Deshawn Daniels remembers when friends from Open Hand Ministries introduced her to the Circles USA chapter in East Liberty. The group, which meets Tuesday evenings, would provide the support she needed to prepare to buy a home.

“I was like, ‘Do I want to do this, talk with people I don’t know?’ But I didn’t have any excuses. They provided daycare, provided a meal for that night. I went, and I’ve been there ever since.”

Her “allies” in the program, Sarah Heppenstall and Quianna Wasler, talk her through ups and downs and share tips for keeping a household budget and improving her credit score. Daniels set these goals with the aim of getting a mortgage next year when the Open Hand crew expects to finish remodeling a house for her on Rural Street in East Liberty.

“They make you want to do better and get what you want. I’ve got to show these people that I can do this,” said Daniels, 42, a single mother of three who rents a home from Open Hand since leaving East Liberty Gardens. She cannot wait to say, “This is my house.”

Hers is the story of evolving self-sufficiency that pastor Michael Stanton envisioned when he formed Open Hand Ministries in 2008, partnering with East Liberty Presbyterian, Eastminster, Open Door and Valley View churches. Stanton grew to love Pittsburgh’s East End and found his calling helping its low-income residents while at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.

He spreads his gospel by building relationships, believing that support and education can help people break free from restrictions. Promoting social justice through home ownership is important in East Liberty and Garfield as property values soar, he said.

Michael Stanton of Open Hand Ministries whose mission goes beyond buying a house.

This is the church “doing what it’s intended to do,” Stanton said. “Not an organization that sits in the middle of a community and expects people to come to it, but the church functioning in the way that it was meant to function—to go out into the community and shoulder the joys, the sorrows, the strengths and weaknesses, the accomplishments and struggles of the community.”

Once solely his ministry, Open Hand is growing through its adoption of the Circles group to help prepare people to become homeowners. The ministry also works with East Liberty Development Inc. and Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation, and recently hired Tim Raufer as full-time construction coordinator. Last month, Open Hand turned over its 13th set of house keys.

“A lot of people want to focus on the number of houses we’ve rehabbed but that’s not where our emphasis lies,” said Stanton, of Garfield. “It lies in preparing people for home ownership so that they can succeed as investors. We deal with the person, not just a particular goal of theirs, and that takes time.”

The crew hard at work rehabbing a Garfield home for a low-income resident.

With each project, said Raufer, “We’re looking at each family, each house and asking, ‘What are the needs of this project and this household?’ When we look at properties, my first questions are always, ‘Is this going to be a zoning issue?’ or ‘Is this property too structurally deficient for us?’ And the first question Michael is asking is, ‘Is this an appreciating neighborhood, an equity-building scenario?’ That is part of the go/no-go process for us.”

Bloomfield-Garfield Corporation “will happily get as many houses into his hands as we can,” said BGC Executive Director Rick Swartz of Stanton’s program.

“He’s providing counseling and spiritual support for families,” Swartz said. “This isn’t just about home-buying. He’s looking at turning around families coming out of generations of poverty.”

Tammy Thompson, an ELDI contractor who directs the Circles chapter, said foundation money, grants, donations, and volunteer service help offset the costs of remodeling rundown structures into homes “with considerable amount of equity” for the new homeowners.

Circles members build the “intentional friendships” that Stanton no longer could do alone, she said, matching those “who think they might be interested in home ownership but need supportive resources and sometimes just the arms of a friend” with people who also benefit from the relationships and honest discussions about social issues.

“Race, culture, class—all these things that, in my estimation, Pittsburghers don’t like to talk about,” Thompson said. “These are important when you’re trying to build a cross-cultural relationship. Hopefully, all parties involved will learn something about the other person, and our hope is they’ll take what they’ve learned out into the communities.”

It’s not always easy, said Jodi Salant, communications coordinator for Open Hand and ELDI.

“We’re attempting to break down lifetime biases, prejudices, things we’ve learned about each other, in a couple of weeks or months. There’s definitely an element sometimes of ‘I know what’s good for you’ but then we introduce humility and reality,” Salant said. “We’re all people and we’re trying to do the best that we can.

“Folks come in saying, ‘Let me know what I can do to help you,’ and it turns into how can we help each other. That’s both a difficult task and a key to success.”

Heppenstall, 55, of Highland Park learned about Circles from an email and took part in a poverty simulation. A budgeting guru, she acknowledges it’s difficult to assist Daniels by following her lead, as the program requires, rather than showing her the way.

“This is all about empowering people to take charge of their own lives. It can be frustrating,” Heppenstall said. “She’ll say, ‘I’m struggling with this.’ We try to email or text each other every day, just to say, ‘Here’s what’s going on with me.’”

Heppenstall and her husband “were very blessed,” having grown up and gone through life without financial difficulties. They moved from Fox Chapel into the city a few years ago because they wanted to live in “more of a mixed economic neighborhood.” She cherishes what she has gained through Circles.

“Now we understand better,” Heppenstall said. “The fellowship, the friendships—and honestly, the education, learning about prejudices and stereotypes and how they play out in the real world. It’s really been worth it.”

Wasler, 38, a single mother of three teenagers, knows the importance of having someone “walk you through the process” of becoming self-sufficient and getting a mortgage. She bought her home in East Liberty through Open Hand in 2013. Then she joined Circles and was matched with Daniels.

“If you’re looking to volunteer but want to feel like you’re making a true personal impact on another individual or a family, instead of us donating money to an organization—if you want to make a connection with a person that actually needs assistance—this is a good way to do it,” Wasler said. “It’s really a long-term commitment but it feels like a friendship.”

Sandra Tolliver

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer, editor and public relations professional in Upper St. Clair.