At The Gathering Place, just before COVID, we marked something important to many of us there: Our 10th anniversary. Feb. 7, 2010, marked our first day, on which we opened to a grand total of seven guests. Yes, seven! Since then we’ve been visited over 200,000 times by guests, the majority of them folks who grew up locally, went to local schools and worked as long as they could at local jobs.

I won’t repeat past articles about The Gathering Place. If you are unfamiliar with us, you might want to look at our website, I do want to tell you our reflections after 10 years, as an organization, as guests, and as volunteers. And also a little bit about the next decade.

When you serve 200,000 guests, you learn a lot over 10 years, and so do those whom we serve. Needless to say, we, like everyone else, have suffered during COVID. Before COVID, our average day saw about 95 – 100 guests. We were closed for about 3 months in 2020, reopening in early summer, but to small numbers. We made several protective changes and gradually we have seen our guests return, now to about 50 a day. And no COVID yet!

So what have we learned in more than 10 years that can’t be seen on a website? When we opened in 2010, our goal was to create a place for those who had no place to go, a place where our guests would be treated with respect, where their dignity would be honored. The volunteers wanted to help our guests. That was why we signed up in the first place. Well, what we learned was that our guests also helped us, and taught us as much as we helped them. About how to bear up, and with grace, under the debilitating strains of loneliness, illness, poverty, and homelessness. What we learned was that admiration, often tinged with love, crept into the equation. No, nothing improper, just an honest desire to treat others as we would like to be treated, and out of that, out of respecting our guests’ dignity, admiring and closer relationships developed, closer than any of us would have expected.

And how about our guests? What did they experience? I imagine that at first, they merely expected a place to get in out of the cold and the snow or the broiling summer sun, to get a coffee or an iced tea. But as the months went by, they probably discovered they liked being there and even began to feel affection for some of the volunteers there to serve them. Did all volunteers create loving relationships with guests, and with each other? No, not all, for it takes time and intention. And did all the guests feel affection for volunteers? Again, no, but given time, many of the guests and many volunteers did find that class, educational, and economic differences between them were not important. Those close friendships, that real affection, that even loving relationships were possible, even likely.

Another thing we have all discovered — guests and volunteers alike — is there are not only good days but also some not-so-good ones. A volunteer may be feeling poorly; a guest may not be able to cover the rent and be facing eviction from her apartment, disagreements may arise between guests, a volunteer or a staff member may be short and impatient today, a guest may be asked to leave for repeated and serious infractions of our few rules. But there is usually enough respect, enough trust, enough mutual affection that tomorrow is another day, that yesterday is forgotten.

Do I make this all sound like nirvana, like a paradise? Sorry. It’s not of course, but it’s about the best volunteer experience I could imagine. And I know lots of our volunteers share that. And, to top it off, many of our guests seem to feel the same from their perspective.

As we enter the future we continue to be grateful for what resources we have, especially from many very generous donors; so and for whom we have as guests and volunteers. But it will not be an easy time. The needs of the future will be even greater than those of the first 10 years. The biggest single problem is and will be the severe lack of affordable housing. Our community must step up to attract and permit affordable permanent housing. When a young woman with a baby on her hip tells you, as happened today, that she and her infant are forced to sleep in the car, because she cannot find an apartment she can afford; When a man dies next to the tracks, because he couldn’t find a place to live; When the only apartments being built in town will rent for $1,500 for a one-bedroom; When you hear these stories often enough, you wonder how a civilized society can allow these conditions.

In the coming months, we will tell you what we’re doing to face these conditions, to assist our guests to live in them. Thank you for supporting our mission.

Chick Carroll is a volunteer and Advisory Board member of The Gathering Place. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community. 

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