Turning Compassion Into Action and Embracing a 'There's Only Us' Mindset
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Giving back to the communities in which we live, work and play has been part of the WWT DNA since the company was founded in 1990.
We take seriously our role of investing in our communities and making a positive impact for all, which is why our work with the St. Patrick Center is so important to me.
St. Patrick Center, a St. Louis-based non-profit on whose board I serve, provides hope and dignity to those who are homeless, or at risk of being homeless, through employment, housing and essential healthcare services.
I was recently humbled to be recognized by the St. Patrick Center as a Leo Paradis Volunteer Champion — an award the late executive director of the organization whose vision of creating a one-stop caring center for essential homeless services helped make St. Patrick Center what it is today.
I am grateful for the legacy Leo left behind — one of compassion and action — and for the tireless work of the organization's staff and volunteers even during the most trying times.
I'd like to express my gratitude by sharing a quick story about St. Patrick Center and, in honor of Leo, use that story as a platform to call for action.
Homeless shelters in St. Louis are a year-round need, but they are literally life saving in the winter when temperatures can approach or even drop below zero. I learned first hand of this need in February of 2021 when I volunteered for several late-night shifts at a "Winter Haven," a zero-barrier shelter created by St. Patrick Center and several St. Louis agencies to address the severe temperatures and weather conditions.
The experience was at once inspiring, humbling and unnerving, and unlike anything I've ever experienced during the decade I've been serving on the board of St. Patrick Center.
Operation Winter Haven serves as a safe and warm space for 150 people who are homeless during winter. To address the urgent need, St. Patrick Center converted an old café into a temporary shelter for 28 guests. It was at capacity every night, and I was grateful to see St. Patrick Center in action.
As I worked the door, allowing guests in and out, I was constantly reminded of the brutally bitter weather outside. In one of the harshest conditions to work in, I nearly cried as I experienced how compassionately our social workers cared for and spoke to our guests — many of whom seemed to be suffering from mental illness.
One young man came through my door very distressed and upset. He was understandably agitated having been turned away from another shelter he was referred to, forcing him to walk for miles in the frigid weather. The team lead — a social worker he knew and trusted, who has built ties with many guests through mobile outreach — was able to comfort him.
Our team lead sat on the damp, salt-encrusted floor next to him for over 20 minutes, listening as the guest vented. As he calmed down, a cot opened in our shelter, and we were able to assure him of a place to sleep in our safe haven. Without our team lead's compassion and understanding, we may have had to turn the guest away too, leaving him to face a dangerous night in the freezing temperatures.
It was also wonderful to see donated items being put to good use. Warm socks, dry boots and appropriate coats — all handed out during an incredible time of need for guests entering with wet clothes or jackets more suitable for the springtime.
One middle-aged woman stood out. She came in just a windbreaker jacket, but still found the kindness to share some of her personal belongings with a young man she learned was from out of town. I went to the storage room with the same social worker who had helped the earlier guest to find a few warm coats for the woman. She was thrilled to have a choice! "I like both, but this one looks very nice and matches your complexion and complements your scarf," our social worker said.
It was humbling. Our guests are not just looking for a handout. They want to make their own choices and maintain their dignity during a time when it's hard to come by.
That night, in snowy conditions no one should have had to encounter without shelter, I learned many of our guests were at the bottom rung of the ladder, and they were often the most difficult to serve as many had been kicked out of shelters or other programs for having mental illness or substance abuse issues. Some, in fact, would prefer to be on the streets but just couldn't bear the cold any longer.
The circumstances of near-zero-degree weather call for a different level of compassion. I was profoundly proud of how we welcomed every guest with a warm space, a bed, food and hot coffee, and, perhaps more importantly, dignity and hope.
As a result of "meeting them where they were," we were able to provide vital follow-on services (medical, financial, mental health services, etc.) to many of the Winter Haven guests — services they were not receiving or had always shunned in the past.
I listen to U2's song Invisible every day. The song includes an inspirational chorus: "There is no them. There's only us." Operation Winter Haven was a collective effort of "us," coming together to help those who may feel invisible but who are "only us."
"It's just a monumental accomplishment," said St. Louis University Associate Professor and SPC Board member Tim Huffman on NPR. "And I've also never seen so many people from so many different sectors working so collaboratively north and south, church, nonprofit, governmental, so many different program models and people showing up to do the work."
As mentioned earlier, I am incredibly grateful for the legacy Leo Paradis left behind. But it would be a disservice to Leo if I failed to turn that gratitude into action — after all, gratitude is about showing thankfulness, not just feeling it.
To continue building upon Leo's vision and to express my gratitude toward everyone involved with St. Patrick Center, I encourage you to learn more about St. Patrick Center's mission and the value it provides to our community. And, if you're able to do so, please consider donating your time or resources toward a charity that never thinks in terms of "them," only as "us."