VSH Volunteers Make A Difference!

Posted on February 21, 2012

This week’s blog was written by VSH volunteer Amanda Roose of Foursquare Family Life Center.

“It has been almost one year since I have been volunteering with VSH, and my life has been messed up in the best of ways because of it. One of the most rewarding things I have gotten to be a part of has been our weekly game nights with the tenants at South Richmond. It’s such a simple thing, bringing games and snacks and sharing stories, but it has opened up friendships that I cannot fathom living without. These aren’t just random people I share a coke with anymore, they are real people with real stories and real hearts, and they matter to me. In my normal routine I would have never passed by my new friends, but stepping out  of my routine and building relationships with them has probably changed my life more than theirs. Last August I was a part of Richmond Registry Week on a survey team. Seeing Richmond’s invisible people firsthand hurt me on many levels, but what gave me hope was that I was doing something to solve this problem. The homeless are more than statistics to me now. They have faces, names, and voices that are aching to be heard.

“Teams from my church have painted the inside and outside of a family’s new home. We have done construction and gardening. We have had pizza and bingo nights. We have shared life and shared hope. We have had Thanksgiving dinner with them and spent Christmas day with them. We have donated house supplies for new tenants moving in. We have been a part of solving homelessness alongside Virginia Supportive Housing. It may not have always been convenient, but it has always been rewarding and worth it. Life is too short to live for myself, so I have resolved to be second, and put others first. I am so grateful for the team at Virginia Supportive Housing who have dedicated their lives to seeing others get a fresh new start, and that they let us be a part of the restoration.”

If you would like to find out more about how to give the gift of your time to VSH, visit our web page or take a look at volunteers in action. Then send an e-mail to [email protected] to attend the next orientation on March 13!

Work Harder, Look Deeper

Posted on February 8, 2012

This blog was written by VSH’s volunteer resources manager, Alison Jones-Nassar.

If you saw this individual standing on a street corner, you might be tempted to avert your eyes and hurry past him, maybe even cross the street to avoid him.

We all tend to do that when we encounter people who appear dishevelled or dirty or just somehow….different. Unpredictable situations make most of us uncomfortable, and we don’t like to feel awkward or stupid, much less threatened.

But as this powerful Tribute to Robert Wood demonstrates, we sometimes ignore the people in our community who seem to exist “on the margins of society” at our own expense and end up missing out on a rare opportunity to be enriched.  

The gentleman pictured here was well-known to the citizens of Kent, Ohio. For many years, he accessed the town’s social services and regularly participated in the hot meals program. In this loving tribute, published on the occasion of Mr. Wood’s death from unspecified causes, Kent Social Services Manager Christie Anderson notes that “perhaps eccentric people are incarnations of God, for they challenge us to look deeper for their divinity….some people, more than others, require us to work harder at extending grace to them because they evoke fear in us.”

Anderson goes on to say, “This is the lesson that I have taken from knowing Robert Wood. He taught me, and others in the Kent community, that we mustn’t be quick to judge another human being. When we take the deliberate steps to set aside our fears of people perceived as different, a world of discovery opens for us. Mutual understanding begins when we lower our defenses and encounter our common humanity.”

Reading this, I was reminded of an encounter I had last week. One of our A Place To Start clients (I’ll call him Kenneth) had expressed an interest in serving as an office volunteer, and last week he gave several hours of his time to help with our move to the new headquarters.

Kenneth is a full-grown man about my age and taller than me. His gaze can sometimes appear unfocused and every time I see him, he seems sweaty and slightly agitated. I remember thinking that his facial expressions seem somehow child-like. Consequently, I felt rather awkward and unsure of how to interact with him. I had to be sure he would perform the tasks he was there to do (dismantle old manuals, carry trash out to the dumpster, shred documents), but at the same time I didn’t want to make assumptions or come across as condescending. 

“Kenneth, you doing okay? Kenneth, how’s it going?” My questions pertained to the work at hand, so I was surprised when, after a trip to the dumpster at the back of our building, he gave me the broadest grin and declared, “Boy, it is such a beautiful day outside, isn’t it?” In fact, I had been too preoccupied with all my to-do lists to notice the weather. With complete sincerity, he went on: “Ahh, it’s just gorgeous, and the breeze feels so nice! It’s a perfect day for a nice long walk!”

A few minutes later, we carried a load of boxes out to the trash together and Kenneth suddenly rushed toward the dumpster. “Oh no, look at that beautiful plant that someone threw out! That’s a little piece of paradise right there!” At that moment, I looked at Kenneth and saw what he truly had to offer for the very first time.

