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WORDS AND IDEAS

“No matter what people tell you, words and ideas can change the world.” – Robin Williams


NEW LONDON HOMELESS HOSPITALITY CENTER TOUR

Those of you following The Giving Back Society on Facebook have already had a sneak peek of my reaction to this week’s event because I was so inspired that I jumped on a FB live afterwards and shared my thoughts. But, there was so much more to the story and I’m excited to dig in and share those details.

I attended a public tour of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center here in my city. I hadn’t heard of this group before, but the event popped up in my Facebook newsfeed and I was curious.

I will be honest with you, though, I was also apprehensive. I was a bit worried about what this tour would entail — I was afraid it was going to feel like an exploitation of some kind — walking around and staring at homeless people like a zoo exhibit. But, I am really happy to say that the experience was nothing at all like that. It was informative, inspirational and very respectful. And one that I would highly recommend. (They do these monthly for those of you who are local).

So, let me dig in and share what I learned about the work these great people are doing and also what you and I can do to help them!

Firstly, the NLHHC “provides hospitality and a bridge to permanent housing for single adults experiencing homelessness in Southeastern Connecticut.” (It turns out that families have a different path to follow should they fall into homelessness, just fyi.) Their history is a story of people who saw a need and decided to take action to help — your standard nonprofit background story, but a lot of work and dedication required. It was founded in 2006 and at its humble beginnings was space in a room of a church with mats on the floor. Now they have a cluster of buildings (or one larger oddly shaped building — I couldn’t quite tell) that were clean, welcoming and filled with resources for those needing their services.

So our tour group gathered around a table in a room that we later discovered was their Help Center, and their very warm and welcoming Executive Director, Catherine Zall, started to talk about their work. Below is a picture of our group (with photo credit going to New London Mayor Michael Passero — more on his appearance in a bit) — you’ll see Catherine in the yellow/black plaid (and me next to her furiously scribbling notes):

Photo credit: New London Mayor Michael Passero

What was extra special about our talk (because it was more of a chat than a lecture) was that three people who have been through the Center joined us to talk about their experiences. Hearing their stories of how they ended up homeless and how the Center has helped them was both heart-breaking and heart-warming, if that makes sense. It really puts you in their shoes — what do you do if all of a sudden you don’t have a place to spend the night? I think that was further impacted by the 28˚F temperatures that night. This can truly be an issue of life or death. (I was relieved to hear that on cold winter nights, the Center doesn’t turn anyone away — they move tables, put mats on the floor and everyone who shows up stays warm and safe that night.)

So, as you have probably figured out, a major part of what the NLHHC does is to “be a first response for people who find themselves homeless.” Over the years they’ve also expanded their program to offer not only overnight accommodations, but a place to go in the daytime as well. Like their Help Center which has computers for job hunting, because as Catherine pointed out, “if you’re homeless at night, you’re also homeless during the day.” (Moments like this it comes back to me with brutal force of just how lucky and privileged I am. I have a place to spend time during the day — it’s humbling to be reminded of how special that simple luxury is to others.)

Focusing back on their mission, we also learned at the talk/tour that the second part of their focus is helping people get out of homelessness. And this is where their support system became really interesting to me. Catherine shared some quick stats that the average stay for a guest at the Center was 40 days and half are out in two weeks. They assist in various ways including the Help Center, which I mentioned, as well as help with specific needs that can make all of the difference in the resident’s success. For example, $15 so that they can get a copy of their birth certificate (which is what you need in order to get all of your other identification cards updated) or a black pair of pants for someone who landed a job waiting tables, but couldn’t afford the uniform. These targeted items can make or break someone’s chances to get back into a home of their own.

The Center also works closely with local landlords and helps with first/last/security for guests who are making the transition back into housing. I was also very impressed by a program that have in place for any of their guests who are employed — they are required to put aside a certain amount of their income into their own private savings account for later use when they move into their own place. So, as I hope you can see, they really look at the various ways (big and small) of how they can help people get back into a place to call their own. But, listening to the special guests talk, as well as the volunteers present, it was clear that the focus was on empowering the guests, not enabling them — the guests have to do most of the legwork to get where they want to go.

