How a Helpless Situation Becomes Helpful Action

A Thrive DC volunteer talks with a Sunday Supper recipient. Photo by Jessica Harper

After James found a permanent home in 2005, he decided not to leave homelessness completely behind.  

Instead, the 62-year-old Vietnam veteran did what a growing number of formerly homeless men and women are doing in the wake of the economic downturn — volunteering their time to those living on the streets they once called home.  

“I love doing this, and I would do it even if I were still homeless,” James said. “These volunteers could be anywhere in the world doing anything else, but they chose to be here.”  

According to the Corporation for National and Community Service, 60.8 million volunteers dedicated 8.1 billion hours of service to community organizations in 2007. That number has continued to rise.  

Much like the rest of the nation, D.C. area nonprofits are now seeing a rise in their volunteer pool, especially at homeless organizations.  

The District annually sees 1.3 million volunteers serving 188.1 million hours. Outreach operations like Sunday Suppers, Thrive DC, DC Central Kitchen and FareShare say the floundering economy has contributed to an increase.  

But if you ask James, outreach should result from an innate yearning to serve, not a reflection of the nation’s financial turmoil.  

“It’s something you do because it’s in you to do it,” James said. “It shouldn’t be a fad. Only bumper sticker people do this to be seen.”  

Sunday Suppers’ Executive Director Philip Starling, who counts James as one of his most loyal helpers, admitted to a slight rise in volunteer inquiries.  

“There’s been a little uptick,” Starling said. “I haven’t really had anyone cite the economic crisis as a reason why they want to volunteer, but I can certainly say that it hasn’t kept anyone away either.”  

Sunday Suppers is an organization that reaches homeless locals with a mix of Motown music, conversation, food, clothing and hugs.  

Starling, who inherited the organization from founder Wayne Merrill in 2006, says that people want to volunteer anyway, but the crisis sheds light on experiences that would otherwise fall “under the radar.”  

“The crisis highlights different stories and rekindles an impulse that people may have had but not acted on earlier,” he said. “When people see all the coverage on the news, they are reminded of that impulse.”  

Like Starling, Thrive DC’s Community and Volunteer Resources point person Nathan Mishler has also noted a heightened interest in community service opportunities available through his nonprofit.  

“Our Sundays are completely full,” Mishler said, “We’ve served 1,000 more meals on average from 2007-2008 than in years past.”  

Thrive DC opens its doors to anyone in need. Apart from homeless people, their clients include victims of domestic and sexual violence. Almost 80 percent of their female clients currently live with HIV/AIDS or other serious health problems.  

Open nearly 30 years, Thrive DC is what Mishler terms, “a wrap-around services nonprofit” that offers emergency services, case management, referrals, peer support, intensive employment training and therapeutic wellness workshops to over 350 men and women each day.  

Similarly, DC Central Kitchen’s chief executive officer Michael Curtin, Jr. pointed to the fact that his volunteers have filled the kitchen’s weeknight shift schedule to the brim. There is hardly room for newcomers.  

“If we opened up two other nights, they’d be full too,” he said.  

Curtin noted that in addition to the failing economy, President Barack Obama’s community service initiatives have also triggered a volunteer boom.  

“It began with the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of National Service,” he said. “The new administration is about this sense of shared responsibility and participation. We don’t just need volunteers during the holiday season. We need them in August as well.”  

DC Central Kitchen opened on January 20, 1989, redistributing excess food from President George H.W. Bush’s presidential inauguration to homeless people throughout the city. Today, the nonprofit offers food recycling and meal distribution programs.  

FareShare helps in a different way. This nonprofit works with Ignatia House — an organization that relies on AmeriCorps members to serve homeless veterans — by leaving small plastic boxes at hotels, Metro stops and other participating locations for people passing by to donate their leftover fare cards.  

Volunteers then visit the participating locations every month to collect and count the donated cards. The cards are then consolidated into SmartTrip cards worth $100 each.  

FareShare Associate Director Elizabeth Boughrum said of the economy’s impact, “There’s an increasing population of people who are community-minded. That motivates people who wouldn’t do it naturally.” 

Issues |Community|Nonprofits

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