Week 24 | Snow, Slush, and Shelter Season | Jan 6-12

Hi, readers!

Welcome back and Happy New Year. Without further ado, I’m jumping in with a little over four months left in my AmeriCorps VISTA contract.


Monday, January 6 | This morning’s all-team briefing was fairly short due to the pending Pack Test. ERT Members must walk 3 miles in 45 minutes with a 45 lb. pack to receive their Red Card, or Incident Qualification Card, for National Park Service wildfire response. The heater on the north side of the building, which includes the Member room and break rooms, has been out for a month, so the temperature was in the upper 50s even with 40+ people present. (What’s “funny” is that the south side of the building, which includes the main office and all staff/VISTA offices, didn’t have A/C for most of the summer, so I wanted to be in the break room most days. Now, I have lunch in my warm, sun-soaked office.) After just 15 minutes of brief announcements, the ERT Members split into their Monday Maintenance teams to check off some quick tasks around the building before pack-out and the Pack Test. 

I situated myself back in my office, watered the parched and sun-bleached plants on the south-facing windowsill, and finished up the last details for the Mental Health Focus of the Week (MH FOTW), one of my new initiatives for Year 26. Jason, one of the Second Years who I’ve become good friends with, dropped off a book that he brought back from his trip home to Canada for the holidays. He had me for Secret Santa and his gift is a book written by his mom that combines photography and mediation — how perfect for me!

I headed down to the Education Room on the ground floor to supervise today’s linen pick-up/drop-off. This is a new procedure we put in place in December to (hopefully) alleviate some of the stress and inconvenience ACSTL has experienced in the past regarding the storing, organizing, and laundering of all linens for all 11 emergency shelters in the Winter Outreach network. I supervise every other Monday from 0930-1230 when I sit by the linen closet to check in linens returned and count linens going out. When our laundry bins are full, a laundry company called Faultless swaps them out for empty bins and cleans and returns the dirty linens as a donation to ACSTL! I was expecting it to be somewhat busy after our 2-week hiatus, thinking some shelters must have opened during that time, even if we didn’t. But, Chris, who runs our Friday Showers and is very familiar with the shelter network, told me none of the shelters opened during winter break. I was surprised; then I remembered it was in the 60s on Christmas in St. Louis. I enjoy hanging with Chris during my shift. We talk about all kinds of things like traveling, the heinous state of the world, shelter networks around the city, local politics, how to control pet hair, etc.

Speaking of pets, upon her arrival after lunch, my little Robyn was visibly bummed to be the only dog in the office today. Luckily, the afternoon sun patches on the carpet were there to comfort her. While she snoozed, I looked into days to potentially take off since I have 13 days left to use in the next four months. 2020 is stacking up to be a travel-filled year, but most trips lie beyond my last day with ACSTL. I might as well cash in those mental health days in the meantime.

I filled my afternoon with a potpourri of small tasks. I refreshed the office calendar to reflect the new month and holidays from more than just the Christian traditions, thanks to one of the Members who pointed out our lack of inclusion in this area. Also, I created new social media banners to unveil our new My Mother’s House logo, which I designed. To end the day, I extended volunteer shifts for the Winter Warming Shelter through the end of the month and reached out to potential volunteers who expressed interest in My Mother’s House opportunities over the break.


Tuesday, January 7 | I found myself heading to the office earlier than usual today — around 0630 — since I was apparently alive, alert, awake, and enthusiastic about starting the day. On the way to the office, a neighbor’s Christmas tree was on the sidewalk, sadly awaiting the garbage truck, so I snapped off a few little branches to permeate my office with the scent of fresh pine, one of my favorite aromas.

My mornings at the office begin with starting up the Keurig for hot water for my tea, unloading the break room dish rack, reloading it with leftover dishes from the sink, and dumping out yesterday’s coffee, all while gleaning morning headlines from St. Louis Public Radio.

Today brought news of another earthquake in Puerto Rico. ERT deployed to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and stayed for over a year — would they return this year?

Twelfth Night, or the Epiphany, was on Sunday, so I let my Mardi Gras playlist loose. Jane wasn’t in her office, which is near mine, so our corner of the office is Little NOLA today. Since my year in the Crescent City in 2017, my playlist has been meticulously curated to sound like midnight from the second floor balcony of Dat Dog on Frenchmen Street, and it’s a form of therapy in itself. I highly recommend giving it a listen. That little piece of your soul that belongs to New Orleans, whether you’ve been there or not, with thank you.

