WALPOLE, N.H. -- I pulled into the parking lot at 2:20 p.m.
Members of the Greater Falls Warming Shelter had planned a 3 p.m. training session for potential volunteers but I figured I should arrive a little early on Sunday, Jan. 13. The warming shelter is entering its fourth year as a safe haven for downon- their-luck locals who need a place to sleep at night and I thought it would be interesting to see how its volunteers are prepped.
The building at 23 Church St. was locked but seemed like a suitable habitat to provide people with a warm place to lay their heads. I wasn't waiting long Sunday before board member Barbara Ternes arrived to unlock the building. The structure's interior is well-worn but fit for occupancy. It offers 10 beds, with a partition to separate male and female guests, a unisex bathroom and a side room for volunteers to relax. A jigsaw puzzle in its early stages sat on a small table adjacent to rows of VHS tapes, which can be viewed on the television, and novels.
The red building has a storied history familiar to many Walpole residents. Board member Ann DiBernardo previously said the building - owned by Aurelius DiBernardo, a relative of hers, and Leo Howell - has previously been a church, a tae kwondo studio and a delicatessen known as Two Friends Deli, which was coowned by her sister-in-law.
The Greater Falls Warming Shelter began calling the building home after being housed in three apartments in Gageville last year. It was based in the basement of Athens Pizza House Inc. for two winters before some issues prevented the shelter from using the basement for a third consecutive year. Louise Luring, chairwoman of the board of directors, had previously told me the new location is less than ideal but still adequate for its purpose.
The board of directors decided in the spring not to appeal a decision to the environmental court of its local zoning board regarding a facility. Luring said the board of directors was looking for a permanent permit to operate in the basement of Athens Pizza but withdrew its appeal after not receiving satisfactory support from the restaurant's owner, Rich Senerchia.
Barbara and I were soon joined by Deb Clark, the volunteer coordinator. She has worked in the local public school system as a secretary and classroom aide for 20 years and serves on the warming shelter's board out of the goodness of her heart.
Barbara was in the middle of putting out some snacks when four potential volunteers strolled through the door. The individuals consisted of two married couples - Tammy Vittum and her husband Ron Makinen, and Mike and Andrea Daley.
Tammy is a teacher and personally knows Deb, who has gotten her involved in other activities. Tammy said she and Ron are looking for new volunteer opportunities after having been involved with Boy Scouts and Girls Scouts for many years. Tammy said helping the area's disadvantaged gives her some insight as an educator and opens her eyes to her students' lives.
"We have been working at a community kitchen in Keene ... I noticed the amount of people coming increased at the end of the month," she said. "It got me thinking about some of the behavior of my students - toward the end of the month it got worse and I thought maybe they weren't getting enough food."
Mike Daley said volunteering at the warming shelter goes hand in hand with his work as a nurse practitioner at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, Vt. He and his wife had been thinking about ways to help their community.
"We kept talking about volunteering and never really found an opportunity," Mike said.
Barbara, also the director of Parks Place, sat the guests down and began to go over the shelter's rules and protocol. The guests sat on either side of the rectangular table and I became a fly on the wall at the end opposite of Barbara.
She explained no one is allowed to enter after 10 p.m. or to leave before 7 a.m., as the shelter is intended for overnight lodging only. She said guests are given a blanket if they choose to leave but are not permitted back in. Guests are allowed to keep a backpack in the shelter during the day but no one can access it because the doors are to remain locked.
Volunteers are broken down into two nightly shifts from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. or 1 a.m. to 7 p.m. Deb and Barbara explained the latter is the least popular shift and the most difficult to fill - unless there's a break in the college academic year. Barbara said college students often volunteer for that shift (they are up that late anyway) during winter break but recently had to go back to campus.
The next training session is scheduled to start at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 10.
She explained to the volunteers the ground rules of the shelter - absolutely no violence, sexual advances or nudity, or drug or alcohol use is accepted and no disruptive or disrespectful behavior is tolerated. Barbara said there is a log book that must be signed and all new guests have to fill out a 3-by-5 card that gives name, previous place of residence, and an emergency contact.
She took the four guests on a quick walking tour of the facility, showing them the bathroom, the volunteer room, the kitchen and the sleeping quarters. The volunteer room is equipped with a two-person couch, books, magazines, a TV and a tissue box and Deb told everyone Wi-Fi was expected soon. She also said volunteers can invite guests into the room to chat if they are comfortable with doing so.
After stepping out of the room, Tammy said she had a flashback to when she used to eat in the building when it was Two Friends Deli.
The tour continued through the kitchen, which features a place for trash and recycling and a board for volunteers to write down what types of groceries are needed.
The beds are nothing to brag about but are obviously better than facing the brutality of New England winter nights on a park bench. The beds can be moved in case there are more women than men, or vice versa, any particular night.
Barbara also went over the shelter's smoking policy (guests go outside and around the corner to light up) and mentioned guests are allowed to use cell phones. Ron Makinen said it surprised him people who can afford cell phones and cigarettes need to utilize the shelter. Barbara told him cell phones are an important way to get in contact with potential job opportunities and make doctor appointments, and as difficult as it may be, everyone must be sensitive to fact that people are addicted to nicotine.
Barbara then got into the more difficult tasks, such as knowing what to do if the other volunteers don't show up, asking people to leave or handling an unruly guest.
She said there are people on-call each night of the week (including herself) and all volunteers back each other up. She said it can be tough making people leave at 7 a.m. but it is necessary.
"It hasn't been that cold this year, but if there's a blizzard and you're sending people out a 7 a.m., it can be very heart-wrenching. So you want to know that there are places for people to go, and there are," she said, adding that guests can go to the Rockingham Free Public Library or the Our Place Drop-In Center. "We ask you not to give money, not to give your own address and not to give rides. It can be hard - I'll sometimes drive past somebody I made walk out and it might be cold or snowing or something. But there are too many insurance issues about that and safety issues."
Barbara then briefed everyone on deescalation and decided to use me an example. She said everyone who visits the shelter is going through a difficult time and occasionally the anguish and frustration comes to a head. She said it is crucial for all volunteers to stay calm and ease tense situations. It is important never to touch or agitate an angry guest and know when to dial 911.
"Let's say there is a situation where Domenic is just in my face (saying), 'Oh, I'm just sick of you.' And he's just giving me a hard time," she said, walking over to me. "I shouldn't single you out, but you're such a good target.
"Now," Barbara continued, "I'm going to be the volunteer who's watching people potentially in a difficult situation, who could be jeopardizing their safety and the safety of others - you'd never get between them and you'd even not get too close."
She explained many of the shelter's guests have had a falling-out with a loved one and the stress of life on the street can make them reach their boiling point. Barbara and Deb said violence has never been a problem but should always be prepared for.
After speaking for an hour and a half, Barbara admitted the hours are not desirable, the situations can be trying and the work is sometimes thankless. And, not to mention, it can be difficult for people with families and fulltime jobs.
Barbara said they could sign up by filling out some paperwork - if they were still interested.
All four reached for pens.
Domenic Poli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.