As the Taste of Italy fundraiser wound down at Church of the Apostles Saturday night, volunteers packed a to-go box of spaghetti, salad and homemade cake to take to a man living in the wooded area behind a local restaurant.
"It surprises me that people did not think there were homeless in Dawson County, because they don't see them and they don't see the poverty that goes with it," said Rita Mandell, who served as head chef and prepared the meal in support of local homeless families.
Mandell heads fundraising for Family Promise, a collaboration of local churches that is inching closer to fulfilling its promise of helping Dawson County families in need get back on their feet.
"I can handle just about anything, but homeless children just tears your heart out. And there are so many homeless children in this county," she said.
The Dawson County School System has identified nearly 170 children that are classified as homeless attending local schools.
"Children who go to school not knowing where they're going to be sleeping, or possibly what they're eating, can't possibly learn. We put a lot of expectation on children to function even though things may not be normal at home," said Donna Yaughn with Grace Presbyterian, one of a half dozen churches that has already signed on to help.
The number does not include an estimated 50 percent more that are under 5-years-old and not accounted for yet.
Barbara McKay spoke to the crowd of supporters that attended Saturday's dinner.
"Last year, at [Ga.] 400 and [Hwy.] 53 behind CVS, there were families sleeping in tents during those very bitter cold weeks," she said.
With support from the national organization of the same name, Family Promise's mission is to provide families in need with temporary housing and job training while they search for more permanent living arrangement.
"Family Promise consists of a simple program [where] 13 area churches commit to giving overnight housing and feeding for up to 14 homeless people for one week each quarter of the year, so the entire year is covered," said McKay, a Church of the Apostles member. "The whole purpose is to allow these families to get back to permanent housing and jobs."
Nationally, the Family Promise program has a graduation rate of 80 percent.
"This gives them a safety net and it also helps the families know it is temporary, that we're pulling for them and trying to partner with them," Yaughn said.
The families sleep at participating churches at night and go to a center during the day where they can wash their clothes, take showers, make applications for jobs and more importantly, according to Yaughn, have an address.
"The address is always the first thing you fill out," she said. "This is a promise to families to keep them together and sustain them through this hard time and to get them to a place where they can again be in sustainable housing and get a job."
Yaughn said the group, which formed about 18 months ago, hopes more churches will come aboard.
"We presently have six, but I have one joining [Sunday], and I have another one that we're looking for a facility for them, so that they can be hosts," she said. "We have churches like that, so for that reason, we're thinking outside the box and trying to help them."