Amanda Ray is 20, pregnant and has a 2-year-old daughter. She has no job or home, but a year-old program in Anoka County has given her hope.

"I wanted to start fresh, and Family Promise has let me do that," she said. "For the first time in a long time I feel safe. I have trust."

And she has a plan. Since her introduction to Family Promise of Anoka County, the county's only shelter for families, Ray has sent out 35 applications for subsidized housing and talked about going to school to learn about business.

It's the kind of fresh start that the year-old nonprofit, based in Coon Rapids, has launched repeatedly, thanks to 678 volunteers, 14 local churches and an executive director who says, simply, that "families shouldn't have to worry about where they're going to be tonight."

"You wonder what these families might be doing if they weren't here," said Junita Cathey.

She told the story of a call she received from a mom who had been evicted from an apartment complex and couldn't afford a motel any longer, despite holding a job. She contemplated living with her children in a car.

"She was at the end of her rope. You could hear it in her voice," Cathey said.

Spreading the word

There are many like her. There are often 25 to 30 individuals on Family Promise's waiting list. The residential neighborhood facility holds a maximum of four families or 16 individuals.

Last week, four families -- a total of 10 individuals -- were there. Most of them learn about Family Promise by word of mouth, Cathey said. But the word is getting around.

Last year, Family Promise provided 119 days of shelter to 31 individuals -- 12 adults and 19 children. Volunteers contributed 4,400 hours.

"One mom drew before-and-after pictures and they pretty much sum up what we're trying to do," Cathey said.

The "before" picture is cluttered with question marks, while the "after" picture shows lots of smiling faces under a rainbow.

"I've had a rough couple of years and I was losing sight of any hope," wrote a young mother with two children. "I couldn't find a job, couldn't find housing, couldn't pay for day care.

"Nothing was going right for me ... God didn't give up on me through all of this and he showed me the way through an opening in Family Promise. Through all of the rough spots, losses and the many shelters that turned me away saying they couldn't help me, Family Promise took me in.

"They gave me shelter, stability, resources, safety, relief, comfort and a fresh start. ... I now have hope again."

An Anoka family wrote simply: "Thank you for the hot meals."

Grew up in an open house

Cathey knows the value of family and structure. She and her husband and their two young children make a habit of having meals together at the dinner table. It's the way she was raised, she said.

When she was a child, she didn't understand why her parents would open their St. Paul home to needy families, who lived in the basement. One of eight children, young Junita couldn't wait to move out "and find some peace and quiet."

But after graduating from the University of Minnesota 15 years ago, she heard the call again of needy families. She worked at a battered women's shelter and with teens. She came to Family Promise in June.

"We have a mom here who's beating the pavement, trying to find a job," Cathey said excitedly. "Another mom had a couple of interviews last week. And another mom had surgery on her toe -- and she couldn't have had surgery without an address.

"It's exciting to be able to help from the ground up," she said.

The families and individuals who came to Family Promise of Anoka County stayed an average of 54 days. Eighty-three percent of them moved on to permanent or transitional housing. At Family Promise, they were provided 357 meals furnished by 14 host congregations and five partner congregations.

"The families don't care about your expertise," Cathey said. "All they want to know is that you care."

Paul Levy • 612-673-4419