Nonprofit fighting homelessness presented Golden Acorn Award for Excellence

Published 10:29 am Friday, November 26, 2021

BERRIEN COUNTY — Reshella Hawkins was at a loss for words last week Wednesday.

Hawkins, the interim executive director of Emergency Shelter Services, 185 E. Main St. Suite 103, Benton Harbor, entered the organization’s main office lobby where she was met with a shower of confetti after being presented with the Berrien Community Foundation’s 2021 Golden Acorn Award for Excellence.

“They really got me,” Hawkins said. “I was very surprised.”

The award, which includes a $4,000 grant, was presented to the nonprofit for its work with the COVID Emergency Rental Assistance Program.

The Golden Acorn Award for Excellence is an annual award presented by the Berrien Community Foundation to an organization in recognition of its dedication and service to the Berrien County community it serves.

ESS implements and manages strategic programs to prevent homelessness for women and families in Berrien County while also providing support and resources to help community members become self-sufficient.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the organization’s CERA program has helped people and families throughout the county avoid eviction and homelessness by providing rental and utility assistance for eligible renter households so that they retain their housing stability.

The program, administered by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, began accepting applications in March.

“We do a lot of good work for our clients and community,” Hawkins said. “This award encourages us to continue doing what we’re doing.”

ESS offers the only women and family homeless shelter in Berrien County, a 28-bed facility where families receive support to move into stable housing. The organization’s administrative office, The Connection, connects clients with supportive housing, case management, and rental assistance while the ESS Resale Store, 205 W. Main St., Benton Harbor, offers gently used clothing and household items, with proceeds going toward the services the organization provides.

ESS works with agencies around the county, including the Ferry Street Resource Center, 620 Ferry St., Niles, the city of Niles and the Southwest Michigan Communication Action Agency.

The award means a lot to Hawkins, who has been with ESS for 23 years in various roles before being named Interim executive director last year.

“Things have truly changed since then,” she said. “The need is greater and the clientele is different. The pandemic has impacted what we do. Mental illness has always been there, but we’re seeing it more. The need has become so great for Berrien County, and the award funds we received are needed in this area.”

According to Hawkins, the $4,000 grant will likely go toward the organization’s unrestricted funding, with the purpose of supporting families with birth certificates, housing applications and more.

“It’s going to be a great help to our agency,” Hawkins said.

ESS is currently holding a fundraiser to remodel the homeless shelter, which resides in a large house built in the 1800s. Community members who would like to donate can contact Hawkins at (269) 925-1131 or by email at rhawkins@emergencyshelterservices.org. Those wanting to learn more about the CERA program, connect with ESS or refer homeless or at-risk individuals can call (269) 277-5055.

Directing an organization such as ESS is a taxing task. Reshella is thankful for both her staff and her family for their roles in this achievement.

“I could not have done this without my staff and the support of my husband and family,” she said. “I give them all the credit. My staff makes things happen. If it wasn’t for my husband and family I could not do what I do.”