Ashley Brooks enjoys her ringside view of things miraculous.
“They happen so frequently here that I’m not really surprised anymore,” said Mrs. Brooks, executive director of The Rolla Mission. “It’s just part of how it works here.”
The Rolla Mission is a not-for-profit agency that helps people who are homeless.
In addition to operating an overnight shelter in downtown Rolla during the cold months, it serves three hot meals per day and offers a free shower, laundry facilities and a safe place to belong.
The staff specializes in building-up the kind of relationships that change people’s lives.
“It’s incredible the transformation that can happen with people if you just love them in the moment for who they are,” said Mrs. Brooks.
“The biggest conversion”
A member of St. Patrick parish in Rolla, Mrs. Brooks grew up on a small farm near Bland and went to school in Belle.
She worshipped with her family at a nondenominational Christian church and was active in the youth group there through her teen years.
“It was always emphasized that you help one another, and ‘Whatever you did for ... these ... you did for Me,’” she recalled.
Once a year, her family would gather for a big “butchering day,” dividing the meat they processed among families and donating some to people in need.
She helped with fundraisers to help her cousin battle kidney disease.
Mrs. Brooks and her husband Patrick met through mutual friends while attending a St. Patrick’s Day concert.
They got married and moved to Rolla 10 years ago.
She started feeling drawn back to church after they got married and had their first child.
“Looking into my son’s eyes was the biggest conversion,” she said. “It’s amazing! You’re holding a miracle in your arms every day and trying to fathom how that could happen.”
She wanted to give her son a good foundation like the one she had been given.
“We went to several area churches,” she said. “And every time, I just felt pulled back to St. Patrick’s.”
She also signed up to be a substitute teacher at St. Patrick School, where her father-in-law, Deacon Michael Brooks, was principal.
“I’ll never forget how every morning the teachers would meet for like 10 minutes to pray and talk before starting the day,” she said.
“I was thinking, ‘They have something special that I don’t have.’ And I wanted it,” she said. “I looked at their faces and saw this peace and this love.”
She believes that at that moment, God pulled back the veil and gave her a glimpse of what He sees.
Her husband stood beside her through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and when she was received into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church at Easter in 2017.
She chose St. Teresa of Calcutta as her confirmation name.
A mother’s love
One day, Mrs. Brooks saw a Facebook post seeking overnight volunteers for a winter shelter for the homeless.
She followed the link to The Rolla Mission (therollamission.org) and started reading.
“I felt this heaviness on my heart,” she recalled. “It was the first time I ever very clearly heard God pulling me in one direction. It was like, ‘You need to do this.’”
By that time, she and Mr. Brooks had a second child, a 6-month-old baby who was still nursing through the night.
She called her friend Marie, who was a volunteer at The Mission.
They talked about the prospect of bringing the baby for an overnight shift.
Marie said, “I really think it will be okay. Why don’t you just come one night and we’ll try it?”
Her husband reassured her that if God was really calling, He would make it work.
She remembers praying for safety and inspiration while buckling her baby into the car seat at 9:30 p.m.
“I was saying, ‘Open my heart. Make this a transformative experience. Let me do your will!’” she said.
The minute she walked in and saw her friend Marie, she felt at peace.
There was a secure bedroom for the overnight volunteer to sleep in and look after the guests through a closed-circuit camera.
She greeted each of them as they arrived.
The first was wearing cowboy boots, Wrangler jeans and a button-up shirt.
He said, “Are you the overnight volunteer tonight?”
She said, “Yes ... and Liam, too.”
He said, “Thanks for being here. You don’t have anything to worry about.”
Others soon arrived, their faces filled with relief that they were somewhere safe.
Each would pick up a blanket, settle into one of the recliners and fall asleep.
“As I watched people do this, holding my son, I realized that each of these people is somebody’s child,” she said. “I needed to love them and care for them as their mother would.”
Much has been given
One of the guests had been given a new pair of slippers to wear while she was at the shelter.
“She was strutting around in them and showing everyone,” said Mrs. Brooks. “She came up to me and said, ‘Don’t you love my new slippers?’ She was just beaming.”
At 11 p.m., Mrs. Brooks dimmed the lights and went to her own room and set Liam in bed for the night.
