Lisa Belcastro is in her element whenever she’s helping someone else, whether it’s at church with youth groups or in her role as coordinator at the Harbor Homes winter shelter for the homeless housed at the Old Whaling Church this season. Before this she volunteered at Houses of Grace for five years. It’s her faith, she says, that compels her to help others.
“I want to be the hands and feet of Jesus,” Belcastro told me on a break from her work at the shelter. The guests were taking showers off-site, so we had an opportunity to visit. Belcastro does receive a small salary for some of the hours she puts in at the shelter, the rest is volunteer time. She is also the regional coordinator for National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and an accomplished author of Christian romance novels. I had to ask her if she ever sleeps.
“I get paid for part of my time here. I fish as much as I can during the season. And I run and I read. I have a writers’ group I’m in, a book club I’m in, and three Bible studies I’m in, one is a daily women’s Bible study group.”
She says she wakes up between 4:30 and 5 am and goes to sleep between 9 and 10 pm.
“And I sleep. When my head hits the pillow I’m asleep within five minutes and I don’t wake up,” she laughs. “I try to play well, work well, and sleep well, not necessarily in that order.”
The shelter has been open since the end of November, she said, and will stay open until March 31, when the lease with the Preservation Trust is up. There’s a warming lunchtime shift from 12 to 2 pm, where people can come inside and get warm and have a hot meal, then they open again at 5 pm for registration for the night and dinner. Her job entails organizing the staff, which amounts to 42 shifts a week to find coverage for, and if there isn’t someone available to pull a night shift, she does it herself. There must be two staff members there at all times. Right now, she said, there are five people who use the shelter regularly and about a half dozen more who come periodically for the overnights. The sleeping arrangements accommodate COVID restrictions, with the mattresses spaced apart and the dining tables marked for spaced seating as well. A health screening happens every night at registration and when anyone comes in. I asked Belcastro about her time at the shelter, what she “gets back” for what she gives. She quoted scripture and simply said, “When you do for the least of these, you do for me.”
“Everyone in the shelter, every person on the planet, has experienced deep pain, hurt, and rejection. There but for the grace of God, right?” she says. “Every person here has a story and there’s a reason why they don’t have a place to live right now. We’ve all experienced homelessness to some degree … not having a place to live or not feeling like a part of anything. At the shelter we see people with compassion and empathy and not by their current situation. We don’t judge them by their situation or by the decisions they were making. What we can do at the shelter is to let them know that this is a safe place, not judgmental, but that this can be the day that you change. Every day that they come in here is a day they have an opportunity to make a different choice. And who knows what day someone’s life is going to turn around?”
I asked Belcastro where this empathy and the desire to volunteer comes from and she thought for a moment and then said, “My mom.” Turns out that as Belcastro was growing up, her mother volunteered at a women’s shelter, in her school, girl scouts, church, the local and state PTA organizations, and then Belcastro did the same, volunteering with the Minnesingers, the theater club, Tisbury School and MVRHS. “When I was a kid we always sorted through our clothes and our toys to give them away. We were by no means wealthy, but you just gave. My mom always taught us that. My brother does the same thing. My brother owns a sober house. He bought it and he runs it. And he employs most of the people in the sober house in his company. But I really think it’s Christ-centered.”
Her volunteer work with young people through church is another important part of Belcastro’s life. “My passion is with young people. My dream is to have a Christian school free here on the Island,” she told me. “No cost for parents. That’s my dream. After COVID we’ll start focusing on that dream. But yeah, the kids are my passion. That’s where my heart is, youth groups.”
“There aren’t words to describe the joy from working with the kids,” Belcastro says. She described how some of the kids in the two youth groups she works with come from solid homes, single-parent homes, or some are in foster care. The youth groups are not affiliated with any one church, she explained, and are open to everyone.
“The youth groups aren’t with one church,” she said. “We have kids from several churches and kids who don’t go at all. The kids just want to be heard, and they like asking questions and having an adult listen to them, to help them problem solve situations. It’s so important. It sounds hokey but it really is an honor and a privilege. When you give of yourself you want to give more; it’s rewarding just to be around them.”
I asked her what the winter shelter is in need of and she said the greatest need is a permanent shelter.
“People can definitely make a donation. Our greatest need is a permanent structure, or time and services when we do get one. We need a permanent structure. Housing is the number one problem. With Harbor Homes, this shelter is only one of our options. We have the Tashmoo house, which is more permanent with six rooms, but you have to be clean and sober to get in there. There is a waitlist for those who are medically fragile or mentally fragile, and we have grants for hotel rooms for those who couldn’t come and stay here. This is a wet shelter. You can be clean and sober or you can be tipsy and still come in the door; we don’t turn people away.”
For more information and to donate to Harbor Homes of Martha’s Vineyard, visit harborhomesmv.com.