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Harmony House works to better Huntington

Workers recognized for role in Huntington In Bloom
Oct. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- Keith Whitfield is one of Harmony House's success stories.

Whitfield, 50, came to the organization with no place to live and no skills to change that situation.

Five years later, Whitfield had to miss the bulk of a ceremony honoring him and several other members of the Harmony House "Green Team" Tuesday because he had to go to work. He works part time at a local grocery store, and part time for Harmony House itself.

Whitfield and his fellow Green Team members were being honored by the city of Huntington for their work over the past summer tending to flowers and landscapes across the city for the "In Bloom" program.

The effort helps the city keep up appearances, while participants earn minimum wage and get some experience doing a job that they hope will transfer into the mainstream workplace.

"It was great; I enjoyed doing it for the city," Whitfield said. "It helps us earn money and keeps everything going."

Whitfield used to live in Vanity Fair Apartments, a housing unit owned by Harmony House, a nonprofit which in itself is a part of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Now he has his own apartment and custody of his daughter.

"They've worked with me real well," Whitfield said. "They've done a lot for me."

Tom Bell, executive director of the Huntington Municpal Authority, was present Tuesday to read a proclamation from Mayor Steve Williams, declaring Oct. 15 "Green Team Recognition Day" in the city.

"The end result is that we have a much more beautiful and much more clean city," Bell said. "(Green Team) is a big part of that."

Harmony House has been doing the Green Team project for the past five years. Just recently, the nonprofit added a city cleanup project to clear litter and debris from public areas.

The Green Team program normally operates from May 15 through Oct. 15, but has been extended through Nov. 15 this year.

Supervising the crews, each consisting of four to six members, is Harmony House employee Richard Powers.

Powers said there is a lot of turnover in the program, partly because of the transient nature of Harmony House's clients, but also partly because participants go on to find gainful employment.

"Some people can't do it anymore because they're working 30 to 40 hours a week," Powers said. "That's fantastic."

Powers said he likes the challenge of molding clients into responsible members of the workforce and society.

"With people being on the street, usually drugs and alcohol are involved, and the homeless have their own set of rules," he said. "It's difficult to get them in a pattern of understanding that if you want to work, you have to show up on time all the time. If there's a reason you can't, you have to call someone and let them know. It's just teaching people how to work and how to interview and how you develop the skills you need."

Harmony House provides dozens of services, from helping with job searches to simply providing someone a place to shower.

The operation is funded through grants and donations.

Executive director Bob Hansen said the agency provides help for 60 to 80 people each day.

Like many other nonprofits, he said the organization is feeling something of a pinch in the current economy.

"We're seeing cuts just like everyone else, we expect that," he said. "But we're doing OK and hanging in there. We're not closing our doors anytime soon."

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