On the third Thursday of every month, a group of community leaders meet at the Salvation Army facility on CR 220 in Middleburg, FL. They aren’t just leaders, they are life changers.

The Clay SafetyNet Alliance, formerly called The Mercy Network, is a Florida State non-profit comprised of volunteer representatives from faith-based organizations, non-profit associations, and government agencies. They take seriously the job of making sure no one falls through the cracks and everyone gets what they need.

Andre’ and Juliet Van Heerden pastor a church and care for the citizens of Clay County in many ways.

Andre’ Van Heerden started working with The Mercy Network in 2009. In 2010 he led The Network to start services for the homeless, which took on a life of its own, becoming Mercy Support Services, (MSS). He was both the President of The Mercy Network as well as the Executive Director of MSS.

In 2012, Patrick Hayle, retired CEO of the Jacksonville City Rescue Mission, accepted the nomination to be the President and CEO of MSS.

Mercy Support Services grew from housing a few homeless families in hotels to discovering a program that helped fund the purchase of three quadruplexes. The support continues until the families become self-sufficient. It’s a group effort of many service organizations.

In 2013, MSS was awarded the Paul E. Reinhold Community Service Award which came with a $10,000 grant. During that time, there was often confusion between Mercy Support Services and The Mercy Network. Consequently, The Mercy Network formed a steering committee to decide how to best rebrand and in April of 2016 the name was changed to Clay SafetyNet Alliance. Van Heerden is the Chair of the SafetyNet while remaining on the board of MSS.

This retooled entity enabled all stakeholders in the county to share resources, form partnerships, avoid duplication of services, and prevent scamming of the system.
The goal of SafetyNet is to expand networking in the county between all social service organizations which include non-profits, faith-based, and local, state, and federal government agencies.

“There is a huge need for long term recovery after a natural disaster,” Van Heerden said. Housing after a disaster, as well as non-disaster situations such as foreclosures, is a concern.

The SafetyNet members are working at building a database and forming partnerships with custodians of extensive databases to circulate vital information.
Just as Mercy Support Services came from The Mercy Network, the stakeholders in Clay SafetyNet Alliance envision a future with expanded networks, more efforts of communication, and more effective services.

For example, there is a need for affordable childcare for lower to middle income earners. Those same households need access to low-priced reliable transportation, among other services.

“We envision a partnership of mechanics, dentists, and more,” Van Heerden said. “A single mother who works as an LPN may make just a little too much money for government assistance, but she’s not making enough to afford dependable childcare and/or buy a reliable car.”

They’d like to see more foster homes, especially for teens. He continued, “I’d like to see more housing for unaccompanied youth. Seamark Ranch can only take so many. We have 944 kids in the Clay County school system who have no address.”
What is needed? All non-profits need more volunteers. More partnerships are needed, too. Word of mouth is helpful. For example, did you know that if an unemployed or low income earner needs eyeglasses, the Lion’s Club can help?

How to get involved

Organizations are building cohesiveness. They need ambassadors who can see the power of collaboration and are willing to invite people they meet. Do you know a dentist who can help by volunteering some of his/her services and time? A mechanic or other professional or trades person?

They need volunteers skilled in web management, advertising, marketing, writing, and sales reps to go to organizations to recruit representatives to attend the meetings. Practical help is needed for each meeting, as well. People set up and take down the tables and chairs.

If Andre’ Van Heerden can find time to help, others can, too. Van Heerden is married, has two sons, and is the full-time pastor of Orange Cove Seventh Day Adventist Church, which has ministries it offers, as well.

Van Heerden was awarded the 2017 Peggy Bryan Volunteer of the Year Award given by the Reinhold Foundation. He says the folks who received awards at the Reinhold breakfast are a good example of everyday people coming together to make a difference. He believes that, “if that message got out . . . and more people realized that they could make a difference, [there’d be] a lot more people doing these things.” And that’s the focus of communication for The Clay SafetyNet Alliance.

Everyone is welcome to attend the Clay SafetyNet Alliance meetings at the Salvation Army facility at 2795 County Road 220, Middleburg, FL on the third Thursday of each month. For more information about how you can help those who help your fellow citizens of Clay County, contact Andre’ Van Heerden at 305.395.0912. Visit their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/claysafetynet.