Volunteers at shelter benefit as much as homeless

Guests at Room at the Inn inspire the people who help care for them
Friday, January 14, 2011 | 4:24 p.m. CST; updated 9:20 a.m. CST, Saturday, February 19, 2011
Volunteer Rocket Kirchner counts cots in preparation for the arrival of the homeless men and women seeking shelter on Thursday at the Missouri United Methodist Church.

COLUMBIA — Green army cots lay scattered around the gym, most of them occupied by the 26 men and four women sleeping Monday night at Room at the Inn, a temporary homeless shelter at the Missouri United Methodist Church.

Light poured in from an open doorway where a few guests played card games and laughed with volunteers. They were starting to behave like old friends.

How to Help

To volunteer or for other information related to Room at the Inn, contact the Rev. Keith Vessell at the church, 443-3111, or by e-mail at

Donations are welcome, including:

  • Twin-size blankets
  • Individually wrapped, nonperishable goods. Examples include protein bars, Ensure "Muscle Health" liquid meals, Lance peanut bars, peanut butter crackers, trail mix with nuts, Carnation Instant Breakfast bottles, granola bars with nuts, bags of peanuts, honey buns and Danishes pastries.

Donations may be dropped off at the first-floor welcome desk or second-floor offices of the church, 204 S. Ninth St.

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"Have another cinnamon roll," volunteer Brittany Perrin said, pushing a half-full box of shrink-wrapped goods toward guest Micah Loyd.

"Don't," said Clarissa Easton, another volunteer. She lifted the box and pretended to read: "It says you should not eat more than four. How many have you had?"

"Five," Loyd said.

The volunteers groaned as Loyd showed off his muscles, proof that he isn't getting fat.

Dave Hayden, volunteer coordinator for Room at the Inn, said spending a night with the homeless opens people's eyes. Although the shelter is intended to give the homeless relief from the coldest months of winter, it also rejuvenates volunteers.

"I was thinking today that anyone who's lonely should become homeless," Hayden said. "It's a great way to make friends."

Getting to know people is a key part of the experience for some volunteers and homeless guests at the church shelter at 204 S. Ninth St., which is open every night from Jan. 2 to Feb. 28.

About 10 people volunteer every night, taking shifts in setup, overnight or takedown, and most of the people who come are volunteering for the first time.

"I didn't really know what to expect," said Tony Schmidt, a stay-at-home dad with brand new tennis shoes and a quick stride. "I guess I was kind of wondering in the back of my mind if there was going to be any problems."

Schmidt stood by the doorway, greeting everyone who came in Monday. "Good evening. You new here? You know where the bathroom is?"

A few walked past him, used to the system, but others paused to say hello or exchange a few words.

Easton, 58, another first-time volunteer at Room at the Inn, handed blankets to the newcomers while people moved cots around. The 5-foot 3-inch woman with perfectly combed hair had wrestled a couple of extra cots open that night, anticipating more people would take shelter from the 6.5-degree temperature and snow.

"By investing my time and energy, I'm actually contributing it spiritually to the universe," Easton said.

Guests settled down at tables, munching on granola bars and playing spades, but the volunteers lingered by the doorway, quick to run for a cup of hot chocolate or food for guests.

Loyd, 28, shared his dream with others at the table: "Marriage, kids one day, a faithful woman that knows how to be faithful. That's what I dream about every day." Other guests chuckled.

Easton got comfortable with the guests first. She heated some cheese soup for Loyd, adding chili pepper, oregano and Parmesan cheese. Another guest, Michael Johnson, 42, followed her into the kitchen and chatted while she mixed mayonnaise into tuna. He called her Mom.

"She's a nice lady," Johnson said.

Easton laughed and ducked her chin into her black turtleneck sweater. "I like to feed people," she said.

Back in the common room, Schmidt was listening to the life story of another guest, Patrick Dominic Balerio. When the story ended, Balerio told another story while folding origami.

Schmidt said he would view homeless people a little differently after the experience.

"I've given money to homeless people before. ... I may give them more money now," he said. "I guess this kind of helps you understand them a little more."