Tom Allen, in his February 5 Faith and Values column, urges us to move beyond competition and the judgment that we all engage in as we compare ourselves and our accomplishments (or failures) to everyone around us. “There’s something very liberating about accepting, and trying to live, the fact that we’re all brothers and sisters, children of God. It frees me to want, and to work for, what’s best for others in my life. It frees me to celebrate their successes, and to love them without jealousy. Most of all, it frees me from the constant strain of having to be ahead of them. I can just be with them, and we can travel together. What a huge relief.”

We tend to dismiss the Kenneths and the Robert Woods of the world because they don’t conform to our standards of what is “normal” and “acceptable” and “successful” and “beautiful.” Kenneth in particular, with his experience of chronic homelessness and his mental illness, can barely manage a few simple responsibilities without close supervision. What could he possibly teach any of us?

Later that day, as I left the office – and every day since – I have made a point of looking up at the sky and the trees and noticing the feeling of the sun and wind on my skin. “You’re right, Kenneth, it’s actually a really nice day.”

If we are only willing to look a little deeper and work a little harder, we will be rewarded with priceless gifts. It is definitely worth the effort.

Make Service A Priority In 2012!

Posted on January 3, 2012

This blog was written by VSH’s volunteer resources manager, Alison Jones-Nassar.

According to some recent surveys, nearly one out of every two Americans starts the New Year by making at least one resolution. Some common new year’s resolutions include losing weight, getting more exercise, quitting smoking, getting out of debt, saving more money, and going on a trip. It seems that many of us want to feel better about ourselves somehow, and exercising more control over our bodies, finances, and leisure time are three common starting points for trying to achieve that goal.

My new year started with a memorial service.

My deceased brother’s wife’s sister-in-law died of complications from lung & breast cancer at the end of December after battling her illness for more than two years, and so we gathered on January 2nd to celebrate her memory.

The service was very inspiring, as one friend after another stood before the assembly to give testimony concerning Debbe’s great enthusiasm for service to the community. “When our lives are over, how do we really want to be remembered by others?” asked the pastor. “Isn’t the impact that we have on those around us the only thing that truly matters?”  I found myself resolving, right then and there, to ask myself that question every day and make sure that my actions reflected my determination to make service a priority.

There is no shortage out there of people in need of our service, and we need not restrict our idea of service to big grand circumstances. Whether we are among family members or work colleagues, serving our congregations or our less fortunate neighbors, life presents us every day with endless opportunities for kind words, compassionate gestures, consoling embraces, and supportive acts both great and small. But especially the small ones.

Tom Allen, in last Saturday’s Faith & Values column, wrote about a woman “whose life had come to a very precarious place,” someone who was homeless, sick, penniless, and in search of a friend who could help her “begin the difficult process of trying to turn her life around.”  Someone, in other words, just like the people we serve at Virginia Supportive Housing.

The bad news is that this particular story didn’t end well, and the individual died of an apparent self-inflicted drug overdose. When hope and help come too late, that is often the result.

The good news is that VSH offers weekly, monthly, and episodic opportunities for volunteers to bring hope and help to the lives of our formerly homeless clients, so that their stories can have better endings. All you have to do is resolve to make service a priority and then put that resolution into practice one act of service at a time.

I assure you, it’s not as hard or scary as it might sound, and the reward far outweighs the commitment.

During the holidays I experienced a powerful affirmation of why service to our clients matters. A group of tenants and volunteers was hanging decorations at one of our properties, and Christmas music was playing on the little boombox. I noticed that the familiar carols, so comforting & festive for so many of us, seemed to be having a decidedly melancholy effect on one usually cheerful & talkative tenant.

As time went on, she grew quieter and her expression grew sadder. I reached over to lightly touch her shoulder and ask if she was okay, and she abruptly stood up and wrapped her arms around me in a fierce hug. We stood like that for a minute, both of us just breathing, before she whispered, “My daughter just hugged me through you, and I can’t thank you enough.” It turns out that her daughter had passed away three years ago at Christmas time under difficult circumstances, and the music was a painful reminder to her of that unbearable loss. As a mother of three daughters, I felt privileged to be able to serve her with such a simple yet profound gesture. And in a similar situation, I could not imagine a more valuable gift.

At the end of his column, Tom Allen concludes that “one of the reasons we’re here is to help each other. We’ve got to keep getting better at it.” I agree, and I’m sure Debbe would too. We can have an impact on the lives of others in 2012. We can be the face of compassion for those who need it most. And our own lives can be blessed in the process. All it takes is a resolution.

