The grieving mother came into the Payson homeless warming center at the Mount Cross Lutheran Church simply to donate her son’s clothes.
He had died two years earlier from cancer and she couldn’t think of a better way to honor his memory, said Emily Brice, vice president and head chef of the Payson Homeless and Homeless Veterans Initiative.
But this mother found something more.
“She’s been volunteering every night since,” said Brice.
That’s just part of the Christmas miracle Brice and her fellow board members and volunteers feel this year, even though COVID has changed everything.
Last year, Brice said the warming center, at the corner of Highway 260 and Granite Dells Drive, not only offered a warm meal and shower, but a bed for the night or many nights if need be.
That effort required at least 10 volunteers, and only five have volunteered so far this year.
But Brice understands why people are reluctant: There’s a pandemic.
“It’s a really difficult time,” she said.
To adjust, PHHVI has moved the goal post, “because the bunkhouse isn’t open, we do emergency help,” said Brice.
That means, get the homeless the help they need within 48 hours.
“We are having a very good turnaround into either a shelter, a substance abuse (program), into the hospital, into a family member’s house ... within 48 hours we’re getting people home,” she said, which could mean a bus ticket or a ride to Phoenix, Kentucky or New York.
Once back in their home environment, the clients know the resources and usually have family that can help, PHHVI has found.
The connections the homeless initiative has made in the community mobilize help, including the food bank, the Gila County Community Action Program, businesses and individual donors. These individuals and organizations allow the homeless initiative to provide what Brice calls “the mother standard of care” a model developed by the Cancer Treatment Centers of America.
Brice experienced this level of care firsthand as she visited with her father while he battled cancer. She felt the center treated her with the respect, compassion and dignity a family would provide even through her father’s death.
Providing the “mother standard of care” is Brice’s passion and it’s seeping into the community.
Recently Girl Scout Troop 655 came with their leader Jessica Kjellstrom to donate personal care items.
“They donated socks, underwear, and hygiene kits ... it was probably a truckload,” said Penny DeGroot who was surprised in the middle of a PHHVI board meeting.
“It brought tears to my eyes,” she said.
The Payson Area Food Drive has committed to making sure the PHHVI has the food it needs to provide the nightly hot meal.
The Gila County Probation Department provides volunteers, drawing on the efforts of people completing community service.
The Central Arizona Board of Realtors donated $3,000 plus the catered meals from their COVID canceled holiday get-together.
“The caterer had already purchased the food,” said Jennifer Kiley, president of CABOR.
The members were happy to donate.
“That’s our model, literally connecting what we have in the community,” said DeGroot.
But DeGroot also had stories of individual community members donating to the effort.
“A lady’s husband passed away. She told her friends and family that instead of sending any money or flowers to her, she told everyone donate to the Payson homeless warming center because, ‘that is what my husband would want,’” said DeGroot.
Brice also had a volunteer tell her that since he does not have any children, he plans to donate everything to this effort.
“I want my legacy to pass to you,” he told Brice. “I was beyond words ... there are so many giving in this community.”
That includes the Lyman family of Lyman Ranches in Gisela.
“Cassie is a beautiful person,” said Brice of the family’s gift of fresh beef to the nightly meals.
In fact, it’s Brice’s goal to bring more fresh meat and vegetables into the meals.
That means requesting food cards for local and corporate grocery stores including Walmart and Costco.
Brice only sees the need growing, as already the warming center has gone from three to 12 clients a night.
“People are just getting kicked out,” she said of the loss of the stimulus support and eviction protections.
The PHHVI braces for the increasing fallout from the pandemic, but it needs help.
A large portion of the money donated has shifted toward emergency support to stabilize then find a solution to these types of emergencies.
Brice and DeGroot said they also need to hire someone so they can open the bunkhouse.
“More people would be comfortable with the overnight work as a paid position,” said Brice.
For now, PHHVI will continue to provide the service they do because, “it’s not even about the homeless. It’s about humanity,” said Brice.
The mother who lost her son to cancer reminded Brice of gifts the PHHVI provides.
Touched by the woman’s selfless donation of time and care to the homeless, Brice tried to thank her.
“I appreciate so much what you do,” said Brice.
The woman only smiled. “No. Thank you. Now I have purpose again.”