When Eunice Dewhart saw the ironing board, she knew it had to be for her.
Dewhart, who got an apartment last month after bouts of being homeless for years, spent Saturday morning celebrating at the Lord of the Streets Christmas party.
The Episcopal ministry in Midtown provides basic services to the homeless. In the last few years, the program hired a case manager to guide the most dedicated off the streets into homes as they pursue better lives.
Volunteers from St. Francis Episcopal Church arrived early to set up for the party at Trinity Episcopal Church, just a block from Lord of the Streets. About 180 children and adults selected as "success stories" gathered to eat, chat and collect donated gifts.
Their stories have changed since they first came to Lord of the Streets.
A mentally ill nurse who had lost her job and then her home is now helping her son get through college. A cosmetologist who turned to drugs when her husband got another woman pregnant is now a singer in a church choir working toward a cosmetology teaching certificate. A teenage boy convicted of aggravated robbery is at the University of Houston and interviewing for an ESPN Radio internship.
"These aren't just people we decided to give gifts," said Jim Sadler, who runs a memorial fund with his wife that works closely with the program. "They earned them by pulling themselves up by their bootstraps."
Dewhart, a 53-year-old recovering crack addict who has spent months putting her life back together, said she listed three items when Lord of the Streets staffers asked her to fill out the Christmas gift wish list: iron, ironing board and a three-piece cast-iron skillet set.
"I love to cook," she said.
Spotting the unwrapped ironing board in a corner of the fellowship hall stage, crowded with others' wrapped gifts, Dewhart said she figured it had her name on it.
Over a plate of ham sandwich, cole slaw and potato salad, Dewhart reflected on what she has accomplished with help.
"My feeling right now is that I'm not alone," she said. "I was alone last Christmas, sleeping under a bridge. The Lord of the Streets - that's my new family."
Someone to turn to
Loretta Randolph is the heart of it.
As the program's case manager, she helps people access the services they need to start over and helps them with birth certificates, housing and transportation to job interviews. Most importantly, she encourages them and sometimes speaks frankly with them.
"They don't have family," Randolph said. "Or, their family is still in that lifestyle and they don't want to go back to doing drugs, shooting up, thugging or whatever."
Damion Walker, 35, knew he had to make a change when he got out of prison almost three years ago.
He had served 17 years, beginning at age 16, for charges related to an aggravated robbery. While in prison, he found God and continued his studies.
Now, he's just a few months away from graduating with a bachelors degree in communications from UH.
Walker never turns down a chance to tell the story of how Lord of the Streets - and Randolph, in particular - gave him confidence that, yes, God had a better plan for him. Looking around the Christmas party, he knows he's not alone.
"If I can look at those people, I can always know for a fact I can do it," Walker said. "I always have something to pull from."
Last year, he was inspired by a young woman who worked through high school and earned a college scholarship while living on the streets.
"We didn't even talk," Walker said. "I just shook her hand. I just wanted to meet her."
Not an easy road
Many at the party still struggle with poverty, addiction or mental illness, but the smiling faces, gifts and holiday hymns remind them not to give up.
"In here it still feels like it's the end of the world," Dewhart said, pointing to her head. She pointed to her heart and continued, "In here I know it's not because I know Jesus Christ my father loves me."
She paused and smiled faintly.
"I'm gonna make it. I'm gonna make it."