Heading into Birmingham Unitarian Church Wednesday night, I was greeted by Paul Plante "Ministry of Transportation" to find out what duties I would have for the evening.
For more than twenty years, the church has dedicated one week out of the year offering men, women and children a place to sleep and eat while providing transportation for jobs and school through a partnership with South Oakland Shelter — SOS.
SOS partners with area churches and shelters throughout the year to provide temporary stays for guests. At the BUC alone, nearly two-hundred-and-fifty people prepare meals, clean, and offer support to SOS clients.
As a reporter three years ago, I wrote a story on a woman who was in the SOS program. She had a job and was in the process of finding a home. I was impressed by the structure the program offers. SOS strives to help clients find jobs and homes. In the morning, guests are woken up and taken to either their jobs or back to SOS for the day. They are picked up later that night. Once they sign in, they can go and pack a lunch for the next day, eat dinner, relax and prepare for the next day.
After a quick tour, Paul led me to the kitchen so that I could help. The crew was large that night, so my tasks were pretty light. I helped plate desserts, cleaned up a coffee spill and peeled hard-boiled eggs.
I spoke with Louise Angermeier of Bloomfield Hills, who said her myths about the homeless were dispelled once she started volunteering with this program. She's been volunteering with BUC-SOS for eight years.
"I think that there are a lot of people that are in a bad situation right now — through no fault of their own — and anything we can do to support them is a valuable contribution to the community," she said.
"I am continually touched and inspired by the people that I meet."
After kitchen prep work was finished, I headed up to the front desk to watch Paul schedule transportation for the following day.
He uses a spreadsheet to help him stay organized. Having to figure it out would have given me a headache. But even when he was interrupted several times, he remained calm. Everyone has different places they need to be at different times and there are more guests than drivers.
"I have a special request for you, and you are free to turn it down," he'd say over the phone to the volunteers. The drivers were upbeat and cheerful and were able to change their schedules to help. After about a half-hour, the scheduling was completed.
I am thoroughly humbled by the amount of time people give. I hate getting up in the morning, yet volunteers had signed up to drive strangers as early as five in the morning. All of the volunteers are as gracious, and not all are from the BUC. Paul is kind to the guests, asking how they are feeling and joking with them. One man came into the office to use the Internet so he could finish his work.
Later, I went down to the kitchen and swept up and helped an older gentleman take out the trash. I was only there for about two and a half hours —these volunteers are working around the clock.
As part of BUC's philosophy, the organization's purpose is "To encourage members to contribute their time, talent and resources to the betterment of the society and world in which they live."
This is an institution that lives what it says, and I was the better for being able to take part.