Published December 14th, 2016
Local Volunteers Offer Warm Respite Through Winter Nights
By Jennifer Wake
Photo provided
When you are homeless, having a warm place to sleep on a cold winter night is a worry. When you are a parent of young children and are homeless, that worry becomes profound.
Thousands of volunteers have signed up to help approximately 20 families at local churches and synagogues in Contra Costa County during two-week rotations between October and May as part of the Winter Nights Shelter, a project of the Social Justice Alliance of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County.
Twelve of the 42 participating congregations are in Lamorinda, with six of those serving as host congregations, according to Winter Nights Executive Director Judy Stillman.
The main goal is to provide a safe shelter with nutritious meals and a welcoming environment, said Christine Ayers, who chaired the program at St. Monica
Catholic Church in Moraga. "We shopped for, cooked, served and cleaned up breakfast and dinners every day, and also provided food for guests to pack their lunches during the week."
In addition to providing meals, St. Monica volunteers provided tutoring support, playtime and reading for the younger kids, and weekend activities like basketball and kickball. Other congregations have organized trips to places like the Exploratorium. One volunteer from a synagogue in Lafayette takes kids out horseback riding every year.
This year was special for St. Monica because Winter Nights' guests were in Moraga during Halloween. "We were able to get adults and children costumes they liked and have volunteers take them trick-or-treating locally," Stillman said.
"It's all about the kids," said Joanne Peterson, who is a Winter Nights co-chair at a Lafayette synagogue. "Sandy Anderson and Cindy Coleman started the program here and did it for 10 or 11 years. We try to involve as many congregates as we can, and break down jobs into small pieces so everyone can get involved. We have a huge Christmas Eve party and have Santa in the sanctuary, depending on the age of the kids. One year seven kids were under the age of 5, so we had the preschool host the party."
A program manager works with Winter Nights' families on their goals to help them become self-sustaining and there is a volunteer life coach who helps individuals make plans to remove obstacles that keep them from success, said Stillman. "We have a group called the Traveling Tutors who make sure students get their homework done, encourage reading through reading incentives and communicate with parents about the progress of their children."
Each family sleeps inside their own pop-up tent set up in reception halls, an area off-limits to Winter Nights' volunteers. This allows guests a sense of privacy and a place they can call their own.
"These are people like you and me that have just fallen on hard times," said Robin Freeberg, who is involved in Winter Nights at her Lamorinda church. "Many of the clients have jobs that pay minimum wage and are unable to sustain themselves in our affluent community."
Since several Winter Nights' clients come from abusive situations, some participant locations in Lamorinda were omitted from this story to ensure client safety.
"People in need do not necessarily come from the poorest of communities," added a Lafayette congregational co-leader, Rick Silvani. "People who previously would be classified as 'middle class' suddenly due to life circumstances can find themselves in need of the support of a program like Winter Nights provides."
"The most challenging aspect," explained Stillman, "is helping folks find housing because there is so little available that is affordable for people with very low incomes." Last year of the 20 families, which totaled 75 individuals, 15 found housing or shelter, she said.
Jim Reiter, another Winter Nights co-leader at the Lafayette church said, "For many, a lost job, illness, or family separation can result in the need for community
"All people want is a home, a place where they can rest their head at night and feel safe," added Freeberg.
Reiter believes guests benefit most from the support provided during this very trying time in their lives.
"We set the tone," said Peterson, who partners with Neal Modelvsky and Sarah Landes at the synagogue. "This is respite for them. They may have moved eight times by the time they get to the temple. The first Monday, they're exhausted. We reinforce that this is their space and give the commitment to make them comfortable. We've had evenings when we sent (volunteers) home because it can all be so overwhelming (for guests)." The good news is the kids, said Peterson. "Those kids don't care that their parents are stressed out or overwhelmed. They pop out of the tent area and are ready to play. The kids pick up on the genuineness of our volunteers."
None of the drama surrounding the guests surprises Peterson. "It's the human heart stuff that surprises me, and these families' endurance surprises me," she said.
"These people are survivors."
Winter Nights' Wish List

There are several ways the community can help Winter Nights'families. Clients who have cars use gas cards, and the ones who don't often need BART and bus cards. Target and WalMart cards are used as parent incentives (such as a good report card or a child doing extra cleaning in the shelter). And Winter Nights uses movie tickets as incentive for the kids' reading program.

Other needs include:
Tents, 10 by 10 feet, new or gently used;
AA batteries, flashlights;
Packing or duct tape, and industrial dispenser for packing tape;
Sleeping bags;
Umbrella strollers (single and double);
Car seats and booster seats;
Pillows, twin size plastic mattress covers;
Non-zipper, fitted single sheets;
Sanitary wipes; and
Wardrobe boxes (24 by 21 by 48 inches).

For information, contact Judith Stillman at (925) 933-9351.

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Copyright Lamorinda Weekly, Moraga CA