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.

For One Volunteer, Homelessness Hits Close To Home!

Posted on October 5, 2011

Last Friday, Capital One hosted a picnic for VSH clients and staff, and thirty-seven Cap One associates supported this great event. One volunteer, Tracy, shared this story about her personal experience with homelessness:

“My father had been searching for his father, my grandfather Jack, for over 40 years.  A few years ago, we found out that he was homeless and had been living on the streets of San Diego for 30+ years.  

“We found out that, in 1949, he received a dishonorable discharge from the military. We also found out that he had been involved in some criminal activity after his discharge. All of this alienated him from his family and eventually led to his homelessness. After searching for so many years, my father didn’t care so much about any of that. He just really wanted to get him off the streets.  Even though we didn’t know him very well, we still had our own special bond with him and really wanted to help him! 

“Despite everything we were able to find out about Jack’s situation, it proved extremely difficult to locate him. We were able to establish that he was consistently using a certain shelter in downtown San Diego, and we called several times and spoke to a priest who said he would give him our information.  We were also able to contact his case manager and she has been wonderful trying to piece things together for us. 

“My grandfather knew that we were looking for him, but no matter what we did we couldn’t get through to him. At one point, my dad even drove out to California to see if he could make contact, but he didn’t succeed. The case manager told us that my grandfather was sick and needed medication but wasn’t willing to take the help that was being offered to him. He was becoming sicker and sicker but continually refused to be hospitalized.

“On the evening of March 16, I was at home doing some additional searches and I found out that Jack had passed away on 2/19/2011. He passed away in the hospital after being found near death on the street by a Good Samaritan. Unfortunately he was alone!   

“As a family we were very disappointed that we were not able to reconnect with my grandfather before he passed, and very sad that he died without family. As I have gone through this whole search process, I have come to realize that there are an amazing number of people on the streets who are in a similar situation. My prayer is that homeless people will get the assistance they need before it’s too late. At the picnic, I was reminded again that what Virginia Supportive Housing does is so important. No one deserves to spend their last days like my grandfather, sick, alone, and homeless.”

Unfortunately, Tracy is right. There are more than 100,000 chronically homeless individuals sleeping on the streets of America on any given night. Their ages, backgrounds, and experiences may differ, but one thing unites them all. Their medical vulnerability and chronic homelessness makes them three to four times more likely to die prematurely in circumstances we wouldn’t wish upon anyone. 

Like Tracy, we at Virginia Supportive Housing strongly believe that no one deserves to live on the streets, struggling with illness and cut off from loved ones. That’s why we work hard every single day to provide permanent housing and support services for these individuals, so that their health needs can be addressed, their lives can be repaired, and their hope can be restored.

For Tracy’s grandfather, Jack, it’s too late. But for so many others, we CAN make a difference.

To help VSH win the Amazing Raise Challenge, click here!

Support Homeless Veterans This November!

Posted on September 27, 2011

On Sunday, November 13, 2011, the city of Norfolk will host the inaugural Freedom Half Marathon, and Virginia Supportive Housing will be one of the charity partners. This race, scheduled for Veteran’s Day weekend, is intended to raise awareness and enlist support from the public for the needs of veterans and their families.

On the surface, the connection between this event and the mission of Virginia Supportive Housing might not be immediately obvious. But, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness, about 76,000 veterans (or about 1 out of every 8 homeless individuals) experience homelessness on any given night and many veterans are prone to chronic homelessness.

Under the best of circumstances, the transition from military duty back to civilian life is a difficult one, and our servicemen and women rarely have the luxury of returning under ideal circumstances. Returning veterans who have sustained disabling physical injuries, suffer with post-traumatic stress syndrome or other mental health conditions, or struggle with alcohol or substance abuse disorders (or typically face a complicated combination of these issues) are at very high risk of falling into homelessness. When the problems created by our failing economy are added into the mix, this transition has never been harder than it is right now.

The permanent supportive housing model that Virginia Supportive Housing offers is extremely well-suited to veterans who are struggling with multiple barriers to stability, and 16% of Virginia Supportive Housing’s client population are veterans (including one property in Richmond exclusively designated for veterans with disabilities). Most recently, Virginia Supportive Housing successfully housed an 88-year-old World War Two veteran, and many other stories featuring formerly homeless veterans have appeared in our past newsletters and blogs.

Let’s face it. No one deserves to be homeless. For people with chronic physical and medical conditions, this is even more true, and for veterans who have deliberately put themselves into harm’s way in order to defend our country, this is undeniably true. No one is more committed to this fact than VSH and no one has worked more consistently to end homelessness among those populations in our state that are at highest risk than VSH. So the connection between the Freedom Marathon, veteran homelessness, and VSH is not only logical, but absolutely critical to making real progress toward a permanent solution.

So how can you support VSH through this event?

First, you can register as a runner and be sure to include a donation to VSH in your registration fee.

Second, you can support a registered runner by pledging a certain amount per mile and fulfilling that pledge upon completion of the race.

Third, you can volunteer to support the event by contacting Esther Robert at [email protected]

Fourth, you can help spread the word about this event and encourage others to select VSH as a funding beneficiary.

Sure, thirteen miles is a long way to run. But for all of us at VSH, this event symbolizes the spirit of endurance embodied by our many formerly homeless veterans who struggle on a daily basis and against great odds to put their lives back together. The path to healing and recovery is also long, difficult, and excruciatingly lonely. With your help, our veterans will be reminded that, when it comes to the toughest battle of their lives, they are not alone.

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