I remembered that I didn’t finish my Great Story for December for the VISTA program. I’d forgotten that someone other than my supervisor reads those monthly reflections, and my supervisor, Kelley, passed along that the VISTA office requested more quantifiables (and, I presume, less warm-fuzzy, “happy to be here” thoughts). I crunched some volunteer numbers and woman-power hours spent buried in emails and spreadsheets to appease the request. It’s interesting how a few years ago, while a Jesuit Volunteer, I identified much more with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest than AmeriCorps National (JVCNW’s partner and main funder). Now, even though I’m an AmeriCorps VISTA, I feel a stronger connection to AmeriCorps St. Louis than to the VISTA program. Anyway, the Great Story is a good summary of the end of last year:

This month was highly volunteer recruitment-focused. I spent 20+ of 108 hours served (about 20%) this month on My Mother’s House-related activities, such as: updating AmeriCorps St. Louis volunteer opportunity listings on volunteer websites (United Way, VolunteerMatch, STL Serves, etc.); creating listings on websites not previously utilized for volunteer recruitment (Idealist, Nextdoor, Create the Good, etc.); responding to volunteer interest form emails with information about My Mother’s House; fielding phone calls of volunteer questions; taking down shifts if the shelter did not activate and adding new shifts weeks in advance; promoting volunteer opportunities on social media outlets; updating the public through social media whether or not the shelter was activating; and updating spreadsheets to track volunteer response and outreach. These hours don’t include time spent creating signage, information binders, a linen check-in/out system, and a new logo, all to support shelter operations.

46 of the 74 potential volunteers (62%) who have expressed interest in the Winter Warming Shelter came through this month. 23 of those December potential volunteers (50%) signed up for at least 1 shift in December.

Friday Showers has been more difficult to attract volunteers for. 15 potential volunteers have expressed interest in Friday Showers from the launch of the new online signup at the beginning of October through December. 3 of those volunteers (20%) signed up for at least 1 shift with Friday Showers. There are also volunteers who have helped with the showers for a few years that come without signing up online. Next steps include having a consistent sign-in/out method for Friday Showers volunteers to accurately track hours.

Robyn had her rambunctious reunion romp with the other office dogs, Zoey and Jax, which, as usual, ended with Robyn being quarantined in my office for awhile for wanting to play too much and too roughly. But, like a cat, she is powerless against the warmth of the sun, which blankets the couch in my office several hours a day, so she can make do. At least she’s not home in her crate for 8 hours a day, for which we are both grateful.

The afternoon filled with follow-up emails for several different things, like our Kegs for a Cause event last Sunday, volunteer interest in the shelter, and potential trade union partners, before jumping in on a webinar geared toward well-being for nonprofit professionals. It was actually pretty interesting; I expected it to be a refresher of things I’ve heard dozens of times, but I gained more than a few new ideas.

As I read up on news from Puerto Rico, I admittedly Googled if Boeing has any offices there. You know, just in case I could convince Nyre to casually relocate so I could help with hurricane and earthquake recovery. Maybe I could go for a couple of weeks after my term in over. I’ll see how the aftermath and aftershocks unfold. But, the seed has been planted . . . and initial applications have been submitted!


Wednesday, January 8 | The first things in the VISTA email this morning were messages related to My Mother’s House volunteers and the upcoming Service Days — both in my wheelhouse. Service Days are chances for ERT Members to serve the St. Louis community once a month from January-May and planning them is my jurisdiction. The January Martin Luther King, Jr., Day event has been planned, but I’m having trouble finding partners for President’s Day, just over a month away.

The heater on for the north side of the building is fixed! I spotted Kenan tinkering in the furnace room yesterday, so perhaps he’s behind the heat wave. Today, I will not dread visiting the tundra when I go to the break room to refill my tea. Good thing, too, because it’s another one of those days where it looks warm out, but, once you get out there, you meet the wind in the shade and oof, it is not warm. I’m grateful to live close enough to the office that it’s a short walk home to get Robyn at lunchtime. The trip helps me get my 10,000 steps and some fresh air, chilly thought it may be. Robyn is solo doggo today, but there is ample sunshine to comfort her.

