In 2007, Kianna Harris, her mother and 13-year-old brother were homeless. They had been evicted from their apartment in Germantown and had nowhere to go.
The family was referred to Sarah’s House, a nonprofit transitional housing program located at 2015 20th St. on Fort Meade. The facility offers emergency shelter, supportive housing and re-housing services for families experiencing homelessness.
At the time, Harris — then 17 — was pregnant with her first child. Today, Harris is a community detention officer at the Department of Juvenile Services in St. Mary’s County.
“I’m a living, breathing example of what you have done,” she said. “I’m very thankful.”
A tearful Harris recounted her journey to self-sufficiency as the guest speaker during the 30th anniversary celebration of Sarah’s House on Sept. 7. Staff members and volunteers, as well as local elected officials and clergy, attended the three-hour event held at Sarah’s House.
Festivities included a tour of the facility’s housing provisions for guests, a performance by children enrolled in its licensed child care center and refreshments.
“We really appreciate that you’ve come out today [to] share in the special time,” said Kathryn Philliben, executive director of Sarah’s House during the celebration ceremony.
In addition, said Philliben, the event also allows gives supporters the opportunity “to remember our guests and the challenges that they face, and how we’re trying to support them in reducing barriers and helping them [to] make changes in their lives. … The bottom line is, most people want stability and self-sufficiency.”
Deputy Garrison Chaplain (Lt. Col.) David Cooper participated in the celebration on behalf of Garrison Commander Col. Tom Rickard.
“I just want to let you know that we celebrate with you,” Cooper said during his remarks. “We are extremely proud to be part of such a community movement.”
During his invocation, Monsignor Jay F. O’Connor, pastor at Our Lady of the Fields Roman Catholic church in Millersville, called the mission of Sarah’s House “very important and noble work.”
“We praise you for the ministry of Sarah’s House that has blessed, healed and strengthened the lives of those whom you have guided here,” O’Connor said during the invocation. “We thank you for the lives that have been saved and the hope that has been found here.”
Several local elected officials and civic representatives presented Philliben with citations from the Maryland State Senate, the Anne Arundel County Council, the 32nd Legislative District and the Maryland State Delegation.
“This occasion has given me much joy,” Philliben said. “We need to continue what we do every single day. We can make a difference and we can help people change.”
Sarah’s House was established in 1987 through a partnership between Anne Arundel County, Catholic Charities of Baltimore and the U.S. Army.
“The mission was to provide shelter and opportunities for homeless families in Anne Arundel County with the goal of restoring independence,” according to the organization’s brochure.
More than 3,000 families and 16,000 guests have been helped through Sarah’s House. About 1.7 million free meals have been served since its founding.
More than 25,000 volunteers and individual donors —including churches, synagogues, businesses and civic organizations — have provided about 650,000 hours of volunteer services.
Sarah’s House serves 125 people a day – half of whom are children – totaling 25 to 30 families. Most of the guests are single parents, primarily single mothers, with an average of three children, ages 6 to 8.
Guests receive intensive case management, employment preparation programs, counseling, transportation to and from work and doctor’s appointments, and parenting and other classes.
“Our dedicated staff is focused on supporting guests through the entire transition to living once again on their own,” the brochure states.
Before the ceremony, Bruce Clopein, the volunteer resource manager at Sarah’s House, led a tour of the organization’s housing units for a small group of supporters.
The tour included a model of an emergency shelter room, a supportive housing apartment and the licensed child care center.
In addition, the facility offers a community bathroom, lounge and laundry room.
When guests are referred to Sarah’s House, they are screened by a case worker to ensure they do not have a felony record. Families live in an emergency shelter room for up to 12 weeks. The room is furnished with a bunk bed and two dresser draws.
There are 26 emergency shelter rooms.
Clopein said housing and meals are provided at no charge. If a parent is working, Sarah’s House requires the parent to save 80 percent of the salary in order to build a nest egg for independent living.
If the parent is unemployed, he or she is given two weeks to find a job or are entered into an employment preparation program.
All guests must be drug-free and adhere to an 8 p.m. curfew.
The next step is to be selected for a supportive housing apartment. Guests are interviewed by case workers before being placed in an apartment.
The apartments are furnished with a small kitchen set, living room furniture and one, two or three bunk beds.
Guests are required to pay 30 percent of their salary as a fee for the housing, and 30 percent is deposited into their savings account. Families can stay in a supportive housing apartment for one year.
Licensed child care is provided for up to 25 children, from 6 weeks old to school age.
Bill Phillips and his wife, Elaine, have been financial supporters and volunteers at Sarah’s House for 15 years. The couple was part of the small group of supporters who toured the facility at the celebration.
“This is an incredible program here,” Phillips said after the tour.
Sarah’s House, he said, reminds him of his modest childhood in North Carolina.
“We grew up with nothing,” he said.
Phillips said he was fortunate to work at three jobs to gain economic security.
“Now it’s time to give back,” he said.
Now 27, Harris said her story of overcoming the obstacles associated with homelessness is a testimony to the valuable services that Sarah’s House provides for homeless families in Anne Arundel County.
She is a college graduate and earned a master’s degree in global homeland security from the University of Phoenix.
“Sarah’s House represents love for me — for a little girl who never felt she was enough,” Harris said. “But Sarah’s House let me know that I am enough.”
Harris is the mother of 9-year-old Jamie, who was born while she lived at Sarah’s House; Kingston, 2; and Eli, 1. She is also a homeowner.
During her emotional speech, Harris thanked Kelly Anderson, her case manager, for her unwavering support.
Harris said that after living at Sarah’s House for seven months with her mother and brother, she returned to the facility on her own in 2009, ready to deliver her first child.
“You helped me to learn, you helped me to grow and you helped me to become an adult,” Harris said.
She noted that Anderson helped her obtain her driver’s license, buy a car and become a homeowner through Habitat For Humanity.
“I’m extremely proud of her, but I knew she could do it,” Anderson said after the ceremony. “I’m humbled to think that she feels I had something to do with it.
“She did all the hard work.”