Mentors to aid in teaching life skills to homeless clients

VERGENNES — The John W. Graham Emergency Shelter for the Homeless is seeking volunteers to work with clients to increase their chances of finding — and keeping — permanent housing.
Shelter officials are preparing to launch a mentorship program for area folks to provide friendship, support and guidance to homeless individuals and families who can be overwhelmed by the bureaucratic hoops and transportation hurdles involved in acquiring housing and employment.
“The shelter has pretty much changed its delivery system,” explained shelter Director Elizabeth Ready. “Before, it was a place where people would come in and have food and shelter. Now, we are much more working with a service-rich environment and rapid re-housing. The idea is that people come in to get their feet on the ground and then we work with them to see what is possible — first with transitional or permanent housing, as well as employment.”
So rather than simply nourish and house clients for a few weeks, the shelter works with them in an effort to make sure they don’t become repeat visitors. In some cases, that means providing some financial counseling, transportation to a job interview, or other support services.
This model has proved very successful, but is quite labor-intensive for the shelter’s five case managers who also manage clients at three John Graham Shelter apartment buildings and around 100 people living in the community, according to Ready.
Ready and case manager Paige Ackerson decided to recruit some additional help without busting the shelter’s limited budget. So Ackerson studied mentorship/volunteer programs at other nonprofits throughout the country that she thought the shelter could emulate.
Ackerson has put the finishing touches on a mentorship program that requests at least a one-year commitment from the volunteer, but no financial contribution.
“All we are asking for is a little bit of time and some compassion,” Ackerson said.
Mentors should also be mature, empathetic, have a good sense of humor, be realistic in setting expectations, and comfortable with themselves and who they are, according to Ackerson. Applicants will also be run through a background check.
The mentors’ responsibilities to their charges will include:
•  Motivating the client to help him or herself.
•  Imparting helpful advice on budgeting and job searching, among other things.
•  Encouraging him or her to make their own decisions while walking them through the possible consequences of bad choices.
Ackerson said she is putting together a handbook to give to the aspiring mentors, who are being asked to attend three training sessions at the Bixby Library in Vergennes. Those sessions will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on three consecutive Tuesdays: March 27, April 3 and April 10.
Ackerson would like to see the training sessions held on an annual basis to ensure a steady stream of helpers.
And Ready added that attendees needn’t all be interested in mentoring. The sessions will also give area residents a window on what the John Graham Shelter does as well as a sense of the challenges that homeless people face.
“It is a chance to come in and learn about what goes on,” Ready said.
For more information, call the John Graham Emergency Shelter at 877-2677.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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