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How to Save a Life

Volunteering at Egan can build up a community
Diane Cunningham volunteers for Egan Warming Center. Photo by Kelly Kenoyer.
Diane Cunningham volunteers for Egan Warming Center. Photo by Kelly Kenoyer.

Egan Warming Center faced a record 11 straight days of activation this year, and with three months of winter left they’re banking on hundreds of dedicated volunteers to show up night after night to help shelter the homeless on freezing nights.

Luckily, citizens like Diane Cunningham are ready to help.

Cunningham is an intake volunteer at two Egan locations in Springfield — either the Springfield Seventh Day Adventist Church or Ebbert Memorial United Methodist Church, depending on the night. She’s 68 years old with cropped grey hair and an easy smile. Cunningham is retired, and she says she’s not happy unless she’s volunteering for the community.

“I think that’s a route to happiness for a lot of us, is looking around and saying how can I make my community better,” she says.

Every night it’s open, the emergency shelter provides medical treatment, a safe place for pets to stay at certain locations, hot meals in the evening and morning, and new socks and other supplies.

“They usually get a hot cooked breakfast before they leave,” Cunningham says. “We load them up with sandwiches for the day.”

Almost every night she volunteers at Egan, Cunningham shows up at 4:30 pm and stays till 10:30 or 11:30 pm to welcome guests and help new volunteers get settled in. 

“They’re all outside, and there can be 40 of them. Sometimes we’ll have an intake of 80 people,” she says. “Fifty is what we can comfortably handle, but we’re not going to turn anyone away, and we get a lot of walk-ins in Springfield.” 

Cunningham says she has become very friendly with some of the guests over her 5 years of volunteering for Egan. “I have friends who say ‘those people.’ You know how we use that term, ‘those people,’” she says. She asks friends who talk this way to give her two nights of their lives to change their minds. 

“Come volunteer two nights with me,” she tells them. “I just want you to see who ‘those people’ are.” 

The result: “They’re amazed! They say ‘Oh I had no idea!’”

“It’s not ‘those people,’” Cunningham says. “It’s Kathy and Bill and Tennessee.”

Egan Warming Center director Shelley Corteville says that, “time and time again, people that volunteer often say, ‘I get more out of volunteering than guests get from me.”

“We literally are saving people from freezing to death,” Corteville says. “And what could be more important than that?”

Each night Egan is open, Corteville points out, its 11 locations require 300 to 320 volunteers. Although thousands have completed the training, she says that only about 500 people consistently volunteer.

Cunningham says this might be because folks can get uncomfortable with “talk about how to protect yourself, how to deescalate,” she says. Part of the training “is to teach people how to be safe.” But Cunningham says she has never felt endangered at Egan. 

While she says the training might sound scary, implying that people seeking shelter might not be safe, Cunningham says the guests in fact are very polite and grateful.

“I get a hundred ‘thank yous’ a night,” she says. “They love to talk, they love to know that you’re interested. People say, ‘How can you do this every day?’ Well it’s because it’s fun!”

Although Cunningham is happy to volunteer and looks forward to her nights with her guests, she says the area still needs to step up and create a permanent shelter. 

“They need a door they can lock so their stuff isn’t stolen,” she says of the unhoused. “You can’t stabilize someone when they’re on the street.”

On those cold Egan nights, Cunningham goes home tired, but happy. “When I get home and crawl into my nice warm bed, I know there’s 80 people who are warm and safe and fed because I showed up.”

To volunteer, go to eganwarmingcenter.com or call 541-687-5820.