• Erica Smith

Shelter Manager's personal experience and blessings come full circle with clients

When I came to Helping Hands six years ago, I was looking for a job that fit my 53-year-old body better than the construction work I was doing at the time and have done most of my life. Little did I know I found a place where my dark past would be my greatest asset and used to encourage others.

Six years previously I was the House Manager at the St. Louis, MO Salvation Army A.R.C. and, unknowingly, that was my internship to work at Helping Hands. A big percentage of homelessness is due to alcoholism and drug addiction; in which I have personal experience. Knowing the difficulties to be faced, the failed attempts, the commitment needed to change and the battle that goes on in the mind. After too many setbacks to count, but never giving up, I went through the “trauma” of my childhood and something clicked. Today I enjoy a simple life, free of that hopeless state of mind. A big part of that life is working at Helping Hands where that experience can benefit others.

I see the exact thing I lived and try to use it to benefit the men here. All I can do is encourage them, be a positive example and show them the same Grace that I was given. I work the second shift Saturday through Wednesday. Like my coworker mentioned, I’m met upon arrival by some of the most interesting people in Springfield. Sometimes greetings, concerns, struggles, complaints and victories. Part of my responsibility as a Shelter Manager is that I keep inventory and oversee maintenance of the building. The first couple of hours of my Mondays through Wednesdays are spent working on the needs to be addressed. Then I start setting up for the intakes. At 4:30 the “reserves” come back to be breathalyzed, rarely are there any problems. Then at 4:55 the adventure begins with roll call of the “non-reserves”. In recent years the mentally ill population here has jumped up significantly, which can complicate the process along with the rest of the evening. All I attempt to do is meet those men on their level the best I can and as long as they can conform to our guidelines; they’re another part of our dysfunctional family. Then those men are breathalyzed. If they breathalyze anything over .000 or are high, they’re asked to leave for the evening. Then they’re assigned a bed, after that a meal is served from one of our many good and loyal meal providers. Then chores are started and then usually a movie is shown. I “manage” the men by just letting the evening unfold and keeping an eye and ear out for arguments (which do happen) or other suspicious behavior. I would say nine out of ten are respectful and sound men who have just lost their way.

On Saturdays and Sundays, I’m the only staff member here and the early time is utilized to accomplish maintenance projects ranging from painting in the winter to what has broken that we’re capable of fixing with the help of some of the men. My “crew” is ever changing. Like myself, some have some unorthodox ways and we usually get the job done in time. We also could be a sitcom. The men who help are given beds for varying amounts of time, depending on the project. There are many skilled men who stay here that are trying to overcome past mistakes (like myself) and are looking to give a normal and productive life another try. If there’s anyone who understands, it’s the one writing this.

Like I said earlier, I have a simple life through the Grace and Forgiveness of God and I try to show those same virtues daily to the men who stay here.

Helping Hands isn’t so much a job as it is a family and an adventure. A dysfunctional family, but one I love from our staff to our clients.

Tom Girard

Shelter Manager

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