On Monday afternoons, the enthusiastic crew from Friends Life marches through the Room In The Inn’s courtyard and heads straight for the dining room. One of them, Vincent, is very excited that Christmas is around the corner, and he’s wearing a Santa hat proudly.
Once inside, they waste no time getting the room set up for RITI’s *Community Dinner, a weekly meal where on-site apartment residents and former RITI participants who are now in permanent housing can share not only a meal, but also encouragement and community.
Chairs are sprayed and wiped clean. Katie rearranges tables into a long, family-style table and smooths out orange tablecloths. Vincent and Maya set out plates, silverware, and vases of fresh flowers. Mary Margaret goes behind them with a detailed eye, making sure each fork and napkin are perfectly centered.
The Friends may never get to see the impact of their effort when the meal is served, but when the setup is done, they’ve created a warm, inviting place where people feel welcome.
For Friends Life Director of Philanthropy Lauren Zook, a sense of belonging is critical for both the homeless community and the Friends. She sat down to discuss the mutual benefits of Friends Life and RITI’s partnership.
For those who might not be familiar, tell us a little about Friends Life.
Friends Life is a day program that was founded 10 years ago by four families who had children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. And they were kind of looking toward heading out of high school and aging out of services.
There was no program in place that would continue on that social aspect, but also create a place where people have goals and purpose. And that’s where Friends Life kind of fell into place.
A lot of our program is outside of campus. We like to be out in the community and learning and simulating true day-to-day activities. We have service learning and employment, something we just showed today at Room In The Inn. We have drama therapy. We work out for an hour a day. We do a lot of simulations of taking care of your home [like how to] work on laundry, and how to clean and tidy your room, and how to keep the bathrooms clean.
On top of that, we have job coaching and life coaching. Someone goes to the employer and works with them because we’re not only teaching the skills for the employee, but you also have to change the mindset of the employer.
[By going into the community] the community is seeing how capable and successful and purposeful [the Friends] are. So, it’s given us a great opportunity to be seen.
How long has Friends Life partnered with Room In The Inn?
It’s been eight, possibly nine years. We used to help set up the beds or put together care packages.
Why serve with Room In The Inn in this way? How do the Friends benefit from this service?
I think it’s like every person. You’re filling that bucket of giving back and serving the community. You don’t have to be a Friend to have that feeling. You’re changing someone’s life. You’re showing the love, and you can make someone feel good and special for that moment in time, which is a pretty powerful feeling for anyone, not matter what circumstance they’re in.
We’re also learning a skill. So, we have the heart side and the practical side we are filling.
I’ve asked Katie, ‘Do you ever host dinner parties at your house?’ And she’s like, ‘No, not yet.’ But this is a great opportunity for her to prepare to host guests. She’s only been in her place maybe two or three months.
[Mary Margaret, who has a job,] is taking away the satisfaction of here and taking it to where she works, at Edley’s. And she brightens the room. She is so sweet, and kind, and engaging at the restaurant that she kind of takes it back and forth.
We have so much to give. We have so much to offer. Let us.
Do you find that the Friends look forward to going out and doing these kinds of events?
Yes. They knew at 2:00 today we are to load the bus and go. It was me getting from behind my desk to get here.
They know that coming here is going to make a difference. They know that they’re giving back and they’re being part of a bigger picture.
[When they get back], they’ll share what they’ve done, or where they’ve been, which is kind of neat because then it will entice the other Friends to think, ‘Maybe I want to be a part of this in the future.’
What impact do you feel the Friends make in this community?
Every person here [at Room In The Inn] has value, and has purpose, and has a skill that if given the opportunity, they’re going to shine.
I go back to giving someone that feeling of purpose and value and being seen. Because coming in to sit down at this table tonight with it made the way it is—the tablecloth, and the plates, and the flowers—it’s not just coming to eat and get out. We want you to sit, and we want you to break bread, and we want you to enjoy community.
And I think that’s what [the Friends] like—creating that community. Because the Friends have community at the Friends Life house.
It’s been a great opportunity. You’re giving back. You’re showing purpose. And we’re giving love. We receive so much love from the community, by our supporters, and we know how impactful that is, that we want to give the love back.
What would you tell other organizations who might want to get involved in this community?
Do it. By partnering, it’s so much more powerful, and you are touching so many more lives. It has more meaning behind it to come here and provide 30 minutes of our time. We get so much more out of it.
For what we are providing, we are getting back ten-fold.
What does serving the homeless community mean to you?
We’re not invisible. Everyone has a space in this world. Let us shine and let us show you what we can do because we are pretty awesome.
For more information about Friends Life, visit their website at friendslife.org.
*In addition to Community Dinner, Room In The Inn provides lunch for the general population M-F at 12:00pm, as well as a breakfast on Sundays at 9:00 a.m. We also provide three meals a day for individuals staying in our recovery community.
Click here to learn how you or your organization can get involved in our weekly meal services.