A hearth for the homeless: Volunteers keep home fires burning at the Open Door
by Brooke Carbo
Mar 02, 2013 | 3280 views |  0 comments | 18 18 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An unnamed Open Door client listens to Moten’s message. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
An unnamed Open Door client listens to Moten’s message. Photo: Bill Wilson/The Anniston Star
The view from Martha Vandervoort’s office off Gurnee Avenue is not much to look at — several dated buildings, a large parking lot and, just up the street to the right, a stretch of dense, unruly overgrowth.

But Vandervoort, executive director of Interfaith Ministries, has a vision for the little plot of land. She sees the brush cleared and the soil rich with homegrown produce, a community garden where those who have nothing learn to grow their own sustenance. Off to the side she pictures a picnic table surrounded by flowers where people gather in the mornings for a bagel and a devotional, a place where the homeless and displaced find fellowship, support and purpose.

“We want to teach people in the community to grow their own food,” she said. “We’re moving toward offering meaningful activities.”

Serving people in need

The community garden, slated to be up and running sometime in April, “hopefully,” is just one of the latest avenues of outreach for the Open Door, an Interfaith program that provides the homeless of Calhoun County with transportation, temporary housing and, above all else, a warm and genuine welcome.

“The whole idea is to offer hospitality,” Vandervoort explained. “Let people come in out of the cold, get a cup of coffee and just rest for a bit.”

The Open Door also provides clients with a mailing address, a basic necessity that many don’t have, as well as phone and computer access, Bible studies and a place to fellowship and, two days a week, a hot shower. It’s a program that meets a tremendous need in the community.

Last year, the Open Door logged more than 5,000 visitors, with a daily average of 25. Some are in need of counseling or medical assistance, some come for the fellowship at Aundrey Moten’s morning Bible study, and many just yearn to feel like someone cares about their plight.

“The way we cope with poverty is to think we’re above it, so we tend to the think there’s something wrong with them,” Vandervoort explained. “But if you take the time to listen, you’ll realize this could have happened to you.”

Kathy Jeanne Dean has been a fixture at the Open Door for close to three years. Nearly deaf and struggling with years of abuse and neglect, Dean came to Interfaith with no income, no connections and no hope. Since then, volunteers have been able to get her Social Security benefits and have helped her apply for disability, Vandervoort said.

“We discovered she sews beautifully,” she went on. “Kathy comes here every day and knits.”

Dean, who said she’s been crocheting all her life, now has pieces for sale — “toboggans, neck scarves, baby blankets, pin cushions,” she said — in consignment shops around town. Dean also volunteers at Interfaith herself, cleaning up the coffee station and kitchen and making snack bags for the clients.

“She went from being totally isolated to being part of our community,” Vandervoort said.

When Dean turned 64 recently, the staff and volunteers gave her something she said she hadn’t had since she was 16 — a birthday party.

“They gave me a party with gifts, and the big conference table had lots of appetizers. It was fun,” Dean remembers, though she admitted it embarrassed her a little. “They don’t do that for everybody.”

Bringing people together

The clients of the Open Door are not the only ones touched by the ministry.

As Vandervoort points out, the mission statement of Interfaith Ministries, which runs almost solely on the heart of volunteers and generosity of donors, is “bringing God’s people together to serve God’s people in need.”

“People need an opportunity to help others,” she explained, just as the Open Door’s clients need help. “I honestly don’t know which is more important.”

Vandervoort explained that there was a point in time when she laundered all of the program’s towels herself in her home washer and dryer. When the machines inevitably went out due to overuse, the repairman sent to her home also happened to be a volunteer fireman.

“He asked what I was doing with all those towels and when I told him he said, ‘well, we have a commercial washer’,” Vandervoort recalls. Interfaith now has all of its towels washed by the Anniston Fire Department, and “they feel like they’re helping a ministry.”

Just this week, Vandervoort’s garden dreams got a big boost from another such random encounter. Striking up a conversation with a man delivering a donation from Weaver High School, she mentioned her plans.

“I can’t now even remember why,” she said. As it turned out, the man did quite a bit of gardening himself and told Vandervoort he was expecting a big load of manure.

“He asked if we wanted some and is going to bring it to us when it comes in,” she said, and once the soil is ready, Downings General Store has offered to supply seeds.

With just a handful of staff members — “even I’m part-time,” Vandervoort said — Interfaith Ministries is dependent on the nearly 300 community members who volunteer each year with the Open Door, Meals-on-Wheels, Christmas Clearing House and other Interfaith programs.

But Vandervoort believes those volunteers receive just as much blessing from their service as those they served are blessed.

“People want to do something,” she says. “They want to lend a hand.”

Serving God’s people in need

If you would like to help Interfaith Ministries’ the Open Door program, there is an immediate need for:

• Travel/hotel size toiletries; particularly deodorant

• Socks, gloves and hats (all sizes)

• Large and extra large men’s shirts

• Concrete picnic table

• Volunteers interested in the community garden
Comments must be made through Facebook
No personal attacks
No name-calling
No offensive language
Comments must stay on topic
No infringement of copyrighted material

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