Shelter from the Storm – A Day of Service Honoring Dr. King

January 29, 2009 by  
Filed under 2010, Blog, Community, Events, Front Page, Homeless, Iowa, Slideshow, Volunteers, Youth

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Volunteers work to put together quilts to benefit Shelter House at the Trinity Church Shelter for the Storm event. Photo: J Wasson

Sewing machines whir all around me, and a blur of activity fills the room. Quilts in various states of progress are everywhere: on the floor, on tables, held in the air for viewing, packed into sacks to give away. This is no ordinary quilt group — most of the participants have never quilted, yet they throw themselves into the activity with joy and enthusiasm. The camaraderie that binds us together is real. We are here to do a service to our homeless neighbors, temporary residents of Shelter House just down the street.

Karen Nichols gets help from Jackson as she binds a quilt. Photo: J Wasson

Karen Nichols gets help from Jackson as she binds a quilt. Photo: J Wasson

On this day of service honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., more than 100 people have volunteered their time at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, IA. It’s a diverse group of many ethnicities and ages, and an equal mix of males and females. For most participants, the common denominator is a connection to education. Local schools and the university are closed in honor of Dr. King, and the participants today are mostly students, teachers, professors, and retirees. Yet, we have among us a doctor, a journalist, a freelance writer, an attorney, and others I have yet to meet.

Volunteers knit mittens, hats, and scarves to donate to the homeless. Photo: J Wasson

Quilting is just one of the activities offered today. In another room, volunteers are knitting mittens, scarves, or socks. The tables are filled with beautiful hues of yarn, just waiting for a pair of willing hands to transform the strands into something warm for a homeless child or adult. By days end, several pairs of tiny mittens will be piled up, ready for their new owners to wear.

Upstairs, I meet four elementary-age kids, supervised by Sara Hamilton, a parent volunteer. Her child, who also is volunteering, attends Willowind School in Iowa City, as do several other kids who are here today. These four kids — Mike, Alexander, Caleb, and Jane — are filling plastic bags with soaps, shampoos, toothpaste, toothbrushes, and other toiletries for the people at Shelter House.

Students Caleb, Jane, Mike, and Alexander stuffed bags with toiletries for Shelter House. Photo: J Wasson

In the kitchen, two University of Iowa law students — Rob Sand of Decorah, Iowa, and Greg Taylor of Morton, Illinois — are cleaning up after baking muffins. I ask the two why they are volunteering today. Sand, a 3L (third-year law student) says, “It’s a good thing to do. When you’re a student, there’s only so much time you have that you can use to give back. You’d better do it on your day off.”

Law students Greg Taylor and Rob Sand clean up after baking dozens of muffins. Photo: J Wasson

Taylor, 1L, adds, “We have a three-day weekend, and I like to look for as many volunteer opportunities as possible when I have time off. The law school posted a bunch of different options where we could do a lot of good.” And they’ve done “a lot of good” indeed: Altogether, Sand, Taylor, and other volunteers have baked 12 dozen muffins and 12 loaves of bread today, all in a tiny kitchen with just one oven.

Back in the midst of the quilting activity, I meet several medical students who have also pitched in today. If their smiles are any indication, this is a welcome break of routine for them as well. Talitha Brown, M3 (third-year med student) from Philadelphia, says, “This is fun. It’s a community event. Everybody can learn something new.” Talitha, who is studying to be a cardiovascular surgeon, is busy designing a quilt top by laying the squares in a pattern on the floor. She is joined by Kandyce Pearson, M1 from Chino Hills, California; Martha Carvour, M4 in the MD/Ph.D. program, from Des Moines, Iowa; and Jessica Duhe, M1 from San Francisco, California.

Members of the Student National Medical Association volunteered at Shelter for the Storm. Photo: j Wasson

Why are there so many med students here today?, I wonder. Chris Guerrero, M1 from Chicago, Illinois, tells me. The students belong to the Student National Medical Association, and they have volunteered as a group. “We have a day off, and we thought it would be good to contribute to the community. Getting out into the community is something that is hard to do when your head is in the books 12 hours a day.”

As the med students are leaving, Pearson says to me, “When we signed in, it asked if we wanted to be contacted about future volunteer opportunities.” I smile, and point her to someone else, who might know more about future events, as I’m just a volunteer too. Pearson tells a member of the church group that sponsored the event, “We want to be involved with a volunteer project every month. We’ll be back.” And if I had to bet, I’d say she means it.

Youngsters drew pictures on blocks for a baby quilt. Photo: J Wasson

Meg Wagner, Christian Foundation Director for Trinity, is the event organizer. This is the second-annual Shelter for the Storm event at Trinity.

I ask Wagner what was the impetus for the event. “It’s two-fold,” she says. “Trinity has been a partner with Shelter House since the beginning. We’re also an overflow site, taking turns with other churches in the city to provide a place for homeless people to sleep when the shelter is too full.”

Shelter House provides free beds and meals to 29 homeless individuals each night, and it is always full. When too many people show up needing services, the local churches take turns providing bed space for them — to the tune of 1,661 “nights” last year.

Wagner continues, “In addition, I was a volunteer for the Obama campaign, and for Martin Luther King Jr. Day  last year, we were asked to find a way to do something for the community. I like to quilt, knit, and bake when I’m at home, so I thought it would provide a good inter-generational activity. There are no opportunities for kids to volunteer. This way, parents can come with their kids and they can volunteer together.”

Wagner also says that the day provides an opportunity for kids to learn new skills. “A lot of parents don’t have time to teach their kids how to do these things,” she says.

Jim Hawtrey holds up the quilt top he has designed using scrap fabrics donated to the cause. Photo: J Wasson

But kids aren’t the only ones who are learning new skills. “I’ve never done this before,” says Gerry Partridge, a retired county attorney. He and another man are carefully planning the pattern they will use to design their quilt top. Other adults sew pieces together, feeling like “quilters” for the first time. And little children draw pictures, then design their very first quilt top, carefully placing the squares just so.

Jim Hawtrey, retired junior high school art teacher, hands me long strips of squares pinned together. By the end of the day, we’ll have a quilt top — one of nine completed by the group — ready for someone to put together with batting, backing, and binding.

“It’s probably going to be the ugliest quilt of the bunch,” Hawtrey laughs. He’s limited by the fabrics donated to the cause — colors and patterns that someone else loved, but some of which he may not. Still, in the way of all scrap quilting, the odd fabrics and colors come together to create a pleasing pattern.

And so it is, too, with the diverse group of people pitching in today: preschoolers, tweens, teens, young adults, middle aged, elderly, black, white, yellow, and brown — some members of this congregation, others having different faiths. Together, we form a human quilt, comforting our neighbors with compassion.

Julia Wasson

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