Insights Gathered During the Blizzard of 2016

Editor’s note: During Code Blue emergencies, some Catholic Charities programs provide additional support for those in need. This requires our staff members to remain on-site for days helping our clients and each other. Beth Awalt, one of the staff members at Baltimore City’s Code Blue shelter, Catholic Charities’ Weinberg Housing and Resource Center, shared the following reflection on her experiences during the blizzard of January 2016.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I got the message that Caitlin Balicki, WHRC’s Project SERVE member, and I would be on the team sleeping at Weinberg all weekend. I packed most of the necessities: air mattress, pillow, soup, snacks, books to read (like there was any time for that!) and layers of clothing, and brought all the stuff to my office for what I thought would be the first of 3-4 days at the shelter.

Here are three lessons I learned that blizzard weekend.

First, Catholic Charities staff members are extremely dedicated. WHRC has over 70 staff members, but many have families, other jobs, pets, etc. that they needed to care for during the storm. The amount of staff who stayed over Friday night (and therefore the rest of the weekend) was incredible. We had a full team! At some points, we had to encourage the staff to sleep, so some shifts were lighter than others, but we made it work.

Staff members from outside WHRC, like Amy Collier who brought groceries for us on Monday, Christian Noll, Mary Anne O’Donnell, Mary Ann McCluskey and Bill McCarthy, among many others, were so supportive as well. The staff from ODB brought us extra food over the weekend, and even folks from Baltimore City brought Monday’s meals in a Humvee! We couldn’t have done it without them!

The greatest dedication I saw, though, was when three of our staff members walked to WHRC (past Mt. Vernon) from West Baltimore in the snow! I estimate this to be about 2-3 miles, maybe more. Michael walked through the night Friday night to arrive on time. Dwayne took a red-eye walk Sunday night to relieve us on Monday morning and Ricky also started out super early Monday. They all showed the greatest dedication. I encourage you to thank another Catholic Charities staff member for their dedication.

Second, it’s important to rotate your position to truly learn. Caitlin and I spent almost 15 hours that weekend working in the women’s dorm. To explain: Usually, we have the 275 residents exit the dorms (2nd and 3rd floors) by 6:45 a.m., and they do not return back upstairs until 4:00 p.m. Since we take in an extra 60 people during the winter, during the blizzard, those folks stayed downstairs all weekend, and our regular residents got to relax upstairs in the dorms.

Our time working in the women’s dorm was beautiful, though. The women were so sweet; even those who struggle with various substance abuse or mental health issues were so respectful. It really gave us a good learning experience, too, of how to operate WHRC and the daily struggles our residents and front-line staff face. I encourage you to schedule a time to shadow or trade with another colleague – to live a day in their shoes.

Third, Catholic Charities clients really are willing to lend a hand. I saw some miraculous moments that weekend. ALL of the Christopher Place (CP) men came downstairs to serve lunch at Our Daily Bread. That program was hopping! Caitlin and I went over to check if they needed help, but the CP guys had it under control. Meals at WHRC were covered, too. The Volunteer Resident Monitors (VRMs) made PB&J sandwiches with us, in case we needed snacks, and the VRMs served alongside the staff for breakfast and dinner each day. I also saw a myriad of residents and guests shoveling – many of them shoveling our sidewalks, staff cars and parking lots! Good exercise and fresh air, I suppose, but still something I was grateful for.

I also saw many moments of residents helping each other. One female resident comforted another when she was caught with food under her mattress (against the rules). Another male resident helped a man in a wheelchair stand up and cross the street in the snow so he could eat lunch at Our Daily Bread. When a female resident fainted in front of us, another woman told us that this resident’s boyfriend was in the men’s dorm and would probably have some more information about her medical history. I encourage you to make a new friend with a client, and thank them for the support they provide to us, every day.