Clystina Will: Hope for the Homeless
by Kathryn Fentress
Kathryn Fentress and her husband moved to Bellingham 20 years ago for the water, trees, fresh air and mountains. She is a psychologist in private practice and believes that spirit is everything. Living in harmony with nature reflects a reverence for life. She delights in finding and meeting those people whose stories so inspire all of us.
This month’s Unsung Hero focuses on making a difference in the social environment of our community. Clystina and her husband moved to Whatcom County in 2004 when he retired from the Navy. She is 45 years old and works at a retail store and volunteers at the Agape House. She practices random acts of kindness.
Kathryn Fentress: What got you started in volunteering?
Clystina Will: I have always enjoyed doing things for others, I actually used to work as an aide for the elderly earlier in my career. Helping people out has always been important to me. After I got married, I had to leave the aide job because of the hours and went back to school. I became a retail manager and guided people to become better employees. Recently work has become more challenging. Customers have changed and management has changed. Customers seem more self-centered and rude. I felt like I wanted to do something more to make a difference in the world. Years ago I met Mama D in Seattle. She is an inspiration to me because she has probably saved my son’s life more than once. My son is homeless and for years was using drugs as well. Mama D takes care of street kids and every year she does a big push to get money to help them.
So, this past year I went on the web looking for opportunities for helping others in Whatcom County and found resources for the homeless. I know a lot about living on the street because of my son. I even spent the night once at his squatter place and have established connections with some of his friends. I have tried to feel closer to him by knowing more of what he goes through. However, I have already learned a lot more from the training at the Mission. We have certain rules and boundaries with regards the clients. We’re aren’t allowed, for example, to give rides to people because they want the clients to learn how to use the bus system, to become independent and responsible for getting to and from on their own. Things like this are really tough for me because I have the time, the car, the ability to help, so why not? I have also learned what various agencies can and can’t do.
What do you do there?
The big Lighthouse Mission building is for meals and the meetings. Across the street is the business establishment with the offices upstairs and a men’s residential place downstairs. They have to be clean and sober to live there. The Drop-In Center is another building next door with coffee shop, free coffee and an optometrist upstairs for free exams and glasses. Agape is the women’s shelter and sobriety is required. Upstairs at Agape House is for single women and downstairs is for mothers with kids. When I go once a week, I sometimes talk with the women or help out with the children. Upstairs I tell my story of being addicted to cocaine in the past and that I have been clean for 25 years. I offer hope to them that they can turn their lives around. I share with them that my son’s first Christmas was actually in a homeless shelter. I went to one to escape an abusive relationship. I tell them that some of the best times came when I started going to the AA program and learned about co-dependency and how to be more independent.
The women I talk with are friendly. When we had a big sale at the store I work in, I bought up a bunch of yarn really inexpensively and left it at the Shelter for them. When I returned the next week, everyone was very excited and showed me that things they had made and their pleasure at having the supplies. I have also bought 25 fleece blankets on sale and took those over to the big shelter for folks there.
This past Christmas, my husband was at work, so I baked some cookies and took them to Agape. I was hoping there would be someone there to talk to. I felt I had gotten everything I wanted for Christmas and wanted to give more back. When there wasn’t anyone, I prayed for guidance as to how to help others. I buy wool socks by the bundle for the homeless and I give out two pairs at a time so they get one pair to wear and one to wash. I carry them in my truck and hand out to people standing on the corner. That day I gave out the socks and some gloves as well, but I still didn’t feel like it was enough. I thought about how Mama D does so much that I still felt like I was coming up short. I went to Denny’s to have lunch, not wanting to go home yet. There was a man to my left that was obviously homeless from his holey shoes and no socks. The fellow on the right as telling the waitress that he was having a really hard week, hard day. So when I left I paid for both of their meals but didn’t tell them. I gave the waitress a 30 percent tip for working on Christmas day. Then I felt a little better that I made more of a difference.
When I think I am not doing enough, I tell myself that I am helping even if it is only one person at a time. At work I try hard to give a compliment and smile at the people I meet in the store. I try to remember that my actions every single minute of everyday matter and how I affect everyone around me. And If I help someone, it will ripple out to others.
How do you keep yourself motivated?
I mostly put myself into other peoples’ shoes. I have always been able to see both sides of every argument and that makes me a good teacher. When someone is yelling and being rude at work, and I feel like yelling back at them, I stop and think maybe something stressful is going on for them. I can be their sounding board and still wish them a good day, and I think maybe they will feel better from our interaction. Occasionally, I get pushed to the point that I have to go into the back room and have a good cry. So I tell myself it’s a bad day and tomorrow can be different. Then I go back out and try to smile at folks until one smiles back to me, and that helps even out the rude people.
What would you recommend to others?
I think more people need to realize that no one really knows what others are experiencing. Just nodding your head isn’t enough. Vocalizing the words makes a bigger difference in making contact with another person. Even when somebody might be mean or cruel, you might as well try because it may change that person’s life. Maybe all they needed was that small connection. Volunteering is very rewarding. You have to have an open mind, let go of judgment, and try to understand. Pursue an issue or project you are interested in. Do something that makes you feel good. Helping others has inspired me to make some changes in my life. We all benefit.
Thank you, Clystina, for reminding us that everyone matters and that how we treat others in every interaction is significant and has a rippling effect.
If you know of anyone you would like to see interviewed, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.