September/October 2022

Standing in the Gap

Recent media reports of the City of Champaign Township’s plans to open a 24/7 low-barrier shelter in downtown Champaign, with references to the possible use of our facility for this new operation, have raised questions and caused some understandable confusion about our role in these new developments. While C-U at Home values the potential for creating a more comprehensive shelter program in our community, we are not yet in a position to say with certainty what that system will look like.

One thing we do know: C-U at Home will continue our work as a community-funded ministry reliant on the generous support of our donors to make our services possible. As we’ve shared in previous communications, our year-long journey toward a more focused mission on mid-to-high barrier clients is entering a new phase. What is not yet known is exactly where and how that mission will continue to unfold. We are exploring many options moving forward and promise to keep you, our valued supporters, informed every step of the way.

“As we climb toward a better solution to advance our mission, we understand we may be facing a lot of change along the way,” says Mike Royse, interim chair of our board of directors.

Historically, C-U at Home has always found and filled existing gaps in homelessness services. This commitment has taken many forms over the years: education and advocacy, street outreach, transitional housing, a daytime drop-in center, year-round overnight shelters for men and women, and—most recently—wrap-around case management services. This next step for our ministry is yet another way we can fulfill our mission “to support and empower individuals who are experiencing homelessness by providing a safe environment where they can progress toward stability and access resources and essential supportive services.”

“Unfortunately, a lot of things right now are outside our control, and that’s hard,” notes our executive director, Melissa Courtwright. “We want to stay true to who we are and what our mission is. What seems like the best solution for everyone as winter approaches may not be the long-term solution for us.”

Please pray with us that God would lead us to just the right place for this new phase of our mission to begin. Also please keep the precious people we serve in your prayers as we strive to navigate this transition in a way that puts their needs and interests first. As always, our aim is to provide pathways to progress for those we serve, and that mission is continually before us.

One Winter Night 2023

Twenty-six people participated in the first-ever One Winter Night in 2012, including both the mayor and police chief of Champaign at the time and then-Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase. They raised $26,000 and generated a great deal of community awareness and media attention for the work we do with individuals experiencing homelessness in Champaign County.

A One Winter Night sign that reads, "Helping the Homeless in Downtown Champaign"

If you’ve been reading closely, you’ve already noticed something new: a two-day schedule! Yes, the event has technically always been “two days,” since it runs from 6 pm Friday night to 6 am Saturday morning. But OWN 2023 will be a two-night event! On Friday night, participants will gather at multiple sites, including The Venue CU in downtown Champaign, partnering churches throughout the community, and once again at the UIUC Quad. Participation will have a different look as well, with multiple options that each center on education and awareness.

Saturday night, The Venue CU will host a worship celebration featuring special guests we can’t wait to reveal! Both nights will, of course, still involve fundraising opportunities through individual participants, business sponsorships, community partnerships, and more. The core of the whole event will remain, as always, an exercise in educating and raising awareness about homelessness in our community.

Participation peaked at well over 200 at OWN 2020, and, despite the pandemic and consequent reduced participation, this generous community donated over $500,000 to OWN 2021! Over its 11-year history, thousands of people have been part of this annual fundraiser and community awareness event either as participants or volunteers. OWN has become an iconic part of winter in downtown Champaign.

With the expansion of OWN to the UIUC Quad and several churches last year, the event has already begun to shift in new directions. Planning for OWN 2023, scheduled to take place February 3-4, is already underway. We are working on fresh and creative ideas, exciting partnerships, and a few surprises to make the event more accessible, inclusive, and mindful of those we serve.

Check in on our Facebook page, follow us on Instagram, and watch for those weekly email updates to learn more details about OWN 2023 as they develop. If you’ve participated or have been a business sponsor in the past, expect to hear from us soon!

Meet Our Newest Staff Members

Late summer brought two new staff members our way. Shirita Johnson came on board initially as a care coordinator and then shifted to fill our shelter manager vacancy. Crystol Remy joined us as the new coordinator of our Phoenix Daytime Center.

Shirita (right) was born and raised in Kankakee and has lived in C-U for 13 years. She originally studied Healthcare Administration and Healthcare Management in college and is now working toward a B.A. in Business with a concentration Human Resources.

