Q. How long have you been at Helping Hand House?
A. I started volunteering with small projects at Helping Hand House in December of 2016. It was simple tasks like organizing gifts for our families during the holiday season. Then my interest continued to grow as I pondered the question of what people REALLY need when they are homeless. It was then that I decided to volunteer as a “Visitor” for the Open Hearth Urgent Relief Program that worked closely with Helping Hand House. Living in a community with those facing troubled times is what drew me to the Program Specialist position for Open Hearth that I’ve been doing since April of 2018.A
Q. What is your primary focus at Helping Hand House?
A. My primary focus at Helping Hand House is overseeing the Open Hearth Urgent Relief Program. Open Hearth focuses on short-term assistance for homeless families with children by providing a temporary hotel stay, shelter, referrals to other resources and most importantly – a listening ear. Volunteers are a HUGE part of this program, so it is also my role to engage with people with the right heart for the care we provide and help them know their value not only to our organization, but to the community.
Q. What inspires you to do the type of work you do?
A. Change for anyone is scary. But trying to make a change by yourself can be crippling. Walking with people through life as they attempt to cultivate change is something I’ve always felt called to do. People cannot be forced to make significant life changes, but I believe you can develop a relationship with someone, even over the course of a couple days, and demonstrate a different way of living. You can introduce different ideas about life. You can encourage people to embrace what is uncomfortable now that will lead to a more comfortable tomorrow.
God has placed the symbol of a butterfly in my life over and over again. In fact, my name “Vanessa” actually means “butterfly!” In a caterpillar’s transformation into butterfly, the final step is breaking free of the cocoon. The butterfly NEEDS the struggle of getting out of the cocoon to develop the muscles necessary to fly once it leaves. Without the struggle, the muscles aren’t developed. Many of our families are “in the struggle” when we meet them. Our role is not to pull them out, but to encourage them to find their own strength to fly. Every client that soars inspires me to continue to do the work we do!
Q. What is the biggest change you’ve seen regarding the homeless population in our community in the last five years?
A. The only version of “homeless” I had 5 years ago was that of an individual holding a hand-written sign on the street corner. My curiosity about homelessness in general increased after learning that Helping Hand House had been serving homeless families for over 30 years. If there were homeless families in need, why wasn’t I seeing families on street corners? I then experienced something in the Fall of 2017 that would answer a lot of my questions.
I normally walk with my kids to school in the morning and back at pick up time. Most days, I would notice a distinct van dropping off and picking up a group of kids. This van didn’t go through the daycare drop off as expected, but it was clear that the kids did not belong to the driver. The driver of the van changed frequently, as did the children. My curiosity finally took over and after investigating, I learned this was the regular transportation for homeless children, as required by what I found out was the McKinney Vento Act to care for homeless families. My heart sunk as I realized there were homeless families right in my own neighborhood that I never noticed before. While my kids entered the school to do their best learning, these kids entered a building that provided, likely, the most consistent roof over their heads. All these kids in the same place, but all experiencing school, and life, in very different ways.
Q. If there was one thing you would want people to know by reading this, what would it be?
A. One question that keeps coming to my mind is, “How do we identify and help these families before they reach the crisis state of homelessness?” I just want everyone to know that homeless families don’t “look homeless.” There is a lot of shame and fear associated with being homeless, so they want to blend in at our grocery stores, our schools, our churches and in community.
I believe that we can make a difference by choosing to live “in community” with those around you. Reach out to people you don’t know and take time to get to know them on a deeper level. Since I’ve started working with Helping Hand House, I look deeper into the eyes of the people I meet in my community. Knowing that homelessness exists, I see things I once looked past. The car that looks permanently parked in a driveway might mean someone lives in it. The child eating lunch at a rapid pace might be a child eating their first, and only, meal of the day. The mother yelling at her children in the grocery store might be a mom stressed about spending her last dollar and not having enough for rent. Not only are my eyes opened, but I’m wanting to share what I’m learning to increase the overall level of compassion in our community.