Content starts here

A Warm Atmosphere at a Hypothermia Shelter

Hypothermia volunteer photo
Mike Collins checks the bedding at the Church of St. Clement before the guests arrive for the night.

Soft, melodic piano chords fill the sanctuary of the Church of St. Clement in Alexandria, Va., early one morning. I get up from my cot to investigate.

A man is thoughtfully creating music on the church piano. He pauses between chords, listening, thinking.

“That’s beautiful,” I tell him. “You must be a professional.”

Yes, he was, the former hip-hop musician tells me. He continues, speaking softly, gesturing with his hands. “Creating music is like building with Legos. It’s all about building and structure. People let their emotions get in the way.”

>> Find Volunteer Opportunities at Create the Good

The pianist does not fit my profile of a homeless man. Yet he is, as are the seven other men I meet the evening that my husband, Mike, and I serve as hypothermia prevention volunteers.

It's our third time helping out at the shelter, an opportunity we learned about through our own church. We arrive at St. Clement’s around 7 p.m. to review the checklist and haul mats, blankets, pillows and sheets from the storage room to the reception area. There we wait for the van from nearby Carpenter’s Shelter, one of the largest homeless shelters in Northern Virginia. When it arrives at 8:30 p.m., the men (women stay at the shelter) sign in and take their bedding supplies into the sanctuary to create makeshift beds among the pews.

They crowd around a small television near the church's kitchen to watch NCIS and snack on pretzels, cookies and coffee left for them by church volunteers. Some venture outside for a quick smoke break. At 10:15 p.m. it’s lights out.

I take the 10 p.m.-2 a.m. shift while Mike attempts to sleep. My job is to stay awake and periodically walk through the sanctuary to count heads. We have a number to call in case there is an emergency. There never is. These men just want a warm bed.

Mike wakes us up at 5:30 a.m. The men slowly stretch, put their mats away and stuff bedding into a laundry bag.

The shelter van arrives, and our guests sign out and thank us. An hour from now, after a fast-food breakfast courtesy of the church, they will begin the wait for another night of warmth.

Photo: Jane Hess Collins

Also of Interest


See the  AARP home page for deals, savings tips, trivia and more.

Search AARP Blogs

Related Posts
October 27, 2015 05:58 PM
Lexi Jadoff, 31, is a driven, ambitious Washington, D.C., consultant with a unique way of de-stressing. She volunteers with The Reading Connection (TRC), a nonprofit that promotes reading for at-risk families. Jadoff is among the Read-Aloud volunteers who read each week with children at shelters…
September 17, 2015 02:29 PM
Some people take a fitness class before heading to work. Others jog a mile or two. Jennifer Kenealy, 45, gets her morning workout by hauling boxes of children’s books to schools, recreation centers, youth-focused nonprofit organizations and other sites. These are spots where children of low-income…
September 08, 2015 11:10 AM
Men in tuxedos and women in sparkly jackets mingle in the Green Room of the Little Theater of Alexandria (LTA) in Virginia. A pianist in the far corner plays show tunes on a baby grand piano while a small group sings “Hello, Dolly.” Other guests sip wine and nibble on artistically presented hors…