Prince William News
Casey Downer's nonprofit, faith-based group Calling All Souls is dedicated to helping homeless people transition into normal housing situations. The organization has served scores of people in the county since starting in 2011.
Haymarket’s Casey Downer of Calling All Souls: 2012 Citizen of the Year
© Gainesville TimesNaming Haymarket resident Casey Downer the Citizen of the Year for 2012 is not just a statement about the work of one person.
There is a side of symbolism too.
Her nonprofit, faith-based group Calling All Souls is dedicated to helping homeless people transition into normal housing situations. The organization has served scores of people in the county since starting in 2011.
Downer runs the ground operation and her husband Doug takes care of some of the administrative aspects along with her, while also volunteering on the activist end.
The group, entering its second full year of operation in 2013, has a board of directors made up of local residents.
Downer's work to assist the homeless transition into permanent housing is not isolated just to herself.
The staff at Northern Virginia family Service’s Manassas campus of SERVE does this daily.
Kimberly Davidson, the housing locator there, called it “perfect timing” when Calling All Souls started up, ready to assist SERVE with its own mission of providing long-term housing for the homeless.
Linda Winner of Haymarket opened her home to complete strangers too.
In return, she asked one man to just help her take care of the rescue operation she has for homeless cats on her property near Logmill Road.
"Well, I see my life as being here to serve God," said Winner. "I don't think of my life here (as) about me."
Eric Smith of Warrenton knows her story well even if he doesn't know her personally.
"I've taken homeless people before in my own house," he said.
Smith also serves as an executive chef at A La Carte in Haymarket along the northbound lane of U.S 15 south of Route 55.
A colleague at catering restaurant offered food last August to a drifter who "didn't have anything with him" as he emerged from the woods. "He just had a large walking stick."
Churches, businesses, youth groups and just everyday citizen volunteers all over western Haymarket do their parts routinely to help the poor through food drives or days of action.
Downer represents the will to help and the desire to sacrifice personal comfort to assist those in discomfort.
Rather than just talking about what difference one person can make, she shows it.
Western Prince William County is home to top-rated schools, white collar workers, country clubs, horse farms, a high quality of life for the mobile, and a relatively low crime rate compared to much of Northern Virginia or even just the eastern end of the county.
Calling All Souls brings attention to something that can easily be forgotten in the affluent west: absolute poverty, right here at home.
"It really lifts your spirits so you can live like a human being," said Woodbridge resident Mike B., a United States Marine Corps veteran whose home she helped furnish.
Interviews with formerly homeless residents around the area proved that Downer's efforts produced concrete results.
Downer herself is a contradiction.
A resident of the gated community of Dominion Valley, she is surrounded by luxury.
Her husband's success in business means the Downers can afford nice things; and they do.
Instead of being isolated in a gated bubble away from the poor, however, Casey embraces the impoverished.
She can relate as she tells stories about living out of her car and the living rooms of friends and relatives while she was a disabled, single mom who gave birth to her first child as a teenager.
Mike B. and fellow Woodbridge veteran Barry Hatchett can testify about Downer's ability to relate.
Downer supplied most of the items in their dwellings that turned their one-bedroom apartments into homes.
Hatchett told his story while seated on a gray futon in his living room.
"Here I am, sitting in luxury today," said Hatchett on Dec. 2.
The definition of "luxury" is in the eye of the beholder.
To Hatchett, just being comfortable inside his living room with a small, old television is luxurious.
Kernisha McClelland, who works in Manassas and lives in Stafford, knows what hard times feel like, as well as redemption.
A single mom who also takes care of her mother, she went from living out of a car to a home loaded with everything from an entertainment system to hygiene products.
"We had nothing. We had just our clothes," said McClelland about when she finally arrived at her new place in Stafford County.
While some can say faith is important to their lives, the Downers are walking billboards for Jesus.
On Dec. 12, a quote from the Book of Jeremiah (31:3) appeared in black dry-erase ink on a white board hanging on the refrigerator at the Downers' home.
"The lord appeared to us in past saying, 'I have loved you with an everlasting love. I have drawn you with unfailing kindness."
Casey Downer offered tea in a mug with a passage from the Book of Numbers (6:24) etched on the side:
"Bless you, The Lord bless you and keep you."
She prepared snacks and chatted with her daughters while wearing gray t-shirt with a cross and a crucifix necklace.
Meanwhile, Doug Downer entered the kitchen with a black hoodie featuring a parody version of the "Call of Duty" combat video game.
Using a similar style design to the game's cover art, his "Called to Duty" shirt features a soldier for Jesus taking a knee with the line, "Weapons of our warfare" imprinted.
This is everyday life for the Downers, as much of a part of their lives as being parents.
It's also why living the ministry part of their nonprofit group means confronting reality when it comes to money.
"If I accept state or local funding, I can't talk about Christ," Downer said.
Private-sector donations are another option and the local community, including some of her Dominion Valley neighbors, has pitched in with donated items and food intended for the homeless or those who recently moved into a facility.
Then comes the furthering of the mission for Calling All Souls, such as establishing a safe house in western Prince William where clients can shower or perhaps receive a meal and rest.
Of course, that comes with complications.
"It's such a long and drawn-out process. I'm trying to do something now," said Downer about figuring out how to navigate through zoning and other laws. "I just want to be able to help immediately in a big way."