Holland

How volunteering helped turn a homeless man’s life around

Gene Ekema is shy about his contributions. But ask anyone at Refresh, where he volunteers twice a week, and they will tell you he is a problem-solver.

Last month, the Michigan Coalition Against Homelessness honored Ekema, who until recently was homeless himself, as its 2020 Volunteer Champion. 

Refresh — a partnership between Community Action House and First United Methodist Church —  offers a meal, a hot shower, and case management services to those experiencing homelessness.

The program began in February 2019. That year, 1,834 people signed in for a shower, a meal, their mail, or other assistance. Refresh went from once-a-week service to twice-a-week in September 2019. In the first half of 2020, it had already recorded 1,214 sign-ins. 

Every day the program is open, it is at capacity, says the Rev. LuAnne Stanly-Hook, Director of Community Involvement at First United Methodist Church. There are talks of expanding capacity even further. Ekema is a part of that.

Homeless

Ekema, 60, has moved around a lot in his life, including a brief stint in the Navy.

“Once I got into my 20s, I discovered the alcohol, and that was part of my downfall,” he says. “When I was out binge drinking, I was sleeping in my car for weeks on end.”

In 1997, he walked away from toxic relationships — including alcohol — and bought a bus ticket to the farthest-flung place he could afford — Salt Lake City.

There, Ekema still had to deal with instability and homelessness. He spent a couple of years in the rescue mission there, and later helped run a shelter.

When he returned to Holland in 2016 to help his aging parents, Ekema was working, but struggling. Then the panic attacks started. He found himself unable to work. Two winters ago, he was sleeping in an unheated garage. Community Action House connected him with a counselor, who helped him manage his stress.

Giving back

Ekema started volunteering there, as he had at other places that had helped him over the years. 

“They had always helped me, so that was a way to give back a little bit,” he says.

At first, Ekema was using the Refresh program for its showers and meals, but he was soon volunteering there, too.

He jokes that he figured out if he showed up early to volunteer, he could be first in line for a shower, but his willingness to help at Refresh is another link in his long chain of not taking without giving back.

“He thinks in ways that solve problems,” says Stanly-Hook. “It’s so great to see the dreams that he has. It kind of steers us, as well.”

The staff at First United Methodist Church were so impressed with Ekema, they convinced their cleaning service to hire him, so he could be the one to clean the church every week. Now, he also attends the church.

More than a shower

The Refresh program has helped several people find stable housing, Stanly-Hook says.

How can something as simple as a shower make such an impact?

For those experiencing homelessness, keeping clean can be a constant challenge, says Daniel Unekis, Outreach Program Manager with Community Action House. Damaged self-esteem and difficulty in job interviews and social situations are often byproducts, he says.

The outreach team from CAH also helps people who have lost their Social Security cards, state IDs, and birth certificates, and helps them navigate Medicaid, unemployment, food stamps, other state and federal aid, and local resources. 

“Perhaps most importantly, Refresh offers people a place where, regardless of how they've been treated elsewhere, they can expect grace-filled, dignity-instilling services and relationships,” Unekis says.

COVID-19

With social distancing restrictions that COVID-19 brings, there isn’t as much fellowship at Refresh these days. Those waiting for a shower are shown to one of a handful of chairs. Others are given a sack lunch and politely told they can’t hang around.

“We used to have nine tables. People would sit and visit, eat,” Ekema says.

Now, staff block off hallways, hand out face masks to those who need them, and are constantly cleaning every surface.

Volunteers

Ekema describes his fellow volunteers as “some of the friendliest people you will ever meet” and extolls their willingness to give.

“If we need food for the kitchen, there’s always people from the church bringing things in,” he says. “That’s why I like it here. They practice what they preach. They don’t just talk about helping people, they do it.”

The Refresh volunteers, Ekema points out, always take the time to learn the names of everyone who comes through the door.

Credit

CAH and First United Methodist Church staff nominated Ekema for the Volunteer Champion award, but they didn’t tell him about it. They knew Ekema didn’t want the credit as much as he deserved it, Stanly-Hook says.

Ekema said his mother heard the news from a friend.

“I was always taught, you do things, but you don’t seek credit,” he says.

These days, Ekema is asleep by 9. Wakes up at dawn. Drinks coffee and watches the news with his roommate. Rides his bike or walks to work. Comes home and watches TV or plays a computer game.

“I have a normal life — which is nice.”
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