THIS WEEK, Emmanuel United Methodist Church opened its doors to Winter Haven, a traveling men's shelter. The church has participated in the program for four or five years, church members say.
This year, 15 Laurel congregations will provide food and shelter for one week each to 15 to 20 homeless men through the 10-year-old cooperative program. Participating are three Presbyterian, four Methodist, one Jewish and two Catholic congregations, one Baptist and one Adventist church.
At Emmanuel U.M.C. in Scaggsville, about 100 volunteers signed up to help. They turned the church meeting hall into a dining room and dormitory, with partitions between the two areas.
They covered the tables with red checkered tablecloths and placed a large television in the corner.
In the dormitory, church members set up the cots that travel with the men and designated part of the space as a drop-off area where the men could safely leave their possessions during the day.
Bob Rhoades, a Winter Haven board member, says it takes about 100 volunteers to shelter the men for a week because the congregations have so many services.
Each day, the men are picked up about 6 p.m. at Elizabeth House, a soup kitchen in Laurel, and driven to the shelter, where they are served dinner. They socialize or watch television and settle down for the night on cots.
In the morning, they are served breakfast, given bag lunches and driven back to Laurel.
Usually the men leave by 7 a.m. Several have jobs that begin early.
The congregations provide volunteers to cook dinners for the seven nights, bring snacks and bag lunches, drive the men to and from the shelter, and stay overnight with them.
On Tuesday, the Williams family prepared the dinner at their home, reheated it in the church kitchen and served it to the men.
Shelly and Laura Williams found a few spare moments in between dishing up meatloaf, mashed potatoes, vegetables and chocolate cake to squeeze in homework.
"It's fun, but I have a lot of homework," said Shelly, 11, a fifth-grader at Hammond Elementary.
The family usually serves on lasagna night, said older sister Laura, 13, a seventh-grader at Hammond Middle School. But this year there was a scheduling conflict, so they came on meatloaf night instead.
After serving the food, the volunteers settled down to eat with the men.
When Laura caught her father, Doug, surreptitiously eating chocolate cake and ice cream, he tried to pass it off as burnt meatloaf -- and very, very cold mashed potatoes.
"The food's so good, I'd eat here always," he said. "The food's better than many places," he added, smiling at his wife, Elaine.
The Emmanuel United Methodist volunteers provided more than food and shelter to the men. They offered to pick up laundry the men left out at night, take it home to wash and return it the next day.
Winter Haven, Rhoades said, is run by volunteers. Although it is extremely well organized, no organizing body sets rules and requirements.
"Winter Haven is not a legal entity," Rhoades said. "It has a loose connection with [the Laurel Advocacy and Referral Service. But] Winter Haven is a goodwill organization flying by the seat of its pants. The people have a missionary spirit. It all holds together. There's no president, no treasurer, no secretary."
Other board members -- there are four, including Rhoades -- are Donny Phillips, Jenny Smith and Nancy Herron. The board's function is to organize and schedule the congregations for the season.
One of the board members visits the shelter each night to provide the men with a sense of continuity.
Rhoades credits the generosity of the congregations in opening their houses of worship as well as their hearts to these men.
"They talk the talk and demonstrate they can walk the walk," he said.
He gives credit also to Phillips, a social worker for LARS. Phillips screens the men who will attend the program.
Winter Haven provides spiritual support as well as physical respite during the bitter months.
The Savage Library, 9525 Durness Lane, will present storyteller Michelle Hamiel at 2 p.m. tomorrow.
The Pikesville librarian has been delighting families across Maryland with her renditions of traditional African and African-American tales.
Registration is not required.