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Rhonda Callahan: Living on both sides of homelessness

Rhonda Callahan, The Torch

Rhonda Callanan ’05, ’09, is the co-founder of two non-profit organizations, The Torch and
Torch 180. This is her story about overcoming homelessness and using the faith and wisdom refined during her time at Spring Arbor University to let her light shine in communities in Michigan and California.

In fall 2010, Rhonda and her daughter, Maddy, fled their home in the middle of the night.

“I had to make a quick decision that was best for her and me,” says Rhonda. “I was in an abusive marriage and we couldn’t stick around any longer.”

Rhonda and Maddy suddenly found themselves homeless. They did what they could to find a place to rest, even if that meant spending a lot of time in the car. There were times where they didn’t know where their next meal would come from.

At the time, Rhonda didn’t have a job that could support both of them, so she was forced to turn to agencies for help. Navigating this unprecedented path presented consistent challenges, but it was a four-word question that was the most deafening to her.

“Why are you homeless?”

Instead of feeling love and support from the agencies, she felt like they were flipping her situation back on her – seemingly blaming her for being homeless. It also became clear that divorce was not accepted by her church and even by some of her friends.

“I felt like people were judging me,” says Rhonda. “It was then and there that I felt empowered to do something for people who face similar experiences.”

Finding a way out of homelessness was the main goal, but her top priority was to draw closer to God. While feeling abandoned by others, she felt God move closer and closer.

“God provided again and again until we were able to get back on our feet,” she says. “When we finally found ourselves in a more stable situation, I felt immediately called upon to start making a difference in the lives of others who face homelessness and poverty.”

With her friend, Sarah, who had also experienced poverty as a disabled veteran, she came up with a model of providing for poverty-stricken communities in a way that was not intrusive or judgmental.

“We landed on the idea of serving food because it is a necessity and binds people,” says Rhonda. “We knew it would be a way to bring togetherness to difficult situations that people around our community face.”

The two had the idea to buy a food truck. It was a more affordable option and would provide the ability to be mobile and serve in multiple locations. They built a website, established relationships and raised funds to pursue their dream.

“The Torch started as an idea and God provided the means necessary to turn it into reality,” says Rhonda. “Through connections and fundraising, we secured a more affordable option than a brick or mortar building and hit the road in 2014.”

Today, The Torch serves multiple communities in Livingston County. And, with the help of former Detroit Lions defensive end Lawrence Jackson, expanded its presence to Los Angeles. Lawrence’s friendship, and passion for serving, helped Rhonda spread the word to many, including grocery chain Trader Joe’s, which added another partnership. The partnership provided The Torch with a brand new catering truck and hundreds of pounds of groceries every week.

Through their work with the food truck in underprivileged communities, Rhonda discovered a need to help people with disabilities. This recognition led to the creation of Torch 180 in Fowlerville, Michigan. Located in the town’s former library building, Torch 180 operates as a cafe and training program for adults with disabilities who would like to work in the food service industry.

During the coronavirus pandemic, Rhonda shifted the mission of Torch 180 to serve upwards of 30,000 hot meals a week for those in need. Because of the success of both ventures, Rhonda continues to build community relationships that lead to additional support for The Torch and Torch 180.

“My biggest desire after experiencing homelessness was to do something that provided for people in poverty in a better way,” says Rhonda. “I don’t ever want to ask people why they are homeless or in poverty. I just want to love them and support them no matter what their story is.”