Temperatures are dropping in Wilson County and more homeless people than ever are seeking out Compassionate Hands for help, but the volunteer base has taken a hit.

Many of its traditional volunteers are retirees at greater risk from COVID-19 who opted out this year. The nonprofit expects to need 25 volunteers a night this winter and finding younger people with enough time to spare has been a challenge.

“It has been just brutal on our volunteer base,” Compassionate Hands Executive Director John Grant said. “Overnight stays and a lot of weeknights has been ideal for retired people, but it’s not ideal for retired people to stay when there are pandemic concerns. So I’d say we’ve lost about half of our volunteers from last winter.”

The ministry was able to start its eighth season last week, but it could be forced to close its shelters early without consistent volunteer support through March 15.

“We’ve had double the numbers compared to the first week of December 2019,” Grant said, noting that recent cold rains could be driving that up. “These first five nights hosted an average of 15 men and two women … I can see some economic distress, but I think it’s just too soon to say that our numbers are up because the economy’s so bad.”

The greatest needs are for volunteers to stay the night at the shelters, wash linens, donate breakfast food and sanitize the shelters in the daytime. One of the ways local partners are working to meet those needs is by rotating volunteers.

“Our church has basically adopted Thursday nights,” Pastor Jarod Smith of New Tribe Church said. “The way that works is I had one person ride along with me in the shelter bus, and next week they’re going to have someone else ride along and show them the ropes so they can do it the week after that.”

The bus would normally stop at any of 40 churches, but this year Compassionate Hands is using two large shelters to help with social distancing and prevent a COVID-19 outbreak. A newly purchased building on North College Street in Lebanon houses the men, while women are taken to The Glade Church in Mt. Juliet.

John Davis, a member of First Baptist Church of Watertown, is among the volunteers helping at the new men’s shelter. He decided to get involved after one of the church elders told him about the need.

“I work every other Thursday, and it’s probably going to turn into every Thursday,” he said. “I spend the night with the gentlemen and stay at the shelter where they’re housed. They need about four volunteers there a night to stay over.”

Overnight volunteers arrive at 5:30 p.m. and stay through 8 a.m. the next day. Davis and the others were able to share a meal and provide ministry to the men in the meantime.

“It’s a blessing,” Smith said. “I think the most impactful thing is that when you get to come and start a conversation, you get to meet the person and see that they are another person like you or me, and they’re just in an unfortunate situation. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s a human connecting with another human, giving them a place to stay and a warm meal.”

Amy Halbert of Hillcrest Baptist Church said it has been a blessing to build relationships with people at the women’s shelter. She is another first-time volunteer who plans to stay involved with Compassionate Hands moving forward.

“It’s just answered prayer,” she said. “Some things have changed in my life where I was more available, and at the same time our church is becoming more interested in expanding out to serve the community.”

Halbert has helped with meal prep and stayed the night in The Glade Church. She hopes to play a part in reducing homelessness in Wilson County by working with the ministry.

“I’m highly impressed with them,” she said. “There are wonderful people everywhere you turn, and I look forward to staying more nights and helping ... you get such a blessing from them, being able to love on them, assist and talk with them and connect that relationship.”

Davis said the people at the shelters appreciate having a place free of judgment and found it humbling to be able to support them.

“Thursday night, it was 28 degrees and pouring down rain all day,” Davis said. “You’re talking about giving people an opportunity to keep from freezing to death. You’re talking about giving them the simple things everyone takes for granted.”

Those interested in volunteering with Compassionate Hands can visit the ministry’s website at https://www.compassionatehandstn.org to contact them or learn more.

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