Windham No Freeze makes a difference, saves lives
By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Willimantic - posted Thu., Feb. 14, 2013
David is an outgoing guy with crystal blue eyes, a hearty hug and a good sense of humor. At the moment, David is spending his nights at the Windham Region No Freeze Hospitality Center on Main Street in Willimantic. It was a misstep that landed him there, a DUI accompanied by an interfering with an officer charge. Though he said he’d made arrangements to prevent it, when David was released after a stint in jail, he returned to his apartment to find that all of his possessions, including photos of his son and daughter, had been discarded by his landlord. “That was the worst part,” he said. “You can never get that back.”
That was in September. Over the ensuing months, David returned to his old job, saved up some money, and spent his nights in the woods. As the cold weather approached, David started sleeping at the shelter. He has saved up the money for a new apartment, but hasn’t yet succeeded in locating the right place. “I want to find a place to call home,” he said.
As David settled in around a long table in the main room of the No Freeze Hospitality Center, Amanda Uliasz sat in the back room near an electric fireplace. Uliasz is a social work student from Eastern Connecticut State University, and an intern at the No Freeze. “I meet with people and I connect them with housing,” she said. Originally from Southington, Uliasz said she appreciates Willimantic and her position at the shelter. “I like helping people, that’s why I got into social work,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of experience here. This is a pretty hectic place.” Uliasz explained that volunteers work at the shelter every evening, filling roles such as setting up, checking in guests and helping to close up the building in the morning.
One such volunteer is Heather Nairn. “I have been volunteering at organizations for the homeless since I was a child,” said Nairn. “I have been volunteering at the No Freeze since the beginning of the year, and try to help out a little bit once a week or so.” Nairn said she is drawn to organizations that help support those most in need.
“In particular the No Freeze is able to make a difference in so many lives, save lives, on a very tight budget, with employees going above and beyond every day to support others,” she said.
Nairn said she feels fortunate that she has had steady employment throughout her life. “But we are in a time in our society when many individuals and families live paycheck to paycheck, and are only a small step away from losing their housing,” she said. “If I can help do something small to contribute, or make someone who has lost everything, smile with a cup of hot chocolate, my evening has been well spent.”
Volunteer Susan Hewes said that she had a family member who was sheltered briefly in another state. “My volunteering here is a way to pay back in some small measure the support he received,” she said. Hewes gave a number of reasons for continuing to volunteer at the No Freeze. “I live in Windham but work in Hartford, so I miss the personal contact with my local community,” she said.
Volunteering gives her the opportunity to brush up on her Spanish. “And I just really enjoy the staff, the guests and the other volunteers,” said Hewes. “An initiative like this attracts a lot of very interesting folks.” Volunteering serves as a reminder for Hewes to appreciate what she has. “There's simply no better way to spend a free evening. All in all, it's just a great way to keep us 'human!' And we all have a moral obligation in that sense."
Volunteer Cheryl Dudley said she was inspired years ago by a radio interview with a homeless person on the streets of Washington, D.C. “They had said that one of the worst things about being homeless was the fact that they felt invisible,” said Dudley. Dudley spent some time observing the homeless on the National Mall in the capital city. “I could only imagine how it must feel to not only be homeless, for whatever reason, but to feel invisible to your own species,” she said.
“I decided to engage. And after getting past the initial request for money, I discovered my own interest in their life stories. Every human has a life story, and most all humans enjoy and desire to share it with others. I was hooked.” Dudley has been volunteering weekly at the No Freeze for the past four or five years. “I enjoy meeting and listening to people who may otherwise feel invisible, and I also enjoy sharing my life stories with them,” she said. “I have found enjoyment with almost every person I've met at the Willimantic No Freeze shelter.”
Though the No Freeze has a policy of not turning people away, there are a limited number of beds. On busy nights, some guests might be forced to spend the night in a chair. It is first-come, first-served. The previous night, David had been one of the later arrivals. Rather than claiming a chair, David had decided to try to tough it out in a tent. “I’m 43 years old,” he said. “I had everything, but I slept in the woods last night. I was outside at 2:30 in the morning in a tent.” By 2:30 a.m., “My fingers were freezing,” he said. Asked what the No Freeze means to the guests that it serves, David was blunt. “Without this place, people would be dead,” he said.
There are a variety of volunteer opportunities available at the Windham Region No Freeze Hospitality Center. For more information, visit www.nofreeze.org or call 860-450-1346.