Patrick McPartland/Staff Photographer - Paula Voell, a volunteer at Little Portion Friary, Buffalo, prepares dessert for the residents.
Ask Tony Voell why he has volunteered at Little Portion Friary in Buffalo for more than 25 years and he’ll give you a simple answer. “It’s as close as I can get to seeing the face of Christ.”
While the organization currently has more than 100 volunteers, Voell and his wife, Paula, want to encourage others to give of their time.
“We need people,” he said. “As much as we are blessed with the donations, our greatest need is volunteers.”
Little Portion, which is housed in the former Barrett Rich Mansion on Main Street in Buffalo, has accommodations for 26 adults: 18 men and eight women. Residents are allowed to stay for up to one month per year. All beds are occupied at all times and, unfortunately, volunteers are often forced to turn people away.
Shifts of volunteers are at the shelter 24 hours per day and do everything from cooking at mealtimes and doing laundry, to cleaning the house and sorting clothes. Currently, the shelter’s greatest need is for volunteers to carry a shift in the evenings and on weekends.
“It’s a fantastic ministry where you have direct contact with people in need,” Tony Voell said.
The shelter depends on donations from the community for 100 percent of its income and the working budget is around $30,000 per year. Recently, thanks to a donation from a local foundation, the shelter was able to renovate their kitchen. Food is provided by the Food Bank of WNY and food drives from local businesses. The shelter also collects donations of toiletries and keeps a stock of household items, such as small appliances and dishes, to give to residents who find housing.
Volunteers, who work in shifts around the clock, keep residents on a strict daily schedule, starting with breakfast at 7:30 a.m. on weekdays and 8:30 a.m. on Sundays. During the day, residents are required to leave the shelter and work on the problems that brought them there in the first place.
For some, this means finding a job, for others it means going to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous meetings and talking to their sponsor. At 4 p.m., residents are allowed to return and dinner is served around 5 p.m.
“It’s a little bit like a family,” Paula Voell said.
Residents must be in the friary by 10:30 p.m. and in bed by 11 p.m. Men and women are housed in different wings of the house and eat their meals separately.
Sister Jean O’Connor, GNSH, a volunteer since the ’80s, says that the three main problems facing the residents are drug and alcohol addiction, mental illness, and unemployment. Volunteers make it clear that improper behavior will not be tolerated, and residents who display signs of violence, are manipulative, smoke inside the house, or break any of the other rules are asked to leave.
Residents must consent to a breathalyzer test to prove that they have been sober for at least 24 hours before being accepted into the shelter. Sister Jean emphasizes, however, that the vast majority of residents are cooperative and respectful with volunteers and each other.
“Ninety percent of the homeless are very much people I would like to associate with,” she said.
Paula Voell, who asks residents to say Grace when she eats dinner with them on Sundays, says that the depth of their spirituality surprised her.
“It’s very heartfelt and they often pray in thanksgiving for the food and the cooks and the people who serve them.”
Little Portion has no director or supervisor, but instead has a group of about 15 core volunteers who make important decisions, such as the recent switch to a completely smoke-free facility. In spite of having no set supervisor, the shelter has been kept up and running since 1982 and serves more than 19,000 meals per year to hundreds of Buffalo’s needy. Volunteers say they feel successful if residents are able to improve their circumstances while they are at the shelter.
“Just last year, a fellow came in and he looked like he had just pulled himself out of the gutter,” Sister Jean said. “He got himself cleaned up here and when he left about a month later he had a job, he had a place to live, and he looked like the man next door.”
Sometimes, former residents even want to become volunteers themselves. Although keeping the shelter running is time and work-intensive, volunteers stress the benefits of working closely with people in need.
“The way I look at it is, it’s a small little part of rent on the planet,” Paula Voell said.
Anyone interested in volunteering or further information may call 716-875-9629.
Coats 4 Kids distributed by St. Vincent de Paul Society