Sunday, December 9, 2012

Volunteers of America

I was recently contacted by Boulder County and their “Volunteer Program Enrichment Awards.” Although I won’t be able to attend the April 14 event since I’ll be on the road again, I did have a nice conversation with one of the Boulder County staff. I explained that I don’t say a lot about what I do because that would seem rather immodest. I don’t suffer from a great degree of modesty, as anyone who knows me will testify. Still, one can get a very sore shoulder from patting oneself on the back, and I don’t do these things for recognition. I get plenty of satisfaction just from being there and helping when I can. The staff person, on the other hand, suggested I communicate more about what I do since that would encourage others to step in and help too. So, I thought I would share some recent experiences and my thoughts.

Every Thursday you’ll find me behind the wheel of a large automobile — a truck actually. Now this is great because I love driving and mashing gears on a big eighteen wheeler has always been my hiway lovin’ fantasy. Well, it’s not exactly an eighteen wheeler. It is more like those big trucks you rent at U-Haul and it has an automatic transmission. It does, however, have a lift gate in back, and thank God for that.

On any Thursday, you’ll see me and my partner, Lee, driving around Longmont, Frederick, Firestone, Erie, Niwot, and points in between picking up donations that people have generously giving to Habitat’s Restore Store. Now, as you know, many organizations send trucks out to pick up donated clothing and other household goods. Being part of Habitat, we get the big stuff. That’s couches and chairs and ottomans, tables and dressers and nightstands and mirrors, kitchen appliances, washers, dryers, boxes of tile and other building materials, home entertainment systems and bookcases, and — the killer — those old big screen CRT televisions.

Who would have thought that a couple of guys in there sixties would show up at your house to be furniture movers. Now the donations are supposed to be on the driveway or in the garage, and we’re not supposed to go into the homes. That is both to protect our tired backs and also prevent issues of furniture mover damage to walls and doors.

Here comes the personal anecdote: yesterday we went to a home of a couple in their 70s or maybe even 80s. They had some old desks and office furniture to donate. The desk in the garage was one of those “some assembly required” type made out of particle board and held together by tricky metal fasteners manufactured in Sweden, I assume.

Now particle board is a man-made product with wood fiber, glue, and some lead added just to give ballast. These desks weigh just slightly less than a full sized automobile. As we started to move the desk, it began falling apart. It broke where the metal fasteners were inserted and quickly became a pile of lumber. Now our mission is to collect things that can be sold in the Restore Store to earn money to build homes for people in need. But we also serve others in the community, so I decided to take the broken desk, even though I knew it would go right in the dumpster back at the store. These folks thought they were helping out and kept saying what a good desk it was. I knew better, but they needed to get rid of this furniture and were sure they were helping, and I didn’t want to break their hearts, so we took the broken desk.

Then they told me they had another desk inside!

So inside Lee and I went. This was a large desk. (Are they ever small?) We had to remove all the drawers and take off the legs. Then we tipped it on end, put it on a wheeled furniture cart, and carefully got it out the door. Again, we’re not supposed to do that, but this couple needed the desk out of there, and we were there, and it is volunteer work, so we did it. They never would have gotten that desk out by themselves, and it is worth something down at the store, so we happily spent 20 minutes disassembling and removing the desk so they would have their office all cleaned out.

They were so pleased. They gave Lee and me each a $5.00 tip. We don’t take tips. Not a problem, we donated it to Habitat. Then they asked if we had water. It was a nice warm spring day. We do have water. They said their water was cold. A very nice couple, and I’m glad we could help them. That is really what life is about, helping each other.

At our next stop, an apartment, a neighbor came out and asked how much we would charge to pick up some furniture for him next week. We explained that we were picking up donations and can’t deliver furniture. He said he wanted to get rid of the old furniture, and we could help with that. I gave him a card with a phone number to call to arrange for a donation pick-up. This man was 50 or 60 and had an oxygen hose in his nose. How was he going to move furniture? Did he have the money to hire help? Did he have family to help? All these questions in my head. There is so much need in our communities to help others. Some times I get overwhelmed.

So, if you have some gently used furniture, couches and chairs with no rips or stains, or kitchen cabinets or old appliances or just about any household items you are no longer using and want to donate them to people helping people, give the Longmont Restore a call. They will schedule a pick up. If you’re real lucky, and it’s a Thursday, you’ll even get to meet Lee and me. And if you have a neighbor that needs someone to lift the other end of the couch and help him or her move, think about that too.


The other organization I volunteer at is a Homeless Outreach. I drive a van in our Street Outreach program. Every night of the year, all 366 of them (leap year you know), we’re out on the street feeding people who are hungry, giving clothes to people who need clothes, and providing rides to shelters for those that would otherwise sleep outside.

I’m amazed at the food we have. We have a group of volunteers, called “Soup Angels.” These people prepare sixty meals every day of the year. In the winter it’s soup with some sides like a fruit, a granola bar, a slice of bread, a bag of chips. In the summer we substitute sandwiches for soup. Local restaurants may provide items too. Last week we had 40 burritos from a local vendor. We also give out a lot of bottled water that local vendors have donated or that we’ve purchased with donations.

