12 Oct Servant Teams: Operation Overcoat
What is Operation Overcoat? We have a guest writer from this year’s Lahash Servant Team to tell you all about it, and share some insights from all the participants. Thank you to Esther Carey for writing this article so that the Servant Team’s experiences of putting love into action can inspire all of us!
Reaching Out To Portland’s Homeless Community
by Esther Carey
Imagine living life out on the streets for months, even years. Imagine facing the constant elements of a northwestern winter with maybe a tent as protection. This is reality for hundreds, if not thousands of people in Portland. The staff and volunteers at Union Gospel Mission (UGM), located in downtown Portland, consistently seek to reach out to their homeless and low-income neighbors – and the members of Servant Teams are joining them!
UGM just hosted their 18th Operation Overcoat. This annual event is a neighborhood street fair event with live music, lots of food, and an opportunity to bless local people in need with coats, sleeping bags, shoes, and other clothing/hygiene items. Even more, it’s an opportunity to love on and show care for them, and for some it could even be the beginning of a journey off the streets.
The Lahash Servant Teams group joined more than 350 others in volunteering alongside the dedicated UGM staff and helping make the event possible. We were assigned to work in various areas – Yevette and Nicole helped sign people up for free haircuts, Valeria and her sister Fabi worked in the shoe tent, and Mandee, Eryn, and Esther helped hand out hygiene kits, socks, underwear, and gloves/scarves. For two hours, we interacted with a steady stream of people, doing what we could to help meet their needs from the stock of donated items. According to UGM, more than 800 guests took part in the event, with thousands of clothing items being handed out. Here is a bit more about the experience, from the perspective of each of our team members!
One thing that impacted me in my interactions with the guests was the differing levels of gratitude: Some people were vocal in their appreciation, while others voiced levels of frustration. My favorite part of helping at Operation Overcoat was seeing some of the “regulars” from UGM’s dayroom, where I have been volunteering twice a week—but also seeing a lot of new faces! The hardest part of the day was having to tell people that we were out of underwear in their size… which happened many times as the donated supply did not meet the need. Taking part in this day reminded me once again that our homeless and low-income neighbors are people just like us, they have likes and preferences—as well as the importance of being grateful!
I had a brief interaction with one of the UGM dayroom regulars, who is always thankful and kind—he treats us like he’s always known us. My favorite part of the day was being able to express joy to the guests and welcoming them to our tent, trying to make a connection with them. On the other hand, we had some disorganization of supplies in our tent which made it harder to grab what we needed. Taking part in Operation Overcoat reminded me of what I’ve learned at similar events before: the littlest thing, like a scarf and pair of gloves, can make the greatest impact.
I had the opportunity to talk to a lot of people – but the conversation that impacted me the most was with a guest from Mexico. He didn’t speak any English, but I was able to talk to him in Spanish. I felt bad for him that he immigrated to America looking for something better, but now he’s just living on the streets. I enjoyed trying to help each guest find a pair of shoes that they liked, making them happy and giving them a choice. The hardest part for me was dealing with some of the other volunteers who were treating the guests more rudely.
I found it challenging to have personal interactions because our section, handing out gloves and scarves, was super busy and flustering. But I was happy when I could cater to the guest’s preference of color, style, etc. The toughest part was seeing how many people were in need of this event. It was great to have a good turnout, but it made the level of need really sink in. I was impressed by how many people it took to put the event together—the UGM staff, some of the LifeChange residents, and so many volunteers!
The most impactful conversation I had was with one particularly young guy, hearing about what life on the streets was like for him. My favorite part of Operation Overcoat was putting some names with the faces I have seen when volunteering with the Search + Rescue crew; to be able to call them by name and communicate to them that I know them. The most frustrating aspect was how long each haircut took, because it was students doing them… but the guests were patient. From this day, I learned that having a kind heart and showing love is something that anyone can do!
I met one sweet lady who was really warm and engaging, laughing and making me laugh, too! I loved the simplicity and shared interaction of signing her up for a haircut. The best part for me was seeing people walk out with their new haircuts, feeling refreshed and good about themselves! The hard part was the amount of need for haircuts vs. the limited resource of just two barbers, and the resulting long wait for the guests. I learned the crazy dire need of the homeless community in Portland. And I also learned that not everyone who is homeless looks homeless—which helps shift my mindset and thinking.
As the Servant Team continues their journey of learning, growing, and serving together, they would love to have you join them! You can follow them on the following social media platforms:
You can also contribute to their fundraising efforts! They passed the 1/3 mark on their way to a goal of $50,000 that will cover their expenses while living in Portland and also their upcoming trip to East Africa for the second half of the adventure!