Project Homeless Connect Volunteers Share: ‘An Experience I’ll Never Forget’

Project Homeless Connect Volunteers Share: ‘An Experience I’ll Never Forget’

Date: September 22, 2016

Joseph Zajdel vividly remembers the middle-aged man he met while serving as a volunteer at the United Way of Central Maryland’s Project Homeless Connect event several years ago. The man told him he’d been bothered by a toothache for more than a year and that the pain had recently spread to the entire right side of his mouth.

Zajdel escorted him to a dental exam station — one of many basic services available to homeless individuals and families at the event — where a dentist, who was also volunteering his time, treated the tooth.

“He told me it was the first time he could remember not having pain in his mouth,” said Zajdel, a vice president and business banker serving First National Bank’s Maryland region. “For most of us, when we get a pain, we go to the dentist and get it fixed within a week or so. But for many people, that’s not possible. For me, that experience was something I’ll never forget.”

One of the most difficult hurdles faced by people coping with homelessness is accessing essential services — like dental and medical care, grooming, job placement, and financial planning advice — that could help them emerge from their current situation. At Project Homeless Connect, more than 2,000 people attend annually to access these services all under one roof. Volunteers, like Zajdel, are paired with an individual or family and assist that person in navigating the various stations throughout the Baltimore Convention Center, where the event is held.

“At the end of the day, you feel so connected to the person you’ve helped,” said Zajdel, who also helped his new friend acquire a Maryland identification card, see a podiatrist, and gain access to additional food stamps. “You get to know so much about them and they get to know so much about you. Helping individuals walk around from station to station to assist them with basic necessities we all take for granted — and to see how much this lifts a person’s spirit — is so humbling. As soon as I did it the first year, I knew it was something I would be doing every year as long as I can.”

First National Bank has a long-standing tradition of supporting United Way through an annual, employee-wide Employee Giving campaign. The Bank recently contributed to United Way of Central Maryland to support relief efforts in the wake of Ellicott City flooding, and a significant portion of that donation was provided directly through employee engagement. Zajdel’s initial experience with Project Homeless Connect inspired him to raise awareness in his workplace about hands-on opportunities to get involved with United Way on an even deeper level.

“First National Bank is committed to improving quality of life in the communities we serve, and when I started spreading the word about Project Homeless Connect here at FNB, everybody seemed so excited to be involved. The feedback we’ve received has been tremendous.”

One of the people he got on board for the event was Edward Dover, a market manager for retail banking. Dover latched onto the idea immediately and even started recruiting his own volunteers — including members of his family.

“It’s actually what I asked for my birthday. It’s a couple of days before the event, and when my family asked me what I wanted, I said, ‘Just take a day off and come down and join my employees and the people I work with,’” said Dover, who noted that his wife, parents, and sister plan to volunteer. “I think my family was so moved by that. So on the day of event, I’m not just looking forward to helping people but being with my family and sharing the experience.”

Zajdel, who plans to return for his fourth Project Homeless Connect this year, sees the event as the perfect way to accomplish a multi-pronged mission. “The United Way really has four areas of focus: education and skill-building, financial stability, housing, and health. To me, this one event kind of fills all the buckets at the same time,” he said. “And how else do you reach so many people in one day? It’s so impactful for the people we serve, and it’s also impactful for the people who volunteer.”

“Project Homeless Connect basically gives people who are homeless a real shot at a normal life,” said Dover. “When you think of all the services offered there, it’s their first realistic shot many of them have ever had of getting their lives back. And for most people, all they want is a shot. They work hard to get it, but they don’t know where to start. This is it.”

Learn more about United Way of Central Maryland’s annual Project Homeless Connect, and register to volunteer at one of our many events throughout the year.

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