by PATRICK J. BUECHI
Thu, Sep 28th 2017 12:10 pm
Little Portion Friary volunteer Joe Muhitch speaks to other volunteers before an outdoor Mass to celebrate the emergency shelter’s 35th anniversary. Bishop Richard J. Malone and Father Ryszard Biernat celebrated the Mass, which took place Aug. 5 outside the downtown Buffalo friary. (Patrick J. Buechi/Staff)
Little Portion Friary, the quiet house on Main Street just a little north of Buffalo’s Medical Campus, serves people in need. But right now, the friary has a need of its own – volunteers.
The friary, which offers services to the homeless, is open 24/7 and staffed entirely by unpaid volunteers who take care of whatever needs to be done, from sorting food to washing laundry to interviewing the guests who come in off the street. Most of the current volunteers are retirees looking to stay active in the community. Joe Muhitch, one of the volunteers, estimates the average age to be 70. So far this year, four core members have died, causing Muhitch and his wife, Mary Ann, who does the scheduling, to seek help.
“It’s getting to the point where we need more volunteers,” Mary Ann Muhitch said.
Little Portion has 120 shifts per month that need to be filled. Right now, about a third are open. The average shift is four to six hours. The Muhitches has seen more than a few people work over 40 hours a week to fill the void.
“The volunteers we have now are doubling up, but we don’t want them to get burned out,” Mary Ann said. Most of the tasks do not require any special skills, but anyone handy with tools are always welcome. Guests are required to be out of the building from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., so a background in social work is not needed.
“Some don’t like to work with our guests, others love to interact with them. So, you have to decide what kind of person you are; what you want to do,” Mary Ann Muhitch said.
Joe and Mary Ann have been volunteering for 25 years. It has been a way of life for the Getzville couple since they met in college volunteering in the inner city.
After raising a family, the two read a story in the Western New York Catholic about the friary needing volunteers and decided to help out.
“One of the reasons I volunteer is, you can’t imagine somebody being on the street all day long and have no place to sit down, especially when it is raining and snowing. They’ve got to be totally exhausted,” Joe Muhitch said. “When they come to Little Portion, you can see in their eyes, they’re hurting. You’re not going to solve any problems; you’re going to prevent pain or relieve their pain. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
“This could be you. This could be one of your children. When we see faces come down here, we’re always very thankful for everything we have. I think that’s the motivation behind it,” Mary Ann added.
Most guests come in wanting to sleep. They have an hour interview when they are welcomed. Then can shower and get cleaned up before they can hit the sack. There is never an empty bed. In the winter, if people come knocking on the door and there is no place for them to sleep, Joe will let them in and give them something to eat – “No one goes away hungry from Little Portion,” he said proudly.
Ray Szymkowski, a volunteer for 30 years, calls the friary, “The Miracle on Main Street.”
“We don’t have any funds coming in,” he said. “All of our volunteers are not paid. It’s run strictly by the grace of God. When we needed a refrigerator or a freezer, somebody stepped forward and bought it for us. You won’t find another shelter like that in Western New York.”
He has done a lot at the shelter during his three decades there. He used to handle the admissions, then for a while he did laundry until his age caught up with him.
“They don’t want me going up and down the stairs,” he said with a laugh. His current job is breakfast man on Tuesday mornings. He comes in for about four hours to serve the breakfast provided by food pantries or private donors, then he cleans up the kitchen.
“The guests, I can’t tell you how, they make me feel good, because I talk to them and they feel like they’re not an outcast. It helps them and it helps me, because I think I’m doing something that God intended me to do,” he said.
At the age of 87, Szymkowski still makes it in once a week. He said at his age it is good to stay active. “It helps me keep moving. If I sit at home and do nothing, I’m wasting my time and I’m getting weaker. I volunteer because it gives me energy to move on. It keeps me active, and in a sense, that’s a blessing in itself.”
Another volunteer with a long history of helping others is Richard Gehring, who is already planning for his 10th anniversary next year. Armed with a master’s degree in social work and 30 years as executive director of Meals on Wheels, Gehring now puts his experience to use with guest services.
“I’ve worked in human services all of my work life, so I am in charge of working with each guest, interviewing them, developing a comprehensive assessment of their situation, and then developing goals – I call them marching orders – for the guests to work on while they’re here.”
Little Portion Friary is classified as an emergency shelter, designed for short-term stays, usually 30 days. During which, guests get connected to social services and receive help in finding jobs, health care and a permanent place to stay. With room for 18 men and 10 women, the friary is always full.
“I always say this friary is the rudder and the stabilizer for people. We get them in off the street, out of the cold, out of the hot heat, and we get them back on their feet. Good food, good services,” Gehring said.
He sees every sort of physical, emotional and mental issue come through the door, from addiction to unemployment. As a Vietnam vet, he has a great concern for the treatment of his fellow soldiers. “We have a homeless veteran problem. You might be reading in the paper that there isn’t, but there is. We witness it here everyday,” he said.
For Ed Long, a retired dentist, volunteering is a way of giving back to the community. He manages the front desk for one five-hour shift a week, greeting the new guests.
“Not only do you give back here, you receive so much more than you give by helping others. You meet a tremendous number of people – volunteers, the homeless. I just love it,” he said.
Anyone willing to volunteer may call 716-882-5705.