Micki Chestnut is director of communications for the United Way of Douglas County, which provides occasional features spotlighting local volunteers and charities supported by the United Way.
Janice Lopez treats everyone who comes into Penn House like family.
Want proof? Just look in her wallet. It’s packed with pictures of the kids she’s gotten to know as their parents access Penn House’s clothing and food pantries.
Want more proof? The kids call her grandma and they know she’s a soft touch for candy.
For the past six years, Lopez has volunteered upwards of 40 hours a week manning this busy nonprofit’s front desk. She directs the more than 100 phone calls Penn House receives every day, serves the more than 100 people who walk in daily seeking help, maintains the agency’s multiple databases and compiles its monthly statistics. Somehow, in the midst of it all, she makes each person she comes in contact with feel cared for and loved.
“It’s crazy; I don’t know how she does it,” said Kyle Roggenkamp, director of human services at Penn House, who nominated Lopez for the United Way Roger Hill Volunteer Center’s Wallace Galluzzi Outstanding Volunteer of the Year Award.
Lopez knows how she does it. It’s simple, she says: “I love this place. It blesses my spirit, yes it does. The feeling of knowing you can help and give to others – that’s what really motivated me to volunteer here.”
Years ago, when her husband died of cancer and she was left to raise their three daughters alone, Lopez was blessed by Penn House in a different way. “This is where I got clothing for my children and their school supplies, and where we got their gifts at Christmas,” she explained.
Part of Ballard Community Services, Penn House is a busy place. This year, the organization is on track to serve 8,000 people in need, up from 7,000 in 2012, Roggenkamp reported. He said Penn House offers the county’s only free clothing pantry, complete with a professional clothing closet where people can pick out five outfits for work. It runs a mobile food pantry. It provides $70,000 in rent and utility assistance a year. In 2012, the Ballard Center and Penn House ensured 1,524 kids received Christmas presents through the Holiday Bureau. And before school started this fall, it provided school supplies for 700 children. In addition, a fleet of volunteer case managers provide ongoing strengths-based mentoring for clients.
Aside from Roggenkamp, Penn House is run entirely by volunteers. “Without volunteers, this place doesn’t exist,” he stated. “Every delivery of services is done by a volunteer. It’s grassroots; it’s the Penn House family.”
Roggenkamp is always looking for new volunteers to join the family. Penn House needs volunteers to sort clothing and food for its pantries. Community members are also encouraged to donate clothing (especially large sizes), household goods, nonperishable food and diapers. In addition, Roggenkamp is currently recruiting volunteers who have case management experience to join the Strengths Team and work one-on-one with clients, helping them capitalize on their strengths to achieve their goals. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You won’t be sorry you join the Penn House team, Lopez promised, then described how she feels every day when she reports for “work” at Penn House: “You know that feeling you have when you get to your house after a long day, and you say, ‘I’m so happy I’m home’? Well, that’s how I feel about this place. It feels like home.”
Micki Chestnut is director of communications for the United Way of Douglas County.