Warming station warms hearts this Christmas

This past Christmas, thanks to the polar vortex and temperatures plummeting below zero, there was a lot more planning going on than what people typically have with family dinners and gift giving. While many were stocking up their own pantries, filling their cars with gas, and winterizing their homes further, a group of locals, led by EMA Director Larry Mullins and Portsmouth City Health Department’s Abby Spears, began thinking of another vulnerable population instead: the homeless.

While the Salvation Army typically serves as a warming station for the homeless when temperatures get dire, this go round, they were unavailable to do so, due to their massive programming demands for the season putting them at capacity. Their kettle campaign was also being finalized at the time and the staff worried the risk to volunteer safety would be too considerable.

This led Spears and others to wonder what it would mean for those living on the street.

Spears, working with feet on the ground daily to assist those who need help the most, began reaching out to Mullins to spread info on a warming shelter. When she called and discovered the Salvation Army was unavailable this go round, and there was no backup plan in place, she began thinking of Plan B immediately.

The two began brainstorming and reaching out to various establishments to find a location willing to host. The two both found success in searching, with Community Action agreeing to host if no other place was found just as Mullins secured the ASCEND building.

ASCEND is a nonprofit treatment center in downtown Portsmouth. It is a CARF (Commission on Accreditation of Rehabilitation Facilities) Accredited institution that handles inpatient and outpatient treatment for addiction and mental health services.

Mike Fraulini, Executive Director of ASCEND for six years, says he didn’t hesitate to allow the group of volunteers to hold the warming station at their property.

“Larry Mullins reached out to us on Wednesday to let us know the Salvation Army wasn’t able to accommodate a warming station, due to certain capacities, and asked if we’d be interested in helping out,” Fraulini said. “We have a lot of space here with a huge lobby. I’ve worked with Larry and Abby a lot over the years, and it was really not a hard decision for us to be involved and try to help.”

Spears was grateful for ASCEND and said that it allowed her to show the compassion she felt was very needed.

“When we were reaching out to find locations, we were getting denied. One person reached out and said they were told these folks are destructive and make cleanup incredibly difficult. That wasn’t the case we had at all. Every person who came through those doors were contributing in some way,” Spears said. “I told one person that, when you treat folks with dignity and kindness, that is how people will respond. I think the most heartbreaking thing for me is the number of people who were just overwhelmingly grateful to just be treated kindly. That, that really broke my heart. No one should ever not be treated like a human being.”

One of the individuals touched by Spears’ kindness was Tracy Park resident Chris. Chris was sitting with friends Tuesday afternoon in the park, taking a break from asking for assistance, with his sign carefully protected, tucked away underneath where he sat. He was wearing gifts from Spears while he spoke.

“Abby is just a beautiful soul,” Chris said. “She didn’t have to do all that she did for us. She didn’t have to make sure we had blankets and other comforts. She didn’t have to make sure we had gloves to leave with. Socks. No, she didn’t have to do any of it, but she did, because that’s just who she is and I think she is a beautiful person for all she does for people.”

Overall, according to Spears, ASCEND was open four nights and assisted in warming up 40 different individuals.

“I work with a lot of folks who don’t have stable housing and it was just something that I recognized would be desperately needed, knowing how dangerously low the weather was going to be,” Spears explained.

Spears is the Executive Director of Scioto Connect and the Injury Prevention and Harm Reduction for the Portsmouth City Health Department. She also volunteers with various boards and groups throughout southern Ohio.

“I have met some of the best people in the world who come in through those doors and they are folks who often have very little of their own and will still give to someone in need if they come across that other person in need of help,” Spears said. “Every person who came in, folks who were using the space because they needed heat or those volunteering—it was just a very warm and caring environment for everyone. Everyone was making sure people were cared for, had something to eat, had plenty of supplies, and so on. Everyone was instrumental in making sure the space was well cared after and everything was cleaned up.”

Spears took donations to keep the facility running smoothly. Big donations of food came from places like Schmidt Family Restaurant Group (Portsmouth Wendy’s and Buffalo Wild Wings), Fork and Finger, Papa Johns, Coffee at the Lofts, Tim Hortons, and more.

People were also willing to make financial contributions to the temporary shelter.

“We had people who brought in donated items, but also financial contributions. I think just about every volunteer gave from their own pockets,” Spears said. “I also had total strangers who were giving me $20 and $50. People just really turned out for us.”