The third main focus of the New London Homeless Hospitality Center was to offer a variety of services, many of which were medical. They have a Community Health Center with an APRN there four days a week and can handle medically-assisted treatments right on site. While there’s so much more to this part of their offering, at the core, they want to recognize particular causes that can lead to homelessness and address those issues as well (which includes working with other local nonprofits who focus on some of these areas).

I have to say that I wasn’t expecting the (monthly) tour to have 9 other people attending, but it was great to see our community’s interest! Then, part way through the presentation we had three others join our group which really impressed me — State Representative Anthony Nolan and State Representative Joe de la Cruz, as well as our city Mayor, Michael Passero. It was really interesting to hear them speak as to why they were there (staying connected to local issues and programs) and also their take on the issue of regional centers and where the financial burdens land. (Interesting to note that this Center is the only one in Southeastern CT and other towns send their homeless over.)

So, I will admit that I was really impressed that these three government officials showed up to take the tour (which they do from time to time so they were well familiar). And this wasn’t a set up moment for the press — there were no cameras in sight. It felt very genuine and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing them contribute to the talk as it added a whole other dimension.

At the end of the event I have to admit that I was very moved by the work these people were doing and very proud that our community has a center like this to help those in need. And I think in the end they are offering more than just a place to stay or a path out of homelessness — I really felt that they were offering dignity. Catherine made a particular statement that really resonated with me: “Sometimes you just need someone to know your name, hear your story and say that it’s going to be okay.”

I’d like to thank Catherine and the other volunteers at the NLHHC for taking the time to share their work with our tour group, plus the government officials who stopped in and shared their stories and insights, but most of all I would like to thank the three gentlemen who opened up and shared stories about their most vulnerable struggles for all of us to learn from. They were so brave in my eyes and I’m so happy to hear how much progress they are making towards a place to call their own.

As for what you and I can do to help, here are some steps:
1. Find your local homeless center and connect. Take a tour like this one if they offer it. Raise your own level of awareness of how the issue of homelessness is being addressed in your community.
2. Connect with your state representatives and local government and make sure that they know who is focusing on this issue and how they can support them.
3. Volunteer. The NLHHC has a bunch of different roles for volunteers to fill.
4. Send money/donate. (This was actually their first answer when I asked how we can help, just to be clear.)
5. Donate items from their “shelter needs list”. They had a specific list for their Center, so I would check with where you want to donate before sending things over.
6. Create a housewarming kit for those transitioning out of homelessness. I just found this one on NLHHC’s website and loved the idea — if it’s too expensive for your budget, organize a fundraiser at work or gather some friends, head to Target and shop together for this great cause!

#GivingBack #HelpingTheHomeless #WhatsYourCause?


HELPING BIRDS IN WINTER

Last night I went to a presentation about how to help backyard birds in the winter. To be honest, it sounded interesting to me, but I didn’t realize how much of a call to action is actually needed for our feathered friends.

The presentation, which was hosted by Wild Birds Unlimited, was a joint program with Connecticut Audubon Society’s Roger Tory Peterson Estuary Center. The speaker, Joe Attwater, was engaging and very knowledgable. The time certainly flew by! (No bird pun intended there, lol.)

So, onto the good stuff with regards to what I learned, but more importantly, what we can do to help!

I don’t know about you, but when I hear about endangered birds, I think of the bigger, grander birds that have national efforts behind their conservation. But, it turns out that birds are on the decline here in North America, all the way down to the small songbirds (which, truth be told are my favorites anyhow):

“…a recent groundbreaking study published in Science magazine found that North America has experienced a 29 percent drop in its overall population of birds since 1970.”

(Source.)

“There are 3 billion fewer birds today in the United States and Canada than there were 50 years ago, according to a team of scientists from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and elsewhere.”

