By K““`en Datzman, BBN
PALM BAY — At the recent “Open Table: Breaking of the Bread” event at Truth Revealed International Minis- tries Inc., attendees could feel they were part of something special.
Woven through a number of short speeches given by local and state officials, among other guests, the words “called to serve,” “transforming effect,” “advocate,” “com- mitment,” “life–changing,” and “community partnership” were used to describe the people–powered movement of the innovative Open Table Inc. model.
It’s a cliché, but there certainly was “electricity in the air” and enthusiasm the evening of June 10 at Truth Revealed Ministries.
The organization hosted a dinner celebrating Brevard Family Partnership’s inaugural Open Table launch and the people who volunteered to take part in the project as mentors.
“Partnership is the key,” said Bishop Merton Clark, a soft–spoken former U.S. Marine Corps veteran who founded Truth Revealed Ministries 26 years ago and in 2016 started HELPS Community Initiatives Inc., the outreach arm of his church.
“I was born and raised in Florida. I have never seen this type of community partnership before where individuals of different cultures, different backgrounds, different denominations, professions, blue–collar, white–collar, city officials, church members and others all work together to transform lives. We are answering the call and we are going to better our community.”
At the beginning of this year, Brevard Family Partner- ship, the lead child–welfare agency in the county, and Truth Revealed International Ministries, teamed up to pilot a national model to address daunting social chal- lenges in communities. These include those faced by youth aging out of foster care and at–risk single mothers.
“I’ve journeyed 30 years into my career,” said Phil Scarpelli, the chief executive officer at Brevard Family Partnership. “Every day of my life has been a blessing and to serve in a leadership role has been a blessing. The greatest gift given us that we can bestow on others and share is empathy, and the Open Table model reflects that.”
Open Table, a Phoenix, Ariz.–based nonprofit organiza- tion that is 14 years old, is now being used in more than 30 states around the nation.
Open Table develops licensed models that train people from an array of community sectors — including business, education, faith, health care, law enforcement and others to organize and co–invest their “sustainable relational and social capital in individuals with complex needs, and find solutions to social issues.”
Open Table is a unique mutual–support model in which trained volunteers, identified as “Table Members,” come alongside a family or individual in need, referred to as a “Friend.” By giving of themselves “relationally,” Table Members pour support into the lives of Friends.
The benefits of Open Table are substantial for those who are served. A group of volunteers form a “Table,” guided by a “life plan” that outlines goals defined by and specific to individuals and families requesting assistance.
Over the course of a year, Open Table members meet on a weekly basis to work with the individual or family seeking support to create positive change. Six to eight mentors comprise a Table.
The mentors share friendship and activities outside of Table meetings. At the end of 12 months, Tables form an “after plan” that defines the ongoing, supportive relation- ships developed through Open Table.
“We have launched four Open Tables. We’re proud of the work that we are doing,” said Laurie–Anna DeGennaro, the board and community liaison for Brevard Family Partnership and the community–engagement coordinator for Open Table in Florida. “We believe we are the first in Florida to have started four Open Tables at once. Through this initiative, we are looking to establish lifelong friendships.”
Zackary Gibson, chief child advocate and director of the Office of Adoption and Child Protection for the state of Florida, was among the six guest speakers for Breaking of the Bread.”
“I have been fortunate to be in my position for the last nine years,” he said. “I have this great title. But the part of my title that is really important to me is ‘advocate.’ That word is actionable. It’s something you don’t talk about; you do it. And that applies to all the people who are involved with Open Table in this community. They are doers. They have taken the pledge. They went through training and have made the commitment to serve. And that’s bigger than all of us. I can’t wait to hear about the continuing success of this community partnership.”
Terri Smith, programs manager for HELPS Commu-nity Initiatives, said Open Table members have been recruiting other people to become involved as mentors.
“The work that we are doing is truly making a differ- ence in the lives of people. We’re growing, looking to launch more Open Tables and continue to build the program. We have been able to recruit other churches through this program as well. People are finding out about Open Table and are asking if their church can do this. So we are reaching out to other churches. We’re seeing a multiplier effect, which is great,” she said.
