May 24, 2006
By Susan Green
It's a mild spring evening and the air is heady with the scent of lilacs - two men sit chatting on the front porch of a house in a quiet neighborhood. There's nothing remarkable about this; it's a scene played out on countless front porches in neighborhoods across America. But this isn't a typical house - it's Timothy House, a shelter for the recovering homeless in Athens.
And tonight Ohio University student Dan Kauffman's in charge. On a typical night, although Kauffman claims there's no such thing, he's responsible for the welfare of the residents and the operation of the house. This often entails talking with the residents, watching movies or just hanging out.
"I love interacting with people that I'd otherwise never have an opportunity to interact with. I love meeting people, I love being a friend to people and I love serving people," Kauffman says enthusiastically.
Residents who come to Timothy House receive more than a safe, clean and stable place to spend the night. They become part of a community that builds trust, teaches responsibility and promotes education while meeting their needs. For instance, residents are responsible for yard work, cleaning the house, fixing daily community meals and doing their laundry.
"There's so much I've learned from working here and by listening to residents' stories. You have things in your mind about what poor people are like, and about homeless people, but these images are easily shattered," he says.
The toughest part of his job is the ephemeral nature of his relationships with the residents. "It's really hard because you develop relationships and start to really care about them, and you don't always get to say good-bye when they leave," Kauffman says. "The only choice in the matter is to hope that you did the best you could while they were here, and that they made the right decision for their family's future."
Working at Timothy House has changed Kauffman's life. "I've grown to appreciate having a family that loves me, and cares for me, and who wants to know what's going on in my life," he says. "And I feel that I've used talents I have, and the values I've been raised with, to help people with their situations."
But he's quick to point out that the residents have helped him, too. "After working here, I'm pretty much ruined for the American dream," he says. "I'm not too concerned about making a lot of money. What I really want to do is to serve people and help them, to use my gifts and to be in a community similar to this."
Connecting students and community
Joy Walker, volunteer coordinator at the Center For Volunteer Services, says students volunteer for a variety of reasons, some of which are to simply fulfill a service requirement and others because they want to become involved with the community.
"I find that most students at Ohio University are looking for a way to get involved," she says. "And they're really excited about it."
The Friday night community supper at Good Works is a good way to become involved. "If you take that experience, for example, of sitting there and talking to the people you're serving, it's a much more meaningful experience in a college student's eyes," Walker says.
For senior Jamie Lemery, volunteering at Friday Night Life - the formal name of the Friday night community supper - has been a meaningful experience.
During Friday Night Life, people come together to eat and to get to know each other beyond the boundaries of income and education. Volunteers get to know the families really well, since many of them attend the supper every week. Lemery's responsibility is the Kid Club, which offers structured activities for kids to participate in after supper.
Lemery's involvement with Friday Night Life came from her desire to make a connection with people in the community. "I always look for that because I feel it's an important part of living someplace," she says. "I'll never live in Athens again, so I wanted to experience Athens as a whole."
Student's idea links university dining halls, community service
Stephanie Pleli may not share a meal with the families, but she gives them something just as valuable: food.
Now a junior, Pleli joined student senate as a freshman and immediately embarked on a project to encourage the dining halls to donate food to Good Works. Not food for the Friday suppers, but food for the families to take home after supper.
"We started with a pilot program in Shively over a year ago," Pleli says. "When it proved to be a success, we extended it to all of the dining halls. We donate non-potentially hazardous food, which means it doesn't have meat or cheese, and all of the donations are approved by the Athens City-County Health Department."
This is a big project, and Pleli says she couldn't do it without the commitment of the dining hall workers who pack the food for distribution. "They totally support this project and they have a real connection to the community. Some of them have lived here for generations, so they have a clear understanding of community needs."
Volunteer work leads to unexpected friendships
Emily Shadrix also understands community needs. She's an AmeriCorps/ComCorps* participant who now works full-time at Good Works managing a variety of projects, including Friday Night Life. ComCorps is a partnership between the College of Osteopathic Medicine's Community Service Programs and AmeriCorps that provides health-care services and education programs throughout southeastern Ohio.
"I volunteered at Good Works when I was an undergraduate at Ohio University," she says. "It was such a beneficial and challenging part of my life that I wanted it to continue."
Like many students, Shadrix was drawn to making a connection with the Athens community. She says she wasn't really seeking to become a volunteer, but she did want to do something that defined where she was in her faith and also to help people.
"A friend of mine (Dan Kauffman) said, 'There's a community supper on Friday night you should come,'" she recalls. "So I went to this Friday night supper and met people who have lived in Athens their entire lives. I enjoyed talking to them. Later that night someone from Good Works asked me to take an elderly woman home. I did. And that was the beginning of a relationship that still exists."
The relationship that grew from that first night speaks to the essence of her volunteer experience. "It's not about just showing up, doing some work and hoping you made a difference," Shadrix says. "It's about the relationships. When you form a relationship with somebody it creates a commitment. And those relationships become a part of your life. Those relationships are what have inspired me to do what I'm now doing."
Good Works, great results
Timothy House and Friday Night Life are part of Good Works, founded by Ohio University alum Keith Wasserman in 1981 to, "...reach out to those struggling with homelessness and poverty in rural Appalachian, Ohio."
Good Works is concerned with and committed to serving the poor and homeless. The philosophy behind the ministry is "the era of the hand-out is over, and the era of the hand-up is upon us." Their mission, according to Wasserman, is to love people and to provide practical service to them as they develop the character and skills needed to increase their employment opportunities.
"Working at Good Works is the hardest thing I've done in my life, because I've never intentionally tried to love people that aren't my friends or my family," Shadrix says.
Wasserman is pleased with the quality of volunteers from Ohio University, "One student was instrumental in persuading the university to release food from the dining halls," he notes. "She's the first student in the 25-year history of Good Works to accomplish this."
That student, of course, is Pleli.
"I'm so encouraged by the many students who go above and beyond expectations in their service and in the tremendous sharing and sacrificing of their time," Wasserman says. "I'm hopeful they are receiving as much from their volunteer experience as we receive from them."
Susan Green is a writer with University Communications and Marketing.