Refuge for female veterans, children on way in Smyrna

Pastor Tyshee Jackson of Eden Veteran’s Refuge in Smyrna waves to passersby Thursday. The facility will be opening soon to serve homeless female veterans and their children. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

SMYRNA — The enthusiasm surrounding the Eden Veteran’s Refuge in downtown Smyrna is evident as volunteers hold banners around the white two-story house every Thursday, imploring people to stop in for a free lunch.

That excitement for Smyrna native and Pastor Tyshee Jackson, who serves as the executive director of the facility, promises to only increase as the anticipated early 2021 opening of the sanctuary for women veterans and their children grows closer.

“Eden Veteran’s Refuge is going to be a veterans’ transitional home for women and women with children,” she said. “Every Thursday, what we do is free lunches, grab and go, for anybody that’s in need. There’s no age requirement. There’s no asking questions. Anybody that’s in need can come and get as many lunches as they want. If you have a large family, … we do not discriminate (against) anybody.

“At Eden Refuge, we will have about six rooms available that, once we finish construction, will be available for women and women with children, and there’s no limit guidelines to how long they can stay, as we want to make sure that we’re managing them to be able to have their own home,” she added.

Pastor Jackson noted that in its 2017 annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimated that more than 40,000 veterans were homeless on a single night in January of that year.

Of those, 9% were women. From 2016 to 2017, the number of homeless female veterans increased by 7%, compared to 1% for their male counterparts.

“I think it’s just a wonderful commitment by the people involved here,” said Michael McConnell, a board member with EVR who also helps with construction. “Not only for the community here in Smyrna, but it also reaches our veterans and what we hope to accomplish by giving them a place that they can call home.

“Unfortunately, the path that certain people take leads them into a situation of need, and I think to a point, women are usually overlooked. As a veteran myself, I just feel committed to giving something back. There are people in need, women in need, and they have children, and we want to give them a safe environment — one that doesn’t compete for their resources. This will help them to get back on their feet.”

More than a sanctuary
Pastor Jackson and her husband, Bishop Jared Jackson of Eden International church, nearby the new refuge, aren’t waiting for the opening of the sanctuary to make a difference in their community.

The facility, at 53 W. Commerce St., is currently open on weekdays and offering free lunch every Thursday for those in need, as well as job training, job-placement assistance, resume building, counseling, coaching and financial budgeting courses.

“Here at EVR, we do community (work) during the week, which means, during the week, we’re open to job training, resume building, and we actually have a school that we work with that’s called Jones Way, where they actually help with certifying (commercial driver’s license) drivers, and it’s all also community-based,” said Pastor Jackson. “Jones Way is actually located upstairs, and I think they have schools in New Jersey and a couple other states, and they just brought it here to Delaware, where they help CDL drivers get their license, and they do the training and help them get the hours that they need and everything.

“Our community base is still here, so we have already opened up our community resources. We just haven’t been able to open up to our ladies until we get everything renovated.”

She added that EVR is already accepting donations, including clothing for women and babies, car seats, canned foods and other items, and individuals are welcome to drop items off at the facility from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

Bishop Jackson said the diversity of the programs that are designed to get people back on their feet has been backed by several local partners, including Smyrna Town Council, Eden International, the Delaware Veterans Association and the Dover Women’s Support Network.

“One of the great things that we are excited about is that this is not just a residential home. It’s also a community center during the day for job training, job placement, resume building. You name it, you can do it here at Eden Veteran’s Refuge, so we’re very excited to make that happen for the town of Smyrna and for the state of Delaware,” he said.

“Jones Way Trucking is who we partnered with to help individuals who come in off the street looking for job placement and job training. They can train an individual to receive their commercial driver’s license, so that’s one of the businesses we partnered with, along with Dover Downs that provides us with food. You name it, we’re building those business relationships, as well as community relationships, here in the town of Smyrna and the state of Delaware.”

Bishop Jackson added that EVR’s nonprofit status allows the facility to have greater flexibility to accept tax-deducted donations and more fluidity working with government agencies.

He said it’s going to be much more than just putting a roof over the heads of female veterans and their children.

EVR is prepared to offer its residents an opportunity to live a fuller life, as they assist in school enrollment, activities and tutorial support, he said. Its five or six volunteers will share their expertise in childhood nutrition, psychological therapy and the activities of daily living.

Adjusting during the COVID-19 era
While the women veterans’ sanctuary was expected to welcome its first residents in mid-2020, it was not immune to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, as construction was slowed by workers who could not maintain regular schedules.

So, in the process, they are also concentrating heavily on their work in the Smyrna community, and Pastor Jackson said the facility is COVID-19-compliant when it comes to wearing face masks, social distancing and sanitizing frequently.

“We took a little hit, but nothing that we can’t handle, especially being able to help the community,” she said.

Smyrna residents Sheila Hackett, left, and Monica Wayman are encouraged by Eden Veteran’s Refuge volunteer Lloyd Stafford to pick up a free lunch. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

On Thursdays, EVR offers free bags of lunch for anybody in need. They contain ham or turkey sandwiches, chips, snacks, juice and water. The volunteers have handed out 600 to 700 free lunches since starting the program July 16. So far, they have managed to give away their entire allotment of 80 lunches every week.

Now, she can’t wait until the drywall, new painting and flooring is complete in the sanctuary and they can open the door for their first guests.

She said it’s important to give women veterans and their children an opportunity to hit the reset button.

“We have a lot of different avenues for our men veterans, but we don’t see many for our women,” said Pastor Jackson. “So we wanted to be sure that we were helping, especially with the economy that we’re in. We already know that we have things stacked against women veterans, because they are women, they have children, so they have different odds when they come out already. We wanted to alleviate some of those factors.

“We want to also help those women whose husbands (have) passed away in the military. That is something that we also help.”

For Pastor Jackson, giving back to her community is just something that comes naturally. She is a major part of the positive vibe that emanates from the front door of EVR.

“It’s so exciting. We’ve gotten such a good feedback from the community,” she said. “Smyrna has always been a place where we help each other. We love each other. You know exactly where you can come to get the help that you need, so it’s a blessing to be able to bring that back to the community and to be able to help those that are in need.

“So being born and raised here is something that we just enjoy. People ride by, they donate, they wave, and it’s a blessing just to be able to see them.”