Grace under pressure

Volunteers for the overnight shelters, Houses of Grace, are getting ready for winter.

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Temperatures are dipping into the low 30s and it won’t be long before we brace ourselves for nor’easters and wind chill numbers. It’s the time of year that the volunteers who run the Island’s homeless overnight shelters, Houses of Grace, gear up for a season that runs through the end of March. This is the fourth year the Island shelters will be up and running.

There’s a core group of leaders who serve as weekly coordinators at the sites, and they hosted a gathering for potential volunteers in early December at Good Shepherd’s Parish Center in Oak Bluffs. They seemed pleased that they had to set up extra chairs at the event because people kept coming through the doors for the orientation meeting. As of the latest update, there are 96 volunteers, with 42 of them added from that December gathering. But, as with most nonprofit volunteer endeavors, they can always use more hands on deck.

Some people may be on the fence about volunteering, may be nervous about what happens or what could potentially happen during a shift. The leadership team admitted that there are some FAQs when it comes to recruiting more volunteers.

Volunteer Lisa Belcastro explained at the meeting that she thinks some don’t sign up to help because “they think it requires a big commitment when people can actually sign up for once a season or as much as they like.” Another volunteer on the team suggested that a couple of friends could sign up together using a buddy system.

When it came time for the volunteer orientation meeting to begin, the Rev. Chip Seadale, rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Edgartown, began with a prayer, saying he hopes those who volunteer “get to know those who need help so that they don’t feel alone.” Reverend Seadale is a member of the Island Clergy Group who’s been with Houses of Grace since its inception. He’s the one responsible for bringing everyone together so that they could join forces to help Islanders make it through the winter, a time when many of them may not have enough income left over from summer to make it through.

The Reverend Seadale explained some of the reasons why an Islander might need a place to sleep. “It’s more than homelessness,” he said. “There’s also those who run out of heating fuel, teenagers whose parents tossed them out of house. There are high school students sleeping in sheds and cars. They may be silent; they may not want to be seen. They may be couchsurfing. This is hard for me to think about emotionally, to think that they’re out there.”

The shelters are open from 7 pm to 7 am, with dinner and breakfast served. The first volunteer shift runs from 6:30 pm to 9 pm, and volunteers for the overnight shift arrive around 8:30 pm to get an update from the first shift before helping the guests to settle in for the night. Each shift comes with its own responsibilities and tasks.

Bill Vrooman, a parishioner at the Federated Church in Edgartown, has volunteered at Houses of Grace since the beginning and said he usually does a double shift, from 6:30 pm to 7 am. He said he finds the challenges few and the rewards many.

“As for the rewards, too many to tell,” Vrooman wrote The Times in an email. “The first main reward is meeting and working with some wonderful people on this Island. That’s obvious. The second main reward is seeing how we can help those down on their luck. There is nothing better than running into a former guest and being told he or she won’t be needing our services anymore. Some keep coming back and, while that’s not what you really are hoping for, you get a chance to know them, find out what makes them tick, and find new ways the Island can support them.”

Vrooman, who turns 72 next month, said, “At my age the hardest part is getting up off the air mattress in the morning, but the smiles at the meals tell me that’s an easy price to pay for them.”

There are 360 volunteer shifts to cover for Houses of Grace, and Dorie Godfrey has made that process as uncomplicated as possible. Godfrey is in charge of the scheduling volunteers, and once someone decides to volunteer, sign-up for shifts is available through an online portal.  

“We have eight overnight shift openings in January,” Godfrey wrote in an email. “That’s eight out of 124 shifts. Our volunteers are truly and unbelievably fantastic.”

She explained how a typical night works. The early shift sets up to meet and greet guests, they welcome them and go over house rules and check them in. They prepare the meal that’s been provided by one of the Community Suppers that night, and then they join the guests for dinner and conversation. Some of the sites have facilities for showers and for doing laundry. Overnight volunteers arrive at 8:30 pm and then the guests prepare for sleep. The early shift volunteers leave at 9 pm, when “lights out” is announced. Once the guests are all settled, the volunteers go to sleep as well until around 5:30 am, when they get up to prepare breakfast for the guests, who wake up by 6 am so that they can put away their bedding and set off for the day by 7 am. If there are leftovers from the evening meal, the volunteers put together lunch bags for the guests to take with them.

Godfrey has volunteered at the shelter since the early days. She said before Houses of Grace, she didn’t know anyone who was homeless, except those she saw in larger cities. Godfrey belongs to the Unitarian Universalist church in Vineyard Haven and wrote that “… our first principle is to affirm the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”

She said what she discovered is that all people basically want the same things — “to be treated with respect and to have community.”

If you think you’d like to volunteer for Houses of Grace or if you have something to donate, call St. Andrew’s Church, 508-627-5330, or ask any Island clergy member and they can point you in the right direction.