Santa’s Quiet Helpers: Local Volunteerism High During Holidays

The frenzy surrounding the holidays often overshadows the growing number of homeless individuals in Falls Church alone who, instead of worrying about what gifts to buy and whether to serve ham or turkey for dinner, are wondering where they’ll sleep for the night and when their next meal will be. That, of course, goes for the cats and dogs too. VolunteersFriends

The frenzy surrounding the holidays often overshadows the growing number of homeless individuals in Falls Church alone who, instead of worrying about what gifts to buy and whether to serve ham or turkey for dinner, are wondering where they’ll sleep for the night and when their next meal will be. That, of course, goes for the cats and dogs too.


FRIENDS OF FALLS CHURCH HOMELESS SHELTER volunteer Ellen Cassidy (right) and program coordinator Lance Flowers (left) from New Hope Housing, Inc. were all smiles as they prepared for a night at the Friend’s shelter. Cassidy has volunteered at the shelter for three years now. (Photo: News-Press)

Ellen Cassidy, volunteer coordinator of the Friends of Falls Church Homeless Shelter, has been volunteering for three years now to ease those worries.

“After dinner, I come out here and talk to [the residents]. We play cards. Last year, we played Uno and had a good ol’ time,” she said.

Cassidy volunteers not only to make a difference, but also because she recognizes that the residents aren’t much different from her. “It makes me feel good to help others because we could always be a paycheck away from being in the same situation. I don’t have a lot of money to give, but I have time. So, I give my time and hopefully can make a difference in their lives.”

However, Cassidy isn’t the only one spending the holidays volunteering. There are other local volunteers who take time out of the holiday season to offer friendship, food, clothing and shelter.

Anthony Lee, a residential service worker at the Bailey’s Crossroads Community Shelter expresses a sentiment similar to Cassidy’s. “I accepted this job because it was an opportunity to help. There were many times when I needed help and people were there to help me. So, if I can return the favor, why not?”

“I’m taking people off of the streets, out of the cold, giving them a place to live and helping them re-establish themselves. A lot of the time people come here, I try to make it pleasant for them because the environment from which they came might be a hostile environment. I joke with them, talk with them, make them feel good,” said Lee.

Cassidy, too, has developed close bonds with the residents. “They’re like friends,” she said. “I’ve seen them on the street, and they say ‘hi’ to you.”

Cassidy added that the residents want to be seen as regular, everyday people. “They like to be treated like you and I, a normal person, not a homeless person.”

Friends Chairman Ronald Brousseau said volunteers help by interacting with the residents and making them feel like they’re part of the larger community. “They want to be talked to.

“They really have a community among themselves and they’d like to be part of the bigger community. And you feel it when you’re here,” Brousseau added.

The Friends shelter is a grassroots shelter that has been housing 50 – 60 homeless individuals every year since 1996. The long-lived success of the Friends shelter is due in large part to the surrounding community and individual volunteers.

“We have over 200 volunteers every year, not counting the people who donate,” said Brousseau. “We have a lot of support from the faith communities in the City of Falls Church and we have a lot of support from individuals.”

All the meals brought to the Friends shelter are made by community members. This particular Thursday evening, Falls Church resident Kathleen McCleary and her daughters Gracie and Emma Benninghoff delivered a hot homemade meal of red beans and rice, salad, corn bread and fresh-baked cookies.


BAILEY’S CROSSROADS COMMUNITY SHELTER’S Thornell Hancock (second from left), a development specialist, posed with residents (left to right) Toccara Puller, Sarah Lowey and Winfred McCullers. Puller, Lowey and McCullers all expressed gratitude for the Bailey’s shelter volunteers. (Photo: News-Press)

McCleary stressed that the number of homeless people in affluent neighborhoods like Falls Church is growing. “If you want to make a difference, look out the front door and go from there,” said McCleary. McCleary enjoys giving residents of the Falls Church Winter Shelter “awareness that they’re part of the community too.”

