By David Greisman
10:10 AM EST, December 12, 2011
Fatherhood had kept Dana Sohr from service work. It also brought him back to it.
Sohr’s youngest son had come home from his first religious education class at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia in September 2006 and told his father about a service project the students wanted to do in New Orleans.
“It just kind of struck me,” Sohr recalled more than five years later. “I said, ‘I’d like to help you do that.’ ”
Sohr was among nearly 30 parents and high school students who went to a city still ravaged and reeling from Hurricane Katrina. They helped rehabilitate two houses, demolishing the damaged interior of one, demolishing and beginning rebuilding the other.
Their trip served as a catalyst for Sohr, who has since become the chairman of his congregation’s social action council.
In the past several years, Sohr has spearheaded his congregation’s efforts to help those in need -- the homeless and the poor, the desperate and the devastated -- both locally and beyond, from Howard County to the urban settings of New York City and an isolated town in West Virginia.
The role has consumed Sohr, so much so that, as he puts it: “This is kind of what I do.”
The 52-year-old father of three explains, “There are things I no longer do, because this is where I spend more of my time. It’s a conscious choice. You get to be a certain age and start thinking about leaving behind a better world. That’s not unique to me. I don’t think I’m unusual at all in that belief. But as a result of that, I think I consciously choose to spend hours working on social action because it brings meaning to my life.”
Sohr is self-employed as a consultant, developing training programs for corporations that are implementing complex technology.
The New Orleans trip wasn’t Sohr’s first brush with service work, though it was his first in decades.
He’d attended a Catholic high school, one where the teachers not only were religious, but had been influenced by the socially conscious 1960s. His teachers instilled the expectation that people need to be of service to one another.
“When I was in high school I was the guy organizing the clothing drives for Appalachia or organizing fundraisers for this or that,” Sohr said. “And then I got a little older, got married and had kids, and you throw all your energy into work. I also coached kids for a long time in various sports.
“When our youngest reached high school age, in a way the demands on you as a parent go down,” he said. “So I’m sitting there with energy that I guess I was just waiting to be put into something.”
He remembered being in New Orleans but not believing he was in America. The city, even a year and a half after the storm, reminded him of photos he’d seen in the 1980s of war-torn Beirut, Lebanon.
The trip reminded him “that there are lots of like-minded people who want to be of service to others and to the community and to live out their values,” he said. It was confirmation to me that people would put their faith into action and they would put their energy, money and time into it. They would show up and throw themselves into it.”
Raised in Prince George’s County, Sohr has lived in Howard County since 1984. He and his wife, Therese, moved a couple of years ago from Highland to Columbia, which places him closer to the Unitarian Universalist congregation based out of the Owen Brown Interfaith Center.
Sohr is quick to point out that much of what he’s involved with wouldn’t be possible without others joining in the effort. He sees his role as helping to organize the work, in particular making it so that people can join in even for just one hour or a few hours.
“You can get a lot done with people just putting in small increments of time,” he said. “My clear belief is that it’s unusual to find somebody who doesn’t want to help in some way, to give back to the community and help those in need. There’s a tremendous amount of need, even in our affluent community.”
Among what they’ve been involved with: repairing homes for low-income families through Rebuilding Together Howard County; rehabilitating and painting transitional housing for those formerly in shelters via Bridges to Housing Stability; and, this past winter, using the church as a temporary homeless shelter for a week as part of a Grassroots program.
Rae Millman of Columbia was one of the 140 volunteers at the congregation’s temporary shelter. She said Sohr was an organized leader, kind and respectful, and that he was also there at 5:30 each morning serving breakfast.
“I thought he must live here,” Millman said, “because he was so full involved the whole week.”
Sohr said the church will be opening up as a shelter again this winter and that congregation members are looking into how else to contribute, including joining in with a county plan to end homelessness and potentially partnering with another church to bring more affordable housing to the area.
“We don’t want it to end just with charity for a week, a mattress on the floor and hot meals,” he said. “We can do that, but what else can we be doing? There’s a lot to be done.”
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