Heather Wessel wasn’t sure what to expect when she volunteered to spend her Thanksgiving evening serving meals to the homeless.
But after meeting a few clients of the Winter Shelter run by the Arlington Street People’s Assistance Network, she decided it would be a regular sort of holiday. “These people seem like they could be me or my neighbor,” she said.
While thousands of Washington area residents jammed highways on Thanksgiving weekend to spend the holiday with friends and family, Wessel and others gave their time to help people who had nowhere else to go. The Winter Shelter was filled to capacity for the first time this year and provided meals and shelter to the area’s homeless.
“It was a fun evening with a lot of volunteers, good food and a lot of laughs,” said Linda Coats, the director of the shelter.
Volunteers assisted with processing the shelter’s clients, the men and women who live on the streets of Arlington. Volunteers also helped dish out Thanksgiving dinners provided by DC Central Kitchen, an agency in the District that provides food to charitable and nonprofit organizations throughout the metro area.
In fact, the shelter received so much food, organizers decided to make Thanksgiving a two-day affair. They served turkey dinner, along with vegetables and dessert on Thanksgiving Day, Thursday, Nov. 27, and on Friday, Nov. 28. The Rosslyn McDonald’s brought breakfast for all the shelter’s clients on Thanksgiving morning. Coats said it was a rewarding experience for clients and volunteers alike.
As temperatures plummeted over the holiday weekend, Coats knew the volunteers would have their hands full. “People were very appreciative,” she said. “Not only to have such a nice meal but to be indoors that night.”
The shelter opened at the beginning of November and has seen steadily increasing numbers show up for overnight stays, leading up to Sunday, Dec. 1, when it reached full capacity.
CREATING A HOLIDAY environment at the shelter takes a lot of work, but staff and volunteers succeeded, Coats said. Seeing clients have a happy Thanksgiving was reward enough for Coats.
“It makes my job worth all the efforts that it takes to bring together all the services,” she said. Wessel shared her sentiment. “I was happy to tears when someone came up to me to say, ‘Thank you for spending your time with us.’”
It was sad to see dozens of homeless people who have no family with whom to spend Thanksgiving, she said, but that just underscored the importance of the shelter’s efforts. “It makes me feel good that they’re actually here,” she said.
The holidays emphasize the need to help the less fortunate, agreed A. Ritter, another volunteer at the winter shelter. “The first thing that comes to my mind is that they need help,” she said. “They need more of everything [at the shelter].”
Ritter helped pass out necessities like soap, toothpaste and washcloths to the people staying at the shelter on Thanksgiving. Those small items, which most Arlingtonians take for granted, were at a premium for the shelter’s clients, she said.
THANKSGIVING DINNER was a small part of what A-SPAN and the shelter do during the holiday season, said Coats. “A-SPAN does a lot of neat things as a result of getting folks involved.”
The Arlington shelter is the only one in the area that allows anyone to enter as-is, without background checks or referrals from other agencies. That open-door policy, according to Coats, encourages people to get the help they need, including medical treatment, mental health and substance abuse counseling and assistance with setting goals and finding permanent housing.
But the open-door policy also means strict rules must be in place while clients are in the shelter. Robert Simon learned that first-hand when he volunteered on Thanksgiving, assuming he would help distribute food.
He got a surprise when shelter organizers asked him to help search incoming clients. “You don’t necessarily think about the safety precautions you need,” he said. Simon, along with regular shelter staff, made sure no weapons or alcohol were brought inside. They reported no problems.
Volunteering like Simon did may not be most people’s idea of an enjoyable holiday, but it made perfect sense on a day set aside for giving thanks, said Candace Allen, another volunteer. “I just feel blessed,” she said, “And I wanted to share it with people less fortunate.”