Respite Shelter Completes Another Successful, Loving Season
Cynthia Ponce has just completed her second year of managing the Old First respite shelter, which serves meals and provides beds to homeless men during the summer months.
The biggest lesson she’s learned so far: a gift is often more for the benefit of the giver than the receiver.
“During dinner with the guys, one gentleman came over and kept replenishing my orange juice,” Cynthia recalls. “I kept saying, ‘no, no, I’m here to serve you!’ But he kept insisting. What I learned I needed to do was to back off. This was an opportunity for him to participate in the joy of giving. We were both able to tap into this wonderful force of energy and love. I learned not to take that gift away from him. It was very moving.”
The shelter, which began service in the summer of 2011, provides bed and linens to homeless men. The project is a collaboration among Old First, The Park Slope Interfaith Social Justice Network, and CAMBA, a non-profit agency that provides services that connect people with opportunities to enhance their quality of life. CAMBA is run from over 70 locations, many in Brooklyn, including more than 20 school-based programs. It has placed over 800 homeless adults and families into permanent housing, among other life-changing achievements.
The shelter is run during the summer months; its schedule consists of ten weeks, Monday through Friday, and Saturday morning. The men leave Saturday afternoon, and are able to return on Monday evening. The project is interfaith; volunteers from Beth Eloheim and other neighboring places of worship also regularly lend their time and services to the shelter.
Cynthia was in career transition when she first considered volunteering to manage the shelter. In her previous role in a Human Resources position, she felt a sense of fulfillment was missing. She has since decided to follow her heart into nursing, which was calling her.
While getting a few months off between careers, she decided to give the respite shelter volunteer opportunity a try. She found that it required a certain amount of organizational skills, but it’s a very fulfilling role.
Cynthia acknowledges that when the volunteer call is sounded, many people may shy away. Often, the most kind-hearted and giving people may be reluctant to interact with a homeless population, especially one that is staying overnight.
“I didn’t feel threatened at all,” Cynthia assures us. “It’s really a lovely experience. CAMBA does a good job of sending good candidates, and Old First has a reputation for being one of the better shelters.”
Cynthia admits that even she had some reservations at first, but the men don’t just wander in off the streets. CAMBA provides guests who are deemed “stable;” they are thoroughly screened for mental health issues, violence, weapons and substance abuse, and are accountable for their whereabouts.
As well, there are always off-premises people on call all night, who can help in an emergency, from finding a light switch to calling 911.
In addition, once the door closes for the evening, nobody can enter the respite shelter. Of course, anyone is free to leave, but once they do, they are unable to return, under any circumstances. The door automatically locks.
So far, there have been no incidents of trouble. Often, the guests are just average men who are simply down on their luck.
“A lot of them are working, actually,” Cynthia says. “They’re working toward an apartment, a credit card, and a bank account.”
The experience has also become a family affair for Cynthia, her husband, and stepdaughter, Kailey.
“My family – my husband and my stepdaughter — got really involved,” she says. “They spent a lot of time there too. It was interesting to watch them grow in this experience. My stepdaughter was 10 the first time she volunteered. We’d be working hard — she even turned down ice cream to make sure every man was first served.”
Call for volunteers for the next round (it’s never too early to sign up): there is an ongoing need for a kitchen crew, which consists of usually two (but the more, the merrier). Also needed: two people to sleep over, and one person at the church every night to open the doors and to welcome the guests and the volunteers.