Her hair was wrapped in a modest bun and the apron over her long dress was clean and pressed. She carefully filled plastic cups with water and arranged them neatly on a tray. She slowly circled the room quietly offering the beverages with a gentle smile. People reciprocated with kindness in their eyes and smiled back at her.
When I arrived at the Oak City Outreach Center in downtown Raleigh, there was a soothing sense of calm warmth in the room. It was a welcome relief to the cold, rainy weather outside. Some folks read newspapers that were placed on tables beside vases of bright flowers, others chatted softly, and some simply rested their heads on the table, covering their eyes with jackets to keep out the light. Marianne thoughtfully provided them cups of water as the coffee brewed.
It was just after breakfast was served and the volunteers were packing up their platters, pans and utensils. I stood with Shana Overdorf, the Executive Director of the Raleigh-Wake Partnership to End and Prevent Homelessness. The Center is just one part of a multi-services plan to provide support to individuals and families who are homeless or facing homelessness.
“This is all okay,” she said as she observed the folks at rest, “people come here on the weekends to receive meals with dignity.”
A bubbly woman with a bright smile and a clipboard made her way toward us, greeting people with hugs along the way. This was Tosheria, the Center coordinator. She explained to Shana that they were distributing flyers of locations to find Thanksgiving meals. I was delighted to hear that she arranged for a shuttle to take folks to Angie’s Restaurant in Garner. Angie’s is a hometown favorite that serves free meals to the homeless on Thanksgiving. My mother-in-law and her friends have volunteered for many years on this special day. We chatted briefly about the plans but before you know it Tosheria was quietly interrupted by folks who wanted to sign up for the trip to Angie’s.
Shana and I were waiting for the media. The Center had just surpassed a 100,000 meal milestone and a press release had been sent to the news outlets. When the first van arrived, they started to unload their cameras. Shana excused herself to go chat with the cameraman about taking photos. “Our guests deserve their privacy. You never know what challenges they may be facing,” she said. This was a place free of intrusion. A safe-house, of sorts.
While Shana was being interviewed by the reporter, one of my fellow board members arrived to volunteer with his children. They were passing out desserts at the 11 am lunch. The kids got a kick out of putting on the gloves that didn’t fit quite right. Then our board chair arrived. After a few pleasantries, he looked around the room anxiously. He apologized for the distraction, explaining he was looking for someone he thought might need additional services at another agency. He had offered to give him a ride there. Sadly, he didn’t see him. “Well,” he said with a hopeful smile, “if not today, another time.” This was community… pure, unabashed community.
I had a chance to meet Timmy. He explained to me that he had a full-time job at night, but on the weekends he volunteers at the center. “Every Saturday and Sunday since we opened… I work all night and come straight here. Then I go back to work and come straight here again. But I love it. I love the people. I love the work.” Shana shared later that two others like Timmy came to get a meal the first week the center opened and have been volunteering ever since. That was a year and half a ago. That was 100,00 meals ago.
Suddenly there was a lot of commotion. Huge bags of bread were brought through the doors and hoisted on the tables. Boxes of food, sheet pans of prepared dishes, soup pots, desserts, and other items were quickly being arranged on tables by bustling volunteers. People started to line up. And more of them. Along the ramp, down the stairs, and out the door across the parking log. Friendly folks, humble folks. They patiently waited for meal and a small bag of groceries. I detected an air of anxious sorrow. This was not a celebration. This was relief.
The Center is open from 9 am to 6 pm every Saturday, Sunday, and on special holidays. Volunteer groups from around the city offer meals at various intervals. There is a breakfast, lunch, mid-day meal, dinner, and late-afternoon grocery distribution. It is volunteer-run effort overseen by our friendly coordinator Tosheria. The Center serves an average of 1,200 meals each weekend.
As we were leaving, I glanced over my shoulder at the warehouse-like building in the drizzly gray chill of the morning. The doors glowed warmly as people took their seats holding plates loaded with ham, turkey, baked pasta, fresh greens, and hearty rolls. Ah, there is nothing like a plate full of wholesome goodness to restore the soul.
Curious about the coverage the center received? Check out the News & Observer article: Hurdle becomes hand up as program serves milestone meal.
Want to help? There are plenty of ways:
- The Center has volunteer opportunities but are most likely booked through the holidays. Check back mid-winter when the need is still as high.
- The Partnership accepts monetary donations which helps keep the doors open and operations running smoothly. The ultimate goal of the Partnership is to create enough affordable housing to end homelessness in the city and Wake County
- Not in Raleigh? Do a google search for homeless centers in your area and see how you can help. Don’t be shy! Walk right in and, if nothing else, observe. Talk to people. Say hello. You’ll no doubt be inspired in more ways than you can imagine.