On Saturday our Helping Hands kids (an after school service group I co-lead) helped transform the Fellowship Hall of Westminster Presbyterian Church into a PACEM homeless shelter:
Many years ago, my children and I took a train trip to Staunton, Virginia. The train goes past the woods behind Farmington Country Club, perhaps the most exclusive neighborhood in Charlottesville. The expansive and luxurious homes here sell for millions of dollars. As I looked out the window, I noticed that there were blue tarps scattered throughout the trees. I was shocked to realize that homeless people were living there. On another occasion, the Helping Hands kids were picking up trash from the nature trail behind our elementary school. From the debris we found, we realized that there must be people living in the woods there as well. The best estimate we have is that there are about 240 homeless people in our community. Another sobering statistic says that there are about 450 children in our area who are either homeless or living in shelters that are unfit for human habitation.
PACEM (People and Congregations Engaged in Ministry) is a grassroots interfaith organization that formed in 2004 to address the problem of homelessness in Charlottesville after members of the clergy reported the common experience of finding homeless individuals sleeping in the doorways of their churches. PACEM coordinates volunteers and space (mostly in churches and temples) for a rotating shelter that operates in the colder months when homeless individuals are most vulnerable. From late October to early April, homeless men and women come to an intake center on the Downtown Mall. From there they are transported to separate shelters (one for men and one for women), where they receive a warm dinner and a bed for the night. In the morning they are served breakfast and are transported back to the Downtown Mall.
My family has learned a lot from volunteering with PACEM over the years. I had always assumed, for example, that the homeless were also jobless. I was surprised to learn that many of the PACEM guests do in fact have jobs. Many of them work physically demanding construction jobs. Recently, I also learned that there are young PACEM guests, who are students in one of our local public high schools. The very first year we helped with PACEM, my oldest son was about seven or eight years old. One evening we helped cook and serve dinner. The staff gave him the special job of loading up a dinner plate for a guest who used a walker and would have found it hard to go through the cafeteria-style line. My son delivered his plate to him at his table and then sat down to chat with him for a few minutes. I remained in the kitchen serving up food to the other guests. My son ran back to find me in the kitchen, and said excitedly, “Guess what?! He speaks English, just like us and he was really, really nice!” In that moment I realized how valuable this program is, not only for the homeless individuals it serves, but for the volunteers who see the human face of homelessness.
To learn more about PACEM and how you can help, please click here.
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