around downtown when you realize you've left your coat in the car - your wallet, keys and phone in your fleece pockets. The car doors are locked shut. You're forced to wait outside in the cold and the rain and wait for help, not knowing if or when it will come.
You'd like to enter the diner across the street and eat, but you don't have any money.
Strangers pass by but are unwilling to lend a hand, let alone a dollar.
You feel alone and scared, tired and hungry. You feel hopeless.
But then you wake up. You roll over on your comfortable bed, inside your warm house, and you go back to sleep.
It was just a dream.
And yet, for the 1,900 homeless people in Niagara County, this isn't a dream. It's an everyday reality.
But it's not one they have to fight alone. There is help, and there is hope.
"Oftentimes, when people come to us, they often have nowhere else to go," said Robyn L. Krueger, executive director of Community Missions of Niagara Frontier Inc. "We can offer people hope that their situation isn't totally without support; their situation can be helped and their situation has opportunity. So we help move them toward the goal that they have for themselves."
The team at CMI strives to "provide people the help that they need at that place that they need it, and the services that they need," Krueger said.
Community Missions Communications and Development Manager Christian Hoffman, left, holds one of the Thanksgiving turkeys chef Jimmie Walker will prepare for guests this holiday season.
CMI has provided necessary services to those without the luxuries of shelter, food and care for the past 90 years. Last year, the agency provided more than 76,900 meals and 10,000 nights of care through the programs it offers to those facing critical life challenges.
Krueger said CMI has "great partners and collaboratives in the community that we can refer individuals to get the specialized services that they might need." This includes substance abuse assistance, mental health counseling and family therapy.
Krueger said the mission provides struggling people with "a road map."
"Obviously, the person really needs to do some things on their own, but yet we are there to help them, to support them, to guide them, to be their cheerleader and to really help connect them with services in the community," she said.
The mission continuously serves the homeless, as well as "individuals who often don't have a home of their own and they're either staying with friends or they're staying on somebody's couch and one wrong move and they're out on the street," Krueger said. "They're at risk of being homeless.
"We also deal with individuals who are re-entering the community through incarceration, so we have parolees. We also have individuals who have been incarcerated in the local jails. So really we have people that others kind of want to say, 'Oh, they have too many problems. We just can't deal with them.' "
The mission also provides assistance to both adults and youth who suffer from mental illness or are HIV positive, Krueger said. Housing, the "Clothing Closet" and furniture giveaway programs also are available.
Lori Cooper receives free hair styling from Brian Palmer.
In addition to helping provide the essentials needed to survive and keep physically well, CMI offers spiritual help.
"We have an agency minister who helps support individuals with their spiritual journey, whatever that happens to be," Krueger said. "We don't tell people what we think they should be. We offer them opportunities for people to treat the whole person ... spiritual opportunities in the religious tradition of their choice or if they're questioning. Then we provide them with different opportunities to local churches or groups that will feed their spiritual side, as well as us taking care of their physical being."
"Whenever anyone enters ... the shelter or something like that, they are given the spirituality assessment. And it's up to them fully if they want to engage in some type of spiritual conversation," CMI Communications and Development Manager Christian Hoffman said. "If someone has a specific denomination ... (for example) Christian, that's great; we'll make sure that they follow up there. If someone is of a different religion - if someone is Muslim or Hindu, anything like that - we will make whatever accommodations we can to try to get them connected there, as well."
He added, "Everybody that walks through our doors has different stories; there are no two stories that are ever the same."
There is, however, one shared idea that unites the recipients of CMI's efforts.
"I think what people fail to recognize often when others are in crisis is that these individuals, who are already in crisis, are human beings. They deserve respect, they deserve dignity, they're often looked down upon," Krueger said. "You never know what catastrophe could happen. I mean, God forbid something happened to you and your family. God forbid something happened to people's jobs and their income. It doesn't take much anymore to really put individuals who used to be our donors, to be the guests that we have in the Community Kitchen."
Krueger asks members of the community to "recognize the humanity of the individuals that we serve and treat them with respect and dignity, because they deserve it just as much as the millionaire who's walking down the street."
