by Brandi Nuse-Villegas
Not long ago, Danielle, was homeless. She had returned to Dinuba in her desire to be closer to her two sons, who lived with their father. “I had previously been in a battle with both alcoholism and personal issues. My life had seemed hopeless, but I found hope in Jesus Christ. So, I put my life in His hands.”
Her journey to putting her life together brought her to the doorstep of Open Gate Ministry, a non-profit, non-denominational center in Dinuba which has provided emergency food, shelter, and clothing, job training, financial aid, spiritual encouragement, counseling, a thrift store, and help for other needs of those in Tulare County since 1974.
The ministry, Danielle said, helped her continue in spiritual healing and re-growth. She returned to church, was reunited with her children, is involved in their schoolwork, transportation, and other daily needs, and now has a place of her own.
While still at the shelter, she obtained a temporary job with the Census Bureau and now works at the Hanford Community Hospital. “She’s doing very well at the hospital,” said Irene Pasillas, case manager at Open Gate.
“Without Open Gate, I would have had nowhere to stay at this time in my life,” Delia reflected, “I hope that I can one day be a blessing to those in need the way that [those at Open Gate] have.”
Delia’s story, and that of many others who have come to Open Gate, is the ongoing realization of the vision of the ministry and of its founder Vivian Martzen. Open Gate began as the inspiration of Vivian, as she became aware of the many families living in Dinuba without necessary food and shelter. Volunteer and advisory board member, Kathleen Kelley, shared that their Sunday school classes became the birthplace of the vision, as Vivian shared conversations with them about what was in her heart.
Operations Manager Gloria Gaona said that Vivian was compelled by Matthew 25 in the Bible, in which the king, understood as Jesus, said that when the brothers feed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and imprisoned, they did it for Him.
The mission of Open Gate states that they seek to minister to the physical and spiritual needs of people according to the life and teachings of Jesus Christ through provision of shelter, sustenance, and companionship. What that looks like is more than a roof over the head or a bag of food, though Open Gate certainly has provided that for thousands of people in Dinuba, Cutler, Orosi, and the surrounding areas, as well as their shelter provides housing for homeless families and abused women.
However, Director Roger Neufeld said they listen and determine the needs that the families have that have brought them to homelessness, and they work with the families to help them make the changes they need to live and thrive beyond the shelter. This includes identification and guidance in life skills and job skills needed, spiritual guidance, referrals, and friendship, led by caseworker Irene Pasillas. Open Gate works with them to prepare for and seek out a job, providing necessary resources. Those who are jobless are expected to look for work. The stay is usually for about a month. “We hold the residents accountable so they learn the disciplines required to be successful. We encourage them to save their money, so when they leave they have a deposit to put on an apartment. If we see financial weakness, we direct them to budgeting classes.”
“Residents take care of their own children,” continued Roger. “When we detect parental weakness, we connect them with parenting classes. If there seems to be an emotional or mental challenge, we refer them to counseling.” The residents are also expected to live alongside the other residents. If Open Gate sees challenges with social interactions, they help them with that as well. “We don’t just provide a room because that would not accomplish change in their lives. They would not grow past their mistakes. You change people through education, prayer, and training. We provide a Christian atmosphere of love, caring, joy, happiness, and sharing. We listen to them and try to apply wisdom to their circumstances and help them make good decisions.”
The staff encourages connections between the residents with churches and individuals who care. A number of churches have come in to help provide spiritual support through in house Bible studies and some children’s ministry.
The shelter recently reached a milestone, having provided 100,000 shelter nights since the shelter opened in 1974. A “night” is a 24-hour period with three meals, room, and services per individual.
“They didn’t say to me, ‘Come back later,’ or ‘We’ll get to you tomorrow.’ They received my children and I with open arms, giving us food and shelter and me the opportunity to mend the brokenness in my life,” recalled Marilyn Wingate who came to the shelter several years ago.
In addition to the shelter, Open Gate provides weekly food distribution in Dinuba and Orosi that serves 400 to 600 families. They have a special Christmas food basket distribution that has often included a toy distribution. Families sign-up for these after meeting with Gloria and establishing financial need. Open Gate also provides other emergency services to residents, such as assistance with utilities and clothing for families who are in need due to fire or other crisis.
Another major ministry of Open Gate is their thrift store, located on L Street in downtown Dinuba. The thrift store provides a third of the ministries’ income and has been providing low cost clothing and other used items to the community for decades. They provide emergency clothing though the thrift with vouchers.
Open Gate is a ministry of the churches in the area. The churches support them with finances and highly valued volunteers. “The secret is our people,” stated Roger, pointing to the constant loving contact that Irene, Gloria, and other staff and volunteers make with those who come to Open Gate.
“Volunteers do much of the work,” said Ken Grover, who assists with the ministry’s accounting. He noted that even the hired staff gives many volunteer hours above their paid time each week. “It is very rewarding working here. It is very uplifting to see people get back on their feet.”
“When you see them walk in; when you see their need, you see exactly what is going on; and when you see yourself in them, then its hitting home,” Gloria shared, “I thank the Lord for the opportunity to work at Open Gate. I can’t imagine working anywhere else.”
Financially, 85% of the organization’s finances come from the community. The remaining 15 % funding comes from a FEMA grant. They also receive food donations from the state food relief agency, Food Link. As with nearly all non-profit groups, Open Gate has been impacted financially by the country’s economic situation and turned up $25,000 short in their budget as their financial year ended at the end of September. Roger stated that part of the impact came from a decision to no longer receive funding from United Way. They also experienced a drop in giving as the community copes with the economy. If they don’t meet the budget, they will have to make budget cuts. However, Roger doesn’t just want to meet the budget—they have ideas and dreams for increased ministry to more effectively meet needs. This includes on-site, multi-skill job training. To realize such ideas would require about $2 million.
Open Gate is working to meet their goal of gaining 1,000 families to commit to donate $10 a month, as part of their “$10.00 Club.” The goal would increase their finances by $100,000, which would help them meet their budget and increase service. They also need and welcome more volunteers to help with the thrift store and shelter ministries, as well as to provide greater spiritual support such as praying for those at their food distribution. As the winter months bring more unemployment, the ministry also needs help with food and money donations to keep their food pantry supplied.
Those interested in helping Open Gate, or in need of their ministry service, may contact Open Gate Ministries at 591-1241 or at 511 N. K Street in Dinuba. The thrift store is located at 133 S. L Street, and accepts donations of clothing and sellable items. Open Gate’s newsletters and other information are available at their