Homeless for the holidays
By Heather Graves
GREEN BAY – Life can change in an instant and no one knows that more than 56-year-old Kathy Wery.
Wery has been a resident of the New Community Shelter since the end of March.
She never expected she would be spending the holidays in a homeless shelter.
But after beating breast cancer, living with the daily challenges of neuropathy and diabetes and loosing her home when her apartment building was sold, Wery had no where else to go.
The well-known holiday traditions of spending time with family and friends, decorating the tree, baking cookies, exchanging gifts and feasting on a lavish home-cooked meal are all fond memories for Wery growing up.
But those traditions are a lot harder to hold onto when homeless.
Wery fought back tears as she talked about not having a place of her own, or a place to go this holiday season.
Though she said she feels blessed to have a warm place to stay, not having a place of her own during the holidays is hard.
“It’s not easy at all to be here during the holidays,” Wery said as her voice cracked. “I have no plans for Thanksgiving. Just staying around here (the shelter), I guess. And the same goes for Christmas. All I can think about is I don’t have my own tree to decorate in my own apartment. I can’t have dinner at my house. I have started to slide into depression.”
As hard as these last several months have been, Wery said life in the shelter is as close to normal as normal can be in this situation.
“The staff is very supportive and that means a lot,” Wery said. “They respect you and make you feel like a person.”
Wery is just one of nearly 100 residents who will spend the holidays at the shelter.
“We have quite a few people that stick around the shelter for the holidays,” said New Community Shelter Executive Director Terri Refsguard. “Because in some sense that is their family.”
Refsguard said feelings of sadness and depression are common with residents at the shelter.
“The holidays are really tough for the people here,” Refsguard said.
Staff and volunteers at the shelter do what they can to provide residents with a much-needed sense of community and belonging year round, but especially during the holidays.
“Every Thanksgiving we have a board that we make available in the dining room and there are some little pieces of paper and you are encouraged to write on there what you are thankful for and tack it up on there,” Refsguard said. “Now, one would think in a homeless shelter there would not be so many reasons why a person would be thankful. But, on Thanksgiving that board is full.”
Each year, the shelter provides holiday meals, a decorated facility and a special Christmas Eve celebration with gifts and fellowship.
“I think the spirit of Christmas grows around here because the people that live here are not guests of the New Community Shelter, but residents,” Refsguard said. “This is their home, and they spend their whole time here taking care of their home, their room, the building, etc. And I think that changes everything when you are a resident versus a guest. I think that’s where there is more a sense of pride verses a sense of shame or embarrassment.”
Refsguard said holidays at the shelter put things into perspective for her.
“The level of appreciation for presents is just amazing,” Refsguard said. “We’ll see someone open a pair of socks, or a gentleman get some new T-shirts, and people are just beside themselves. ‘How did they know my size? How do they know I needed this? Someone thought of me and they don’t even know me.’ It’s not so much the gift, but more the thought.”
Refsguard said she’s also learned the ability to give is often something many take for granted.
“We don’t think about that,” Refsguard said. “Imagine yourself in a position where you are not able to give someone a gift at Christmas time.”
Refsguard said she strives to create a hopeful environment no matter what time of year it is.
The New Community Shelter, located at 301 Mather St., in downtown Green Bay, serves as an advocate for the homeless in the Green Bay community by providing emergency shelter, a transitional living program, case management, education, supportive services and a 365-days-a-year community meal program.
The shelter houses approximately 100 residents in its emergency shelter program, and has 20 transitional living apartments, with four dedicated to serve homeless veterans.
“They help you with every resource you can think of it, but you have to do the work,” Wery said. “And that’s what makes you feel better about yourself.”
Like any other day, members of the community are welcome to the shelter for the community meal program on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Lunch and dinner will be served on both holidays.
For more information about the New Community Shelter, check out the website at newcommunityshelter.org or visit on Facebook.