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My Sister's Place helps homeless women, kids get on their feet
Former My Sister’s Place resident Chermayne Crosdale, 27, left, talks Friday about her reasons for entering the safe haven with her then 5-year-old daughter in October of last year as My Sister’s Place interim director Peggy Preston listens at the shelter. - photo by SARA GUEVARA


Hear Sylvia Stoltzfus, executive director of My Sister’s Place, describe the rules of the program.

Last October, Chermayne Crosdale found herself in a desperate situation. Her brother, her closest relative, had died in September, and she discovered her ex-boyfriend had been abusing her then 5-year-old daughter.

She knew she had to get out of the apartment where the abuse had occurred. But where was the 27-year-old Lanier Technical College student to go? She had few funds and even fewer family members. "I wanted a brand new start. I wanted a new life," she said. "It nearly destroyed me. It really did."

Crosdale found a soft place to land at My Sister’s Place, a structured home for women needing stability while they get back on their feet financially, emotionally and spiritually. Well-groomed and with kind eyes, Crosdale turned up on the doorstep of the women’s home that provides "a safe haven for a fresh start."

Located on Davis Street in Gainesville, My Sister’s Place is a Christ-centered ministry that cares for homeless women and their children for 90 days. Women have two weeks to look for a job so they can begin contributing to rent, meals and utility bills.

Flowers, scented candles and the Candy Land board game on the shelf suggest the spotless Davis Street house is not a typical homeless shelter.

Sylvia Stoltzfus, executive director of My Sister’s Place, said the program is not a homeless shelter that turns women and children out to the elements in the morning before letting them back in at night, scrambling for a bed.

"If you’re doing that, how do you get a job? What do you do with your children during the day? ... It’s not secure," Stoltzfus said. "We’re much more than just a place to sleep."

Peggy Preston, interim director of My Sister’s Place, helps women learn how to budget, cook nutritional meals and live well within their financial means while living at the house. Stoltzfus said the program aims to get women financially independent to give them the freedom to choose what’s best for themselves and their children without having to factor in a male breadwinner. The program also hopes to provide a support system for women and children after they regain independence and a sense of dignity.

Preston said Marty Owens founded My Sister’s Place, as well as Challenged Child and Friends. Owens also co-founded Our Neighbor Inc., an organization to help handicapped adults become active participants in the community. Gateway Domestic Violence Center, the Gainesville Police Department, as well as the Division of Family and Children’s Services and other local agencies refer women to My Sister’s Place, Stoltzfus said.

When the program opened its doors in 2000, Stoltzfus said young women, often in their late teens, showed up at My Sister’s Place. In recent months, she said more mothers are showing up on the doorstep. Preston said the phone rings nearly constantly, with ladies as far away as Florida and South Carolina calling to see if beds are available.

"A mama will call with six kids, and I don’t have the room," Preston said.

Because of the lack of bedrooms at My Sister’s Place, the interim director said she has turned away 25 mothers since May — two with six kids. Most had about three or four children, Preston said.

With more and more Americans living paycheck-to-paycheck, Stoltzfus said it’s not just careless attitudes or issues with mental illness that lead to homelessness. She said the word has gotten out to local agencies about My Sister’s Place, and that has also contributed to the increase in callers.

With a state unemployment rate of 6.2 percent, which tops the national rate of 5.7 percent, state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond said Georgians are experiencing a rising tide of unemployment not seen here in more than 15 years.

From a small office at the house that doubles as her bedroom, Preston said she does her best to help the women and mothers who call her every day searching for refuge, but the two resident bedrooms at My Sister’s Place are nearly always full. She said she gets 10 to 15 phone calls some mornings.

"Our biggest goal right now is to get a bigger home," Stoltzfus said. "Our ideal home would be one with six bedrooms for guests, and one that would be in a place where we could expand."

Although the Salvation Army is located down the street from My Sister’s Place, they are often full, too, Stoltzfus said.

Stoltzfus said the program is raising funds to buy a new home so they can move out of the cramped three bedroom and two bathroom house that now serves as an office and a home to five people.

The Gainesville Newcomers’ Club donated $10,000 to My Sister’s Place real estate fund in June. And last week, T.J. Maxx, a clothing retailer, presented a $5,000 check to the program. Stoltzfus said the program has raised $60,000 for its new home fund, but still has a long way to go. She said she’s trying to organize a real estate committee to help find a new house for the program.

Now on her way to earning a degree in early childhood education, Crosdale recalls the days that led up to her becoming a resident of My Sister’s Place.

"I felt like everybody I loved had abandoned me and let me down," Crosdale said. "When I came here, I felt so loved. I thought, ‘See, there’s a whole lot of people out there who love you.’"

Renee, 44, arrived at My Sister’s Place after fleeing a domestic violence situation, and wished to withhold her last name. Stoltzfus said the home is not meant for victims of domestic violence, but if the room is available, women in need will not be turned away.

"When I came in the door, I was greeted with, ‘Come in, precious.’ Nobody had ever called me precious before," she said. "I went to bed that night and cried."

Mattie, 58, has ailing health and became a resident of My Sister’s Place on June 12 after losing government subsidies. Suffering from blood clots and arthritis, Preston has helped Mattie get the medicine and health care she needs.

Mattie is now the program’s resident cook and has earned a reputation for her fried chicken. The young children at the house often call her "Gwanny" and Preston "Gan-Gan."

"I haven’t felt this much love since my parents died," she said. "Since I’ve been here, I feel like the world has been lifted off my shoulders."

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