One member of the Family Promise of Bergen County sheltering network hosts homeless families four weeks a year – St. Catharine Roman Catholic Church in Glen Rock.
Hosting even one week is an undertaking. Hence the obvious question for Pam Biggs, FP coordinator at St. Catharine’s: How do you do it?
Her answer involves SignUpGenius, cardboard posters, guilt tripping, a former convent and Mr. Bubble. Among other things.
But first, consider how Pam got involved with Family Promise. About eight years ago a priest at St. Catharine’s told her about the newly formed Family Promise network and suggested it would be a good outreach ministry. St. Catharine’s applied for a host slot on the following year’s calendar – and then learned that in just a few weeks they’d need to host several homeless working families with kids.
It was the beginning of a mission that saw St. Catharine’s expand its commitment from two to three to four weeks.
Along the way, Pam has developed some best practices:
- SignUpGenius: The free online software tool for volunteer management and event planning allows parishioners to sign up for various tasks.
- Sign up posters: Pam and others stand in the back of the church after Mass with an old-school poster listing various needed items, from coffee to batteries to shower gel. Parents and kids stand before it, discussing what they’ll get. Everyone feels involved.
- Guilt-tripping: It can be hard to find enough overnight volunteers to stay with the guests. Occasionally Pam has to plead, “I can’t stay over every night!’’
- Take out night: After the FP office urged host congregations to vary menus a bit more – pasta was appearing a bit too frequently on the menu — Pam got the idea to solicit donations to let families choose their meals from take out menus. “The families have so little choice in a lot of ways,’’ she says, “and this gives them some.’’
- FP “evangelization:’’ That’s what Pam calls spreading the word about the program. Between parish communications, announcements at Mass and word of mouth, “I don’t think you can find anyone at St. Catharine’s that doesn’t know about Family Promise,’’ she says. Each hosting stint usually involves 50 to 80 hands-on volunteers.
The St. Catharine FP ministry is fortunate to have use of a former convent on the parish’s campus. Guests have their own bedrooms (each of which has a sink), and sometimes families with older kids are able to have two rooms.
The convent also has showers – and bathtubs! Enter Mr. Bubble.
The convent also has room for storage, which Pam and her team have used to store lightly used donated furniture they pass along to families moving into homes of their own.
Margo Heller, Family Promise’s Director of Volunteers, has worked closely with Pam since 2012.
“Pam’s organizational skills are unmatched. She gives 110% to all things Family Promise, including not only storing furniture for families, but also often delivering and setting up! Pam is adept at meeting all families exactly where they are and offering extraordinary attention and care to each one. We are grateful and fortunate to have her as an integral part of the Family Promise family.”
Pam says flexibility is essential. Sometimes for instance, there aren’t as many guests as expected, and she’ll have to tell volunteers who’d signed up that they aren’t needed after all. Or volunteer cooks have to increase or cut back portions at the last minute.
That, Pam says, is part of the deal: “I tell people, ‘Life is life. We’re not in control.’’’