This winter has been a challenging one. Beyond the particularly frigid temperatures we all experienced, our community has needed more shelter capacity than we can provide with the Byrne House Family Shelter and Hixon House Adult Shelter. The need for a hot dinner and a place to sleep in the Haven’s Seasonal Shelter has increased from an average of six people per night in 2014 to 12 to 18 people every night this winter.
The Haven’s regular shelter staff diligently manages the shelter seven nights a week from November to April; they are backed up by an indispensable team of volunteers, both new and returning, who help welcome individuals each night at the 5:30 p.m. check-in and serve them dinner. When the shelter was short on volunteers, Rod Wendt and the United Valley Interfaith Project helped to put out the word as did the Dartmouth College’s Geisel School of Medicine. We’re proud to share in the work with 71 volunteers in total, allowing us to meet the fundamental need for safety and warmth by people struggling to get by.
This program’s volunteers support Haven staff, orient and welcome guests, serve dinner, assist guests with needs, and help transition the Caruso Café to a sleeping space during the 5:30 – 9:30 p.m. shift, while late-night (9:00 p.m – 12:00 a.m.) volunteers maintain a quiet, safe sleeping environment for all and assist with guest needs that may arise.
Of this dedicated volunteer group, 23 Geisel students have joined us this season. Julia Danford has served as a point person and recruiter for Geisel students and says, “My Geisel classmates and I have had such an amazing experience being part of the Haven’s Seasonal Shelter volunteer team. Being able to connect with the Upper Valley in this way has deepened our connection to the community and helped us learn more about the patient population we care for.”
Rosemary Affeldt has volunteered with the Seasonal Shelter for four years and for the last two years has worked the 5:30 p.m. shift, which she loves because her shift begins with serving dinner. That time is special to Rosemary for a number of reasons—it provides a casual opportunity to chat and connect with others, a chance to see people enjoy a warm meal, awareness of what’s happening in her own community, and is an example of non-profits working with one another, as the team from Listen Community Services prepares the meal served for the evening. As a person of faith, Rosemary feels a moral responsibility to attend to the needs of people living in the shadows, but also truly looks forward to her shift each week and emphasizes how happy she is to be there. She adds, “You know, volunteers often get more out of the experience than the people we are there to help and support.”
Joyce Mechling saw an email looking for volunteers earlier this winter and jumped at the chance to be involved with the shelter. She remains in disbelief at the number of people in our community who don’t have shelter and how those who can’t or don’t have it on these cold, cold days and nights are able to survive. Joyce notes that there is a huge need and every night (two nights a week) that she has volunteered except for one, the Seasonal Shelter has been at capacity. She finds the experience interesting and appreciates being able to put a face to homelessness as well as having conversations with guests without any agenda, simply allowing them to be listened to.
Another long-time volunteer, Diane Root shares, “When I’m curled up under a blanket in my recliner, it is intolerable to think that others are suffering from brutal cold or from making do with shelter that is unhappy or unsafe. This is the reason I started, and remains the most basic and compelling. Then there are the guests, and their many and varied stories. They are an interesting and often surprising assortment of neighbors! Some are there because they work but cannot afford the available housing. Some have priorities other than paying rent, like paying child support or saving for something—perhaps a car to get a better job. I am moved by the community they form, with the experienced guests helping new arrivals, and most ready to lend a hand to keep the community area clean and pleasant.”
A common sentiment among volunteers of this program is the comment, “I feel privileged to volunteer with the Haven’s Seasonal Shelter.” Volunteers seem deeply impacted by their experiences with the shelter guests they meet each evening in Caruso Café. It is close quarters in the Café, but the exchanging of stories and listening to neighbors, who are fundamentally no different than one another, rises above the limited space. Each night, whether volunteer or guest, we all share the same needs: safety, comfort, and a desire to connect.