Local Couple Creates Organization To Combat Poverty & Homelessness

Writer / Connie Sieferman

Photography Provided

Thanks to one resourceful couple and their sincere commitment to the underserved, the homeless of Hendricks County have a compassionate place to turn for help.

Ryan Chapman first felt the tug to minister to those experiencing a residential crisis when he observed homeless military veterans living in their vehicles in Plainfield’s Walmart parking lot. It is a credit to that company that they make space on their property for this community concern, but Ryan longed to do more.

He understood the homeless condition all too well, having experienced it twice during his own lifetime — once due to a fire and on another occasion when his father lost his job.

“Neither situation was something we contributed to as a result of poor choices or lifestyle mistakes,” he says. “We simply had some difficult experiences come our way.”

Ryan is quick to add that “our church family helped us. But not everyone has that advantage or those resources at their disposal.”

He had a vision for a ministry that would help homeless veterans, families in need and single mothers with emergency, transitional and long-term housing. Enter Camp Camby, a former campground and conference center originally owned and operated by the Indianapolis District Church of the Nazarene. The property is a 56-acre complex of wooded grounds, residential cottages and cabins and large-scale meeting and dining facilities. And it happened to be for sale. A donor stepped forward to assist with the financial obligations, and Ryan’s ministry vision took one giant step forward.

“In 2012, my wife Amber and I dove right in. We sold our house and moved our young family to the camp. We live right there,” Ryan says, pointing to a red brick home on the edge of the property.

He left a position on staff at Plainfield Christian Church to take on his new role as director of the organization he soon named Active Grace, with a heart for tackling poverty and drug addiction and homelessness in a different way.

“We believe in a hand up, not a handout,” he says. “We offer food, clothing and sanitation pantries. The camp’s dormitories and cabins fill a need for transitional housing. There are opportunities for medical care and addiction recovery. We serve community meals in the main dining hall four evenings a week. But ultimately, our goal is to provide life skill classes and job training programs that will enable individuals and families to transition to a productive and independent lifestyle.”

Ryan pauses, and then summarizes the process.

“They’ve had a bad break,” he adds. “Let’s give them the skills they need to live on their own.”

Faith-based initiatives are a significant part of the Active Grace spiritual philosophy. Stillwaters Church conducts a worship service at 6:00 p.m. on Saturday nights. Amber leads a Bible study for women and girls on Tuesday evenings. The organization’s mission statement says that “Active Grace helps people see the life Christ can bring by meeting spiritual and physical needs of people in the local community and beyond.”

Shannon Sturgeon has been a Camp Camby resident since November of 2017. She is a single mom to a 12-year-old daughter, who spends part of each week with her mother on the premises.

“This is a really good place to be,” says Shannon, who offers her volunteer services to Active Grace in a variety of different ways like cleaning living quarters between residents, operating a flea market on occasion and providing general housekeeping duties on the property as needed.

“I’m in treatment four days a week, but I look for ways to be busy and productive when and where I can,” Shannon says. “Recovery is a long process. Giving back is the biggest aspect of this journey for me right now.”

Shannon’s ambition is to become a Certified Recovery Specialist and be able to help others find their way back to wholeness, just as she is doing through the programs and life skill classes of Active Grace.

“I like to say that the first thing in recovery is HOPE,” she says. “The letters stand for Hold On, Pain Ends.”

She emphasizes the importance of learning forgiveness as she tries to “understand life backward, but live life forward.” She is working hard to teach her daughter the importance of gratitude.

“One year from now, I hope to be productive, independent and returning to Camp Camby as a counselor and mentor to residents,” Shannon says. “Just as Ryan Chapman has so clearly supported and encouraged me, I want to support and encourage others.”

Gunny Clark is a Marine Corps veteran and past employee in the food service industry. Earlier this year, he suddenly found himself living in his vehicle on the Walmart property in Plainfield. A bad break-up following a difficult relationship left him without a home and no place to turn for help. Or so he thought.

“I had my eight-year-old daughter with me part of the time and occasionally I would take her to Hummel Park to play during the day,” he says. “I met a gentleman, Matt Nysewander, who was often there with his own family. We got to talking and I shared my story with him. Wouldn’t you know?  He’s on the board of directors for Active Grace. He made the arrangements for me to come to Camp Camby, and I was royally welcomed at the front gate. I was given a good meal, a place to sleep, a shower, towels and blankets. This place is marvelous and caring.”

Gunny’s young daughter now has a permanent home with a grandparent, but he gets to see her from time to time. Meanwhile, his previous skills in the kitchen have made him a perfect fit in the dining hall at Camp Camby. He oversees many of the meal preparations and is especially helpful when large events take place, such as a banquet for 200 supporters of the Active Grace ministry.

He had help from some fellow Camp Camby military veterans, one of whom is Master Sergeant Jan Buse — recipient of a Purple Heart, two silver and one bronze stars.

“Jan deserves a mention,” Gunny says. “He’s a special friend and a great American who’s come upon some hard times.”

National statistics indicate that an average of 22 homeless and despairing veterans take their own lives each day. Active Grace works to stem that tide here in Hendricks County by providing a smoke-free, drug-free and alcohol-free solace to the hurting, helping them to transition into a new and positive chapter of their lives.

Gunny is taking advantage of those life skill classes that offer job training, particularly in the areas of cooking and food service. He is looking to add credentials to his resume that will position him well in the job market as he moves toward an independent life once again.

“I would love to train someone else to take over my responsibilities in the kitchen here at Camp Camby,” he says. “But this place will always be a part of my life.”

He was in the military from 1977 to 1993 and has a huge heart for homeless veterans.

“I would like to one day be a counselor and an advocate for them,” he adds.

Like Shannon Sturgeon, he is already looking for ways to give back.

The needs at a facility like Camp Camby are great. Of the 24 cabins on the grounds, at least 19 or 20 are in irreparable condition and ought to come down. They need to be replaced with new cottages that will meet the ever-increasing demands of a homeless population throughout Hendricks County and Central Indiana.

“We have the capacity for 30 families,” Ryan says. “There are 29 in residence right now.”

His single greatest need?

“The next big hurdle, I believe, is the mentoring and counseling piece,” he says. “Families need personal guidance with life skills, financial management, spiritual accountability. Retired pastors and counselors would be especially helpful in this area.”

Among other needs are food pantry workers, technology volunteers to help with social media and individuals to pick up donations and assist families with residential moves.

To offer your help or to find out more about the myriad of ways you can walk alongside  Active Grace in their mission, visit activegrace.info.

“We’re all just one emergency away from being homeless,” Ryan says. “You can be the support and encouragement someone needs. It takes just one act of kindness to change somebody’s life.”

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