After parking on the 200-block of Hummel Street in Allison Hill, I scanned the buildings for the number 219 or a sign that would let me know which door to knock on.
I was looking for the Brethren Housing Association (BHA), an organization I knew housed mothers and children in need, but I had yet to see their work up close.
Already uncertain, I saw “BHA” written on many of the block’s buildings, leaving me even more confused as to where I was supposed to meet the new executive director. Finally, I saw the word “Office,” and met Kait Gillis-Hanna inside.
She led me into the organization’s humble space, otherwise known as the basement of the First Church of the Brethren. After she stopped to check in on a mother and baby in the lobby, we headed to her dimly lit office.
“I like to be here to make sure the moms are OK,” Gillis-Hanna said. “I make sure someone is always here.”
It was just her fourth month on the job when we talked, but the way she spoke confidently about BHA made it sound like she had been there for years.
“I wanted to make a more direct impact on the community,” she said. “I’ve jumped in with both feet into the neighborhood, and I’ve been welcomed wholeheartedly.”
Gillis-Hanna has held jobs in New York, Philadelphia and locally in human services and communications, focusing on community engagement and improvement. Over time, she realized how foundational housing is to human needs.
Fortunately, putting roofs over people’s heads is what the Brethren Housing Association specializes in. Hence all the buildings marked “BHA.”
The organization provides temporary housing for single mothers and their children. The women attend life skills classes, receiving guidance on things like finances, job searching, cooking and home maintenance. BHA assists them in finding stable housing when they are ready to graduate the program.
“BHA is so unique,” Gillis-Hanna said. “We are really at the forefront of the way nonprofits are starting to go.”
Caring in COVID
I had first met Gillis-Hanna at a press conference about a “Community Classrooms” project launched by Rep. Patty Kim (D-Dauphin). After the Harrisburg School District announced classes would start virtually for the 2020-21 school year, Kim presented an option for concerned working parents.
Gillis-Hanna turned to me, saying how concerned she was for the mothers and children at BHA.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, all of the 18 women in BHA’s program lost their jobs. The organization supported them financially, but it caused them to fall behind in the program.
As the state reopened, they were able to resume work. They then faced the challenge of what to do about their young children, who would need to attend school online. Childcare options were scarce.
“I know how stressful the pandemic was for me, and I got to keep my job and childcare and everything,” said Jessica Johnson Vinton, director of development at BHA.
Gillis-Hanna reached out to local organizations to try to come up with some solution. Pulling resources together as a community was important to her. Eventually, she found programs that could help.
Employment and childcare were some of the biggest issues for BHA during the height of the pandemic—things Gillis-Hanna had to take on immediately upon starting her job.
“Kait came in the middle of a global pandemic and hit the ground running,” Johnson Vinton said. “She is doing a great job. It really makes everyone on staff excited to work with her.”
In Gillis-Hanna’s office, a framed picture of a little boy and girl sits on a shelf. She told me that she and her husband had been fostering them for over a year.
They always knew they wanted to foster, and here they were with two kids they loved.
“Our children are actually from this area, so it resonates even more with me for why I wanted to work here,” Gillis-Hanna said.
Fostering her two children and watching family members struggle with substance abuse has taught her a lot over the years about how to care for people.
“If I was in this job 10 years ago, I may not have been able to approach it in the way that I have,” she said. “When you experience things personally, your perspective really does shift. That gives me the ability to interact with our moms on a different level.”
Central to BHA’s mission is building one-on-one relationships with participants in the program. Many of the women haven’t had loving relationships like this, Gillis-Hanna said.
“I get to know each of our moms; I get to love them and their babies,” she said. “That part is really special.”
While BHA is a relatively small organization, they’ve made a big impact. They’ve transformed a block into a community—a safe haven for women and children. When there are enough buildings labeled “BHA” to leave me confused, that must mean that they’re doing something right.
Gillis-Hanna believes the next step is partnering with local organizations to serve the community in Allison Hill even better. To her, communication is key.
“Somebody told me that BHA is Harrisburg’s best kept secret,” Gillis-Hanna said. “My vision is to make that statement never said again.”
Brethren Housing Association is located at 219 Hummel St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.bha-pa.org.
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