(Source.)

The reasons for this decline vary, of course, but there are three big factors that were discussed at last night’s presentation: habitat loss, outdoor cats and window collisions. And the good news is that there are things we can do about all of these issues, in addition to simply feeding the birds, which I’ll get into more in a minute.

With regards to habitat loss, we think of big developments and cutting down forests, but there are smaller changes we make to help the birds. We chatted last night about creating areas in our yards from brush that birds can protect themselves from predators — this could be your old Christmas tree, for example. Toss it in your backyard instead of onto the curb for pickup. We also talked about adding native plants to our yards, not only protection, but also as a food source. (The National Audubon Society has a native plants database.)

As for outdoor cats, well, if you know me then you’ll know my stance on this one — the best way to help the birds is to keep your cats indoors! Keep in mind that the average life expectancy for an indoor cat is 14, but for outdoor cats it’s only 5. So, really, it’s in the cat’s best interest, too! #SaveThemAll

Lastly, for window collisions, Joe recommended window decals. They even make cute seasonally-themed ones now! He also mentioned something really interesting — the distance that your bird feeder is from the window matters — it can either be close (5 feet-ish away) or far away (like 30 feet). It’s the in-between distances that put the birds at highest risk. Really good to know!

Of course, then he dug into detail about feeding our backyard birds. It turns out that you want a high fat diet in winter for them (versus a high protein diet in spring and summer). It shocked me to learn that birds can lose 10%-25% of their body weight on a single (very) cold night! So, you want high fat foods like suet and winter seed blends.

And a few other tips — keep your feeders clean and don’t forget to offer water as well!

Last night turned out to be both enjoyable and interesting, as I had hoped it would be. While I already do feed my backyard birds daily, I hadn’t grasped the importance of it with regards to the big picture and the overall decline they are going through. I may only be helping the 30 or 40 birds who visit, but if we all play our part, those numbers add up!

#HelpingBirdsInWinter #GivingBack #ConnecticutAudubonSociety #WhatsYourCause?


#FREEMINNIE

I’ve had a favorite quote by Margaret Mead for awhile now: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” But, last week I feel that I truly saw it in action for the first time.

In an effort to get out and support more causes I care about, I decided to attend an event hosted by the Nonhuman Rights Project. They were speaking in court, fighting for elephant rights here in Connecticut.

I’ll be honest, this event just popped up in my Facebook feed so I wasn’t very educated about the issue, but I’ve since learned that there is an elephant named Minnie, who is the sole surviving elephant in a traveling circus based in our state. For any of you who know elephants or the treatment of animals in circuses, this is a sad affair. Just the fact that she’s alone is enough to break my heart. (Her elephant friends Beulah and Karen passed last year).

So, I was drawn to helping Minnie and all that was involved was showing up to demonstrate support. I could do that! Little did I know that I was going to meet such an incredible group of people. It’s amazing how we can gain so much from giving back…

The oral arguments themselves weren’t all that exciting because it was hard to hear from the back of the room. (I will also confess that I was a few minutes late, which for those of you who know me will not come as a surprise, lol). But, I made an appearance to show my support for Minnie to be able live out the rest of her life in an elephant sanctuary instead of being exploited by the circus.

Afterwards, there was a group of people who gathered on the front steps of the courthouse and that’s where the magic happened. The lawyer started to really speak now, digging into the details on the case and comparing it to other cases he’s won in the past for other animals. This was my first introduction to the Nonhuman Rights Project. They are the “only civil rights organization in the United States working through litigation, public policy advocacy, and education to secure legally recognized fundamental rights for nonhuman animals.” (Source.) And their president, Steven M. Wise, was the lawyer arguing Minnie’s case. There was way too much to summarize here, but let me assure you that he made a strong argument. (He’s in the middle of the photo below with the sunglasses on.)