She looked down, saw her own slippers next to the bed, and wept.
“Why do I get to have what I have and they have nothing?” she thought.
The tears lasted for days.
“My heart had been opened to their suffering, to this whole side of humanity that I had been totally blind to,” she said.
She wrote in her journal that she could not let her heart grow indifferent to people’s misfortune, nor could she go around crying all the time.
He husband finally suggested, “Maybe God gave you slippers so you can give them to someone else.”
“It became very clear to both of us that I need to take all of these tools I’ve been given and use them to help people,” she said.
She volunteered for more nights at The Mission and to help serve lunch in the daytime.
The Lord provided
A year later, when her first son was in school and Liam was 18 months old, Mrs. Brooks completed her degrees in human resource management and business administration.
She needed to go back to work, but that would reduce the time she could spend at The Mission.
“I started looking for jobs, but I really felt called to be there,” she said.
There were no paid positions on the staff on that time.
Finally, she called The Mission’s volunteer manager. They talked and started praying.
Within weeks, three people had offered to pay the first year’s salary for an executive director.
“I was walking by faith,” said Mrs. Brooks. “I was so scared! So I said, ‘Okay Lord, You helped get me here. I need Your help to do this.’”
Mr. Brooks encouraged her to keep trusting in God.
“It was very much opening myself up to God’s will and giving Him control,” she said. “And it’s been incredible.”
Her responsibilities range from short-to long-term, such as helping clients find housing and overcome barriers to keeping it.
“One of our key services is love, compassion and non-judgement,” she said. “That’s as important for growth as anything else we offer.”
People from her hometown and the church she grew up in frequently donate food and supplies to The Mission.
“All of them are incredible,” she said. “They’ve held fundraisers and have even come up to help.”
The Mission has grown to four staff members and more than 175 volunteers.
More than 40 churches and civic organizations donated to The Mission last year.
About 70 percent of the budget comes from donations, with the rest from grants.
Mr. Brooks and Deacon Brooks help with some of the grant applications.
“It’s a family thing,” she noted. “They’re both writers.”
Out of the cold
Mrs. Brooks sees her primary role as “professional cheerleader and hugger.”
Many who come for help are suffering, frightened and convinced that they are unloved.
Some days, she must simply sit and cry with people.
“It’s okay to just be there and feel sad with them,” she said.
Then, there are the miracles.
She told of a guest who raged for weeks while withdrawing from heroin.
“I’ll call her Sarah,” said Mrs. Brooks. “I’m not going to lie: it was hard to love her.”
People who spend years on heroin are often trying to cover up some sort of pain and trauma.
“So now they’re facing that pain and trauma sober, which just adds another layer to the misery,” said Mrs. Brooks.
One night, everyone at the shelter was relieved that Sarah was sleeping instead of raging.
It was frigid outside. A local pastor brought to the shelter an elderly woman who had been sleeping outside his church.
Her legs were too frozen to move, so two men got up and helped her in.
There were no open seats.
Sarah awoke, saw what was going on and immediately moved her things from her chair and said, “She can stay here.”
Sarah then ran to get blankets to cover the shivering woman.
The woman was thirsty, so Sarah gently held the cup to her mouth while warming her cheeks with her hands.
“In a split-second, this woman who had been so hard to love had transformed into the presence of Jesus, helping this woman,” said Mrs. Brooks.
Sarah kept putting blankets in the dryer to help the woman stay warm for the rest of the day, and even changed her socks for her.
“They developed quite a sweet friendship in the days that followed,” said Mrs. Brooks. “It was amazing.”
“Incredible and treasured”
Mrs. Brooks said she could do none of what she does at The Mission without her faith or her family.
“I’m really lucky to have a great support team,” she said. “When I go home, I can talk to my husband about it. I have family and friends who are incredibly supportive.”
She asked for prayers for The Mission’s clients, specifically for them to realize “how loved and incredible and treasured they are.”
Volunteers are always welcome, especially during COVID-19, when many of the daytime regulars over 65 have to limit their exposure.
Donations to help pay for food and supplies can be sent to The Rolla Mission, care of St. Patrick Church, 17 St. Patrick Lane, Rolla MO 65401-2262.