Volunteers give back to Bellingham, Whatcom County as they keep severe weather shelters open

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDFebruary 8, 2014 

As temperatures dropped last week in Whatcom County, Interfaith Coalition opened our two Severe Weather Shelters to men, women and children. From 5 p.m. until 8 a.m. the next day, homeless individuals and families were welcomed to come in out of the cold for warmth, food and a safe place to sleep. This is no small thing.

The two shelters had an average of 90 guests each evening since last Monday. The women's shelter is hosted at Garden Street United Methodist; the men's at Faith Lutheran Church. Each night the shelters open, more people come in out of the cold. Word spreads.

I think what makes our Severe Weather Shelters so special is how we rely on volunteers. Volunteers prepare the simple hot meals and keep the coffee pot full, lay out the mats and clean blankets for bedding, sit in the quiet late hours and visit with guests. I didn't realize that more than 25 volunteers are needed each day to ready the shelters, gather and serve two meals, distribute blankets, help guests get settled with books, games and videos, clean the shelters after everyone leaves, then start all over again.

It's a community of caring aimed at keeping people safe, warm and off the streets when the weather is extreme. Our guests come from many circumstances. Some are veterans, some have mental health issues, others have exhausted their meager safety net. Each situation is unique, but there is one thing in common: these are our neighbors who need a secure place to rest.

I asked Darleen Page, a retired elementary school teacher, why she volunteers on these bitter cold nights. "I feel like this is something I have to do," she told me. "I will always do it." She and her husband Chuck have volunteered at the shelters since the beginning in 2003.

The food served is pretty good, she said. "People love the toasted cheese sandwiches and soup. We can't ever make enough of them." Darleen often contributes food from her own kitchen to supplement the basic meals.

She recognizes some of the people as repeat guests. "Some of our guests, for example, live in the woods, want to live isolated from others, and are chronically homeless as a choice," she noted. "I think the need for our shelters will always be there."

Another longtime shelter volunteer, John Riseland, says that, like many others, he thinks, "This could be me. For most of our lives, any of us could be one paycheck, one circumstance, away from being homeless." He and his wife, Brenda, say they can't imagine themselves being out in terrible weather without a warm, comfortable home to return to.

"This is one of those things that just needs to be done," John, a retired high school counselor, said.

Andrea Daniels has volunteered "in one way or another" for over five years with her husband, Dan, one of the site managers. "I feel there's a need to be part of the solution. We don't want to see people suffering, out in the cold."

She is coordinating hot meals at the men's shelter, with popular favorites like French toast for breakfast.

"Our interest is in making our guests feel comfortable and feeding them well." She and Dan believe, as the other volunteers do, that it's important to give back to the community. Helping at the shelters is one way to do that.

The number of volunteers needed is significant, John Riseland points out, and new volunteers are always welcome. "It's amazing to work with these volunteers," he says. "There are so many people here who are concerned and interested. A lot of people care."

I agree. The Severe Weather Shelters offer our guests the gift of hospitality. No matter the reason why someone is here: we hope to treat each person with genuine warmth and dignity.

Hope is delivered each evening through a hot meal, a safe night's sleep and a wide community of people who care.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sue Cole is a former Interfaith Coalition board member and a Severe Weather Shelter volunteer. For information about volunteering at the shelters, email info@interfaith-coalition.org or call 360-734-3983.

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