“The government cannot do this alone,” said Janet Foggs, a government operations consultant with the Florida Department of Children and Families. “We need everyone to work together — sister agencies, community– based providers, and the faith–based community — to get our families to the next level in life.”
She added, “This ongoing relationship with Brevard Family Partnership, Truth Revealed Ministries, and Open Table is invaluable. The work they are doing in the community is commendable. They are reaching out to help individuals and families in their time of need. This is a perfect example and approach to prevention. It’s a game– changer.”
Part of Brevard Family Partnership’s Open Table model includes the “wraparound intervention” concept that has proven effective in strengthening vulnerable families.
The concept is used by Brevard C.A.R.E.S., a Brevard
Family Partnership agency. The acronym stands for Coordination, Advocacy, Resources, Education and Support. “The wraparound concept is amazing. I’ve seen it in action,” said Bishop Clark, the senior pastor at Truth Revealed Ministries.
Said Palm Bay Mayor Rob Medina, “I’m excited. Every individual who is involved in this great partnership should be proud of what they are doing. I am encouraged by the collaboration of this partnership and commitment of the Open Table Friends.”
Individuals and organizations that are interested in learning more about Open Table can contact DeGennaro at (321) 266–0603 or Smith at (321) 339–9141 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Youth aging out of foster care, at–risk single mothers, and homeless veterans achieved significant life transfor- mations, according to a study of a limited number of participants in the Open Table program conducted by Baylor University’s Program on Prosocial Behavior.
Scholars from Baylor University did a case–study evaluation of the Open Table program in Richmond, Va., involving the engagement of six to eight community–based volunteers, each supporting individuals with different economic and emotional challenges.
Baylor University conducted on–site visits, interviewing Open Table staff, community volunteers, and the individu- als and young families they served.
“Beyond a food pantry or a soup kitchen or a clothing closet, this program develops familial relationships, something that is often in scarce supply for these individu- als,” said Dr. Bryon Johnson, the Distinguished Professor of Social Sciences and founding director of Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion.
“What this case–study evaluation helped us discover is a way for individuals with charitable intentions, who are often frustrated with the limits of more episodic, transac-tional forms of charity that focus on distributing commodities like food and clothing, to give of themselves in a more personal and direct manner. Open Table has taken this idea and developed an intensive training process to help volunteers seeking this type of charity in areas such as active listening and supporting an individual’s need to develop their own life plan.”
He said this case study finds evidence that “Open Table is a new and promising model for replenishing and hopefully reversing the trend of America’s dwindling supply of social and relational capital by drawing upon the spiritual capital found within so many faith–based organization on the front lines.”
Palm Bay City Manager Suzanne Sherman said she is proud of the volunteers who are involved with Open Table. “They are making a tremendous impact in our neighbor- hoods, in our cities, in our county, and beyond. I can’t overemphasize how critically important their work is because it creates a ripple impact.”
She continued, “I have worked in public service for all my career. The one thing I have seen that needs to be developed and grown in our communities is partnerships
— community–based connections with everyone working together to achieve a goal. As the city manager of Palm Bay, I am committed to this kind of partnership. Bishop Clark started telling me some of the things that he’s envisioned for the future and it really excited me because this is the direction in which we need to go as a commu-nity. I think the structured Open Table model is the future. I didn’t know a lot about it before, but I do now.”
Soon after taking office, Gov. Ron DeSantis established the Governor’s Faith and Community–Based Initiative. It serves to support collaboration between state government and Florida’s faith–based institutions and community organizations, enhancing agencies’ existing work to support citizens around the state.
Within the framework, each state agency works to identify mutually beneficial partnership opportunities to help fulfill their needs with available resources.
From the beginning of the administration, First Lady Casey DeSantis has prioritized mental health and substance–abuse awareness, crafting bold initiatives, raising the bar for all involved in policy making related to the continuum of care and leveraging resources to help those struggling.
Said DeGennaro, “When the governor first took office, he and the First Lady made it one of their initiatives to bridge the gap between the system of care and the faith– based community. Phil Scarpelli, of Brevard Family Partnership, and Bishop Clark, of Truth Revealed Ministries, got together and decided to partner under the Open Table model and reach out into the community to transform lives. And that is exactly what Open Table is doing.”