The Extension was founded as the Marietta-Cobb Winter Shelter in 1987. Originally intended just to keep the homeless out of the cold, it evolved into a treatment center for homeless men and women with drug and alcohol addictions.
“I’ve been to a number of treatment centers, 90 days, but here it’s so much different,” said Tom Reed of Marietta. “You’re out in life, participating in life, but you have the shelter to come back to. And the friends you have are like no friends you’ve ever had.”
Reed, 51, stayed at The Extension men’s shelter, at 1507 Church Street Extension in Marietta, for 16 months between 2006 and 2007.
The men’s shelter has room for 47 men, while a women’s shelter in the Fort Hill neighborhood in Marietta houses 20 people. Extension executive director Tyler Driver said the average stay is about 11 months. He said the Extension has helped thousands of people.
“They come in looking for help,” Driver said. “They typically know what they are. They are looking for a way out of the hell they have been living in. Typically they have tried doing it their way, a million different ways. They are ready to come in and do it our way.”
Participants stay at the shelter for a couple of weeks while preparing for a job in the community.
J.J. Bremner, The Extension’s director of recovery services, said several employers help out the agency regularly, including Reworx, the electronics recycling program for the former Tommy Nobis Center; the Tower & Church Bistro at nearby WellStar Kennestone Hospital; and Mountain Biscuits.
Driver said the agency has built up trust with employers.
“When an employer hires an Extension resident, they know they’re going to be sober, they know they are going to be on time, and, if there is any issue on the job, we are going to address that that evening,” he said.
The facility has 10 full-time employees and thousands of volunteers. But Bremner said a key to its success are its alumni, former residents like Reed who come back and participate in 12-step meetings or take residents on trips to Lake Allatoona.
“They show them how to enjoy sober living and be part of something instead of apart from everything,” he said.
Reed, who now owns a business that builds custom covers and other products for boats, said he enjoys coming back and helping.
“I don’t miss a Thursday,” he said. “I love to come up here and see the guys training. This is part of my life.”
Center for Family Resources CEO Jeri Barr, who helped start The Extension in 1987, said the idea came from former Marietta City Councilman Paul Fields after a homeless man died on a cold night.
“He said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this,’ ” Barr recalled. “He came to me and said we need to start a winter shelter.”
Initially, the shelter differed from others in Cobb in that it would accept homeless people who were intoxicated, said Driver, who came on board with the shelter in 1989.
“Our goal has always been saving lives,” he said.
The agency started in the old Elizabeth Elementary School and grew from there.
“It got to the point where it seemed appropriate for them to be their own nonprofit,” Barr said.
In 1995, the shelter changed its name to The Extension and opened year-round. Driver said it was shortly thereafter that it changed its focus to fighting addiction in the homeless community.
Barr said it has been gratifying to see The Extension grow over the years.
“It’s like having children,” she said. “You like to see them succeed.”
The Extension’s $800,000 annual budget comes mostly from donations, and some from government grants, Driver said.
“That’s in recognition of the fact that we can do the job better than the government can,” he said. “We’ve always been supported by the community — individuals, churches, businesses, civic organizations.”
Currently, The Extension is so busy that it has to turn away people seeking help on a weekly basis. Driver said he would like to find funding to see the facility grow.
The Extension celebrated its 25th anniversary at a Dec. 1 gala, and Reed said he hopes the agency’s message will endure for at least as long.
“It gave me a new life. I get chills every time I think of it,” he said, feeling the goose bumps on his arms. “They might say it’s a brainwashing or a cult, but it’s a different way of thinking, a new life.”