Her eyes shone with a humble thank you.
The men’s faces shone with anticipation of the coming Thanksgiving. Life was tough for these homeless men, but the people at Firehouse Shelter were there to support them. This Thanksgiving, their troubles will have to wait. On that day, the universe breathed a welcome respite.
As the waiters opened the kitchen windows overlooking the dining room, the men rose and lined up as they always did.
“No, no,” shouted one volunteer. “Today we will serve you at your table.”
The men looked at each other, grinned, and then went back to their tables. Staff and volunteers delivered plates of turkey and all supplies to nearly a hundred men. They all gathered to celebrate and humbly gave thanks.
Founded in 1983 in Birmingham, Alabama, The Firehouse Shelter had recently relocated to a new facility that is considered a marvel of design and innovation.
Brandon Haley is the development director for the shelter. “We used to be in a much smaller facility that was falling apart. We ran a capital campaign and raised $7 million, then we moved into this brand new facility just before the pandemic.”
The new Firehouse Shelter has won major architectural awards and has been touted for its state-of-the-art and practical amenities. The living area is clean with bunk beds and plenty of space, and the dining room and kitchen are organized and spacious. A huge pantry is filled floor to ceiling with shelves full of cans and bags of donated groceries. The shelter serves over 5,000 homeless men each year, more than any other agency in Alabama. Their programs include employment preparation workshops, literacy skills, life training skills, street work, and a wardrobe.
“The Birmingham community has been good to us,” Haley said. “Firehouse Ministries offers 215 beds for the homeless in 11 locations across Birmingham. We also have day care and supportive housing for men with serious mental illness.”
One short sentence in Firehouse Ministries’ mission statement says it all: “. . . break the cycle of homelessness. . .’
“We’re not just putting a band-aid on homelessness; We’re offering these men a way out, a job, affordable housing and hope,” Haley said.
This Thanksgiving at the Firehouse Shelter you could almost see it – the hope. In the dining room, Haley beamed at the men nudging one another and smiled at the volunteers serving their tables. “Today is different, it’s Thanksgiving after all. We wanted the men to feel special,” said Haley.
The men ate at their feast while chatting to one another. One thing was obvious: their gratitude for what they had.
“Thanksgiving is unlike any other day. Besides serving the customers at their tables, there is enough for seconds. And all the tables are decorated with drawings made by local schoolchildren.”
Four volunteers helped prepare and serve Thanksgiving dinner. James and Kim Brittle, along with their sons James and Jack, lined up in the kitchen and filled the plates. For the past ten years, the family has come to the Firehouse Shelter on Thanksgiving Day.
James helped prepare the food in the kitchen. “Kim and I decided years ago to show gratitude to our boys and the best way was to serve others. The kids enjoyed coming here and seeing that the homeless are real people. You are not invisible and deserve dignity and respect.”
After the meal, the men retired to the lobby and courtyard. Haley walked around talking to the men and shaking hands. She listened to their problems and offered help. Above all, it offered hope.
“These men will become part of our family,” Haley said. “They end up here for a variety of reasons – addiction, mental illness or poor choices. An elderly man came here after being bankrupt from his wife’s cancer treatment. We take them as they are and we help them.”
Outside in the courtyard, the afternoon lazily stretched out as the sun warmed the clear and cool day. The men sat around the tables with unspoken gratitude on their faces, contentment hovering between the occasional jagged scars.
“I lost my job and found myself here,” said a customer named Brian. “I am thankful for this place. If I wasn’t here I would be sleeping on the street. I’m also thankful for being sober. Firehouse Ministries people take care of us and help people with medical needs.”
An older man named Wilbert patted Brian on the shoulder. He was at least 80 years old and his smile could light up an entire city block. His eyes had that inner light of wisdom, knowledge, and eloquence.
“I’m grateful to be able to share my joy with these people. We all have a beating heart and we all feel for each other. We all have empathy for one another. Empathy means caring for one another, for our families, for Firehouse Ministries. And today, on this Thanksgiving Day, I am thankful for empathy.”
A rain cloud thundered overhead, forcing the men to go inside. Her eyes shone with great gratitude and humble compassion.
Visit www.firehouseshelter.com for more information