Shelley Brooks stands with a group of young women around a cake topped with lit candles.
It’s a birthday celebration with all the traditional staples—cake, gifts and a roughly on-key rendition of “Happy Birthday.” It’s a party, but the birthday girl is crying.
The cake, the gifts, the singing, it’s so unfamiliar. It brings warm feelings, but triggers tears.
Brooks hears the birthday girl say, “This is the first time someone said happy birthday to me in 15 years.”
For Brooks, that’s yet another reason why she loves her job.
When Brooks first came to Bethesda Women’s Mission, she knew it was where she was meant to be.
Growing up in the same Allison Hill neighborhood that held the twin school buildings that would eventually become the mission, she saw them go through many transitions.
After a school, they became a barbershop, which she frequented with her brother in hopes of getting a lollipop. Later, Alcoholic Services Inc. took over, and Brooks served there for a little while. But life began to move on as she got married and had children.
Alcoholic Services left, and a new organization moved in, one that was already established in the city as a refuge for those experiencing homelessness, addiction and poverty. All the while, Brooks’ calling stayed the same—she belonged in that building. She especially knew she belonged now that Bethesda Mission’s Women’s Shelter was there.
Brooks walked into the building, as she had when she was a child and a young adult, but this time was different.
“We have been praying for someone to work here,” Brooks remembers the former director saying to her.
She started working part-time as a counselor for about 40 women and children, many with histories of abuse, addiction and homelessness.
It didn’t take long for Brooks to fall in love with her job and to eventually become the director of the shelter.
“This was something I knew I had to do,” she said. “Many of the women have experiences I don’t know how a human could endure. Their histories and stories are so meaningful and the world needs to hear them. My story is really their story.”
Bethesda Women’s Mission provides long-term and transitional housing for women in crisis. They currently have 25 beds for those in need, but are working on an expansion project that will double their capacity and completely rebuild the mission on its current site.
Each day at Bethesda includes Bible study time, meals, chores, therapy, recovery meetings and free time. The goal is for guests at Bethesda to stay for the full, yearlong program, or longer if needed, in the hope that they make lasting change in their lives.
“I see a lot of pain and trauma, but that ray of hope, when it’s implanted, makes a difference,” Brooks said. “This is a very good place to leave your brokenness.”
Carla lived at Bethesda Women’s Mission for seven months—much longer than she wanted to when she first came to Harrisburg. She had been an addict for 21 years and went through rehabilitation programs before, but they never worked. She kept trying, for herself and her four children, who were waiting for her.
She showed up at Bethesda without much hope that this time would be different, but looking back now, she can’t believe how she has changed.
“I finally felt love—genuine love,” she said. “I never felt the love that I’ve felt from here before. If I went from rehab back to the streets, I would be dead.”
Carla smiled as she recalled how each day when she returned to Bethesda after recovery meetings, Brooks would be waiting with a “welcome home.”
Having been at Bethesda for 35 years now, Brooks has mentored countless numbers of women and lived through different times in Harrisburg. In the early 1990s, crack cocaine hit the neighborhood, affecting many of the women Brooks served and splitting up families.
She’s also seen a lack of affordable housing in the area leave those facing economic difficulties searching for a place to stay.
But Brooks has had her own struggles, as well.
Years ago, her marriage ended, leaving her and her children heartbroken.
They needed to get away and decided to go on a road trip, stopping at as many beaches as they could. Brooks had always loved the beach since she was a little girl. With hardly any money in their pockets, the family slept in their car some nights and spent most of their days on the sand. It was simple, but it was how Brooks found healing.
“We’re always talking about that trip,” she said.
Over the years, Brooks has taken many women from Bethesda to the beach. To her, it’s not just a chance for vacation, but for healing. For some women, the field trip is their first experience at a beach. Brooks has seen women stop in their tracks when they first catch sight of the ocean and marvel at its size. Others have broken down crying at the sight of families playing together on the sand.
“One day at the beach is equal to three weeks of counseling,” she said. “That’s what is so surprising to the women.”
Beach days like those—and all the others full of restoration and renewal at Bethesda—are what help so many women create a new path in life. Bethesda Mission Executive Director Scott Dunwoody said the shelter has a 70% success rate.
“Many people don’t want to come for a yearlong, but then they see stories that all of us have—trials and tribulations,” Brooks said. “They start to see they matter and have a purpose.”
Women like Carla start to see a way out of a toxic life and dream about a future.
Soon, Carla hopes to be reunited with some of her children and has plans to find a home for her family. She also hopes to go back to school.
Another woman, Alicia, whose mother kicked her out of her home, landed on the streets, selling and using drugs. She was in and out of jail, but most recently was given the option to get off probation by completing a recovery program. She chose Bethesda. After about six months, Alicia has already seen change.
“It’s inspiring and motivational,” she said.
Brooks lauded the women for their perseverance through the challenges they’ve faced, giving any credit for assistance to Bethesda or to God, whom she says gives her strength. But it’s hard not to wonder what the mission would look like had she not walked up those old steps 35 years ago. There most likely wouldn’t have been as many beach trips.
Still, Brooks said that she was the one who was blessed and never felt like a day at the mission was a day at work. Over three decades have passed, and it’s still her dream.
“I love my job,” she said. “I get to see someone who hasn’t had someone say ‘happy birthday’ to them in 15 years blow out candles on a cake.”
Bethesda Women’s Mission is located at 818 N. 20th St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit https://www.bethesdamission.org/our-ministries/womens-mission/.