Egan Shows What Eugene is Made Of

I used to tell people if they had only one hour in Eugene, they should attend the Eugene Celebration parade. In 60 minutes, anyone could see how this city moves through the issues that animate its people.

Time marches on, even if the Eugene Celebration parade no longer does. Some of us are moving a little more slowly now, especially when a walk to the mailbox begins to look like a failed audition for the Ice Capades. Thanks in part to our early spate of brutal winter nights, I have a new introductory Eugene hour to recommend.

If you want to know what this city is made of, volunteer at any of the nine Thomas Egan Warming Centers. In one hour, you’ll come to know the place and its people. Unlike the parade, the Egan Warming Centers are not set up for passive observers. You’ll have to apply to volunteer at www.eganwarmingcenter.com, attend a short training session, and sign up for a shift. Each step is necessary and worth the trouble.

The centers are spread around the city, mostly in churches, including two in Springfield. If you sign up for the site closest to your home, chances are you’ll see some of your neighbors working in the kitchen, folding blankets, tending to sore feet, or chatting with guests. Think of the guests as your neighbors without addresses.

There is so much to love about Egan, beginning with the name. Maj. Thomas Egan died on the street here eight years ago. His tragedy mobilized a community response. Our brains are not wired to focus on trends or statistics. Particulars focus our attention and strengthen our resolve. Tom Egan is the name we’ve given that commitment. We have former mayors who haven’t been honored as deeply.

Egan Warming Centers activate when overnight temperatures are expected to fall below 30 degrees. We’ve activated already this season as many nights as some entire winters. Each night of activation requires a small army of volunteers. The smallest site has space for 40 guests, requiring nearly as many volunteers.

The program could have been designed to use fewer volunteers, but the surplus is strategic. There’s time to chat during most three-hour shifts, and almost no concern that anyone will finish their turn feeling overwhelmed or dispirited. Even if only for a few hours, you can feel the tide of homeless suffering receding.

Many sites have exactly zero paid staff on the premises. Volunteer leaders have emerged. The egalitarian spirit shapes the mood of the room. Some guests come in from the cold feeling angry at the world and the systems that run it. It helps when nobody in the room has been forced to be there. “The Man” is nowhere to be found.

One young man told me I must be brave, if I was heading out in the morning with only my two layers and a scarf. I told him I had only a few blocks to walk. We laughed for a moment that guests and volunteers look alike, but that’s exactly as it should be. His buddy shook his head, then nodded, “We’re all God’s children.” I couldn’t have said it better.

The need is always great but the work is often easy. I’ve asked a dozen volunteers how they got involved. Most were invited or enticed by a friend. Someone they knew was already involved or interested, and so they followed.

There’s nothing surprising about that. We’re social creatures. Here is where we can build on the success we’re already enjoying. By simply “buddying up” we can double the effectiveness of the Egan Warming Center’s outreach.

If you’re already a volunteer, think about who you can invite to give it a try. If you’ve been thinking about doing the training, mention it to somebody you don’t see often enough and ask them to join you. Next time you’ve served a shift and enjoyed getting to know another volunteer, conspire to work together again.

The work we do takes us to who we become. As people and as a city, nobody travels in this parade alone. We’re all God’s children.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.