How have things changed with volunteering as a result of Covid? How has our volunteer program changed and adapted since March of 2020?

Our kitchen staff – chef Janin and Max – are amazing. They are the ones that have put the program together where they know how many volunteers they need at what time of the day, and that comes from them just doing their jobs and knowing how to do their jobs, and they do it really well. One of the things they have had to do, Chef Janin mostly, she’s had to adjust her food; she’s used to making a lot of food, and now she doesn’t get to cook these great big meals, and that’s hard on her.

They have a rhythm in the kitchen they never had before, and that’s because the schedule is very strict, the amount of people they can have is very strict. They have a lot of health protocols in place, from the county and city. It’s actually very smooth now, but we miss our core volunteers. I don’t know the volunteers like I used to, and I think that’s usually one of the advantages for our clients, that they knew who was going to be there every day. Our clients are still getting good food and compassionate service, but it’s not the same people all the time.

Our kitchen is thriving. Chef Janin is doing an amazing job. But I think we miss the personalities. Everybody wears masks so I don’t know what the volunteers look like, and I don’t know them personally. But we’ve got a good program in place. I’m looking forward to having our core volunteers back. I miss them.

How have our volunteers responded to these changes?

The core volunteers all say the same thing: when Covid is gone, they want to come back, they’re looking forward to coming back. Our volunteers now love the kitchen. One of the volunteers who just finished her hours told me she didn’t know anything about kitchens before her time here, and by the end of her hours, Janin was asking for her input on recipes.

I have never heard anything negative coming out of the kitchen ever. I follow-up with all of our volunteers at the end of their time with us and they all say it’s fun. That’s just Chef Janin doing her thing.

What new opportunities are there for those who still want to volunteer but can’t or don’t want to serve in the kitchen?

This isn’t new, it’s something that’s been around forever, but it’s something we need all the time because our case managers are amazing, and it’s welcome home baskets. That’s something I’m sending out to the students now. We got a lot of new donations during Christmas, but there’s always a need since we’re constantly getting new families. Donation drives are what we’re looking for right now.

I know we normally get an influx of volunteers and donations around the holidays, and that we couldn’t hold our annual free store for our clients. How were the holidays different this year, both in regards to volunteering and donations to serve our clients?

Last year we had a store with room for back stock and we were able to let families come in and look at things and make sure each gift was the perfect gift, and this year we weren’t able to do that. By not utilizing the store front, our clients weren’t able to see everything we had.

Everything we asked for from our donors, we got. We were overwhelmed with gift cards, which we really needed, and lots of toys. We were able to help not only our clients but the community. Word of mouth got around, and I was having people call asking for help. At one point I closed off the small half of the kitchen and Robin, Stacie, Janin and I set everything out and we were able to have people come in and safely pick up gifts. This year we were also able to help out foster kids which is not something we were able to do last year, which was amazing.

What kinds of donations did we receive this holiday season?

We got every single thing that the Mary Isaak Center needed for their clients and for our unsheltered clients: we got sleeping bags, sweats in all sizes, brand new underwear, rain ponchos, for our outreach clients. B’Nai Jewish Center’s people really stepped up and did so much for us.

When people come into the shelter, a lot of times they have nothing, and now we have brand new sweatshirts and socks, underwear – someone donated 100 pairs of shoes – and when we bring in a client we are able to get them a hot shower and a warm meal and clean clothes. That’s one of the best things we can do for people, is help them feel warm and safe and full.

We don’t want to try and push our unsheltered clients, but I think that when they see that we can offer them warm blankets or a poncho or food or sweat clothes to keep them dry and warm, I think it plants a seed, and at some point they may say, ‘y’know what, I want that on a daily basis.’ All those donations we got for Christmas are going to maybe help change somebody’s mind about coming in.

What has been your experience with the community wanting to help during this past year?

People want to help but they don’t know how. They want to know what we’re doing and how we do it and how can they help. I think the Client Enrichment program is an amazing model because people are tired of being in their own lives, now they can go out and pull weeds, and they like doing that, or meet a client and have a one-on-one experience with them and they know how they’re enriching their lives. Sometimes we don’t need what people are offering, but we can offer them other alternatives.

How have our in-kind donations and volunteers made an impact on our clients’ lives this year?

Our donors help add to the quality of life for our clients, whether our clients are receiving brand new sweats and underwear at MIC or they’re receiving a bed and a box spring and a chest of drawers for their house that they’re moving into, or a gas card that’s going to help them get to and from their doctor’s appointments in Santa Rosa. Or if they’re partaking in the Client Enrichment program and they all of a sudden have this resume that’s amazing, or somebody is coaching them and helping to bring them out of shell.

We enrich our clients’ lives in so many different ways, whether it’s through donations of goods or donations or time. Our donors enrich our clients by giving them food from artisanal bakeries, bread they might never be able to afford, eggs that come from free range chickens, Clover milk that’s pure milk free from growth hormones, vegan cheese they might never have experienced. They just make our lives better. They absolutely impact everything our clients do. Literally it takes a village to take a person that has walked through our door and get them to their own door, it takes all of us.

Do you have any other thoughts you’d like to share?

One thing I think about COTS is because we have such good leadership we’re able to bend with the times. Our leadership is one step ahead of everything so we’re able to keep doing what we do and do what needs to be done. We can handle change because we have great leadership, and that’s something we can all do.

Tell you what, next year I’m going to utilize the storefront for the Free Store (laughs).