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Candlelight vigil held for opening of shelter

November 03, 2003|by BRIAN SHAPPELL

shappell@herald-mail.com

Amid the noisy chatter of passing downtown pedestrians and the thumping bass sounds from nearby car stereos Sunday, more than two dozen people shared in a moment of peaceful prayer outside the Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown to celebrate the opening of the REACH Cold Weather Shelter.

Guests and volunteers alike said they are thankful for what the shelter has done for them.

Attendees began lighting their candles and preparing to sing at 6:30 p.m. to start the service, held on the side lawn of the South Prospect Street church.

The Presbyterian Church of Hagerstown is this week's location for the rotating winter shelter, which opened for its eighth season last week.

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"We always wait a week after opening so the guests can be part of the ceremony," REACH Executive Director Terri Baker said.

Baker said more than 1,500 homeless people from Washington County have passed through the shelter since its opening.

"That's just through our center - that's very sad," Baker said.

Baker said there were 376 people who visited during the cold, harsh months last winter.

The shelter is open Mondays through Saturdays from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m., and from 3 p.m. Sundays to 7 a.m. Mondays. The location of the shelter, which is sponsored by more than 20 religious organizations, moves about every two weeks. The next host will be the First Christian Church on Potomac Avenue.

While the shelter has rotated among area churches, REACH (Religious Effort to Assist and Care For the Homeless) plans to move next year into a permanent site next to Christ's Reformed Church on West Franklin Street.

Baker said the key to the success of REACH is the mutual respect between the guests and volunteers.

"The people are really wonderful to the volunteers," Baker said. "They (the guests) see the volunteers are here because they care."

Baker said she believes many of the volunteers benefit as much from the shelter as the homeless people it serves.

"These people have changed the lives of the volunteers. They've found a compassion they didn't know they had," she said.

One of the volunteers on hand Sunday evening was Nancy Horst, entering her seventh year as a REACH volunteer.

"I felt like I gained a lot more than I've given here," said Horst, a 30-year Hagerstown resident. "Everywhere I go, particularly in the downtown area, I see friends that I know."

Many of the returning guests who attended Sunday's vigil said their experiences at the shelter have been positive.

"They do a good job for us," said Carol LeDeay, who has been coming to the shelter for two years. "They're helping us out a lot by giving us a place to eat, sleep and take a shower."

"I'm grateful to have a place to lay my head," four-year attendee Steve Brown said. "I don't have to sleep next to the tracks tonight. You never know what's going to creep up on you."

LeDeay and Brown were among those who said the shelter also was a place they could get help in dealing with their alcoholism, as was shelter newcomer Steve Creager.

"They won't try to force you, but if you ask for help, they'll give it to you," Creager said.

Baker said many of the shelter's programs to help the homeless, such as finding jobs and permanent housing, will be complemented by today's opening of a day shelter at New Light Metropolitan Community Church at 40 W. Church St. The day shelter, coordinated by REACH, Community Action Council and Turning Point, will be open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

"We do a lot here at night, but we feel things will be more successful during the day because things are open, more accessible," Baker said.

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