MARQUETTE - Mitch Stephenson grew up learning from his parents about the importance of helping others. Now a junior at Northern Michigan University, that's exactly what he's doing.
"My parents very strongly pushed how it's important to help your fellow human beings," said Stephenson, who grew up in downstate Atlanta. "In Marquette we have the ability to make serious differences."
In the fall of 2010, Stephenson began volunteering with local rotating homeless shelter Room at the Inn. He's now working to develop a program to encourage more NMU students to volunteer.
began volunteering with
local rotating homeless shelter
Room at the Inn. He’s now working to develop a program to encourage more NMU students to volunteer. (Journal photo by Johanna Boyle)
The shelter runs in the fall, winter and spring, providing dinner, a warm place to sleep and breakfast for adults who are homeless in the area. Hosted at a different area church each week and staffed by volunteers, the shelter also helps provide connections for those who are homeless to get back on their feet, the goal being to allow guests to focus on improving their life situations without having to worry about shelter or food.
Stephenson first heard of the shelter during one of his classes through NMU's honors program in a course that focused on social issues that impact the Upper Peninsula. After hearing a presentation on the shelter program, he and several other students went through the required training session and began volunteering.
"After realizing how much of an issue it is and that this is a program that provides beds, and it's so easy to volunteer, we started taking as many shifts as we could," he said.
Volunteers staff the shelter in shifts, including an intake shift where guests check in and eat dinner, a 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift and a 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. shift, so that someone is present throughout the night in case any problems arise. Stephenson's first shift was 10-2.
"The first time I actually pulled that shift, it was humbling to say the least," he said. "We have these preconceived notions of what we expect the homeless to be... It's not their fault they're homeless. They need help and it's so easy to provide that help."
Stephenson mentioned several individuals he had met through the shelter who were homeless only because of an accident or unexpected event that might have left them unable to work for a period of time.
One of the most important aspects of the shelter is the social function it provides, he said. The shelter gives guests the chance to bond and socialize over discussions or games, both with other guests and the volunteers who staff the shelter.
"I love knowing where people are from, what they've experienced," Stephenson said.
Besides volunteering roughly three times per month, depending on what his school schedule allows, Stephenson is also working on a special project designed to help get more students involved in volunteering.
As part of the Student Leader Fellowship Program at NMU, Stephenson is required to complete a community service project. Once he volunteered at the shelter, identifying that project became easy.
"It was an idea I had because I noticed I very rarely got to work with other students (at the shelter)," he said, adding that many volunteers are community members and members of the churches that host the shelter.
Working with his advisor Dave Bonsall, the director of the Center for Student Enrichment at NMU, as well as fellow students Tom Merkel and Katy Kalafut, Stephenson began reaching out to other NMU students through increased advertising about the need for volunteers this semester. He also coordinated several of the training sessions required to become a volunteer on campus, so that it was more convenient for students to become trained.
"Most students are more than willing to volunteer," he said.
He has also been sending out a weekly newsletter to a mailing list of more than 50 trained students letting them know what is going on with the shelter and what is needed.
One of the goals of the program has been to work with the new volunteers on their first shift so that they work with someone they know, making it easier for them to feel comfortable in the program.
"It's hard, that first shift," Stephenson said, adding that providing a familiar face can encourage students to come back and volunteer again.
He also coordinates and provides rides for volunteers who might not have a way to get from campus to the hosting churches, even if that means getting up in the middle of the night to drive.
With staffing being an ongoing issue for the shelter, Stephenson said it is important to find a sustainable way to keep NMU's student population involved. With a year left in his studies at Northern, he also hopes to expand his recruitment program to the larger Marquette community.
"Not only does Room at the Inn work, but it's also so gratifying to see students are willing to do it," he said. "It makes me see people really do want to help others."
A sports science and biomechanics major, Stephenson said he is planning on attending graduate school once he graduates from NMU. But his experience with Room at the Inn has opened him up to options, particularly related to funding, that are available to those who want to start programs that benefit others.
"Everywhere has homeless. But Marquette has the issue that it's cold," he said. "Room at the Inn needs people to staff it. Northern represents a wealth of student volunteers. They are making a real difference."
Johanna Boyle can be reached at 906-486-4401. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.