Mary Lee Downey always believed she could make a difference. From her small-town beginnings in rural Arkansas, she had big-time desires to do what she could to help correct injustices and stand up for those in need. But even she was not prepared for what she saw in the Central Florida town of Kissimmee, hidden in the shadow of Walt Disney World. People trapped by poverty and homelessness in dilapidated hotels, with no way forward and no hope for their future. So, she chose to try to make a difference.
Downey founded The Hope Partnership. More than just another charitable organization, this one is focused on getting to the root of the real problem by searching for evidence-based solutions.
“We believe the best way to help is to figure out why someone is homeless,” she says. “Is it lack of education, the need for a better job, finding the right place to live? If we can define the barriers, we feel we can help overcome them.”
Poverty and homelessness are complex issues. Downey believes temporary relief isn’t the answer.
“We know we will never end homelessness, so we have a different approach,” she explains. “How can we make it a brief, one-time only experience? If we have the right services in place, we can quickly step in to deal with the real issues so they can put homelessness behind them and move forward.”
Hers is a holistic approach to problem solving which she believes is inspired by her religion.
“I’m a pastor, so faith plays a big role in my decision- making,” says Downey. “It tells me that all of us have experienced pain, lived in fear, or suffered a trauma. God gives us all the compassion to understand and the heart to help others heal.”
Downey believes many of us care but few of us realize how much of a difference we can make.
“It is easier when you realize it is not your job to fix anything,” she says. “But it is your job to respond. You don’t need to know any of the answers, you just need to realize that together we have a better chance of finding them.”
She never expected this to be her life, but she says what she has learned about poverty and homelessness from the struggles of so many individuals has been profound.
“The human experience is the same for us all,” says Downey. “And when we are willing to truly connect with those who are suffering, we will change the world.”
She points out how many people are searching for a purpose. She believes the answer lies right before us.
“Serve someone besides yourself,” says Downey. “That’s where everything starts. Get outside of your personal wants and needs. Before you know it, you will affect change; in your community, in your relationships, and in yourself. You will see a difference.”
This article is featured in the January 2023 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.