The Friends shelter opens its doors at 6 p.m. every night to 10 men and two women during the winter from Dec. 1 – March 31.

“It’s a critical time of the year for those who are out on the streets,” said Brousseau.

He explained there’s a greater need for beds in the winter, while in the warmer weather, homeless individuals “might be in tents, might be out in the streets, might be everywhere.”

New and familiar faces come to the Friends shelter each night.

“Since we’ve opened on Dec. 1, we’ve had 18 different residents here and we’ve been open for 10 nights,” said Brousseau.

Although residents have the right to reserve their beds, some leave in the morning and don’t come back. Brousseau explained that the Friends shelter does not have the capacity to provide full-time day services because the shelter is essentially a public works facility.

The fact that the Falls Church Shelter is only open during the night, however, isn’t  a cause of alarm according to Brousseau. “To me, it’s fine because we’ve made a partnership with two groups here,” he said.

The First Christian Church in Seven Corners has day facilities twice a week, where lunch is served, case managers are available and a nurse is present.

The Lamb Center in Fairfax Circle also has day facilities, where residents can pick up their mail and do their laundry.

Novella Kimp, who works at the Fannie Mae offices in Washington, D.C., often comes to the Bailey’s Shelter to lend a helping hand. Kimp, like the other volunteers, gains satisfaction in knowing she can make a difference. “My motto is: When I stand in front of God, I don’t want to come up with an excuse of why I didn’t help somebody,” she said.

These generous acts don’t go unnoticed. Residents Sarah Lowey, Toccara Puller and Winfred McCullers of the Bailey’s shelter expressed gratitude for the volunteers.

The trying economic times have taken their toll on Lowey, who has been at the Bailey’s shelter for three months now. “My bank foreclosed on my condo, so I didn’t have a place to stay. A friend brought me here, and they were happy enough to find me a bed.

“It was financial difficulties. I was removed from my job and had to go on social security, and it just wasn’t enough money,” Lowey added.

Puller said, “The time for finding jobs is not right.” She has been at the Bailey’s shelter for three days.

However, the volunteers at the Bailey’s shelter help alleviate stress of financial woes. Lowey thanked the volunteers for the “good meals.”

“They hook the lasagna up,” said Puller, who also pointed out the little things the volunteers do, like going out and picking up prescriptions. “They’re doing a good job, a magnificent job,” McCullers added.

Volunteers aren’t just lending a helping hand to humans. They’re also reaching out to homeless pets. According to Lisa Kirschner of the Animal Welfare League of Arlington, the volunteers scrub the kennels in the morning and make sure the animals are fed and the dogs go on their mornings walks.

“In the afternoon, [the volunteers] are stationed in either our cat room, dog room or small animal room and they’re showing the animals,” said Kirschner.

The volunteers play a critical role in finding these animals a loving home by helping the public along in the adoption process.

Since 1944, the League has been committed to providing a safe place for homeless animals, including dogs, cats and other small animals like bunny rabbits, guinea pigs, gerbils, mice, rats and birds.

Although the League does not show animals during the holidays, volunteers still come in to help clean the kennels and feed the dogs in the morning.

“We’re lucky enough to have a backyard that’s fenced in, so we can let the dogs out in small groups or by themselves, whichever they prefer,” said Executive Director Kay Speerstra. “So, they get to run and get some fresh air.”

In addition to having beds and blankets, the animals also get extra special treats on Christmas. “We give them Christmas-themed toys,” said Speerstra. “If they play well with soft toys, they get those.” Larger dogs, however, get sturdier toys made out of rubber or rope.

Although animals can’t necessarily use their words like the residents at the Bailey’s shelter, they do have their own unique ways of showing their appreciation — wagging tails and perked-up ears. And sometimes it’s enough just for volunteers to know that they’re providing these animals with a safe, loving environment, just as the volunteers at the Friends shelter and Bailey’s shelter are offering residents refuge from hostile environments.