BOURBONNAIS — Dawn Broers is not often at a loss for words. On this day, however, she was having difficulty finding the correct verbiage to describe the whirlwind of the past 24 months.

The founder and executive director of Fortitude Community Outreach in Bourbonnais, Broers sat back in her office and just shrugged her shoulders.

“I don’t know how we did it. We’ve only been in existence for two years,” she said.

What she, her seven-member board of directors and many volunteers have done is create a not-for-profit from nothing; open rotating nightly shelters for the homeless and establish mobile food pantries for the needy.

By the way, Fortitude was incorporated in April 2018 and received its not-for-profit status from the state.

For these accomplishments and those Broers likely chose not to mention, Fortitude is being recognized with the Daily Journal’s 2019 Innovator in Social Services as part of the newspaper’s annual Progress Awards.

The former Lake Village, Ind., resident came to Bourbonnais in 1992 to attend Olivet Nazarene University. After gaining her degree, she became a part of the ONU faculty for about four years. She also is a counselor with Keystone Counseling in Bourbonnais.

Life for the 45-year-old wife and mother was going along perfectly. But it was disrupted in May 2017 when the social work instructor learned she was being laid off.

“Fortitude was just this little side thing at that point. Something I had always wanted to do,” she said.

“I looked for other full-time work, but something kept pulling me back to Fortitude. I had some opportunities, but it just seemed Fortitude was what I was supported to do.”

She set out to make Fortitude a vital member of the Kankakee County community, a community in which there was a growing need for the services to help the homeless.

Not only are there about 100 homeless people at any given time in the county, there also was a huge vacancy to be filled as The Salvation Army was closing its men’s and women’s/children shelters here.

“I didn’t think I would be the answer — at least not initially,” she said of the need for shelters. “This is a community problem, and the community needs to step up. With the closing, a cavern was created. Here was this huge gap that had to be addressed.

“We felt if anyone could fill the gap quickly, it would be Fortitude.”

Fortitude board president Beth Rockert, who is an insurance company project manager, has been involved with the group since January 2017. She and her husband, Mike, an Aqua Illinois employee, first began volunteering at the Thursday evening outreach programs at Graham’s Furniture in Kankakee.

“It was freezing, and there were about a dozen or so people waiting for us. It touches your heart,” she said. She’s been helping with the organization ever since that day.

Fortitude was only doing the outreach at that point, but Rockert was aware Broers had bigger plans.

The night shelters eventually followed, and the first year of the night shelter ends in the conclusion of April.

But looking back, Rockert said most everyone agrees they get more out of Fortitude than even the homeless do.

“I often feel (the homeless) do more for us than we do for them. There is such an appreciation. I know my husband and I didn’t expect that feeling. It’s such a great relationship Fortitude has built with the homeless,” she explained.

Despite what the group has done thus far, those involved know there is much more to accomplish. She knows there will be those who will help carry out whatever does come next.

“There is this saying that I like: ‘God doesn’t always call the qualified; He qualifies the called.’”

Broers can simply be labeled as one of those called.

The nightly shelter, which opened Jan. 9 on a rotating basis amongst five locations in Kankakee, Bradley and Bourbonnais, have had an average of 10 to 13 people per night.

Some of the faces can be seen regularly at a shelter, but some only now and again. But one thing is true of all: They appreciate having a warm place to eat a meal and lay their head.

“We have a very generous, kind-hearted community,” she said.

Regarding her newfound role with Fortitude, Broers simply smiles.

“I never could have foreseen this. I never anticipated the huge response we got. People want to support this. The communities want to do this. I may be mobilizing it, but the whole community is embracing us.”

That community includes The Salvation Army. Lt. Scott Parnell said Fortitude is filling a vital need as The Salvation Army transitions from a nightly-shelter option to offering assistance for self-sustainability.

“Fortitude is filling a big gap. They are definitely filling the short-term gap with housing,” Parnell said. “Fortitude is a valuable community partner.”

Lee Provost, an award-winning reporter, has been writing local news stories for The Daily Journal since 1988. He is a lifelong resident of the region. Provost can be reached at lprovost@daily-journal.com.