Volunteers spend their blessings at The Help Center

By Chelsea Retherford | Staff Writer

Lorraine Mills, an 80-year-old volunteer at The Help Center, said choosing to work for free three days a week is a little like hiking up a mountain. When asked what motivates her to continue the climb, her answer is simply “because I can.”

“There might come a day when I’m not able to do it,” she said. “Right now, I can. You know, you pick something simple to do every day and your body will keep going.”

Mills said she’s embraced a charitable outlook most of her adult life. She volunteered for various organizations and charities at her former home in Georgia, but the self-proclaimed “compulsive volunteer” admitted that she once bit off a little more than she could chew.

“Whenever I’m asked to help, I tend to say ‘yes,’” she said. “When I left Georgia, I said, ‘O.K., I’ve got to cut back.’ I knew it was too much when I put a cup of coffee to reheat in the microwave, and when I pushed 30 seconds, I heard myself say, ‘What can I get done in 30 seconds?’ That was too much.”

When Mills moved to Florence in 2019, she began volunteering again through her church, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church. Eventually, she also got involved at Common Ground Shoals and The Help Center, where she became clothing manager following the COVID pandemic when volunteers became scarce.

She said some of that desire to help others stems from her Christian upbringing, but Mills said she also knows how it feels to be on the receiving end of a helping hand.

“That’s why clothing is important,” she said. “I wore what people gave me. Here, people have a choice. A mother might come in, and I’ll ask, ‘What about this?’ She’ll say, ‘Oh, my kid wouldn’t wear that.’ I didn’t get a choice. If that’s what arrived on my doorstep, that’s what I went to school in.”

Part of her duties at The Help Center are sorting items in the donation bins, organizing items to keep by size, and discarding items that aren’t functional, out of season, unclean or too worn.

“We only have a certain amount of space. I remind our volunteers that this is not a storage area,” Mills said. “We get some really nice, good stuff, but then we also get trash. At this point, I am storing good, heavy coats for winter, but in August, we don’t have room for things like sweats and heavy shirts.”

In September, she said the center starts rotating summer clothing out and sending excess items to an area thrift store.

“What’s really helpful,” said Lanier Nail, executive director of The Help Center, “are school clothes for the kids and work clothes for adults. Many folks who come through here need something to wear for an interview, and they need something for a job if they get it.”

Nail said providing people with work clothes that will help them sustain their employment is just one example of how The Help Center is striving towards a greater goal — helping others help themselves.

“It looks like the goal is to give people food and clothing. That’s what is happening on the surface, but the goal is to help,” he said. “If you give me food, that might help me eat for a day, but how does that help ultimately? Our goal is for the people who receive help here to also receive some hope.”

He said volunteers like Mills are “absolutely crucial” to that mission.

“You have to ask, how would it affect things without them? We’ve had 150 to 200 families who might have missed some more meals this week, which means maybe somebody is angrier. Somebody has less hope than they might have had,” Nail said.

“These folks are contributing to the good, the peace, and the prosperity of our city. Even though you can’t say we produced or sold anything, I wouldn’t want to know what things would be like if people in the city weren’t doing this kind of work.”

Other than needing volunteers, Nail said the charity center accepts canned goods and non-perishable food, monetary donations, clothing in good condition, and basic household and hygiene necessities to provide for people in need.

Something as small as making sure a family eats in a day, Nail said, can cause a ripple effect.

Many of the volunteers at The Help Center were once recipients of the organization’s services.

Robert Robinson, 62, said The Help Center helped him get his life back in a rather unexpected way.

He said he had received a hand up from the organization when he was down on his luck, but the center actually saved his life after he committed to volunteering.

“Back years ago, I got into a little trouble,” Robinson said. “If I got into trouble again, I was going to be facing felony charges, so I was trying to find something to do. Well, I came down here to see if I could volunteer, and I met one of the nicest ladies you’d ever want to meet. Cindy Young took me under her wings. You just don’t know how much better off I am today.”

Robinson said his work at the center has given him a sense of purpose and fulfillment.

He continues to work three days a week at the distribution center, and twice has been named Volunteer of the Year.

“This place gave me a second life,” he said. “I needed something to get me out of the house. Somebody introduced me to The Help Center. The Help Center introduced me to Cindy. Cindy introduced me to the Church of the Highlands. The Church of the Highlands introduced me to 21 Days of Prayer. You don’t want to know the kind of life I came out of, but now I have a reason to wake up in the morning.”

Like Robinson, other volunteers like Bill Morrison, 86, and Connie Lard, 70, are happy to pass their blessings on to others because they said it also gives them a sense of fulfillment.

Morrison and Lard each dedicate four hours every Monday to The Help Center.

“Some days it can get frantic around here, but most days it’s not too busy,” Morrison said. “I just enjoy working with the people and meeting a lot of the people when they come through. We’re fortunate to be on this side of the counter. I’m very fortunate to not have to ask for help.”

Lard, who retired as a nurse practitioner from the Lauderdale County Health Department, said even volunteering one day a week fills a void that was left when her career ended.

“I became a nurse, obviously, because I wanted to help people. When you retire from that work, you feel kind of guilty when you’re no longer doing some of that,” she said. “I just come one morning a week, because I have grandchildren and lots of other things too, but this is a very fulfilling place to be.”

Lard, who helps coordinate the registration booth at The Help Center, said there is always a need for more volunteers, especially during the holidays when families may be feeling a little more strain amid the giving season.

“Many hands make light work,” she said. “I’ve always heard that growing up, and it really is true. Volunteers are always crucial, but probably even more so during that time.”

While volunteering to pass out food or clothing to the homeless and needy might seem like thankless work, Mills, Robinson, Morrison and Lard all agreed there are aspects of the job they love besides the sense of purpose it gives.

“When you volunteer, you always meet the neatest people. It’s always a good experience, so it encourages you to volunteer again,” Mills said.

Lard said she enjoys the sense of unity she feels when she’s helping her community out through The Help Center.

“This is a unity effort between a lot of area churches,” she said. “You get to know people from other denominations, and some have become very close friends.”

Nail added that many people do not truly experience living until they are giving rather than receiving.

“That’s the incentive,” he said. “These people have a great time together. They joke around and play pranks on one another, they go out to eat together, you know, we have some social events throughout the year. I can’t pay anybody money, but I can pay them appreciation, a good working atmosphere, new friends, and a new perspective.”

For those interested in getting involved, Nail said potential volunteers and donors can contact The Help Center at 256-766-7663.

“If someone has a gnawing or an itch — if they feel like they need to be doing something, but they don’t know what — this is a great place to start,” he said. “If you come volunteer for a while, you might discover this is not your calling, but my guess is that volunteering here will help you figure out how to spend your blessings.”