At Temple Kol Ami we have a decades long tradition of participating in social action activities and organizations. We see ourselves as a force for good, “doing Jewish” across Greater Phoenix with unique social programs. One of the things I love about Temple Kol Ami is that as a member, if there is something you think might interest other congregants, there is ample opportunity to bring it to the staff and give it a try.
I started volunteering at Andre House over four years ago. I wanted to find an organization that I could be passionate about, embrace and, most importantly, feel like I was making a difference. Every time I volunteer, Andre House checks all those boxes and so many more.
Andre House was started in 1984. Two Catholic priests began by serving soup near the railroad tracks in downtown Phoenix to anyone in need. The culture remains the same. Andre House considers itself a house of hospitality; all are welcome no matter their race, religion or sexual identity.
Today, Andre House serves dinner every night of the week except Friday to somewhere between 300 and 650 people, who are experiencing some form of homelessness — people who would otherwise not have dinner. In addition, Andre House provides many resources during the day, including showers, clothing closets, telephone access, help getting through the paperwork to find housing and, many times, just someone to listen. The people Andre House serves are considered “guests.” The majority are living and sleeping on the streets in Phoenix or spending the night in a shelter if there is space available.
All are treated with respect.
Over the past three years, Temple Kol Ami has embraced Andre House through clothing and blanket drives, making hygiene kits and having its members volunteer to serve dinner on a monthly basis.
Every time that I volunteer at Andre House, I am always struck by the graciousness of those who are experiencing homelessness. During dinner, many of the guests say “Thank you;” “Bless you;” and “I appreciate you for preparing and serving the dinner.”
They are truly grateful.
When I first started volunteering at Andre House there were many options for service. I wanted to interact directly with the guests. I continue to do that on a weekly basis by working in the office that provides services to the guests.
There were two people whose stories will always be with me. The first was a 40-year-old man who had moved from Los Angeles to Phoenix to start over and make a better life for himself. He had been orphaned, not once, but twice in his lifetime. He had been in and out of jail and did not want to go back to his old “friends” in Los Angeles.
Someone promised him a job in Phoenix so he headed to Arizona. He worked as long as he could before the company went out of business. Without a cushion and with a prison record he ended up living on the streets of Phoenix and finally found Andre House to provide additional support services.
When I asked him what he wanted me to know about him, without hesitation he said, “I write poetry.” I asked when and where he started writing poetry and it was in prison. I asked if he would share his poetry, and this 40-year-old man, who had been orphaned twice, in and out of jail and was experiencing homelessness, started reciting his poetry from memory to me.
His poems were about love and how that was the only thing he wanted in life. The rest did not matter. Although I do not know the end of his story, I do know that Andre House was critical in helping him to find housing. Last we spoke he was nervous about living by himself — his current family was his street family — but he was excited to move forward.
The seniors living on the street have also impacted me. A number of guests are over the age of 60 and some are over 70. I met the sweetest woman, someone who might have been someone’s grandmother. She was suffering from mental illness. Her goal was always to get back home to her family in another state. Some days she would just come into Andre House and sit. She did not want anything other than to be surrounded by people who were safe and would appreciate her. I have not seen her in months and can only hope that she was able to return home.
I love Andre House’s staff and culture. It has a very limited number of paid professionals considering the amount of services they provide, so no fancy offices, and they have their own culture of repairing the world, one person at a time.
Everyone that steps through the front doors of Andre House as a volunteer knows by the time they leave they have participated in tikkun olam and made the world a little bit better. Those who can’t volunteer in person can donate goods, make hygiene bags and donate money. JN
Laura Ziff is a member of Temple Kol Ami. For more information about Andre House, visit andrehouse.org.