A Day in the Life of a Volunteer

By Jackie Zapp-Albin

Jackie volunteer.jpg

“I want to go back to Goose Hollow!” whines my preschooler, Moe, at least once a week.  Along with a group of other Havurah Shalom members, we have volunteered at Portland Homeless Family Solutions’ Goose Hollow Family Shelter one night most months for the past two years, and he looks forward to it as a night of toys, friends, and good food laid out by the dinner volunteers.  We check in at 6:30pm with the staff member on duty, and my kiddo makes a beeline for the toy ice cream cart. Soon the other families start arriving, wheeling in strollers and shedding coats. The teenagers occupy the computers, a 10-year-old asks for help with her vocabulary homework, and the parents do normal end-of-a-long day stuff:  return messages, cuddle kids, change diapers, and catch a few minutes on their phones when their kids let them. After dinner they’ll have a chance to shower and do a load of laundry, but for now they just get to stop for a bit. This is where we come in.

As a Kid-Time Host volunteer, I’m another adult ready to engage the kids and take a little bit of load off their grown-ups.  Moe and I hide some plastic animals around the room that are easily found by a triumphantly scornful five-year-old. He hides them next, much more cleverly than we do.  But tonight is pretty quiet. This shelter has room for eight families, and although they can arrive as early as 6:30pm (families are at 13 Salmon Family Center during the day), some are out busy until later.   A newborn baby sleeps on dad’s chest, while the adolescents complete for the highest score on their online game. Moe drives dump trucks with the champion animal finder and I go through the arts & crafts cupboards, tossing broken crayons and organizing glitter pens.  Gradually, more families trickle in. I don’t hear my one of my favorite kids sneak up behind me, and so give a gratifying jump to her “Boo!”

I usually only get to see the same family for a few shifts -- either I’ll miss a month or they won’t arrive to the shelter until after we leave at 8:30pm, and then, hooray, they move out of Goose Hollow and into their own place.  But this kid and I met at PHFS’ other shelter, Family Winter Shelter located at Congregation Beth Israel, and I’ve done a number of shifts there over the past few months.  She and her mom were one of the first families to sign up there right after they opened, and it was my first day there, too.

This shelter was a work of love and desperation, put together from nothing when the county made an urgent request to PHFS.  For the first time in recent history, all family shelters were full, and parents with kids were being turned away.  The PHFS staff partnered with Congregation Beth Israel to make this emergency shelter happen fast, very fast, and the need for volunteers to fill a whole new schedule was urgent.  After PHFS Board Member and Havurah Shalom member John Devlin put out the call at Shabbat School, my husband and I took turns going to a training.  Paul, a paramedic, noticed their need for first aid supplies, and our kids happily dumped out the tzedakah box to shop for band-aids, ibuprofen, cough syrup, and more.  It was pretty cool to us to get to contribute so directly, to see that shelf fill up because of us. We’d always wanted to make tzedakah a bigger deal in our lives, and this was something the kids could really get.  

Since the Family Winter Shelter has more families coming and going and a bigger space, it doesn’t work for volunteers to bring their own little ones, so Paul held down the fort at home while I made it in most weeks as a Kid-Time Host during those first months.  Honestly, it was those families I met that first night that kept me coming back so often. You get to know people a little bit, they might recognize a familiar face and catch you up on the drama with their daughter’s school enrollment problems, and connections can build.

Somehow, conversation is easier at the Family Winter Shelter.  Maybe it's the spacious layout. The longer shift means more time to relax and get to know the kids, too.  Much of the time, the parents are tired and appreciate the ability to get a moment to themselves while I read books, do puzzles or crafts, decorate cookies, or build Jenga towers with their kids.  But that first night, everyone was new and wide-eyed. My new friend was so excited to see a girl her age arrive and vibrated around the space waiting for the right time to say hi. “But what if she doesn’t want to talk to me?” she whimpered.  Her fears groundless, the buzz of energy and fast grade school friendships led to an intensely fun game of speed monopoly led by her mom. A dad laying nearby on a couch watched his son laugh as he collected high rents from another kid. “How’s your day been?” I asked.  He shook his head and told me about scary stuff at the bridge they’d slept under the night before. “Better now,” he answered.