On four consecutive nights spanning the beginning of the new year, volunteers at a Salem warming shelter brewed coffee, set out sleeping mats and distributed blankets to provide full-capacity shelter to homeless individuals from the bitter cold.

The center, currently located in the basement of the First Congregational Church at 700 Marion St. NE in Salem, offers emergency housing on the coldest nights from 8 p.m. until 6:30 a.m.

The effort is coordinated by many partners. The Mid-Willamette Valley Community Action Agency (MWVCAA), a social services organization, serves as lead partner, with a steering committee that includes the Union Gospel Mission, Inner Faith Hospitality Network, Salem Leadership Foundation, City of Salem and Marion County emergency managers and numerous faith community partners.

“The committee is so thankful,” says Cyndi Astley, Deputy Director of MWVCAA, “for First Congregational for hosting the last warming center operations.”

The shelter, which serves single men and women over 18, couples and people with pets, can’t open unless enough volunteers commit ahead of time to being there. It requires 30 volunteers a night; 10 people for each of three, four-hour shifts that don’t end until the early morning. It is a testimony to Salem’s compassion, a volunteer told Salem Weekly, that so many stepped forward over the New Year’s holiday weekend.

When it looks as if the weather will be cold enough – factors include temperatures below 31° for 72 consecutive hours, snow on the ground and wind chill – email blasts are sent out from social service agencies all over town, asking for help staffing the center.

“It’s phenomenal,” is the way Astley describes the response. “There is a lot of goodwill in this community.”

Volunteers Kate and Dell Bayne are two that signed up. While Kate brewed coffee, Dell ventured outside to scatter anti-freezing salt on the icy steps and approaches, to prevent guests from falling. “The people that are here as volunteers, know they could be home in their own beds, Kate says. But they realize that so many don’t have that. They have a heart for those in need.”

Volunteer Susie D’Anna considers the guests waiting out in the 30° night and says, simply, “It could be me. It could be you.  It could be any of us. A lot of these people don’t have a chance, and anything we can do to help them, we do.”

Tasks that occupy the volunteer crew through the night include keeping the coffee and hot water filled, dispensing blankets provided by the Marion-Polk Food Share, checking restrooms every hour, monitoring pets, sleeping conditions and emergency access, and in the morning, waking guests, and cleaning the church for the following day’s work.

They have all read a detailed manual and taken a training that covers shelter functioning and safety. They have signed a confidentiality agreement to protect the identity of guests and treat each one with care, tact and dignity.

Daniel Rouslin, a Willamette University professor of music and his wife Jeanne Collins were on hand all four nights to assist. When he learned the dates the facility would be open, Rouslin himself sent a mass email to his friends to enlist their help. “We were ready,” he says. “We really wanted to make a contribution.”