With Heart, Sharon Bale Helps Make a Home from Our House
Sharon Bale photographed on location at her family farm.
Dress and pearl earrings from Feinstein’s; make-up by Bridget Baltimore at Barbara/Jean; hair by Angela Alexander
You don’t just walk around Our House shelter in Little Rock without a reason for being there. Visitors and volunteers, residents, families, church youth groups, staffers, and kids of all ages scuttle from building to building, tending a mountain of details of daily life. Even the trees and flowers on the neat and peaceful grounds wave in the morning breeze, restless in their moorings, inspired to move. Everyone here is going somewhere.
Sharon Bale is one of those people; with her telltale long gait and that singular mix of purpose and grace they teach you in scholarship pageants. It’s the kind of confident stride that gets you from a tiny house in the working-class section of North Little Rock to a sprawling world of donkeys and ducks and adoring grandsons clinging to your hand.
There she is, in jeans, a former Miss Arkansas, cover girl, serial community servant and part of the Bale auto empire. But what brings her here today – as it has for the past four years, she is quick to tell you – is the realization she could just as easily have been one of the people surrounding her, the homeless residents of Our House.
“There but by the grace of God for this day and time go I,” she says. “Nothing we have belongs to us; it’s really the universe, it’s God, it’s whatever. It was divine intervention that I was adopted, and I’m eternally grateful that the birth mother was wise enough and loved me enough to let go. Look at what I got. So I have to give back in any small way.”
Our House is one of the most recognized and successful communities of its kind in Arkansas. Over the past five years alone, the number of homeless individuals and families served daily has grown threefold, a $5 million, 19,000-square-foot children’s center was built and, this May, a dedicated career center was opened. Hundreds of volunteers donate thousands of hours and $1.5 million worth of in-kind contributions annually to help administrators stretch its $2.7 million operational budget.
At the helm of it all sits Georgia Mjartan, executive director here for the past decade, who Bale says is one of the primary motivators for her joining the Our House board this month.
“I believe in her; I’ve told people over and over that if every organization had a Georgia at the helm who doesn’t look at a box but sees to infinity and to the possibility, then we’d all be better off,” Bale says. “Is she perfect? Nah, not quite yet, but she’s working on it.”
Mjartan squirms under such praise, not unlike a teenager with fawning mother. Truth be told, the two women share a bond that’s palpably maternal; you’d never know they’re not related. Nor would you guess the sprightly, bright-smiling Mjartan to be the toughest administrator in the room, but those in the nonprofit community know.
“We’ve been called by our homeless service colleagues the most conservative homeless service organization around,” she says with a chuckle and level gaze. “As an organization we have incredibly high expectations for our clients: Get a full-time job within two weeks. That’s a very high expectation.”
This brand of sociological tough love pays off, because it comes from a place of genuine concern and appreciation from Mjartan. And it’s an attitude that radiates to her 82-member staff and 24-person board. Together they work to restore and preserve the dignity of people in need – victims of abuse, former foster kids who’ve aged out of the system, those recovering from financial collapse or addiction, veterans, and the fastest-growing segment of the working homeless: single and two-parent families.
“If I said close your eyes and picture a homeless person, everyone in the country, including homeless people in the shelter, picture the same thing,” Mjartan says. “I say that to groups of sixth-graders, I say that to groups of donors and I say that standing in the shelter to a group of 30 residents, and you know what? All of those groups see an older man, with a beard, scraggly and so on. And that image is not the largest population of homeless people.
“The image that I want people to understand is actually where we’ve seen the greatest growth; the image of the mother with her two children, one of whom is under 5, one of whom she has to pay $550 or $600 a month for childcare, a mother who’s working full-time. And that’s the working homeless.”
Perhaps the only thing more clichéd and out-of-date than the common image of the homeless is how organizations and municipalities are approaching the problem, intervening variously at the parent level only or the child level only, and ultimately failing to break the cycle. True to form, Mjartan doesn’t just rail against such ineffective strategies, she’s used Our House as a test kitchen for an entirely new approach, resulting in a service delivery model that’s already generating buzz in the field.
“We’re right on the forefront nationally of piloting a model that we call the Two Generation approach to ending homelessness and poverty,” she says. “This is an innovative approach that looks different than a lot of what’s been out there.”
In a nutshell, the Two Generation strategy identifies and supports family members’ needs individually, then integrates those needs into the collective. As each family member receives training or other assistance to advance their own life goals, the family learns how to support and nurture those efforts and each other while creating the systems that dramatically increase the chances of success.
Our House conducted the pilot program over three years, charting a track record of success moving people from well below the poverty line to above it, and from homelessness to stabilized lives. Last month Our House submitted a paper on the strategy to a national social services journal and presented its success at the Clinton School of Public Service. More speaking engagements at national conferences are to come.
“We have already received the interest of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation,” Mjartan says, “one of the top five foundations in the country, which has said they want to lift up this model to share with others across the country. What’s really exciting to me is that I can say we touched the lives of 1,800 people last year, and that’s great. But what excites me is taking this model on the road, taking it national so that it’s not 1,800 people, but 18,000 or 180,000 or 1.8 million.”
Dreaming that big comes with a price tag, so to meet the demands of expanding Our House’s palette of programs in accordance with the depth and breadth of the new methodology, Bale and fellow Our House board member Judy Adams came up with the idea for an adjunct organization to provide fundraising and volunteer support.
“There are no new ideas in the universe, just re-spun told stories,” Bale says. “I’ve been blessed to be a part of an auxiliary that has made a difference for another organization in donating a nice sum of money back to that institution every year. It dawned on me that we should create a community of people who want to be a part of Our House in any way they so desire.”
Dubbed “Heart of Our House,” the group will provide a volunteer pool for events or miscellaneous jobs, and fundraising through annual ($50) or lifetime dues ($500). Launched July 1, Heart of Our House’s 10-person steering committee will spend the group’s inaugural months determining the best ways to use the new resource. Details on membership, which is open to both men and women, are available at ourhouseshelter.org.
In the meantime, the clients keep coming. And as long as they do, Mjartan and her crew continue their work, guided by the organization’s stated purpose.
“We were set up 29 years ago with a purpose to serve anyone who was willing and able to work. And we said, from Day One, we’re less concerned with where you’re coming from than where you are going,” Mjartan says.
“Having that expectation, it’s not hard to treat people in a way where you see their heart. If you wash off all the baggage of the world, it’s really easy to see all of the good that everyone has inside of them.”
Such statements bring tears to Bale’s eyes, just as the story of how Bale once gave the very earrings off her ears to a resident who remarked how pretty they were bring tears to Mjartan’s.
After a moment, Bale finds the words.
“Our House reminds me of my mom and daddy; it reminds me of the way I grew up,” she says, her voice soaked in pride. “I grew up knowing that everything we have really doesn’t belong to us. There’s a higher power, a Creator, that allows us to be caretakers of different things. It’s not ours to hold, it’s ours to share.”