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Anslee Posey, seen with her children Caisyn, 7 (left), Aidden, 1 and Carraghann, 4, has benefitted from the Open Table program at Chester United Methodist Church.

She had just given birth to her third child, she had no permanent home, no job, no real clue what might be next.

And Anslee Posey was 23.

“I had nothing,” she said.

But she did have this: an invitation to participate in a program called Open Table, an expanding ministry within the United Methodist Church in which volunteers at individual churches try to lift an individual or family out of poverty by working with them for a year to find solutions to problems that have impeded their progress.

Posey was skeptical when she was approached by Chester United Methodist Church. She wondered: Why did these strangers want to help her? What did they expect from her? Having struggled to cultivate and maintain relationships, she did not harbor a great deal of trust.

But she also thought this: “What do I have to lose at this point?”

In a lifetime in which she has regretted making numerous bad choices, she acknowledged this is one she’s glad she made.

A year of Open Table behind her, Posey now has a home, a car and she’s enrolled in John Tyler Community College, hoping to pursue a career as a nurse. More than anything else, she has confidence, an improved view of herself and a circle of friends to call on for help or advice.

“I just needed some support, somebody to be there for me because I didn’t have anybody else to turn to,” Posey said in an interview. “I’m in a better place emotionally right now than I have ever been before because I have that support to reach out to. They really helped guide me. They let me make my own choices — some of them still weren’t very good — but they were there to support me. I love them all to death.”

***

A little more than two years ago, Rachelle Butler, a senior project manager for UMFS (United Methodist Family Services), a nonprofit social service organization that provides foster care, adoption, residential treatment, specialized education and community-based services, was researching ways to help keep at-risk children and families together and from needing higher levels of care once they are on their own.

“When I was looking at the data, I noticed that we did a really good job while they were with us, but that kids and families, if they did not have what we call natural support — people not paid to be in their life — they were still ending up in higher levels of care, or kids when they age out of foster care often end up homeless or not doing well,” Butler said. “As an agency, we said we really want to find something to build up natural supports. We’re great giving them the treatment they need, but they need more support in the community.”

Not long after, information about Open Table came across her desk.

Open Table is a faith-based national program that began in 2005 at a United Methodist church in Arizona where volunteers pulled together to help a homeless man escape poverty. The effort seemed to work, and the concept was embraced by other churches. Open Table became a nonprofit organization, and now the movement has spread across the country and even internationally. UMFS began partnering with Open Table in 2016.

At its most basic, Open Table creates a community using a team of as many as a dozen volunteers who meet with an adult or family in need on a weekly basis — and more often on an individual basis — over the course of a year to find solutions to such common problems as housing, employment and medical care, while establishing goals and a life plan and providing the sort of friendship and mentoring that is otherwise lacking.

Open Table aims to partner not only with congregations but government, business and other nonprofits to develop a network that might give those in need the support required for a real shot at long-term, sustainable success. Individuals being helped are known as “brothers” and “sisters,” and the connections between table and individuals, though less structured, are expected to continue after the end of the yearlong commitment.

Several Richmond-area congregations signed on to the program, and the first yearlong sessions have recently concluded. Among the first five “graduates,” all now have housing, which Butler said is “pretty fantastic,” considering only one had stable housing in the beginning.

“This is really about relationships,” Butler said. “Think of everybody in the world. If every person in the world had someone who was an unwavering champion committed to them and supporting them throughout their life, then we would have a world full of individuals empowered to contribute to society as engaged citizens. That is how we change the world.”

***

Anslee Posey calls Darlene Emerson “my other mom.”

Emerson was a member of the Open Table team at Chester United Methodist that worked with Posey beginning in June 2017. Each volunteer brings a high level of commitment to the program — a year is a long time, particularly when it involves the future of someone they barely know at the beginning — but also different life experiences, real-world skills and personalities. Some click with their “brothers” or “sisters” more easily than others. Emerson and Posey clicked.

“She’s taken me under her wing and showed me some things that I didn’t know about when it comes to taking care of finances and organization,” said Posey, who feels comfortable calling Emerson at all hours for advice or simply a sympathetic ear.

Said Emerson with a laugh, “I have three daughters, and they call her my fourth daughter.”

Emerson, 62, a retired nurse who also has seven grandchildren, said she and Posey “have the kind of relationship where I can tell her exactly what I think … like a mom to a daughter. She relies on me to be that person. I’m there if she needs me.”

For someone in Posey’s situation, every hurdle — whether it be stable housing, a job, child care or transportation — is enough to wipe out the fragile confidence of someone struggling on their own and easily torpedo the best of intentions to do the right thing. Posey met weekly with the team to sort out each element of her life, but members of the team also took her to lunch or to the park, and ferried her children here and there when she was in a bind. Contacts made through team members and church led to housing, a car, a job and, finally, a gift of tuition to enable her to pursue what she hopes will become a career in nursing.

“There’s a big change in her,” said Emerson, noting her “self-image and her self-worth were very low,” which led to the bad choices she’s made in her life.

“We’re working on that. I see a difference since she started college. I see a sparkle in her eye that hasn’t been there. She’s more self-confident than when we first got her. I think she’s going to survive.”

Posey thinks so, too.

“It’s still in progress, but I feel more confident that I’m capable of achieving goals and being the mother I know I can be. I thank each and every one of them for helping me get to this point.”

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