Bill Bruno came to me with a plea.
“I need help at Nativity House,” he said bluntly.
Specifically, Bruno explained that he desperately needs volunteers to help prepare and serve lunches and dinners during the holidays. While the Tacoma homeless shelter is typically flush with people looking to lend a helping hand on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s present a challenge, he told me.
That surprised me. But perhaps it shouldn’t have. Nativity House serves three meals a day, every day — about 1,600 of them, according to officials at the shelter. To do so, for dinner and lunch, they largely depend on teams of volunteers who purchase, prepare and often serve the meals.
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I assumed the holiday season, when people often extol the virtues of “peace on earth, good will toward men,” would be a time of abundant giving, not of critical need at Nativity House.
But you know what they say about assumptions.
For the last four months, Bruno has served as the pastoral care and volunteer coordinator at Nativity House, the 48,000-square-foot facility Catholic Community Services operates along Yakima Avenue, providing overnight shelter to 167 men and women a day.
Aside from its overnight shelter, Nativity House also offers important services — such as day shelter and chemical dependency assessments — for hundreds of individuals either experiencing homelessness in Tacoma or on the cusp of it.
One of the necessities Nativity House provides to its vulnerable clientele is the most basic: food. Many of the people who use the offering, Bruno said, are “on the street, and don’t know where their next meal is coming.”
Others, he said, are families in need with nowhere else to turn. The holidays, he notes, come “at the end of the month, when the guests do not have money.”
“Anyone who wants to show up” can get a meal, Bruno says. “If you walked in today, I would serve you.”
For Bruno, the job marks the start of his third career. He spent 20 years in the Army, working in mental health. Later, he went to work for the state Department of Corrections, spending another decade focusing on mental health.
His new job, he says, is “very fulfilling.” Now 60, Bruno began volunteering at Nativity House three years ago, and was hired full time in August.
Still, despite its rewards, Bruno’s new job is not without challenges. During the holiday season, he says, it’s often difficult to line up volunteers to serve meals. While this is Bruno’s first holiday season working as Nativity House’s volunteer coordinator, the shortage this time of year is a regular occurrence, he said.
Initially, Bruno said, he was surprised by it, too. But he’s come to terms with it. Reaching out to The News Tribune for help, he said, is part of his effort to reverse the trend.
“Ironically, it just reminds me of the original Christmas, when Jesus and Mary and Joseph couldn’t find a place to stay,” Bruno said.
“We’ve got a place to stay, but we can’t feed them, it seems like.”
Typically, Bruno said, church groups, offices or high school groups make up the bulk of Nativity House’s volunteers. During the holidays, however, schools are on winter break, and he believes others might be choosing to spend their time elsewhere.
“I think a lot of it is families are spending time together, as they should,” Bruno said. “A lot of them don’t particularly want to give up Christmas Day, because that is a big family time and a gift-giving time.”
However, it also makes the holidays — when Bruno says Nativity House is “100 percent” dependent on volunteer meals — a particularly meaningful time to give a gift that really matters.
“The guests that we serve are extremely thankful for almost everything they get,” Bruno said.
“It’s a tough crowd to serve, but they’re always thankful for a moment of attention, a good warm meal and knowing that they don’t have to worry about it.”
In a perfect world, Nativity House wouldn’t have to worry about pleading for volunteers to help feed Tacoma residents who need a good warm meal.
Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world — a fact we’re reminded of on a daily basis.
But if there’s a silver lining, it’s that we do live in a world where regular people can still step up and make a difference.
Nativity House is hoping to find a few to do just that this holiday season.
To inquire about volunteer opportunities, contact Nativity House Volunteer Coordinator Bill Bruno at 253 365-4111 or at Nativity House, 702 S. 14th St., Tacoma, WA. 98405