Thursday, December 10, 2009

Sleep Well Tonight

Twice now I’ve seen groups of people sitting on the floor or around conference tables hunched over large sheets of flannel. They were tying two pieces of flannel together to make blankets, blankets with knotted tassels along all four sides. Blankets that would be donated to provide warmth to someone sleeping in a cold drafty home, or worse, outside in the stark weather.

I wanted to know the story behind the blankets, and I learned they were the products of a ministry aptly called Sleep Well Tonight. I had the pleasure of talking with John Duke, co-founder and Ministry Director, about the origins and work of Sleep Well Tonight.

Greg: Tell me how your ministry began.

John: My wife Joanne and I frequent downtown Atlanta, and the more often we went downtown the more often we witnessed people sleeping in the cold on benches or the stone steps of city buildings. It bothered my wife so much she began tossing old blankets in the car whenever we made a trip into town. When we spotted someone who obviously needed it, we gave them the blanket. This went on a few times until the police actually discouraged us from doing it! That bothered Joanne even more, so we began to pray about the situation, asking God to reveal to us how we could help these people.

A short time later, in June of ’08, we attended an event sponsored by Community Outreach which targeted helping the homeless of Atlanta. As I was cooking and serving burgers and hotdogs, a fellow came up to me and asked if I would pray for he and his family. Joanne and I followed him to his home, a ramshackle place with broken windows. I asked him if he could use a few blankets and pillows, and he said, “If you could help us like that, we would sleep well tonight.”

On our way home Joanne and I talked about that experience and decided we were going to get blankets to the homeless somehow, and we were going to call our ministry Sleep Well Tonight. Ultimately we decided to collect blankets, sleeping bags and pillows and offer them to existing organizations which would then distribute them into the communities they served.

Greg: How did the knotted blankets and volunteers come into play?

John: As we were asking churches to donate blankets to our ministry, Joanne discovered how to make knotted blankets. It occurred to us this would be a great project for Goldrush (a week-long summer event for youth), and all of a sudden there were four hundred kids making knotted blankets for us. That gave us the idea of encouraging other churches to engage their youth groups in making knotted blankets, and it went viral from there. In short order we collected more than 4,000 blankets!

As these blankets began to stack up in my garage, we decided to make sure the recipients knew that these were not just free blankets, but was also God at work. We began asking people to include cards of encouragement with each blanket, and we began including Bibles with them. We met with some opposition from a few of our secular distributors about that, but when a homeless guy came up to me and asked for more Bibles, I knew we were doing the right thing. The Bible is an integral part of what we do, and now we only work with distributors who understand and support that.

Greg: Wow, this has really grown from a rather simple idea.

John: I haven’t been able to park a car in my garage for nearly a year! But as it is turning cold I’m growing fearful my garage will become empty, that we will give all the blankets away. If not for the generosity of the churches and small groups that support us that could happen. We have eight distributors and a number of times we could not fulfill their requests for more blankets, but we gave them what we had.

Greg: So you no longer give blankets directly to the homeless, but instead you use distributors?

John: The co-ops, Salvation Army and several shelters distribute for us. They are able to reach more needy people that we can, so I now concentrate on collecting the blankets and delivering them to the distributors, and telling organizations about the ministry and helping them organize drives to make or collect more knotted blankets.

Greg: In addition to offering blankets, how might someone support your ministry?

John: Joanne and I are using our own funds to purchase the packaging and Bibles. We could use cash donations to help with those expenses, and of course we would love to receive donated Bibles. This winter we expect to give away more than the 4,000 blankets we gave away last winter; in order for the ministry to grow with the demand for blankets we will need financial resources beyond what Joanne and I can manage ourselves.

Greg: Your ministry has grown so large and so rapidly it has outpaced your ability to fund it.

John: Exactly. It has grown so large we also need space to store the blankets, Bibles and supplies. Joanne and I are praying about that too.

Greg: How large is the homeless population in our area?

John: It is so hard to say because it is next to impossible to obtain an accurate count of people who by the very nature of their circumstances don’t stay in place. And don’t forget that it isn’t only the homeless we serve. There are people who have a home but that home isn’t heated. The best I can tell you is that even though we gave away 4,000 blankets last year, we had requests for 12,000.

I left the meeting with John grateful for my home and the means to heat it and adequately clothe myself and my family. It is 35 degrees outside as I write this post, but the wind makes it feel like 26. It will actually drop to 25 degrees tonight, and we don’t know yet how cruel the wind will be. Along with John, I too pray for his ministry.

The needs of this ministry are clear: operating funds, blankets and storage space. If you have a heart for assisting Sleep Well Tonight, contact John or Joanne at john@sleepwelltonight.org and joanne@sleepwelltonight.org

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