Community Health Center Network has many extraordinary employees helping to make the organization run smoothly. Sharon Lee, Data Analyst Manager, is responsible for the creation and writing of reports for multiple departments, and for validating data coming into CHCN from external sources. Her goal with the reports that she creates is to make the running of reports as easy as possible for the end user, her coworkers. Sharon also helps the homeless by collecting clothes and blankets throughout the year and taking those donations directly to the homeless communities. I sat down with Sharon to see how her passion for helping the homeless began and how her efforts have grown over the years.
Joi Wilson (JW): What drove you to start helping the homeless?
Sharon Lee (SL): What initially got me started was during the Holiday seasons when all sorts of community organizations and churches feed the homeless, I often thought about what happens after the holidays, the people still have needs. When I see people on the street, clearly in need of some sort of help, I get emotional. I can’t help it. But, it wasn’t until it hit close to home that I realized there was something more I could do to help. I had a brother who was very close to homelessness and he got a lot of help from not only his family, but good samaritans as well, to keep him out of the streets. It touched me and I decided to pay it forward.
JW: What type of assistance did you give in the beginning?
SL: It started out small; I would make lunch bags and hand them out to the homeless in a park. Then we had a really cold winter one year and I realized that if I’m cold all snuggled up in my house how must it feel to a homeless person.
JW: What types of things do you collect?
SL: Anything, really. All clothes are appreciated year round. Most of the clothes are taken directly to the homeless community, but the nicer, more business type clothing I take to certain shelters that are helping people find jobs. I also collect food for the lunch bags; things that aren’t perishable because you have to remember that they don’t have access to refrigerators or microwaves. My lunch bags usually consist of bottled water or juice, a piece of fruit, chips or crackers, sandwiches (with mayo & mustard packets), and some sort of dessert.
JW: How has the assistance you supply to the homeless grown since you started?
SL: When I started it was just me but when my church found out what I was doing they wanted to help also. By myself I would give out 15-20 lunch bags, but with my church’s help we now handout 50 lunch bags. Even with the 50 bags there are times when we don’t have enough for everyone; we hope to get to the point where we don’t have to turn anyone away.
JW: Do you have a particular time and place where you hand out the donations?
SL: I go to an area with a large homeless community near the Oakland-Berkeley border on 39th Avenue near my church. We hand out food and clothing on the 4th Sunday of each month.
JW: Are you ever concerned for your safety when you take donations directly to the homeless?
SL: I’m definitely careful and think defensively when I go out there. I lock my purse in the trunk of my car before leaving my house and don’t open my trunk when I’m there. Plus, there’s safety in numbers. Since my church joined in we make sure no one is ever left alone. When we pray with the homeless someone always keeps their eyes open. And, even though there are some people’s stories that really touch my heart, I do not give out my phone number. I’ve started carrying important support numbers with me that I hand out instead.
JW: Is there a particular time of year when you step up your collection efforts?
SL: The beginning of fall is when I send an email out to my coworkers asking for used warm coats and blankets. I know that when the cold weather comes in many people buy new coats for themselves so this is the perfect time to ask for the old ones. Plus I want to hand out the warm items before it gets too cold.
JW: What do you want the people reading this article to know about the homeless?
SL: Many people think that homeless people are all alcoholics or are drug addicts but that’s not always the case. There are people out there who have fallen on hard times, especially with the economy the way that it is. Mental illness is also a big issue. But I’ve seen a lot since I’ve started going out to the park. They have their own community and they help each other out. I remember one time my car broke down in the middle of a busy street and there were plenty of people who just drove by and didn’t stop to help me and my daughter. But it was a homeless man who came over and helped us push our car out of the street; the man that most people just walk by and try not to see.
JW: What advice do you have for someone who wants to help the homeless or volunteer their time to another cause?
SL: Make sure you’re doing it because you have the passion to want to help; not because you’re looking for a thank you. Find out what you really want to help with and why; I started with food because I didn’t want to see people go hungry, the clothes came later. If you’re not sure how or where to help look online to see what help is needed in your community. CHCN allows employees to donate directly to the Alameda County Community Food Bank through payroll deductions. Every little bit helps.