As a member of the HousingWorks team, I’ve had many opportunities to witness transformations that are nothing short of miraculous. We have seen tenants experience dramatic improvements in health, mental wellbeing, and familial relationships. Often, these changes develop rapidly when individuals gain the safety and stability of housing. The contrast between a life of survival and a life of stability is stark. Stability affords choices…pursuing goals beyond shelter. Awakening skills and talents left latent during the relentless crisis of homelessness. Lately, I have become struck by a growing trend among HousingWorks tenants: they are volunteering.
Maya Angelou once said, “I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back.” This quote truly captures the spirit with which many HousingWorks tenants are embracing the Charlotte community. On days that I’ve donned my Volunteer Coordinator hat, I have often heard visiting groups and volunteers express that they have been blessed with so much, and that they’re visiting Moore Place because they want to give back to the community. By contrast, I have found that HousingWorks tenants are not approaching volunteer work from a place of life-long bounty, but rather from a deep sense of gratitude for all of the help and support they received during their years of homelessness.
Kenneth Dill has been a Moore Place tenant for nearly three years. Over the last several months, he has become a regular volunteer at Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina. This work has allowed him to share his gifts with the community that saw him through his darker days. For Kenneth, time invested at Second Harvest is tangible evidence of food being provided for those who are hungry. He advises, “Don’t get involved in volunteering to get something. Do it to give something, because it will change your life. It’s hard work at first, but once you get used to it and into a rhythm, it becomes truly rewarding.”
Phyllis Taylor spends her Tuesdays and Wednesdays volunteering at Community Outreach. She is familiar with the daily trek made by many homeless individuals: leaving the shelter by 7am, finding respite at Community Outreach in the form of breakfast, clothing, and worship before leaving to spend the remainder of the day at Urban Ministry Center, or perhaps the public library. “I go over there – rain, shine, or snow, no matter what.” A volunteer for the past 20 years, fashion aficionado Phyllis particularly enjoys helping distribute clothing and shoes. “See, I love the place. I look at the people and I know I’m no better than them because I used to be out there stuck in the same situation.” Phyllis has been a HousingWorks tenant since day one at Moore Place.
Justin Markel volunteers his time and insight in numerous capacities – all in the name of advocacy. A Moore Place tenant since 2012, his plate has become increasingly full with groups, boards, and organizations all geared toward improving homeless services. Justin began volunteering at the men’s shelter while he himself was still experiencing homelessness. Having gained the stability of housing, Justin then became involved in Helping Homeless to Housing (HHH), Charlotte Mecklenburg Coalition for Housing, Druid Hills Neighborhood Association, Carolina Cares partners, Emergency Solution Grants Committee, Homeless Services Advocacy Committee, and the Continuum of Care. “When you do volunteer work,” Justin describes, “you aren’t doing it for a personal agenda. It’s because you care.” Justin’s contributions to these causes are motivated by his own memories of relying on homeless services, and his desire to, “be a voice for issues that affect homeless people, so they don’t have to spend as much time on the streets.”
Sharon Davis became a member of Covenant Presbyterian Church shortly after moving into Moore Place in 2012. Since that time she has volunteered with Room In the Inn each winter at Covenant. Sharon enjoys making herself available to talk with the homeless neighbors who utilize Room In the Inn services, recognizing her own capacity to serve as a part of their support system. For two years running, Sharon has also taken the time to build Habitat for Humanity houses in Avery County. Sharon’s philosophy on volunteer work is simple: “It doesn’t take much to do the right thing…Whenever someone is in need of help, I want to be there – much like how others were there for me when I most needed it. And so it is for that reason, I want to volunteer.”
James Mayes and Victor Butler are both Moore Place tenants who volunteer within our own HousingWorks program. James has taken it upon himself to devote countless hours to the beautification of Moore Place property. “It’s important that people do something good with themselves,” James observes. He can often be found removing debris and litter from the property. Victor Butler has been of invaluable help to the HousingWorks staff identifying camps where homeless individuals reside. When asked about his dedication to community outreach and engagement, Victor explains, “It’s just who I am and what I do. It’s what my grandfather taught me.”
As an Urban Ministry Center employee, it is both awe-inspiring and heartwarming to find formerly homeless tenants working alongside us in our mission to end homelessness. It comes as no surprise that homeless services is the emerging theme among HousingWorks tenant volunteers. Here at Urban we all have a heart for helping those who are experiencing homelessness. But Kenneth, Phyllis, Justin, Sharon, James, and Victor carry with them in their work a degree of empathy, understanding, and expertise that few can offer.