Bags stuffed with personal hygiene products, thermal socks and granola bars lay on the floor of First United Church, waiting for the 60 Interfaith Winter Shelter guests spending the night there Dec. 11. The guests awoke to a bounty of unexpected Christmas gifts awaiting them, organized by volunteers from the Christian Student Fellowship house and spearheaded by Interfaith volunteer and IU senior Jessica Stephens.
“Most of them didn’t have any idea that was going to happen. We brought it to them, they didn’t have to go anywhere or ask people to give them something,” Stephens said.
The Interfaith Winter Shelter operates every night in Bloomington from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. during the coldest months of the year, from October to April.
Various faith-based organizations and churches house the shelter each night, rotating throughout the winter months. Stephens began volunteering with the shelter at the beginning of the fall semester, at the urging of her friends Brianna Underhill and Nolan Duffey, who also helped organize the gifts.
Stephens said she was inspired one day while she and friends were serving food to a group of local individuals experiencing homelessness. One man asked for a coat, but Stephens and her friends did not have any to give.
“There were flyers for a clothing drive so I suggested he go to that,” Stephens said.
The man pointed out that the location of the clothing drive was at least 30 minutes away, and he had no transportation.
“People asked for other things like toothpaste and combs, and I thought ‘I can get this for you, probably for free,’” Stephens said. “Their problem was that they weren’t able to get transportation to go pick up free items.”
She decided to bring donations to the shelter’s guests instead of asking them to go to a second location. She and friends asked students from the CSF house to donate items of clothing.
“It was right before Thanksgiving break,” Stephens said. “It was perfect timing, everyone was going home and I thought they could clean out their closets!”
Students at the CSF house donated about half of the clothing needed, Stephens said. To buy the rest of the necessary supplies, she spent money of her own that would usually have gone toward her 10 percent offering at Sherwood Oaks Community Church.
Volunteers who were not involved in the original donation drive contributed their time to the shelter, including IU senior Michael Deane.
Deane volunteers at the shelter Monday nights with his roommate, IU student Georgia Boonshoft.
“It’s a humbling thing seeing these people who are struggling. It really helps both me and my roommate keep things in perspective,” Deane said in an email.
Deane helped pass out gifts the morning of Dec. 11. Each guest received lotion, two pairs of thermal socks and a toothbrush with toothpaste, as well as Christmas cookies and a Christmas card.
“I got to personalize about half of them. Some of them just had a sentence like ‘I liked playing Euchre with you.’ It meant a lot to them. Most said that was the only Christmas card they would get that year,” Stephens said.
Joanne Weddle of First Christian Church organizes volunteers on Friday nights, when FCC hosts the shelter.
“Socks and gloves are always in demand during cold weather. Coats, too. Generally we don’t stock supplies of clothing, although if we have requests from people, we’ll help them find things that they need,” Weddle said.
Thanks to the efforts of Stephens and other volunteers, each guest was able to look through the clothing that had been donated, choose what they needed, and put it in a new bag to store.
“Jessica has a really big heart. You can see how much she cares about the guests that come into the shelters every night,” Deane said.
Stephens said she is fueled by her desire to help the friends she has made while volunteering at the Interfaith Winter Shelter.
“You love these people and they become like your family,” Stephens said.
Stephens and Deane both highly recommend volunteering at the shelter.
“School can be overwhelming, but at the end of the day we’re extremely lucky to be furthering our education and to have a warm house and bed to sleep in every night,” Deane said.
The next training session for those interested in volunteering at the shelter is scheduled for Jan. 28 from 6 to 7 p.m., Weddle said. It will be held at First United Church on East Third Street.
“We can use help anytime. We have had a lot of college student support, and it’s very appreciated,” Weddle said. “It’s a wonderful service they can give to our homeless population and to our community.”
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