Lessons of a House With Heart

EUREKA, Ill., population 4,300, is a town typical of America's agricultural heartland. A small, rural, conservative, predominantly Christian community, Eureka is best known as the home of Eureka College, the private liberal-arts college whose most famous alumnus, Ronald Wilson Reagan, became the nation's 40th president. Little else about Eureka seems to attract much attention. Yet, there is much this tiny community can teach the nation about economic and social justice and the indomitable American spirit.

Eureka is home to Heart House, a community-supported shelter for victims of domestic violence and homeless people from the surrounding county. A private institution funded by charitable donations and staffed by community volunteers, Heart House serves as a clear public statement that social justice is alive and well in Eureka, exemplified by those who worked tirelessly to build the facility and those who keep it staffed.

The twin problems of homelessness and domestic violence are seldom associated with life in small-town rural America, but they are unfortunate realities of modern life in all communities. Four years ago, concerned citizens representing various religious denominations came together to discuss the need for a local shelter. The result: a facility in a rented building known locally as "the miracle on Vennum Street." When the building's lease expired in 1995, the directors of Heart House decided to build a new, permanent facility.

Operating a charitable institution is risky business under ordinary circumstances, but funding a capital campaign for such an organization is even more difficult. While Heart House has enjoyed financial support from various religious denominations, it maintains itself as a nonsectarian facility. The shelter is not supported by tax revenues from either local, state, or federal sources.

As soon as the new facility opened, it began to fill. It is an unfortunate statement about our times, but it may be necessary to expand the shelter. While eradicating homelessness and the struggle for economic and social justice are noble causes, modern society demands that communities serve the needs of the less fortunate.

Communities all across America are struggling to cope as "big government" is cut and additional burdens are placed on state and local governments. At the same time, corporate downsizing and economic readjustment are placing more people in a perilous situation. We may have already reached the point where traditional charitable efforts can no longer maintain themselves. We need a renaissance in volunteerism, charitable giving, and social stewardship, which must grow from the grass-roots level. Charity begins at home - and the example of Heart House shows that communities can demonstrate their support through financial contributions and volunteer work. Other communities should strive to emulate Eureka's example.

There is something tragic about a homeless shelter filled to capacity. As the political debates on balancing the budget and trimming government persist, we must not forget the human dimension of these actions. The powerful dictum to serve one's fellow man is not enforced by government fiat, but rather by a communal sense of obligation and love.

If communities fail to heed the call for greater support of service projects, it may represent the greatest human tragedy of our generation. If we concern ourselves only with the financial debts that we leave to future generations and fail to realize the human costs of our inaction, we are deceiving ourselves. That sort of social myopia risks burdens that we can ill afford to bear as our legacy.

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