WEST OCEAN CITY – A local nonprofit dedicated to helping homeless individuals and families is celebrating 50 years of service to the community.
This year, Diakonia celebrates its 50th year of operation in West Ocean City. Since its inception, the nonprofit has become the only comprehensive service provider for homeless individuals on the lower Eastern Shore.
“It takes a community,” said Executive Director Bee Miller. “We’re just a part of it.”
Seeing a need for homeless services in the community, a group of young Mennonites launched Diakonia in 1972. With a two-story house and four small cottages, Miller said the program started as an emergency shelter and food pantry.
“They saw a need for shelter and a need for food,” Miller said. “That’s how it initially started.”
By 1983, Diakonia became a nonprofit with its own volunteer board of directors. And as the need grew, so did its services. In 2001, for example, the deteriorating cottages were replaced with transitional housing. And over the last decade or so, Diakonia has expanded to include programs such as case management, homeless prevention, veteran services and a thrift shop.
Today, Diakonia provides up to 50 beds, including family units that allow families to stay together. In 2021, the nonprofit served nearly 2,500 individuals.
“Homeless doesn’t discriminate, and neither does hunger.” Miller said.
Miller noted that the organization’s work would not be possible without the help of volunteers and community members. She said grant funding, financial contributions and in-kind donations allow Diakonia to continue its mission year in and year out.
“The support of the community is what’s made Diakonia successful over the last 50 years,” she said, “no doubt.”
But as Diakonia reaches its 50th anniversary, Miller said there is still work to be done. With the ongoing COVID pandemic and lack of affordable housing, she said the nonprofit is facing some of its biggest challenges.
“Demand for our services has increased. The lack of affordable housing is driving that,” she said. “We need people who are willing to be landlords, to rent a room. People can’t get on their feet if there’s nothing for rent.”
She noted that the COVID outbreak has also put a strain on staffing. During that pandemic, Diakonia served roughly 3,600 individuals. And last month alone, it doled out $400,000 in funding through its Emergency Rental Assistance Program.
“We never shut our doors because of COVID, which has definitely worn on our team …,” she said. “When everyone shut down and went home to isolate, where was everybody else supposed to go? Our team continued to answer the phones and provide the services for those that were hungry and homeless.”
But despite those challenges, Miller said the organization’s work is rewarding.
“Diakonia is a Greek word that means ‘to serve’ …,” she said. “That’s what everyone has done. They serve those that are in need.”
To better meet the needs of the community, Miller said the nonprofit is planning projects that will take Diakonia into the next half-century. In the near future, the nonprofit hopes to build a new office along Route 611.
“We’re hoping to have a one-stop access with our thrift store, pantry and case management in one place, so the shelter can concentrate on their programs at that location,” she said. “We would also really like to see affordable housing. It’s the greatest need.”
For information on Diakonia and its services, call 410-213-0923 or visit www.diakoniaoc.org.
Miller said updates regarding a 50th anniversary celebration later this year will be announced online. She added that donations can also be made through the nonprofit’s website by clicking the “Donate Now” button.
“There are some people who give $20 a month,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like much but it’s critical.”