Spears took donations from the community and purchased blankets, sleeping bags, socks, hats, gloves, and more.

“We wanted to make sure people had what they needed to not only be comfortable at the station, but, also, throughout the day, because it was pretty cold,” Spears said.

The Salvation Army’s Dan Simco commented on the effort, saying he was impressed with the turnout.

“The biggest challenge for us is to always find volunteers willing to stay,” Simco claimed. “To stay the night there, you’re looking at 12 hours to do what Abby did. It can be a challenge to find people willing to do that.”

Simco said that it often falls on him, the Salvation Army janitor, and other staff to volunteer their time to work their own station, when available.

“It was great. I am glad they were able to pull it off, because they were able to network and pull a lot of resources together,” Simco said. “It is wonderful. Especially for Abby, who was there each night— that can be taxing, let alone during a major holiday.”

Simco said that he is appreciative of Spears and the other volunteers for showing that a Plan B is there, if something were to cause the Salvation Army to be unavailable again.

“If we can’t do it in the future, there are now folks who have walked a mile in our shoes who can make Plan B be ready,” Simco said.

When it comes to the warming station, volunteer Justin DeLong said there were a lot of fellow volunteers and donors, but Abby Spears is the hero who comes to mind when he thinks back on the weekend.

“I think Abby saw a need that wasn’t being met and she filled it. That’s just the type of person she is and I think she saved lives last week, because of it,” DeLong said. “It was interesting, because Abby knew most of them by name. She knew their stories and they knew her. It was very obvious that she has already left an impact on them in other ways, prior to this warming station. To me, that is the true sign of a community leader. She steps up when action is needed.”

DeLong has an active history in church relations and says that this Christmas was one that meant more to him than most others.

“This felt like the true Christmas spirit was with us. There were people who were genuinely thankful to have someone there who cared about them. To me, that is what Christmas is all about. It was more meaningful than sitting through any church service I have during Christmas,” DeLong said. “We were actually just gathering with fellow man, talking, and helping in basic means of survival.”

Scioto EMA’s Larry Mullins echoed a lot of what DeLong said.

“Abbie and I got together and the last thing we wanted was for anybody to freeze to death,” Mullins said. “I was already searching for an alternative when she reached out, but then we both got to work.”

Mullins said that he was hopeful to secure ASCEND, since his office is in their building. Once he secured the location, things exploded, according to Mullins.

“And then, the person Abby is,” Mullins chuckled. “What a resource. I mean, just an amazing person who knows all of these folks. She came up with, organized, operated and got donations. People were spending their time, bringing food, money coats, socks, and even Maureen at the Homeless Shelter brought in a lot of socks and everything like that. It was truly a Christmas miracle.”

Spears’ entire list of people to thank was impressive and includes Ascend Counseling, Community Action Organization, Larry Mullins and Scioto EMA, New Boston Papa Johns, Dave Duncan, Schmidt Family Restaurant, Scott Schmidt, Tim Hortons, The Lofts Coffee Company, Terry Horner, Terry Ockerman, Optimum Realty, Anna Johnson, Christine and Adam Chaffin, Moriah and Kevin McDonald, Justin DeLong, Eric Graf, Derrick Howard, RL Mohl, Justin Hanley, Ashley and Sophia Monteith, Hannah Matthews, Portsmouth City Health Department, Nancy Woods, Jayson Jarvis, Fast Stop Market, 6th Street Carryout, Portsmouth Speedway, Clark’s BP, Hilltop Market, Tom and Rhonda Yeager, Collin Docterman, Halea and Tim Cooper, Kendra and Josh Holbrook, Maggie Clark, Debbie Mauk, Bennie and Chase Blevins, Alexis Parker- Holsinger and Keri Boehm, Amanda Klaiber, Jayla Glockner, Emily Nichols, Alexandra Blanton, Jill Walters, Jody Twaddle, Southern Ohio People’s Union, Amanda and Wirty Penix and Family, Joey and Lisa Monteith, Mark Craycraft and Scioto County Daily News, the Portsmouth Salvation Army, Portsmouth Taxi, Maureen Cadogan and the Scioto County Homeless Shelter.

Reach Joseph Pratt at (740) 353-3101, by email at [email protected], © 2022 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved