As I carried a tall stack of blankets to volunteers in the front room, I passed through what felt like a war zone. A young, bleached blond woman sat with her head down on one of the folding tables, her face buried in her arms; a middle-aged man with a black eye and scraped arms stood drinking water with shaky hands from a dixie cup; a man with black and grey-hair and baggy clothes watched me with dark, narrowed eyes. All of them were damp from standing in the rain as they waited to be let in.
This was my first day as a volunteer at the Kitsap Rescue Mission in downtown Bremerton, a day and overnight shelter for homeless people that often serves 75 people a day. They’ve served over 8,000 people in 2018! My two and a half hours there was an experience I hope to never forget, and I hope to repeat.
Most of my time was spent in the large back room, organizing donations with another volunteer, but occasionally I’d walk back through the sea of bedraggled humanity, arms full of more blankets or other items volunteers said were needed.
Earlier this year, I met Ami Leach, Program Administration Support (read as: Superwoman), at a luncheon to raise money for a remodel of the ailing downtown building. She soon contacted me, asking for help creating an organizing system for days when large amounts of donations come in. When I stopped by to drop off donations and see the donation space, she gave me a quick tour, saying this time of year is extremely busy for the Mission.
My jaw dropped as soon as I walked in the back door – there were enormous piles of donated items!
“Two churches brought in most of these donations in one day. It was wonderful, but it was nuts. We use a lot of items, especially in the winter, but keeping things organized is challenging,” she said.
When I learned volunteers would be coming in the next day to sort the items, I said I just happened to have the day free and would love to come in to help. I wanted to help ease the overwhelmed look on her face, as well as see the flow of items, volunteers and donation receivers before helping her come up with organizing systems.
Just as with any organizing client, before deciding where things belong, I wanted to see: what are the most important items? Where would be the easiest place to put items as they come in? What is the natural flow of movement in the space?
When I arrived the next day, Ami just had a few moments before she had to rush out to unlock the door. She would personally check in with each person in the long line of patient, wet people waiting outside. They were looking for a safe, dry place to sit, a warm beverage, and a chance to say what items they needed to make life a little easier.
“This time of year so many people need blankets,” she said before she left me to the piles of donations. “When you or I have a blanket that gets wet or dirty, we can just toss it into the washer or dryer. When someone lives on the street and has a blanket that gets wet, it often gets ruined and thrown away, so another one is needed. As soon as you come across blankets, bring them out front as we don’t have any and people will definitely be asking for them today.”
Ami left me with Lilia, the one other volunteer there to sort donations. She and her husband have been volunteering for about six months, so she’s considered a veteran sorter.
Lilia started a few times to show me the ropes, but she kept stopping to exclaim, “Oh my gosh, this is just so much! We don’t even have boxes and bins to sort into because they’re all full!”
We finally set up a system to empty usable bins and boxes first, then use those for sorting. Soon we had a sorting system that felt just like days with my clients: a bin for trash (torn, stained or very used items), a bin for recycling (a blue bag for donations to another program – turns out Bremerton homeless people don’t like to wear sweaters, so they and all summery items were put into this bin), and containers for categories such as Men’s Shirts, Men’s Pants, Children, Hats and Gloves…
As I sorted, I learned about what’s donated, what’s kept, what gets recycled, and how needed items moved to the front room to be used. I also saw how Ami looked up at the roof when she saw the puddle on the floor, and how the donations just keep coming in, no matter what.
“Another donation? Noooo!” Lilia would joke as another bag would be brought in and added to the pile. Slowly but surely, we made a dent in the pile and sorted, quality items were set aside for volunteers to choose from.
One time, Ami walked in with a man in need of size 50 pants. We found a pair, and she helped him take a pile of items and a rolling suitcase to the door, chatting amiably with him as they walked.
Two and a half hours passed in the blink of an eye. Lilia and I moved through bags and boxes, sorting, folding, categorizing. The space slowly started to open up, and items slowly took shape in organized bins and boxes.
A few times, one of the volunteers wearing a tool belt, suspenders and cargo pants gave me an infectious grin and said things like, “This place is full of angels, really. There are just people everywhere doing and saying nice things. This place is just so GOOD!” Then he would crack a corny joke and laugh at himself before walking away.
Before he left for the day, I heard his raspy voice telling another volunteer that he was leaving for the day. Then he said that Ami had invited him to her house for Thanksgiving dinner. For a moment the raspiness was gone and he sounded light and airy, awestruck, almost childlike. I looked up to see him disappear out the door with a grin on his crinkled face.
The most important item I touched that day was the depth of my gratitude for the things I have. As I laid in bed that night under a warm electric blanket, I thought of the new roof over my head, the locked doors keeping me safe, and the looks on the faces as I walked through the room that day.
Even on a rough day, I will remember: I have so very much to be grateful for, and I have so very much to give…be it my time, blanket donations from my clients, or my smile to the black-eyed man on the street.
WHAT THEY NEED:
The Kitsap Rescue Mission is located in downtown Bremerton, Washington. In the winter they are mostly in need of socks, blankets and coats, but the best things you can donate are your time, or money to help with their much-needed remodel!
For more information or to contact the Kitsap Rescue Mission:
Ami Leach, Program Administration Support, about volunteering or donation needs: firstname.lastname@example.org / 360.373.3428