Beyond the Basics: Winter 2012

At St. Francis House, we provide all of the tools and services our guests need to rebuild their lives. Our dedicated volunteers help us do that by providing assistance and classes that address both basic and complex needs. Last year, more than 320 volunteers served a total of 23,382 hours, helping us keep our promise to meet all of our guests’ needs, all under one roof. Following are three volunteer stories. 

Bob Hurstak never intended to volunteer at St. Francis House after he retired from a career in finance. He came in one day to drop off a clothing donation for his wife, Emily, a nurse practitioner who works in our Marie L. Arky Medical Clinic, a partnership between St. Francis House and Boston Health Care for the Homeless. Yet when Bob saw how shorthanded the Fresh Threads clothing department was, he stayed to help out. Then he returned the following week, and has come every Tuesday since to volunteer in our clothing and food service programs. “I wouldn’t miss a week,” says Bob, who leaves exhausted but happy after each shift because he knows he’s meeting immediate needs for guests, as well as helping to “stop the spiral” of despair that begins when bad things happen to people through no fault of their own.

“Homelessness isn’t what most people think it is,” he says. “Many of the guests have a job but don’t earn enough to make ends meet. Without a meal or a change of clothing, they wouldn’t make it. These are good people struggling to get their lives together.” Bob tries to encourage guests by creating a sense of normalcy and treating them as friends or colleagues. He jokes around, listens to people’s concerns, and occasionally reminds someone to expect a better future. Bob also understands the importance of allowing a guest to choose a shirt or pair of pants. “The guests have so few choices because of their circumstances. I try to restore some of what homelessness has taken away.”

Antonia Nedder brings the power and joy of music to the Day Center every Thursday. Since March 2011 she has led a music group, playing piano for guests who want to sing or just listen. “I was a donor and wanted to get more involved,” says Antonia, who has performed at Tanglewood many times and is the Youth Choir Director and an organist for her church. “Music has a very big impact. It can fill a void or meet a very specific need,” she says. For some guests, that means hearing a favorite song played week after week. Others accompany Antonia on a tambourine or bongo drums, enjoying the rare opportunity to use their musical talent. “I’ve had guests who are mourning the loss of someone, and use music to deal with those emotions,” Antonia explains. “I’ve had guests tell me, after an upbeat rendition of a Beatles tune or ‘Lean on Me,’ that the music really lifted them up and made their day. The best thing about this group is that it means different things to different people.”

Guests have enjoyed the music so much that Antonia started a choir this past April, to provide another venue for artistic and personal expression. Participants work on vocalization, singing in parts, and learning specific songs. “It’s been great to see how the harmonies can come together,” says Antonia, who has worked with more than 100 guests in total. Music can be incredibly healing for everyone, she explains. “For the hour or two that we are doing music at St. Francis House, it’s just about the music. It’s about connecting with a song or a phrase or a melody line, about getting a really good jam together and working with other people to bring about a great sound. I think for anyone, it’s a break from whatever is on your mind; it’s about just doing something positive and joyful,” she says.

For students in the Sullivan Family Moving Ahead Program, learning to manage money is crucial, and financial planner Penelope Tzougros, PhD, ChFC, CLU, teaches them the skills that will allow for a bright financial future. Six times a year, Penelope leads a two-day financial planning workshop that covers the basics of money management – how to create a budget and start saving – as well as how to make money work long-term.

Penelope, the author of “Wealthy Choices: The Seven Competencies of Financial Success,” begins by teaching students the difference between essential and optional purchases and how both affect the larger picture. Ask yourself, she explains, “if something you’d like is a need, a want, a luxury, or a happy silliness. If you buy frivolous items, you nickel and dime away your dreams.” Penelope stresses the concept of wealthy choices vs. poor choices, and urges students to always think about how their choices will help or hinder life goals. For example, “If I buy something for $200 and I take home $10 an hour, that is 20 hours of my life,” she says. “If I spend it on tuition so I can learn a skill to get a better job, then that is a wise choice, a wealthy choice. If I spend that amount on coffees and sodas out, I am wasting money.”

Once students learn the basics, Penelope examines some of the underlying assumptions about money that are counterproductive, such as the idea it will make them happy, or that they will never earn enough. “If you are not using money for a money purpose (like paying the rent, investing), you will not succeed. You can’t ask money to restore your self-esteem. But if a person studies each of the exercises I use in class and acts on the concepts, he or she could generate as much money as he or she wanted. No matter what has happened up to now, each student has the ability to turn it all to the good,” she says.