Emmaus House’s 40th-anniversary celebration was an emotional one, said director Brittney Knoll.

Staff held an all-day open house, sharing cake and accepting donation drop-offs. Making it to 40 years was monumental, she said, but were the more personal amounts. Amid light, warm fanfare, the staff dedicated its kitchen to late staff member Lorine Hewson, who had been with the nonprofit since nearly the beginning.

The celebration was an important milestone for the organization, an achievement and reinforcement of the organization’s mission, said Knoll and Emmaus House CEO Robin Marsh, who is also Knoll’s mother.

“We’ve served 40 years in this community, and we don’t just do Garden City. Our mission is for all of southwest Kansas. The reality is anybody that comes through our door, doesn’t matter where they’re from, if we can help them, we will,” Marsh said.

Today, Emmaus House is a homeless shelter, food bank and soup kitchen that serves much of southwest Kansas, Marsh said. But in its early days, its services ran the gambit.

The organization originally opened on Nov. 1, 1979, as a collaborative project between many Garden City Christian churches, Marsh said. At the time, strangers came to churches seeking help or a place to sleep, she said, and congregations latched onto the need for a shelter for the homeless or otherwise struggling,

In 1979, St. Mary and St. Dominic Catholic churches reached out to their diocese in Dodge City. By the end of the year, the diocese had purchased the property, churches had updated it, and Emmaus House was ready to meet the public.

At first, the house was all things, Marsh said — a shelter for the homeless or runaways or victims of domestic violence, a halfway house and addiction treatment center. It was run by a local priest and staffed by volunteers who slept over, running the shelter 24/7.

In 1999, the organization separated from the Catholic diocese and became a non-denominational Christian organization wholly supported by the community, Marsh said.

The shelter now serves whoever crosses its threshold and provides food boxes for residents in Scott City, Deerfield, Lakin, Copeland, Kendall, Ulysses and more, Marsh said. In 2018, the organization served almost 200 people at the overnight homeless shelter, fed more than 6,100 people at the soup kitchen and distributed more than 10,000 food boxes through its food pantry, according to a monthly status report from the organization. The mission, Marsh and Knoll said, has always stayed constant.

“I think, in my opinion, we’ve definitely learned, but the goal is always to just help who we can … and do what we can for you as long as you’re helping yourself as well,” Knoll said.

The shelter serves people of all circumstances, Marsh said. Some are evicted from their homes, others watched their homes burn down. Some are travelers, constantly moving. Some are dropped off at the AMTRAK train station, having ridden as far as they can afford. Others live in small apartments in town without kitchens and come to the shelter for a hot meal.

Regardless, everyone is to be welcomed, she said.

“We’re so quick to judge what we see on the surface that we don’t take time to actually get to know what’s going on. I always tell my staff and my volunteers, it’s not OK for you to assume you know what’s going on in someone’s life,” Marsh said.

Emmaus House, run solely on community donations, constantly struggles financially during the holidays, in part because of light donation trends in the summer. As has been the case in recent years, Emmaus Hose currently has enough money in the bank to continue normal operations for about two months, Marsh said.

The organization last so long has been “a God thing,” Marsh said, and the result of a community that steps up when others need help.

After years of leading the organization, Marsh passed the director role to Knoll in October. As the shelter moves forward into its next decade, Knoll said she wants to bring Emmaus House back into the community, including being more present in the community, such as at local events, expanding its social media presence and encouraging more people, especially younger people, to volunteer.

“I want to get us more into the community…” Knoll said. “It’s my goal to get more of (my) generation involved.”

Contact Amber Friend at afriend@gctelegram.com.