Since being in Champaign, Shirita has worked for Pavilion Behavioral Health, serving for thirteen years as overnight shift lead in their Residential Treatment Center, working with youth/teens dealing with mental and behavioral health issues. She also worked for many years serving individuals with intellectual disabilities at the Individual Advocacy Group in Romeoville and the Shapiro Developmental Center in Kankakee.

Shirita Johnson, C-U at Home Manager of Shelter Services
Shirita Johnson, Manager of Shelter Services

“Working with people from different walks of life regardless of status has always been my passion,” she says. “I gravitate to those in need most because I appreciate their contribution to society.”

Shirita is mom to three girls and two boys, and she has one grandson she describes as “such a joy with a lot of energy!” She enjoys music and hanging out with her mom “at a lot of church functions, especially women’s day.”

Crystol Remy, Phoenix Coordinator

Crystol (left) is originally from Mattoon, has lived in Rantoul, and has resided in Urbana since 2015. She worked as a CNA through her early adult years and then obtained a B. S. in Psychology in 2012. She managed a group home for mentally ill men in Coles County prior to moving up here.

“I switched from working with adults to working with children/teenagers with the move in 2015 as a medical liaison at Cunningham Children’s Home,” she relates. “I was in that position for two years, then switched to the Transitional Living Program.”

It was at Cunningham she that she worked with Marco Price, who joined us earlier in the summer to lead our case management team (see last issue). He knew she’d left Cunningham and was working at Wal-Mart as a personal shopper and encouraged her to apply for the Phoenix opening here. She’s excited to be back in the social work field where her personality and skills can benefit the community.

“Ultimately, my passion is in helping others,” she says. “This comes in many forms for me as it could be helping them learn, grow, or just enjoy the best of the life they are in. I think it is important to meet a person where they are at and then guide them to the proper path and offer a hand of stability as they walk that path, supporting them as they stumble, helping them learn how to navigate the path with less assistance.”

For fun, Crystol creates costumes she wears at several conventions or festivals throughout the year like Comic Con or the Renaissance Fair. She also likes museums, rescue zoos, and circuses, and drawing cartoon art. She’s a proud mother of three grown children and “Gamy to four littles” all under 7 years old.

“I also had another daughter who was tragically taken in 2016,” she notes. “Up until COVID we put together a ‘Pet Wash’ annually in her honor titled ‘Cassy Cares’ and donated the proceeds to a different chosen animal shelter or rescue each year.”

We welcome Shirita and Crystol to the team and wish them every success as they play their part in providing pathways to progress for our clients!

A Message from Melissa

As we’ve shared in recent communications, C-U at Home is making some strategic changes. I know it may seem like things are happening fast, and they are, because winter is right around the corner. This process has been time intensive on our end. We have strategically been working toward a model and thinking through a process that puts client needs first.  We believe that we have an opportunity to create a program within space that allows clients to be in the right environment, one that best meets their needs. Decisions regarding any sale or remodeling of our building are not being undertaken lightly.

C-U at Home is developing winter and long-term model options for a non-congregate, communal environment. While set-ups for this style of housing can vary, these communal spaces offer a mixture of private and semi-private rooms alongside shared living spaces. Unlike the large area filled with bunks that you would currently see at C-U at Home, clients would share space with a roommate, and communal kitchen, dining, and living areas would be available to all residents. Creating the right space contributes to an environment that supports individuals’ current needs and empowers them in their decision to take steps toward stability.

Jesus told us clearly that he came to give us life to the fullest.  We want our clients to know that we believe that for them.  We demonstrate this by putting time, resources, and effort into support their intentions to maintain sobriety, address mental health issues, or develop life skills.  We also demonstrate this by providing an environment that is designed to promote stability, beauty, and well-being.

Please pray for us as we continue to make decisions that not only impact our organization but our clients.  Please volunteer your time and resources as we continue to develop our plan to help bring transformation to those who need it.  Please also reach out if you have questions.  I would be happy to meet with you. We know that our ministry is continuing to reach clients because you continue to believe in the importance of its mission.  Thank you for all you’ve done and continue to do.

All the best,
Melissa Courtwright, Executive Director

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