By Leons Kabongo, OCP volunteer coordinator and gardens manager

Ladies and Gentlemen, OCP was in a volunteer crunch as we wrestled with ramping up and re-adapting to meet the overwhelming challenges of a global pandemic. Then they stepped forward. A new breed of OCP volunteers, who have in some cases put in dozens of hours a week to help OCP power up as some programs for the homeless powered down. Many of our dozens of volunteers who put in 3-4 hours or less a week were suddenly locked down or quarantined, looking after children or too medically at-risk – or in the case of EMU, Bridgewater and JMU students, simply not around any longer. So OCP made an extraordinary ask of the few new volunteers who did answer our calls, and most responded by giving up big chunks of their lives – and to one degree or another risking their health – to keep our services pertinent and available to those our missions statement defines as “anybody in the world” who needs them.

We’d like to introduce you to a few of our new and extremely dedicated “Team COVID” recruits, starting with Rachel Clark, a December 2019 graduate of JMUs international studies program. Rachel is from the suburbs of Kansas City, Mo. She had volunteered a few times through the middle of March as a server at Friday Lunch Restaurant. When the call went out for much more than that, she responded immediately and hasn’t left since except to bathe, change clothes, and sleep – and we aren’t exaggerating. She became such a fixture of the place seven days a week that she was recently hired as a part-time staffer, working as a shift manager three days a week, but she hasn’t let that stand in her way. She’s still coming the other five days as a volunteer. Rachel says, “I planned to join the Peace Corps directly after I graduated, and then the pandemic hit. Now my plans for the fall are to join AmeriCorps VISTA and then apply to the Peace Corps. Throughout my time at JMU I strove to find my purpose. It wasn’t until I found and experienced the Alternative Break Program that I felt I found my true calling: volunteering aiding those in need. Postgraduate life didn’t feel complete until I found Our Community Place.” 

Leons: Rachel, how did you get connected to OCP? Rachel responded, “I initially volunteered because I ran into one of the board members, Mr. Tony Brown, who encouraged me to check the place out. I began to volunteer and continued to help every day since the pandemic started, because the positive atmosphere you all created blew my mind. The fact that you all acknowledged burn out and highly encouraged and enforced a self-care culture made me want to help even more. In addition, I saw that there was a need for volunteers. The all-encompassing care that the organization provides–laundry, food, social services, showers, and a safe place for people experiencing homelessness–is incredibly rare. I leave every day feeling like OCP gives far more to me than I could ever give to it. OCP has the perfect mixture of order, surprise, and genuine love.”

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Here are four more members of the volunteer class of the remarkable spring of 2020.

Misty McCray is a community member who walked into Our Community Place about two years ago seeking resources as she was hoping to start all over and get back on her feet. With guidance and devoted Strength In Peers counselors who came to OCP, such as Jenni Collins, Misty was able to find a supportive system of individuals with whom she could share and relate. As Covid-19 spread among us, she felt it was right and compassionate to give back to her community.  Here is her story.

“I am Misty McCray. I chose to volunteer with Our Community Place during the Covid-19 pandemic because I know what it’s like to be homeless and in need. Through a lot of community support in the last two years, I have been able to obtain employment, housing, and transportation. Since I’ve reached a place of stability, I’m able to give back what’s been freely given to me. My heart goes out to anyone who is struggling just to survive. Due to the pandemic, I have been laid off from work, which has given me extra time to give back and serve people. During my time at OCP I’ve had the great honor to experience a community, full of heart, come together to show their love and support to serve those in need. It’s been a wonderful experience so far and I enjoy doing it.”

Leons: “Misty, we sincerely appreciate all the support gifted every time you donate your time volunteering in the community center!”

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Tim Cummings came to us in the time where our shelter meal delivery program began. Since then, he took on additional responsibilities supporting the organization’s Case Management team coordinating an efficient, effective, and sustainable COVID shelter meal delivery program. Here is his story.

Tim Cummings is a Richmond native who relocated to the Shenandoah Valley to attend JMU in the early 1980s. After graduating with a BS in Biology and a second major in English, Tim started his own jewelry and hammocks business in the late 1980s, which he continues to operate on a reduced scale during the pandemic. Tim is married to Tricia, a nurse at Sentara RMH’s Hahn Cancer Center. He has 3 daughters – Alissa, Camille, and Kate. Leons: “Tim your ability to be grounded in challenging moments is something worth mentioning. Thank you for being the man, father, husband, and community member that you are.” 

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Jacob Jones started volunteering with us as our Friday Lunch Restaurant program shifted to a meal pick-up and delivery program. He took on delivering meals to individuals who have placed orders and have been such a help making sure that each meal arrived at its destination even if he had to go back twice. Here is his story.

“Hello there. My name is Jacob and I’m very glad that I can be a part of helping out in the community. I am grateful for the opportunity to let my light shine in the community and volunteering my time serving along with a great group of people. I really do enjoy being around the men and women that also serve here. They also are lights shining bright. The service that I get to do here is rewarding and I am blessed by it. I thank God for the time spent serving here and the people here at the OCP and the people we are able to help. The friendships that I have made are the best and I believe they will be lasting ones. Thank you everyone at OCP for your patience, kindness, hard work, and willingness to meet people where they are to understand the bigger picture that is asked from us, which is to care, and love one another.” 

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Our final volunteer noted here is Matthew Troyer. He came to Our Community Place with fire in his belly and eager to volunteer. Here is his story.

“Hey y’all. I’m Matthew Troyer. I grew up in an Amish colony in rural Ohio. My house had electricity and a car, but all my neighbors drove horses and used gas-powered lanterns for light. I moved to Harrisonburg three years ago to go to school at Eastern Mennonite, and I majored in Chemistry. Right now, I’m studying for the Medical school entrance exam, and next spring I’ll apply to medical school. My hope is that I can become a family medicine doctor and practice primary care. Before Covid-19, I was volunteering with Hospice until they asked me not to come around anymore to reduce the risk to the elderly. Since I was from an area that was so focused on community and service, I began to look for a new thing to spend my time on. I saw a post on social media about OCP, so I emailed the contact and showed up. I absolutely love the message and the service that OCP provides, so I’m glad I found you all. I think that OCP promotes inclusivity by crossing boundaries with and recognizing the humanity of everyone who comes through the door. Where I’m from, a huge part of the community is built by inviting people to your table and sharing a meal, just like at OCP.

Leons: “Matthew, thank you for all the joy and laughter you have brought to the community center every time you volunteer. 

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There have been many more angels and stars who devoted, donated and dedicated their time and resources to support and create a suitable atmosphere of love, safety, education, spiritual awareness, healing, and fun during these uncertain times. Wherever you are finding yourself in these times, we hope that you are aware that you are not alone. This community has risen up to the challenge and together have been able to meet the needs of individuals who once were not able to meet their basic human needs.

We need four types of volunteers right now: people to deliver food, people to work inside the building, people to work outside the building and on landscaping and maintenance, and people to work in our gardens. The garden work is the least risky, since you can work alone or well-spaced out from other people, and it’s outside. To inquire about volunteering, contact me, Leons Kabongo, at [email protected]