When you volunteer, you might expect to brighten someone’s day or make an impact on your community. But when Katie Restivo participated in United Way’s Project Homeless Connect Harford County, she received something she never expected—a friend.
His name was Sidney and he was a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran who had been living in a shelter for nearly the last 10 years. “I was just waiting by the entrance and a man came up to me and said, ‘You look like a very nice person. Would you mind helping me?’ And we just started talking,” explained Katie.
Katie, a customer relations manager for Jones Junction auto dealership in Bel Air, Maryland, escorted Sidney to get his eyes checked by an optometrist and showed him where to get his hair cut—just two of the many services offered at Project Homeless Connect.
The event unites individuals and families in need with the services and providers they need to get back on their feet, ranging from dentists and eye doctors to employment and education counselors. Attendees are matched one-on-one with community volunteers, who guide them through the various stations throughout the day. More than 400 homeless individuals and families attended the event last year.
“I had no idea how many people are experiencing homelessness in Harford County,” said Katie, whose then-15-year-old daughter Morgan also volunteered to help. “This event opened our eyes.”
After getting his haircut, Sidney and Katie sat down for lunch. “He was a true gentleman,” she recalled. “He even pulled out my chair.” Sidney talked about his three children, life in the shelter, and his struggles to find a job at his age. During the conversation, Katie learned about the challenges faced by central Maryland’s homeless population. “The experience teaches you compassion and understanding,” she said. “It was particularly a good experience for my daughter. It teaches you not to judge.”
Katie plans to volunteer again at future Project Homeless Connect events and encourages others to participate as well. “It’s just a great event,” she said. “It makes you feel thankful that there are so many volunteers here who want to help, but it also puts your own life in perspective. When you feel like there is too much going in your life, you see other people without homes, who have no luck at all or could use a little help.” Or in some cases, just a friend.