A storm’s a-brewing that’s expected to bring inches of rain and snow over the next few days. It’s looking like a potential 60°s-to-slush situation — classic STL winter.

Depending on how low temperatures dip, we could have our first activation of the season for our Winter Warming Shelter.

I ended the day with updates to our web page about the shelter and Friday showers, a review of the shelter manual, a webinar about LGBTQ cultural competency, and an offer of acceptance email from one of the disaster relief programs I applied for!


Thursday, January 9 | This morning’s walk to the office surrounded me in pre-storm, springlike “warm” capped by an overcast blanket like an upside-down ocean, with crests of choppy purple cloud waves catching the pink of the sunrise. The prospect of incoming storms heightened my spirits. It also reminded me to check that the already sagging ceiling panels in the break room that had buckets underneath them ahead of the rain. So far, my attempts to reach out to local trade unions to help us patch the roof have been unsuccessful.

I was surprised to see so many Friday Shower-related emails this morning. Usually, the shelter is our big draw for non-AmeriCorps volunteers. We found out today that Chris is looking for a job, so by the end of next month we could lose our Friday Shower coordinator and linen support. Chris is one of those lovely people who knows a lot about a pretty niche subject: the unhoused community members in the Soulard area. For him to leave us would be a micro brain-drain for our organization. He’s also a really nice guy to have around.

Getting caught up in future plans already has my mind more frazzled than usual. The start of the new year has brought a spike in uncertainty about where I’m heading at the end of my VISTA contract in May — a question simmering since I started last May. My experience in AmeriCorps has been to plan the next move pretty much as soon as you start, usually because one of the first questions people ask is, “What are you doing to do next?” Job searching is one of my all-time least favorite things. Now, thinking of starting a new project like potentially needing to take over Friday Showers with four months left is fueling the fire.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. It’ll take a team effort to find a solution. Nonetheless, not the best mental health day. I finished a Service Day call and headed home early to bring my heart rate down.


Friday, January 10 | Fridays are not my favorite days at the office. I’m most productive from 0700 to 1500, so rollin’ up at 0900 with the expectation that I’ll be here until about 1730 is not a great way to start my last workday of the week. But, not only was the warm rain a welcomed change of scenery for my morning walk, but I also guessed correctly the spots to place the small garbage and recycling bins so that they’d catch leaking water in the break room (at least the spots that were visible from browned panels from the last rain). There were several new points of entry for the rainwater, but that was expected.

I kept checking the NOAA forecast to anticipate if we will open the shelter tomorrow. My gut says the time has come for our first activation of the season. So, I guess that I should make sure any ends floating around untied in terms of paperwork and the manual are taken care of. The shelter has not been my #1 point of interest in my VISTA position description, but it’ll be good to finally see the whole thing go down so I can make more improvements to the documents involved with keeping it running smoothly. I don’t feel very prepared, but this is also my first shelter season so I don’t know what to expect. Jane, who was a VISTA with me during her last term, which ended in November (she’s now a third year, or Fellow), says ACSTL is much more prepared compared to the day before their first activation last season. That brought me some comfort. The official word comes at lunch, but I’m gearing up for game time.

I finished next week’s MH FOTW, which will focus on the Stages of Change (Transtheoretical Model), and got back to the Shelter Manual. I haven’t spent much time with since early December when we were bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about the start of shelter season on December 1. I pulled out the binders I put together last month, too, and started printing out volunteer waivers and sign-in forms in preparation for the decision. 

I walked back and forth across the office, listening to the tink of rain hitting my office window and the thunk and thop of leaking water into buckets and onto the carpet in the break room. The number of rain catchers has doubled since this morning, but so has the number of new puddles on the carpet and drips down the walls. By the afternoon, ceiling panels were falling down in water-logged heaps. I have worked at some pretty cash-strapped nonprofits with old roofs, but they never had it as bad as this.

Lunchtime came and so did the affirmative activation call. Most people in the office are happy, but my stress over things happening at and outside of service today is getting the better of me and I feel my energy draining. I finished what I could before the afternoon debrief with nearly all the teams (one is out on a 10-day and won’t be back until Wednesday).


