When she applied for the job of Director of Volunteers at Family Promise of Bergen County, Margo Heller resorted to a classic job interview gambit.
“What,’’ she asked Executive Director Kate Duggan, “is a typical day around here like?’’
That was eight years ago. “Kate and I still laugh about that,’’ Margo now says. “There is no typical day around here.’’
Her job has a lot of moving parts, including assembling two elaborate puzzles: the annual, week-by-week congregational hosting schedule for Family Promise’s homeless sheltering network AND the schedule for the daily Walk-In Dinner Program. Coordinating the efforts of literally hundreds of congregations, businesses, schools, and social service organizations is extremely complicated.
In other ways, the job is relatively straight forward. Sometimes it seems to boil down to those lessons you learned in kindergarten – saying “Please!” and “Thank you!’’ (And occasionally “Sorry!’’).
Individuals with specific expertise can be a valuable asset to both the organization and the families. Margo is a master at matching the right volunteers with a specific need. “Volunteers are engaged in everything we do. It’s very gratifying to facilitate those connections!”
Because of her role, Margo enjoys interacting with the entire Family Promise Staff, what she calls “an amazing team”. According to Kate, “Margo is like the catcher in baseball. She’s involved in every play.”
Margo, who lives in Ramsey, has two adult daughters and three grandchildren. Before coming to Family Promise she taught preschool for many years, and was the volunteer coordinator at an animal shelter. She’d become concerned about family homelessness, even before she realized it existed in Bergen County. When she spotted a Family Promise ad for a director of volunteers, she applied.
After almost eight years, she says she still loves to see families who enter the program move from fear to hope. “When they start, some of the parents have a deer-in-the-headlights look. They’re frightened, mostly for their kids. But then they realize the kids are safe, and we can see the change in them.’’
She sees something else, too: “The barriers come down between the volunteers and the families. The idea of ‘us-and-them’ fades. It’s like one mother told me: “I didn’t realize people could be so kind.’’
Perhaps her biggest challenge involving the Network – after the hosting schedule – has been the flexibility that the program requires, given its ever-changing cast of families and weekly host sites. Some volunteers get frustrated when a family doesn’t arrive in time for dinner, or when the number of guests suddenly changes.
Margo says what she’s learned, and tries to share with volunteers, is that everyone involved in helping the homeless has to be adaptable. “Life is messy, and if you add being homeless while also trying to work and take care of your children, you get a lot of unpredictability,’’ she says. “Things don’t always go according to plan. It’s a lesson we continue to learn together.”