By Stacey Dresner
WORCESTER – When Jennifer Lish was volunteering at the Interfaith Hospitality Network’s (IHN) homeless shelter earlier this month, one of the mothers living there with her children hugged her and thanked her for giving of her time.
“She told me ‘You are like an angel. I can feel the love,’” Lish recalled.
Lish is just one of several Temple Emanuel Sinai volunteers who recently spent three straight weeks giving of their time to the Interfaith Hospitality Network’s homeless shelter on June Street. From Dec. 16 to Jan. 6, TES volunteers manned the shelter during either evening or overnight shifts.
But the tasks they perform are not difficult – for the most part they socialize with the residents and play with the children, providing friendship and caring.
TES is one of 26 faith congregations in the Worcester area that volunteers at IHN. When it was founded in 1997, homeless families travelled weekly from congregation to congregation. Six years ago, IHN purchased the three-story house.
This year Temple Emanuel Sinai will host IHN’s second annual Evening of Hope fundraiser on Saturday, March 2 from 7-10 p.m. Attendees will get the chance to sample wines, enjoy appetizers and small plates while supporting IHN.
Last year, the evening raised $11,000.
“We sold out at 85 people which is why we looked for a larger place and Temple Emanuel Sinai is that place,” said IHN Director Joanne Alley. “So we are hoping that we will get more people there and raise even more money.”
Which is imperative to the organization, whose mission is to “provide shelter and assistance to families with children who are homeless…assist families in increasing their income and to help them secure permanent housing, while providing the critical support services necessary for them to succeed.”
Six families with children are able to stay at the June Street shelter, which costs $175,000 a year to run, Alley said.
Without the 1,000 volunteers that help throughout the year, the cost of running IHN would be prohibitive, Alley said.
“We couldn’t do all that we do without our volunteers.”
TES “Action Squad”
Temple Emanuel Sinai’s IHN committee, or as Jennifer Lish refers to it, the “action squad”, includes Lish, committee chair Susan Hayes, Ronna Cuker, Mark Birnbaum, Lynne Silver, Wendy Rickles, Marjorie Rosenfeld, Virginia Marchant, and Judith Gluck.
While all of the committee members volunteer at IHN, many other temple members also volunteer. Both Rabbi Valerie Cohen and Cantor Rachel Reef-Simpson have volunteered. But TES is always looking for more TES members to help out.
TES volunteers taking the evening shift arrive at 5:30 p.m. (New volunteers get a tour of the house and an overview of the program when they arrive from Alley or one of the other staff members – “to make sure they are 100 percent comfortable before they leave,” Lish said.)
They meet the residents and eat dinner with the families –“nutritious, delicious food” prepared by one of the parents each night. Often TES volunteers donate grocery store gift certificates to help out the families, and sometimes prepare dinner.
After dinner the volunteers spend time with the children and parents.
“Often I read board books to the babies and toddlers, that is one of the things I like to do – read to the 4-year-olds,” Lish said. “Often volunteers get out craft materials. The Rickles family generously donates each year a box of arts and crafts material every fall. Sometimes I have had kids making slime or drawing.”
This year during their stays at IHN, the TES volunteers attended and helped out with children’s birthday parties – providing the cake – and Lish brought noisemakers and 2019 hats for a New Year’s Eve celebration.
On Jan. 4, Wendy Rickles arranged for musicians Eric Porter and Peter Allard to perform a children’s musical performance for the shelter’s kids.
But at other times, volunteers just spent quiet time talking with the parents who live there.
“Often we chat about their jobs. Some work several part-time jobs or a full-time job. One evening we sat down with three or four moms and their boys and talked about what high schools they are considering. One teenaged girl talked to me about her AP where she had read Romeo and Juliet. We are friendly.”
“IHN provides a unique opportunity to support and directly engage with local families,” said Susan Hayes. “My family and I have been participating in IHN for [more than] 10 years. We find volunteering to be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. I am grateful that, over the years, support of IHN during TES the hosting period has expanded to include Jewish community organizations and unaffiliated families who are eager to participate in this important and meaningful mitzvah.”
Lish’s daughter was eight years old when she first volunteered at the shelter. She is 22 now, but Lish can still remember what she said after they left the shelter that day long ago.
“She said, ‘Mommy, those people are just like our family except they don’t have a house.’ So we want people to realize that, there but for the grace of God go they…which is true.”
Joanne Alley said that the volunteers are what make IHN so special.
“It’s a win-win,” she said. “It’s win for the volunteers who are practicing their faith by doing this work here in their own community. And it is absolutely a win for the families… When volunteers are doing this work, it means so much. They don’t know the families but yet they are willing to help, and that just speaks so loudly to the families and to the program.”
For more information, call the Temple office at (508) 755-1257. For more information about IHN or the Evening of Hope 2019, call (508) 755-2212 or visit IHNWorcester.org.
CAP: Musicians Eric Porter and Peter Allard performed for the children at IHN on January 4.