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Mission to aid homeless has new home
Under the Bridge Ministries now located in Washington Plaza Shopping Center
Tonya Stapler, left, checks the blood pressure of Debra Cheek at Under the Bridge Ministries at their John Morrow Jr. Parkway offices Monday morning. The Gainesville ministry is still working toward getting their certificate of occupancy for a homeless shelter.

As usual, Monday was a busy day at Under the Bridge Ministries.

By 9 a.m., the staff were taking phones calls, setting out food and making transportation arrangements for several homeless people in their new space.

“It’s a typical Monday. There’s a lot of running around,” said Tonya Stapler, secretary for the group. “Every day we run and do something, like helping people get to work, and later we’ll probably go visit the trailer parks.”

Everyone had a task. Stapler, who is a nursing student at Lanier Technical College, checked blood pressure while treasurer Donna Harris drove a man to his probation appointment and picked up food from the Good Samaritan Food Bank. Jason Ladd, the group’s co-founder, talked with another man about obtaining identification in order to board a bus and make it to a job waiting for him in Texas.

“I’m really proud of what we’re doing. We outgrew our other space really quick, and within a week of realizing that, we were able to get this place,” Stapler said. “We had people standing outside during the church services, and now this space allows us to have more vision for the future.”

The group, which started when several friends met in December to talk about homelessness in Gainesville, used several office spaces in the Blue Ridge Shopping Center on Brown’s Bridge Road.

Now they’re stationed in the Washington Plaza Shopping Center on John Morrow Jr. Parkway and have several rooms with office space, a worship center and a children’s ministry room with toys.

“At the other place, it felt like people were watching you, driving by and looking in the windows,” said Debra Cheek, a recently homeless Gainesville resident. “Now we need a place to sell clothes and a place for a shelter, but we’re getting there slowly but surely. It’s going to be great.”

Cheek, who was living in a tent behind Target with her husband James Wise, lives with Harris for now. Cheek volunteers at Under the Bridge Ministries each day, and Harris helped Wise to find a job.

“He was looking for a job for more than a year, putting in applications,” she said. “Working with Under the Bridge, next thing you know, boom, he’s got one. It’s awesome.”

Cheek hopes they can find their own place soon.

“I had been praying and praying for some help, and here they came,” she said. “God may not answer you right then, but he will answer you. It feels good to say that.”

The group holds church services and hot meals on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, with more than 50 people in attendance each night.

“It just keeps growing, which is great but sad to see. We run across a lot of sad people, families especially,” Harris said.

“There are a lot of needy children in Gainesville who come home after school with no supper, so we try to take food to those families two or three times a week.”

Starting this week, the group will hold a teen night on Fridays at 6:30 p.m., where students can hang out and listen to Christian rock music.

“My son is in the Lanier Hills (Baptist Church) band, and he understands that a lot of kids just need something to do on the weekends so they don’t get in trouble,” Stapler said. “If they hear this place rocking out, we can get them engaged and in the door.”

The group hopes to convert a storage room into a cafe with bean bag chairs.

“Teens will talk to each other about their problems when they won’t talk to grown-ups,” Stapler said. “It can really help to talk and just get everything off your chest in a positive atmosphere.”

Stapler’s father, who owns the Washington Plaza Shopping Center, offered to give them a discounted price on rent. The group is getting closer to a certificate of occupancy for a homeless shelter for families, and they’re still looking for donations and space.

“We’ve got nine people with full-time jobs now,” Ladd said. “They’re working out of a temporary situation to a more permanent place. We’re teaching them how to live.”