Because we depend on volunteers for our operation, even the absence of one person in a key position can make a big difference.
In April we lost Mike Webb, a volunteer who contributed a lot to our operation during the last couple of years.
Mike was younger than most of our volunteers by 10 or 20 years so, in that sense, it was unexpected. He had a massive heart attack at his home and died a few days later.
We never planned on Mike becoming such an important part of our store’s daily operations. The majority of our volunteers have a three-hour shift once a week, but Mike just kept showing up day after day, eager to work.
He was known as a hard worker from the beginning — he could process a pile of donations faster than anyone we’d ever seen — a huge boost to our store, which with its space constraints can back up easily.
We had suspected Mike was homeless, but did not confirm that until he shared it after a couple of months into volunteering. Though, naturally, we meet people who are homeless in the course of food bank operations, this felt different, since we saw Mike every day as he quickly became a steady coworker. It felt different trying to address the issue from that close up, and in someone who instead of relying on our assistance, was helping us.
Mike had learning disabilities growing up. He arrived in Kitsap following a romantic interest here that didn’t work out. He far preferred the Kingston area to other parts of the county. By the time we knew him, he had last worked in fast food for many years. After leaving that job, he had not obtained further work.
From our experience, it wasn’t a case of him being unable to work hard or achieve, because clearly he could.
We connected Mike with services, often driving him to appointments ourselves or helping him with paperwork, but ultimately it wasn’t these services that housed him.
Someone he knew in the community offered him a place in her home, where he lived until his passing.
I always think of her generosity. A lot of people knew Mike was homeless, but only one person took that most critical step of making the offer — even if it was inconvenient, even if she didn’t necessarily have room, even if friends may have advised against it.
Mike didn’t fit easily into what some of us regard as normal, nor did he fit easily into systems like schools and regular jobs.
You could tell he was different, and that was part of how we concluded he was homeless before he told us. People who seem or look different, or who don’t fit easily into systems, often incur great penalties in our culture. Often, the greatest penalty is to be pushed out of those systems that keep most of us safe.
Mike’s work background placed him on the very edge of sustainability, with no cushion for a loss (that makes up many of the folks ShareNet serves). Then, because he seemed different or looked older than he was, he had a hard time finding another job, which eventually led to homelessness.
I’m really glad Mike was able to find a home at ShareNet. I’d like to say that was all of us making a place for him, but mostly it was him making the very most of an opportunity in a volunteer job he saw needed to be done. A job which, moreover, no one else particularly wanted or excelled at in the way he did.
When Mike passed, I was a little surprised by the outpouring of emotion here and at just how many people he had touched (because we’re all on different shifts, not everyone knows each other).
As in any workplace, we can get absorbed by the demands of our own tasks and take certain features for granted — Mike had certainly become a feature of our landscape. He was here almost every day, often for the bulk of the day.
People were shocked by the suddenness of losing him, and immediately felt the loss to our store’s operation.
A key function was no longer being fulfilled, and it was obvious. It showed just how important one person’s contribution can be.
We’re fortunate to have volunteers like Mike who work very hard to make ShareNet happen.
We think of Mike every day, and half-expect him to be here in a few minutes to help.
— Mark Ince is executive director of ShareNet. Contact him at sharenet firstname.lastname@example.org.