This year, the community is giving back to the mission in significant fashion.
The Hard Rock Café, Niagara Falls USA, will welcome more than 300 guests from Community Missions on Thanksgiving day.
"True to its philosophy of 'Love All - Serve All,' Hard Rock International is passionate about making the earth a better place to live, and that especially rings true throughout the holiday season," Sales and Marketing Manager Claire M. Seveno said. "By partnering with local organizations, like Community Missions, Hard Rock is able to give back to the community in a meaningful way, by providing families in need with a Thanksgiving meal."
"Their wait staff and the wait staff's family does all the cooking, all the serving and sometimes this is the first time that anyone's been to the Hard Rock Café," Krueger said. "It's really an exciting beginning to the holiday season, and it's certainly so generous of the Hard Rock and their staff to open their doors to us."
On #GivingTuesday, Dec. 1, several Niagara Falls-area restaurants will donate a portion of their sales to CMI - including TGI Fridays and the Rainforest Café, both located inside the Sheraton at the Falls at 300 Third St.
"We're happy to support the efforts, because of the meaningful work that they do helping those that need a helping hand. We're happy to play a role," said Geoffrey Reeds, executive director of sales and marketing. "We also contribute some of our leftover product that is no longer functional in our building - whether that be sheets, pillows, blankets, things that we no longer use in service. We also contribute to their needs that way, too."
Like Seveno, Reeds said it's important to give back to the Falls' less fortunate.
"As a strong corporate entity in Niagara Falls, we feel that it is our responsibility to have a community outreach piece to our business model - (to) help the area's folks," he said. "We not only employ almost 800 people within our organization, but obviously we want to have a positive image in the community for helping Niagara Falls as a collective, and obviously supporting the efforts that Community Missions has in helping our local residents that need some support."
Community Missions Communications and Development Manager Christian Hoffman, left, shakes hands with Geoffrey Reeds, executive director of sales and marketing for Sheraton at the Falls. Guests are invited to dine at the Rainforest Café, pictured, on #GivingTuesday, when a portion of the proceeds will be donated to CMI.
These businesses aren't the only ones getting involved with CMI for #GivingTuesday. "Our (CMI's) food pantry has been taken over by the basketball team of Niagara University," Krueger said. "They help put all of our shelves and things back together. This is the second room in the sort of pantry that will be cleared out and painted and new flooring put down, and that's usually done by a combination of the various sports teams in the area, as well as the volunteers that come for #GivingTuesday."
CMI's "Adopt-a-Family" program is also underway during this holiday season. Krueger said 116 families have been adopted this year.
"We speak to the family members, we put wishes for the kids, specific things that the kids would like, and then families or organizations call us," she explained. "They adopt as many families as they would like, and then those wrapped toys and things come back with names on them and then they're distributed ...well in time for hiding for Santa to bring them on Christmas morning."
"We do have some children in residence, both in the shelter and in our program in Lockport ... these kids put their wishes down ... on ornaments, and then the Niagara Falls Library, the North Tonawanda Library and the Lockport Library all put them on the trees, so patrons can come take the tree item off, purchase the gift, and then they return it from the library from which they picked up the tag," Krueger said. "That's another great opportunity for us, to give hope for kids who, unfortunately, can't go home for the holidays -- who have difficult home life during the holiday time period."
Krueger explained there are many ways members of the community can contribute to CMI's initiatives, not just during the holiday season, but year-round.
"I think we need to go back to the scriptures - look for people's time, talent and treasures," she said. "If you have a particular talent - if you're an electrician, if you're a wood worker, you're a painter, or you have a skill - we can always put you to work. They're always things that need to be done."
"It doesn't have to be money," she added. "It can be a little bit of your time - come serve in the soup kitchen, collect canned goods; if you're a knitter, knit some scarves or some hats - things that people do every day would be fine with us."
Hoffman said, "We have the experience and the resources available to connect people in the community, to be able to help people in whatever kind of situation that gets presented to us."
Community Missions is located at 1570 Buffalo Ave., Niagara Falls. For more information on CMI, visit www.CommunityMissions.org.
The Community Kitchen at Community Missions.