In 1991 Christ Episcopal Church parishioner Josh Costell felt the urging in his heart to donate $25,000 to begin an outreach ministry for homeless families. As fellow parishioner Nancy Yancey sat in the pew across the aisle, she had no idea at the time how that gift would change the course of her life and the lives of homeless families.
In a few months time, the church allocated an additional $10,000 from its budget. Georgia Power offered a house in Norcross for a mere $1 per year, and church volunteers rallied to make the house ready. In the spring Rainbow House opened its first family home.
Originally Rainbow House was a simple outreach ministry for Christ Church in Norcross, GA, that offered a safe haven for homeless families to regroup for a short one-month period. As the church began to better understand the issues facing homeless families long-term, Rev. Joel Hudson could see clearly that God had a much bigger vision for Rainbow House.
Yancey, then an interior designer and mother of three small children, had no idea that Rev. Hudson was watching her closely and waiting for the right time to ask her to become an integral part of the vision. When he first approached Yancey about serving as the first director of Rainbow House, she laughed and responded that she knew nothing about homelessness. Over the next year a little voice inside her head began to vividly reveal that God wanted her to follow His lead. So in 1993 Yancey accepted the appointment as director of the Rainbow House Ministry.
Under Nancy’s leadership Rainbow House evolved into its own 501(c)3 non-profit organization called Rainbow Village Inc. It quickly expanded with additional homes, new support programs, and a multitude of partners from social, civic, and faith-based organizations all across the community. Rainbow Village soon was able to support seven families at a time, and its volunteer base grew to several hundred. The organization expanded its outreach beyond the Norcross area and began serving families all across North Metro Atlanta.
Two years later a generous donation from Gwinnett County developer Scott Hudgens enabled the purchase of an eight-unit apartment complex in Duluth, GA. In 1998 a comprehensive after-school program was launched that offered extensive support for the children. Life Skills classes were added for the adults. In just five years more than 40 families had successfully completed the program. The number of volunteers who wanted to help grew exponentially.
While many heads of household at Rainbow Village are women who have fled lives of domestic violence and crippling poverty, families from all walks of life have come through the doors. As Rainbow Village came to better understand the needs of homeless families, the program evolved from one lasting 30 days, to 90 days, to today’s 1-2 year model.
“Our residents aren’t merely seeking a safe place to live," said Yancey. "They are seeking the opportunity to craft a new life for themselves and their children that is full of love, faith and promise. Rainbow Village offers a transitional housing community for homeless families that cares for them holistically. There is a vicious cycle between homelessness, poverty and domestic violence. Families need at least 1-2 years to heal from the trauma of homelessness. Their wounds and life patterns run deep. We surround them with a community-based family that embraces them, encourages them, teaches them, and prays for them. We believe in them at a time when they don’t believe in themselves, and we help them chart a new course towards a lifetime of self-sufficiency.”
The greatest opportunity Rainbow Village has before it is the children, Yancey said. “The average age of a homeless person is now 9 years old. This affects not only our generation but many to come because the trauma to the children will have long-term effects if not properly addressed. Fewer than 25 percent of homeless children graduate from high school. Truancy, drop-out rates, drug use and teen pregnancy rates among homeless kids are well above average."
"These children don’t know what their parents don’t model and teach them. We have to give them hope and teach them that life can be different and better for them. We want to teach them strong character traits, values, and to set the bar high for their futures. It’s only then that we can break those cycles of homelessness, poverty and domestic violence for generations to come," she said.
After two decades of leading the charge, Yancey, a resident of nearby Peachtree Corners, is more energized than ever before to champion the mission of Rainbow Village because she’s seen first-hand how the lives of more than 700 men, women and children have been forever altered as they’ve come in and out of the doors of Rainbow Village. In 2012 Rainbow Village will be able to serve more homeless families than ever before when it opens a new all-inclusive village in downtown Duluth that will allow staff, residents, and volunteers to work more cohesively on one campus.
“The most difficult challenge we face as an organization moving forward is responding to and meeting the needs of the ever-growing number of homeless families in our community," Yancey said. "The need is astounding. Our new campus will allow us to triple the lives we can touch. It will also allow us to bring online a education/recreation and day care facility, more apartments, a new family service center and so much more.”
Phase I of construction on the campus began on April 15, 2011, which officially marked Rainbow Village’s 20th anniversary. Fundraising for the $7.7-million project is well underway. The campus will be built in three distinct phases over the next five years. Phase I construction that includes a new Family Service Center and two 6-unit apartments is scheduled for completion in April 2012.
“The greatest blessing for me personally has been being able to discern and become the person God created me to be through my work here at Rainbow Village," Yancey, who now serves as CEO, said. "That’s what we all strive for ultimately. I’ve come to understand that God gifted to me the unique ability to see in others what they cannot see for themselves. That’s what feeds the hope and promise we offer here at Rainbow Village."
"My hope and prayer is that people will come to understand that homelessness does not define a person, but a situation. The homeless are people in crisis who are no different than you and me. They are accomplished, bright, hard-working, and trying to do the best they can to support their families. With our love, support and encouragement they can heal, recover and return to lives full of great promise. God has much work still to do here at Rainbow Village, and I can’t wait to see what He unfolds before us.”
The Huffington Post has chosen Nancy Yancey as its "Greatest Person of the Day" — an honor recognizing people who confront issues in their community with creativity and passion.