Volunteer Spotlight: Robert Smith helps the homeless with a personal touch
By DEBORAH ANN TRIPOLDI
Robert L. Smith of Montclair is one of many of his congregation at Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair who recently gathered and sent gifts to 25 children of incarcerated parents this past holiday season through Prison Fellowship Angel Tree Program.
Besides playing the role of Santa, Smith also makes frequent trips with members of his congregation including the church youth group to carry out Midnight Runs to serve over 200 homeless people outside of Dobbs Ferry, New York.
In a “midnight run” volunteers bring food and clothing to the homeless people in New York City during the late night hours. According to Smith part of the mission is to develop a relationship with the homeless. PCUM held eight runs in 2017. Smith said the congregation intends to hold 12 this year. The next Midnight Run is scheduled for Jan. 27. To volunteer email Serve@PCUM.org.
Smith also assisted in organizing three Breakfast Runs in 2017 where the confirmation class, high schoolers and families also volunteer their time serving juice, coffee, a sustainable brown bag meal, and a cold weather kit and/or clothes.
In this series we highlight a hometown person who has given freely of their time and effort to help people, animals or the environment. To suggest a person or an organization for this series, email email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
What inspires you to volunteer?
For me its faith-based. Whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim or Hindu; its incentive is to help those in need.
Did you ever volunteer before?
I always had been the kind of person to do this. I grew up in Texas, outside of Houston. During college one night a week me and my buddies made sandwiches and served the homeless people. We felt it was our duty to give back in some way.
How do you feel about the work that you do?
The more you give the more you realize how much more there is to give. How much more need there is in the world. What I found out as well is the younger a person is that gets involved in helping and serving others, the better rounded that person is. It’s a great experience for me; it’s become as much trying to involve middle school kids in the process.
How is the Midnight Run different than donating to a shelter?
What I found out is it is very easy to just write a check. Where one really learns about serving others is by doing something physically.
Why are the runs held at midnight?
My guess is probably the best time for us to find parking so that we can effectively do what we do. Also it’s likely that is when most of the homeless are out and about. The organization has been holding them for many years.
What is your role as a volunteer for the runs?
A lot of what I do is organize everything; putting it all together. We have a team it’s not just me. I still am hands on though. I’m on the mission and service committee.
How long does a typical run take?
We leave Montclair about 10 p.m. on a Saturday and return back to Montclair around 2 a.m. For a Breakfast Run we get ready at 4 a.m. on a Saturday and get back about noon.
What is in a cold weather kit and how much does it cost?
Cold weather kits cost only $10, because we buy in bulk. Usually the kits include a meal and toiletries. The cold weather kit consists of a knit hat, gloves, wool socks, underwear, hand warmers, Mylar blanket, rain poncho and a 5x7 tarp, soup and sandwich. To help with the cost we created a GOFundMe account at gofundme.com/PCUMColdKits.
What is involved with sending the gifts to the children of incarcerated parents?
The children request gifts to be donated. It takes about five to six months to get the names of the inmates, the names of the children and caregivers. After we contact the caregivers, we make our purchases and deliver on behalf of the inmates. After that process we follow up with letters to the incarcerated. It’s all about contact. It’s a human kind of touch. Teams are put together to deliver the gifts; the bulk of the giving this year was to East Orange.
Do you do any other volunteer work?
We [the church parishioners] serve meals to the homeless in Montclair through MESH Café (Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless) in partnership with [Grace] Presbyterian Church on Grove Street. We serve about 20 -30 homeless in Montclair. I say we because its not just me we are a team.
What is your profession?
I work with technology; Cloud computing.
Does your family volunteer with you?
My wife and two kids help out with everything. They are both in high school; one is a freshman and the other is a senior going on to college.
What do you do when you are not volunteering?
Spend as much time as I can with my family. My daughter plays soccer. A lot of my time is spent on the soccer field.
Organizations to help the homeless
A volunteer organization dedicated to finding common ground between the housed and the homeless.
97 Main St, Dobbs Ferry, NY 10522
Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless
MESH, Inc. P.O. Box 1919, Montclair, NJ 07042-1919
Presbyterian Church of Upper Montclair
53 Norwood Ave.
To volunteer on a run, email: Serve@PCUM.org
St Luke’s Episcopal Church, 73 South Fullerton Ave.
tk.slechurch.org, 973 932-0768
Human Needs Food Pantry
9 Label St.