MENOMONIE — On a chilly January morning at Winter Haven, an overnight shelter in Menomonie, UW-Stout student volunteer Serena Petersen sat at the wooden kitchen table doing homework and talking to residents.
The smell of freshly brewed coffee wafted through the air. The warmth in Winter Haven chases away not only the winter chill but the loneliness some may feel from not having a home.
Petersen, 22, a senior majoring in human development and family studies, said that after three weeks of volunteering she already had learned and grown so much.
“My favorite part is the people,” said Petersen, of Delano, Minn. “You come in with this preconceived notion they are lazy or rude. It’s the opposite. They are so grateful.”
“They are just like you,” she added. “That’s important. They just need that boost. Some people are just dealt a difficult hand. It’s not about laziness, which is what people want to say it is. They want to get back on their feet and get their own place.”
Winter Haven opened at its current site in 2014, providing space for 10 adults — seven men and three women — to stay overnight. Before that there was a warming shelter at St. Joseph’s Church basement for about three years.
At the new site, guests have beds, showers and laundry facilities.
Women sleep on the lower level and men upstairs, while sharing some common spaces such as the kitchen and living room.
The shelter is open during the winter months, and people can stay for 90 consecutive days as shelter staff members help them find housing.
Volunteers staff the shelter, said Heidi Hooten, shelter coordinator for Stepping Stones of Dunn County.
“We couldn’t do it without the volunteers,” Hooten said. “If we didn’t have volunteers, we wouldn’t have Winter Haven.”
About half of the 100 volunteers each year are UW-Stout students, Hooten said. Homelessness largely occurs in Dunn County when people become ill, lose their jobs and eventually their housing, she said.
“We have a lot of people in recovery,” Hooten said. “They need a safe place to be from their old haunts to keep working on recovery, staying clean and getting back on their feet.”
Finding affordable housing is an issue in Dunn County, Hooten noted. Between 45 and 50 people stay at the shelter, open from Nov. 15 to March 31.
Like a family
Justin Kalkes, 22, a senior UW-Stout criminal justice and rehabilitation major, works an evening shift at Winter Haven as residents watch television, fix a snack in the kitchen or quietly work on a laptop computer.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “It is nice to help them. Everybody is real laid back. It is more like a family. They take care of each other.”
Kalkes said one of the difficult parts of working as a volunteer is staying awake through the night. “Coffee is definitely your best friend,” said Kalkes of Jordan, Minn.
Connor Hobart, 22, a senior majoring in applied social science from Palmyra, has volunteered at Winter Haven the past four years. He started after seeing an advertisement on campus for volunteers.
“I would encourage others to volunteer at Winter Haven because it is such an important part of the community for people to have a place to sleep and have food,” Hobart said.
At first, Petersen had trepidations about volunteering at a homeless shelter, but it has helped boost her confidence and get her out of her “comfort zone,” she said.
There are bad days as well, Petersen said, noting one day a caller yelled because a shelter spot wasn’t available.
“These are real situations and people do get stressed out,” Petersen said. “You have to remember these are peoples’ lives. It makes me more grateful. Here I am worried about mundane things, like getting homework done, and this person is looking for her next meal.”
Petersen, who is scheduled to graduate in May, encourages other UW-Stout students to take the time to volunteer. “You help someone else and realize the bigger picture,” she said. “It grounds you.”