Day 2 of Surveying [in Philly] and Two Words: Blown Away

Posted on May 18, 2011

This past weekend staff from Virginia Supportive Housing and Homeward took part in the 100,000 Homes Registry Week Boot Camp in Philadelphia. On Saturday and Sunday staff learned how to implement to 100,000 Homes Model  in Richmond. Part of that model is a Registry Week where the community administers health surveys to people experiencing homelessness. Volunteers, including Boot Camp attendees, went out at 4am three days in a row to canvas the streets of Philly to find and survey homeless individuals and families. It was an amazing experience. The blog below is after the second day of Registry Week. Please stay tuned for more information on Richmond’s Registry Week (August 1 through 5th) and how to get involved.

This is a guest post by the 100K Homes Philly Campaign. This blog post was originally posted on 100K Homes Philly blog. Tuesday, May 17, 2011 at 07:50PM

It was cold, rainy and just messy on our streets this morning, which means most people want to stay in their nice warm safe beds as long as possible. Thankfully, the 100KHomes Philly teams rose at 2 and 3 am to hit the streets of Philly and see who among us did not have a warm and safe place to be. 

Teams were deployed to Horizon House’s Navigation Center, where over 50 people slept on a floor in Mantua to stay out of the rain. We attempted to survey everyone and most agreed. Teams went again to the SEPTA [subway] concourse and now most folks knew we were coming and organized themselves into a line to do the survey. Teams that had walked the streets and found no one had learned to check under the bridges and I-95 and found 4, 5 or 6 people today where yesterday, they had seen none.   The same teams want to go back again tomorrow, because they are learning, you just have to keep looking. People are there.

Perhaps most exciting, the NEAT team (also known as Team 3) engaged a person on Monday, who had every vulnerability criteria that the folks from 100K Homes national taught us about on Sunday.  Long time on the streets, alcoholism, serious mental illness and chronic health conditions, over 60 years of age, long physical health hospital admissions and ER visits. We had to act.  So the NEAT team went and engaged him again today with his case manager of 10+ years  from PATH and staff from Pathways to Housing PA, who have housing PLUS services to offer him.  We hope we can have him housed by Friday and will keep you posted. 

KYW stopped by and did some interviews at 315 S Broad St and went out with a team. Check out their interview at http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2011/05/17/volunteers-conduct-census-of-homeless-in-philadelphia/

This job would be impossible without the dedication and skill of our volunteers. Please don’t lose steam now; we’ve got one more big day and dozens of more people to reach! To date, we have 377 unduplicated interviews. Even for teams that haven’t completed lots of interviews, you are giving us a better idea of where homeless people stay (and where they don’t), which is absolutely invaluable information that will have service and policy implications. Kudos to all who are supporting us.

A warm loving shout out to Project Home and Bethesda Project, that had their opening for Connelly House today.  79 formerly homeless men and women now have a warm, safe place and a community downtown, thanks to the efforts of these two tireless agencies.

Stay dry, stay safe, stay warm, till you come join us again tomorrow.  And even when this event ends, we are not done.  Stay connected to the site for updates on events or how you can support the efforts. Follow us on Twitter at @100KhomesPhilly or like our Facebook page at 100K Homes Philly.

See you tomorrow. It’s supposed to be wet, so be prepared.

We Can't Do It Without Volunteers!

Posted on May 11, 2011

On a beautiful spring evening last week, VSH held a reception to thank volunteers at the home of VSH Board President Leon Shadowen.  It was our first official volunteer recognition event since implementing our volunteer program in 2010.

If you look at sheer numbers alone, our embrace of volunteerism has been wildly successful: over 450 volunteers in 2010 compared with 50 in 2009.  We logged almost 500 hours per month of volunteer time in 2010!

But, who’s counting?  What’s really important is the experience that volunteers have working with VSH, its properties and clients (volunteer satisfaction with their experience was either good—64% or excellent—36%). Even more important is the impact that volunteers have on VSH and the lives of our clients.  Just watch the YouTube video that features Capital One volunteers helping Joe Brightful move into his new apartment to get a sense of the impact.

While many volunteers supported us in many valuable ways last year, we felt compelled to give special recognition to three groups of volunteers who went above and beyond the call of duty. We were privileged to give our Bob Sledd Volunteer of the Year Award to: 

This wonderful new volunteer program at VSH doesn’t just happen on its own.  VSH is extremely blessed to have the best volunteer coordinator in town, Alison Jones-Nassar, who tirelessly works alongside the volunteers, smiling and encouraging all the way.  The volunteers do an amazing job because they know that every single activity and project they do helps us accomplish our mission to end homelessness!

So, thanks to everyone who attended this beautiful event last week and thanks to Leon Shadowen and his wife Laurie for hosting the event. Most of all, thanks to every VSH volunteer for giving the gift of your time so that we can do what we do best – provide proven, permanent solutions to homelessness. We can’t do it without you!

To see photos of volunteers in action, click here. To be a part of VSH’s volunteer program in 2011, click here.

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