Saturday, January 11 | This morning, Jane and I attended the Winter Outreach quarterly meeting. The rain was already coming down in sheets. So far this season, the emergency shelter network hasn’t activated more than a few times, so there wasn’t as much as usual to hash out. It was a good opportunity to share information between shelters and try to find trends and solve problems.

After a few hours’ break, I got to the shelter around 1600 to assist with set-up and get the lay of the land. There were already over a dozen people spilling out of the foyer and into the breezeway. All 65 cots were set up, each with two sheets, a blanket, a pillow, and pillowcase. A few volunteers were already in the kitchen heating up frozen trays of spaghetti and green beans. Walking around the Education Room, I noted where things are, from what I could see, at least. I tried to make sure I had enough copies of all the forms we needed, but I knew I’d miss something. Zippy went over the registration, volunteer, and facilitator binders with me. Volunteers — mostly ERT Members, bless their service-oriented hearts — started arriving an hour later. I tried to find a groove in getting them signed in with forms I’ve never used and explaining roles that I’ve never had. People were getting antsy since the shelter opened at 1700 last year, but this year we open at 1800. We all rounded up before the open so Zippy could explain how things would generally flow. They’re one of the main ringleaders with years of experience, and I trusted them to handle anything that I didn’t know how to.

The foyer was crowded and loud with people eager to get to their cot and away from the cold, cramped space. Zippy, Jane, and I filled out a registration form for everyone staying at the shelter, which took awhile because it was a new form and it was the first activation of the year. It was hard to hear between guests shouting in the background and guests just on the other side of the table not speaking loudly or clearly. Some had ID’s in hard, ready to give the basic information we needed (name, birthday, medical conditions, medications, emergency contact); others got frustrated when we couldn’t understand them because of one (or all) of the aforementioned reasons. Despite all the movement and people, there was no heat in the foyer and the constant opening of the door kept the temperature low; I wished I had dressed as though I’d be standing outside. There were many questions I deferred to Zippy, who knew many of the guests from previous years and had a better understanding of what could and couldn’t be allowed.

It took about an hour to get through the first wave of people, who had been walk-ups. At 1900, the warming bus stationed downtown left its post at 13th and Chestnut to bring any unhoused community members who had claimed a seat on it to the nearest open city shelter (this year, there are three city shelters open every night, regardless of temperature, from December 1 through February 29). From there, winter outreach shuttlers drive anyone who doesn’t want to stay at a city shelter to ACSTL. On our end, we needed to keep an accurate count of how many people signed in so we could share how many cots we had available. By 2000, most people had selected their cots, eaten dinner, and gotten in line for the showers if they wished, while some formed a half circle in front of the big TV in the Education Room to watch the AFC and NFC divisional championships. 

All in all, things seemed smooth enough!


Sunday, January 12 | 0530 came around all too soon and I was on my way back to the shelter to check out the morning scene. It was just as dark and cold as when I left last night. Upon opening the main door, I heard someone snoring louder than I had ever heard any human snore in my whole life. And that was on the other side of the metal door opposite the small foyer. A light was on the dining area and I was surprised to see and hear a handful of people moving around so early. Wanting to keep things as organized as possible, I alphabetized the new registration sheets of guests who came in overnight before finding Zippy, who said things went as well as could be expected.

In the kitchen, I found an ERT Member flipping what looked like her 100th pancake of the morning. With no other volunteers joining us, I was on breakfast service duty while she washed dishes. Besides pancakes, the spread included a few egg casseroles, mini cinnamon rolls, coffee cake, oatmeal, and cereal. We went through a surprising amount of butter and syrup, and we ran out of milk for the cereal and sugar for the coffee. There was one guest who made sure I knew how grateful he was for everything we provided; I tried to hold on to that instead of focusing on the smack talk between other guests in the dining area. It’s hard out there on the streets, but if some of these folks could eat their beef, they’d never go hungry. Thankfully, Chris, Zippy, and John are never too far away if something were to break out.

Getting folks out by 0700 was a challenge, so those who took too long were recruited to help clean. Others volunteered as a sign of their appreciation. By 0830, all dishes had been washed and things were relatively clean. With a three dozen leftover mini cinnamon rolls in hand, I headed home with a much better understanding of how the whole process works.


Thanks for reading!

Ellen

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