In the van we have socks and underwear and shirts and pants and gloves and shoes and blankets and even sleeping bags. We are often short on socks. Homeless people prefer white socks, and we often only have dark colored socks. Not everyone goes to a shelter for a variety of reasons, and they sleep outside in parks and behind buildings, so the warm clothing, blankets, and sleeping bags are literally lifesavers. We also have the odd various item like hats or belts or personal items like razors and shaving cream, tooth brushes and tooth paste, deodorant, tampons, or just about anything else someone might need for daily life.

We work with the local police department and are frequently called on to take someone they’ve found on the street to shelter or detox or other services. On Tuesday and Thursday nights we provide transportation to an intake shelter that offers showers and laundry and free Internet telephone service, or just a chance to watch a show on TV. These are the little things we don’t think about that are a major part of life on the street.

I don’t know how many volunteers it takes to prepare the meals, gather and sort the clothing, or staff the various agencies; two drivers a night for the outreach van and two more drivers on some nights to drive a transport van. It takes a lot of people to provide these services every day.

In Longmont, during the day, the Our Center provides breakfast and lunch as well as other services. There are other organizations working during the day, both government and NGOs. But, after 5:00 PM, we’re the primary provider. Street people have our phone number – you’d be surprised how ubiquitous cell phones are, even among the homeless. We get calls all night long for meals and other things. We make the rounds of the Wal-Mart parking lot, the local hotels and motels that are haunts of the penny-less, the parks and other hang-outs, and provide any assistance we can. We literally patrol the streets until around 10:00 PM every night and are often stopped and asked for assistance. Many recognize our van and the "HOPE" sign on the side.

Right now there’s a homeless person who lost all ten toes in the cold, and — thankfully — he’s been put up in a hotel for a week or so while he recovers. We drop off meals each evening and spend some time talking to him. He’s young and healthy, but doesn’t have a job right now. Or there’s the two hitch-hikers that another volunteer picked up and we met with him by a local restaurant, gave the two men some food and blankets, and gave them advice on the best hitch-hiking route to Cheyenne where they hoped to find work. We did try to deter them from jumping a freight, as that is very dangerous, but then hitch-hiking is not a walk in the park!

Recently a well known Longmont street person passed away. She was only in her fifties, but life is hard on the street and she was in a bad way medically. I had personally taken her to the emergency room before and all the hospital staff knew here right away, so I realize she had chronic problems with alcohol and medical issues. Many evenings when we’re feeding people we talk about her and how she is missed. I’ve seen more than one street person tear up remembering her. These are our brothers and sisters and they usually thank me profusely and “God Bless” me, but I’m just a little cog in the machine and I’m the lucky one that gets to meet these people.

Food is becoming more of an issue in this economic downturn and our sixty meals is becoming too few. Normally we have food left over at the end of the night and we take that to a local “flea bag” hotel. Sorry about the term “flea bag,” but it is actually the perfect term. I’m sure you now have a picture in your head of the residence and it’s residents … and that picture is correct. The hotel houses everyone from teenagers and twenty-somethings to pensioners and social security recipients. It is not a five star hotel. We leave the last of the meals there every night for the locals to collect.

Well, last Thursday night, we only had four meals left over at the end of the evening, and Sunday night we gave out every last meal. We headed back to our headquarters and got some non-perishable food that we have for emergencies. Things like tins of tuna or chicken salad and crackers. Ironically the summer seems to have increased the need for food on the street over what it was in the winter.

Now we’re not the only ones providing food and other assistance and our clientele is more people of the street. I know the food banks and church pantries are also providing food assistance to other groups in our society. The United States seems like a very rich country and there should not be any hunger at the very least. I follow all the high fallutin’ political discussion on the Internet and Facebook about health care, elections, and abortion rights and all these other issues that seem to consume the thoughts of so many of us. But, if we look around, there are people in need in our very neighborhoods. Now I’m not saying that discussion is wrong. I’m a big “discusser” myself and enjoy reading and writing about issues affecting our country.

I also think that politics is an area that all citizens should be informed about so they can vote a knowledgeable and meaningful vote. But I hope all those people that are so full of opinions and knowledge are also taking the time to help others in need. They may be in your own family or close friends, or they may be strangers.

What a better way to celebrate the Easter weekend, the anniversary of the greatest gift ever given to mankind, the sacrifice of our Savior on the cross as atonement for our sins. What a great weekend to think about volunteering and helping in your community. By all means talk about it, blog about it, write about it, and update your FB friends about it. But talk is cheap, and it is those that walk the talk that are really helping out.

If you are interested in donating some white socks or can help out with some of these projects and efforts, send me a note or give me a call. I’ll connect you with people that would be happy to take your donations or your offers of assistance. I think it is the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do.”

Originally written April 6, 2012.

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