And I was a bit in awe. Here’s a man who dedicates his time to fighting for the legal rights of animals. I started to experience some hero worship right at the start. How amazing to combine his profession with his passion to save animals! Despite the rather chilly weather (noses were running all around), I could have stayed there all day just listening to him talk. Of course he needed to get back to the office to work more towards Minnie’s defense, but I certainly appreciated him taking the time to explain the details to our small group on the courthouse steps.

Also in that small group were other folks who inspired me just as much:

First, there were some people from a group called Desmond’s Army who are animal law advocates. They “seek to raise public awareness regarding laws as they relate to animals and the statistical connection between animal abuse and domestic violence (and other acts of violence).” (Source.) They were so welcoming to me, a random stranger joining in on the conversation.

And last, but certainly not least, I have to mention meeting David Michel, a State Representative from the other side of Connecticut. His passion for animal welfare spanned from Minnie’s rights all the way to the creatures in the ocean who would be affected by off-shore wind turbines if they aren’t built correctly. (That’s a drastic simplification of the argument, but you get the idea, right?) What was most fascinating about listening to Representative Michel was getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse at all of the animal-related legislature that supporters like him are trying to get passed. There are an encouraging number of proposals, but there are limited openings for them to get heard by the court. It’s a real struggle from the sounds of it, but he’s fighting for all that he can.

I know this might not have sounded like the most exciting adventure in getting out to support great causes, but looks can certainly be deceiving. My heart was full and my mind was blown as I stood on the windy court steps and watched this small group of dedicated people as they shared all of their efforts to change the world. And the good news is that they are making progress. And inspiring others to do the same. I can’t put into words how fortunate I feel for having been able to meet them. They have so much more work to do, but they are thoughtful and they are committed and, just like Margaret Mead said, that’s all you need.

#FreeMinnie #AnimalRights #GivingBack #WhatsYourCause?


BRIDESMAIDS WALK WITH SHELTER DOGS INSTEAD OF FLOWERS

As someone who is planning her own wedding, this story really struck a chord with me. I absolutely adore how this couple decided to feature older dogs available for adoption as a part of their ceremony. And it had great results! “…many of the dogs who participated in her wedding — dogs who were having trouble finding homes — have now been adopted out to loving forever families.”
 
Such a beautiful way to make your day more memorable and give back at the same time! Read the full article here.

The Giving Back Society | Building Compassion Through Volunteerism

MEETING AT OUR SENATOR’S OFFICE

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, but the highlight was a meeting at Senator Murphy’s office last week! Had a great conversation with one of his legislative assistants about volunteerism and leadership opportunities for high school students in Connecticut. Since then I’ve been connecting with Senators’ offices from all over the country. It’s really great to see how willing our representatives have been to talking with me, especially for those who are out of state since I’m not one of their constituents. Lots of great ideas exchanged and now we’re putting together a great longterm plan thanks to all of the feedback!

The Giving Back Society | Building Compassion Through Volunteerism

GRATITUDE AND THANKS

“We must find time to stop and thank the people who make a difference in our lives.” – John F. Kennedy

This Thanksgiving Day, I am resonating with this phrase on a such a deep level. Here we are, trying to help others and causes we care about, but it’s so important to look at our own journey to how we got here and go back and thank those who helped us travel that road.

It’s such a blessing to be in a position where we can help others, even if it’s just in small ways. I’m so grateful for that ability. And I’m grateful beyond words to anyone and everyone who supported me in any small way to help me be the person I am right here, right now. And I’m grateful to you for taking time out of your busy day to read this. Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving, full of gratitude and thanks!

The Giving Back Society | Building Compassion Through Volunteerism

 


WHAT DO I NEED TO LEARN

This correlates so much with how volunteerism can help students build their career — approaching a problem or cause and building a solution to help is a perfect stepping stone for this concept!

The Giving Back Society | Building Compassion Through Volunteerism

 


WEEKEND INSPIRATION

Spent the weekend researching how we can make it easier for students to reap the benefits of volunteerism! Such inspiring presentations and connections!

The Giving Back Society | Building Compassion Through Volunteerism

 


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