Hayden said people in the homeless community of Columbia "take care of each other." He said those familiar with Columbia told others where to go for food and clothing and that they were aware of one another's moods, needs and troubles.

"I wonder, are they OK with being homeless?" Schmidt said later. He said he did not think he could ever be homeless.

"I have too much family that cares about me and my family," he said. "I guess I'm really lucky. I have family to fall back on."

At 11 p.m., most of the guests went to sleep, filling a couple dozen of the 52 cots on loan from the city. Schmidt left, and two new volunteers rotated in. Most of the volunteers serving were members of Missouri United Methodist or one of the six other churches that have been primary coordinators. Some came from other faiths or without religious affiliation, although no non-Christian groups partnered in the program.

"We haven't been blessed with help from a synagogue or a mosque that I am aware of," the Rev. Keith Vessell said, "but we'd be thrilled."

Perrin, 23, is a public affairs graduate student at MU who volunteered for the night shift. She works at the Center for Leadership Development and Community Involvement.

"I spend a lot of time connecting students with service opportunities, and I like to be able to tell people firsthand the importance of serving, volunteering in a community," Perrin said.

"I saw in the church bulletin that they needed people, and I was like, 'Yeah. I can do that. I can stay up all night.' "

Perrin did stay up all night. She and Easton sat at a round plastic table with two guests, eating crackers and dip. The conversation fluctuated from the concerned and personal – people encouraging one another toward healthy living – to the absurd.

"Are you single?" Loyd asked Easton, who by now had taken off her glasses and turtleneck and ruffled her fingers through her hair. "Tell me, are you single? Come on, I don't bite. Unless you got a ring. I'll bite the ring off your finger."

Loyd puffed up his chest and bared his teeth, and everyone laughed. Snores rumbled through the open doorway. A few guests rolled over on their 6-foot cots and tucked wool blankets or puffy comforters more tightly around themselves.

Perrin explained later why she wanted to volunteer with people who are homeless.

"I don't see them as different than I am —  just in a different place in life." She added that when people ask for help they have the chance to find out how much people care about them. She wanted to show she cared.

Three of the guests said repeated thanks to volunteers, and two talked about plans to give back. Johnson said he'd like to buy everybody some lunch meat or something else satisfying to eat toward the end of the week.

Volunteers were eager to be there. "A lot of our built spaces are really underutilized at night, when a lot of people who lack shelter could really use them," Easton said.

Heating the church building costs $10,000 a month, Vessell said. Heating at night has raised the bill, but Vessell said he is glad the space is being used.

Darkness lasted until 6:30 a.m., when four new volunteers arrived. They flicked on the lights and woke sleepers with "Good morning" and a touch to the shoulder.

People were less jovial in the morning than the night before. Voices were quiet, and someone raised his voice to say, "I'm just playing with you," diffusing an argument. Guests ate flavored instant oatmeal with raisins in plastic foam cups and drank coffee and juice.

The camaraderie remained, and many guests left together or sat downstairs in small groups before facing the below-freezing temperatures outside, armed with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and granola bars.

Betsy Vicente, 63, came early in the morning to help with breakfast. Although new to Room at the Inn and Columbia, she was a seasoned soup kitchen volunteer in St. Louis.

"It's an awesome first step," Vicente said about the shelter. "This is the day to day, something in their tummies and a warm place to sleep."

Vicente said she'd like to figure out a way to feed the guests more hot food and protein.  Easton said she planned to bring hard-boiled eggs and string cheese next time she volunteered.

The shelter serves fruit and meat at times, Vessell said, but he added that coordinating a full-fledged meal program would be infeasible for the church. He noted that Loaves and Fishes serves a hot lunch every day.

After leaving the shelter Tuesday, Easton didn't sleep until after she got off work at 5 p.m. She had visited with guests through the night and prepared breakfast and sandwiches in the morning.

"You know when I woke up an hour ago I thought regardless of what we do for a job ... or how dry our shoes are, it still comes down to love and finding ways to be together," Easton said, "and making sure people are OK and cared for."

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