When Tammy MacLaren looks around Viola’s Place shelter on Marsh Street, near East River, she is almost overwhelmed by the potential.
The newly opened shelter, currently equipped to accommodate eight to 10 people, occupies only a small portion of the former church.
“There is so much we can do here over time,” said vice-chair MacLaren. “We could offer so many services in this space. Maybe a breakfast program, maybe a clothing drop off, maybe we can offer other groups meeting space.”
For now though, the focus is on the shelter. Downstairs volunteers are helping a sick, elderly client who needed a place to stay for a couple of days. They are arranging to reunite him with family.
“We need more volunteers and would like to see our numbers at 150 to 200 but we are not there yet. We need two people for the evening shift and two scheduled for the evening shift every night. If the second shift is not needed, they’ll be called and told not to come in,” said MacLaren.
So far the volunteers come from all age groups and women outnumber men.
“Everyone needs a police check and we have a training program that everyone goes through. Confidentiality is important and so is compassion. We have security and safeguards in place and we work closely with the police.”
When the former Life Shelter closed two years ago, MacLaren began writing letters.
“At that time, I wasn’t involved but I thought it was an important service in the community so I attended meetings and got involved. It is Viola’s Place Society operating the shelter and Brian Bowden chairing the board but the community owns the building.”
A New Glasgow resident who grew up in East River St. Mary’s and attended East Pictou Rural High, MacLaren was previously active in getting the province to provide insulin pumps for children with Type 1 diabetes.
“When I became aware of the situation I didn’t think the province’s position was in the best interests of children, so I petitioned for change.”
She also lobbied federal and provincial governments to twin the section of Highway 104 from Sutherland’s River to Antigonish.
“Fire Chief Joe MacDonald led that campaign and I’ve known Joe for a long time, so I did everything I could to help him because I think that highway is needed to save lives.”
As a provincial library board member and a member on the Eastern Mainland Housing Authority, she is tuned in to community needs and is quick to point out Viola’s Place is more than a homeless shelter.
“There are people who have a short-term need for a place to stay, maybe just for a single night. Let’s say you are from Truro, receiving treatment at the Aberdeen hospital and relying on the bus to get home. Maybe you miss the bus and you don’t have money to stay elsewhere. You are welcome here. We can offer a choice of meal, a shower, hygiene kits, some company for the evening and a clean bed.”
As MacLaren outlined the possible medical need for overnight help, she was joined by fellow board member New Glasgow businessman Mark Firth who suggested another scenario.
“We have a large jail here and maybe you are being released from jail and need a plan in place. Maybe you can’t make your connections for another day but because there is a shelter you can stay overnight and then move ahead with your plans.”
Breakfast and a bagged lunch are on offer each morning. When possible, a gift card for coffee or a sandwich will also be provided.
MacLaren and Firth are impressed by donations to the shelter, both goods and labour.
“We had some young people from a group home brought here to help us and they didn’t seem very excited when they first arrived. Mark toured them around and got them working with him and they turned around completely. They’ve been back , happy to see what they can do to help.”
Firth’s baseball team provided a lot of the labour needed to get the building set up.
“They are all good people who just wanted to give a hand,” he said.
What donations – such as double bed sheets – could not be used by the shelter have been diverted to other community agencies where they can be used.
Firth pointed out many people are fortunate to go through life with Plans A, B and C but there are others who are stranded the moment Plan A falls apart.
“For any number of reasons, including mental health, they are already living on the edge so when things take a turn for the worse, they are in big trouble. We’re here to catch them, give them time and help to make a new plan,” he said.
MacLaren said the shelter works with Tearmann House, Roots for Youth and other community organizations.
“None of us are the answer for everyone but we all have something to offer and we are happy to work together.”
Board members have also been happy to get information and advice from other shelters in Atlantic Canada. Most recently they had a visit from former New Glasgow resident Bruce Borden who operates a shelter in Moncton.
“Honestly, we were not sure we were ready to open but other shelters advised us we’ll never feel we are totally prepared. We just have to open and roll with what comes along. With the weather turning colder, we felt that put some pressure on us,” said MacLaren
The board does not expect to accommodate large numbers of people at any one time.
“We’re expecting zero, one, two or three on any given night but for those people we can make a big difference,” said MacLaren.
The shelter has a Facebook page and an e-mail address: ViolasPlaceSociety@gmail.com
Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer. She seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you know someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.