By LORAINE ANDERSON
TRAVERSE CITY — Necole Flanigan was a 24-year-old nun who gave up everything — car, clothes and job — to join a convent more than three years ago, only to decide last year that she wasn't ready to take her vows.
Flanigan describes herself as "one of the most determined people you'll ever meet." Still, she needed emotional support and help in finding community resources. Her family didn't agree with her decision.
Approaching HelpLink, a Traverse City organization that guides people in need to helping agencies, she was directed to the Family Partnership mentoring program. It's one of the area's first mentoring programs for adults like herself who find themselves homeless, jobless and without family support.
When she got there, she was still wearing her nun's habit. She applied for a mentor and after a screening was assigned to Tom Bousamra, a retired Traverse City teacher who helps the program train mentors and has coordinated the St. Francis Catholic Church pantry program. Normally, the program doesn't assign opposite gender mentors to clients, but did in Necole's case because Bousamra is Catholic and a church deacon.
"What I love about the program is they paired me up with someone of like faith," Flanigan said "Tom helped me spiritually and has the same morals and beliefs I do. He's helped me transition from being homeless,"
Executive director Roberta Lamont said the role of a Family Partnership mentor is dual — to be aware of available resources and options while serving as a support, sounding board and encouraging friend to the client.
"Our job is not to solve problems or fix their lives," she said. "The big piece is the relational match. Poverty can be very isolating. Someone may want to go on to college but be fearful of the unknown. Getting encouragement is a big thing.
"Many mentoring programs serve teens and children. We provide services to the family decision maker."
Flanigan met with her mentor the first time in August 2011. Within a month, the former nun, who suffers from depression, had two jobs and an apartment. She had also started classes at Northwestern Michigan College.
Today, she works part-time at Younkers and has a cleaning job on Saturdays. She will earn her associate's degree next summer and then hopes to enter Grand Valley University's three-year social work program at the University Center. She lives in an affordable housing apartment at the Grand Traverse Commons.
She and Bousamra meet weekly at Higher Grounds to discuss her goals and plans for the future. She wants to become a mentor herself one day.
"I want to make a difference in someone else's life," she said. "I can't tell you how much this program has meant to me. It's been more about building friendship, trust and knowing you have someone who is willing to help you out. Tom was my cheerleader."
Filling the gap
The Family Partnership program became part of the area's safety net in 2005. It is a child of the 2004 Poverty Reduction Initiative Summit — a community-driven effort to reduce area poverty. It attracted 25 area residents, business people, public agencies and concerned citizens, including 20 members of The Presbyterian Church who decided to spend the next half year studying local poverty. The church has long been involved in hands-on mission work through Habitat for Humanity and more recently, Food Rescue, said piano technician Tad Minor, who was part of the study group.
Originally the group decided to offer day care to single moms and then realized what was really needed was an adult-to-adult mentoring program.
"Today, it's known that mentoring is the way to get people out of poverty, but it was just on the horizon then," Minor said. "There was a gap and we decided to fill that gap."
Several other churches joined the effort in 2005. Central United Methodist and Traverse Bay United Methodist, St. Francis and St. Patrick Catholic, Faith Reformed and Bayview Wesleyan all provide support in different ways: financial, meeting space, service on the board or by providing mentors.
Family Partnership became a nonprofit in 2010. Since then it has made an average of 18 mentoring matches a year.
Expansion on way
Now it plans to expand and welcomes referrals from clergy, health professionals, therapists and social workers and human service agencies, Lamont said.
Initial training for screened mentor applicants includes classes on the culture of poverty, setting boundaries and the dos and don'ts of the program. Training also continues at regular mentor support meetings.
Lamont said the nonprofit wants to work with other local organizations to tackle remaining gaps in the safety network — such as affordable or no-cost parenting education and budgeting classes.
A 2010 survey of mentoring applicants indicated that 50 of the respondents were families that wanted to achieve or maintain home ownership and 50 percent wanted to find employment or a better job. Of those, 25 percent wanted to further their education. Sixty percent said the mentoring program decreased the frequency and severity of their family's crisis.
The Presbyterian Church is still the program's largest contributor. Funding also comes from Central United Methodist, St. Francis, Faith Reformed, the Traverse City Noon Rotary Club, United Way of Northwest Michigan, Knights of Columbus, auto dealer Bill Marsh, Wal-Mart and individual donors.
The length of mentorships vary.
"Helping someone out of poverty is a process," Lamont said. "It takes time to build relationships and confidence. Some mentoring relationships are long term. Some are formal and some are more of a friendship. Often the relationship is maintained later."
The program is not for everyone. Potential mentors are carefully screened. People with pervasive mental health or substance abuse problems are referred to other agencies.
Bousamra said he likes the adult mentoring program because "it strives to bring about positive, structural change in people's lives — a change that goes way beyond charity."
He said, "It seems to bring people out of poverty."
Family Partnership nonprofit is now located at 1144 Boon St. but soon will move to the United Way office at 521 Union St. The phone number is 941-8411.