January’s bone-chilling cold snap stretched the resources of Sedalia’s all-volunteer warming shelter to the limit.
But they held.
“It’s amazing what a community can do when they have to,” said JoAnn Martin, a member of St. Vincent de Paul Parish of Pettis County.
“But boy, is everybody tired!” she said.
The shelter was open for 254 continuous hours — a record for the four-year-old organization, which provides a warm place to sleep for people who have nowhere else to go when temperatures get dangerously low.
Groups of volunteers from churches and other local organizations staff the shelter, housed in the fellowship hall in the lower level of St. Vincent de Paul Parish’s St. Patrick Chapel.
“A minimum of two volunteers is required for each of those hours,” Mrs. Martin noted.
Additional volunteers pick up meals, transport people to where they can take showers, haul laundry, and cook meals for guests on weekends when the soup kitchen that serves meals during the week is closed.
“We figure there was a minimum of 600 community volunteer hours to keep that shelter open during that time,” said Mrs. Martin.
Twelve teams — including two from St. Vincent de Paul Parish — took turns keeping the shelter running.
“It was truly an ecumenical community event,” Mrs. Martin observed.
Teams represented local Methodist, Baptist, Christian and nondenominational congregations, along with a “Friends Team,” composed of members of other, smaller congregations.
There was also a United Way team and a Katy Trail Community Health team.
“Together, they are an amazing group of truly loving, caring, committed individuals who have big hearts and care for their fellow people,” said Mrs. Martin.
“Not all of them are church-goers, but all have a caring heart,” she said.
A $5,000 Charity and Mercy Grant from Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri paid for coffee, hot cocoa and hot biscuits for breakfast on weekdays and the hot meals provided on weekends.
The grant also helped pay for other necessities for the shelter, including new pillow covers.
“We’re so very, very grateful for that grant,” said Mrs. Martin. “It really made the shelter. You can’t fathom how much coffee people down there can drink when it’s that cold outside!”
All volunteers for the shelter must be 18 years or older.
Since the shelter is located on Catholic Church property, all volunteers agreed to a criminal background check and to follow the other safe environment protocols for the diocese.
“Make it happen”
Deacon Turf Martin, who assists the pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Parish, noted that two or three people stayed at the shelter the first few nights it was open.
That quickly grew to 24 people staying overnight as cold temperatures became more brutal.
“Each would come in, and we’d assign them a cot,” said Deacon Martin. “We gave them sheets for the cots and blankets and a pillow and said, ‘Find your space wherever you can.’
“We eventually ran out of cots and had to borrow some from the Pettis County Health Department,” he said.
Tables and folding partitions throughout the hall provided a modicum of privacy to each guest.
Volunteers received baseline training for handling mental health emergencies involving guests of the shelter.
“We’ve had very little trouble as far as that’s concerned,” Deacon Martin noted.
Volunteers were concerned when one of the shelter’s regular guests did not come around during the deep freeze.
“It turned out to be good news,” said Mrs. Martin. “A very articulate gentleman had connected one of our regulars with an attorney, who helped him secure SSI and therefore secure a home.
“So, he didn’t have to come to the warming shelter because he now had an apartment of his own,” she said.
Representatives of the local federally-qualified health center also visited the shelter and helped people enroll in Medicaid.
The shelter operates in collaboration with the local food pantry, soup kitchen, thrift store and Open Door, the city’s interfaith multi-service outreach to people in need.
Precious Blood Father Mark Miller, former pastor of the Pettis County parish, helped establish Open Door many years ago.
The Sedalia Democrat newspaper reported that Bothwell Regional Health Center in Sedalia donated gently used blankets to the shelter and that there was even an offer to wash the bedding when needed.
A small group of representatives from each participating congregation helps ensure the shelter’s smooth operation.
Volunteers make up schedules each month, with the daily forecast from the National Weather Service determining if and for how long the shelter will be open.
The word goes out to volunteers’ cell phones over a Group Me feed.
“When we go 24 hours, it’s all hands on deck,” said Deacon Martin. “We help each other if any teams are short.”
“We have a nice camaraderie with the leadership team and working with Open Door,” he added.
He pointed out that St. Patrick Chapel is the only church in the city with a hall that is completely separate from the public worship area, making it logistically the best choice available among the participating churches.
Sedalia city ordinance prohibits sheltering anyone without a special use permit, which has many restrictions, Mrs. Martin added.
The city does not interfere with church ministries, “so, it’s up to the churches,” she said.
The deacon said Father Joseph Corel took a personal interest in the warming shelter shortly after arriving as pastor in 2019.
“He’s really taken it under his wing to make sure it happens,” said Deacon Martin. “And, it’s not just, ‘Okay, I won’t stand in your way if you want to do this.’ It’s ‘Here it is. Make it happen.’”
More to come
The shelter opens when the wind chill is 15 degrees or lower, or when the “real-feel” temperature is 30 degrees with a 50% chance of precipitation.
When the weather is dangerously cold for several days, the shelter remains open 24 hours a day.
Mike Eufinger signed up to help out on the 11 p.m. to 3 a.m. shift for one of the St. Vincent de Paul teams after a few invitations from Fr. Corel and Deacon Martin.
He attributes his “yes” to “a call from the Holy Spirit to help others.”
He noted that the late shift is usually pretty quiet, giving him time to read.
Knowing ahead of time that he’ll be volunteering allows him to rest up before his shift.
He suggested that people who are thinking about volunteering at warming shelters in their communities should go ahead and take the plunge.
“I think it’s not only the Christian thing to do, but think about how if you were in that situation, you’d want others to do this for you,” he said.
Mr. Eufinger asked for prayers for people who live in the cold on the streets, and for the people who are trying to help them escape that cycle.
In 2022, arctic temperatures came through between Christmas and New Year’s, sending the Sedalia warming shelter into 24-hour mode for over a week.
This year’s deep freeze broke that record.
“Things have warmed up, but we have no way to know what we’ll face over the next two months,” Deacon Martin stated on Jan. 25. “I’m sure we’ll have another episode before the winter’s out.”
“We do our best”
Mrs. Martin emphasized that the warming shelter is a matter of life and death.
“We do this to prevent folks from dying in the cold,” she stated. “We do our best. We wish we could do more.”
The high cost of housing and heat make life difficult for people who are already struggling.
“When you’re on the front lines and have to look those folks in the eye, and you know how hard they’re struggling to try to make ends meet, you always wish there was more you could do,” said Mrs. Martin.
Deacon and Mrs. Martin are aware of God’s constant presence at the shelter.
“We know that without his presence, we could never pull this off, and he never lets us down,” Mrs. Martin stated.