Six years ago, Sherri Miller made a promise to sleep over at the synagogue’s homeless shelter with one of her sons each December.
For more than thirty years, Stephen Wise volunteers have helped run the Next Step Men’s Shelter by preparing dinner or sleeping there overnight. Stephen Wise runs the on-site shelter in conjunction with the Grand Central Neighborhood Social Services Corporation, the Department of Homeless Services, and Columbia University, whose students serve as volunteers. During the holiday season, from December 11 to January 12, there is a critical need for Stephen Wise volunteers to sleep overnight at the shelter because Columbia students are on break.
“The synagogue needs our support to keep the shelter open,” Sherri says. “So we made it a family tradition.” Involved in social action activities at Stephen Wise since she and her family became members in 2001, Sherri was especially drawn to volunteering at the shelter with her sons, Justin and Aaron (pictured here). “It’s so important for kids to understand that there are many ways to make a difference besides giving money, and that paying attention to people in need through simple human interactions can be even more important.”
When Sherri’s older son, Justin, was a student at the synagogue’s Early Childhood Center, Sherri starting bringing him with her to help set up dinner for the men. Then, when he was nine years old, they would occasionally sleep over at the shelter. Sleepover volunteers arrive as the men are finishing their dinner and sleep in the adjacent Women’s Lounge. “After dinner is a nice time to hang out together with the men and chat or watch TV,” Sherri says. Justin befriended a man who helped him with his homework, and another who figured out how to fix his laptop.
Sherri brought her younger son, Aaron, with her to sleep over at the shelter soon after he turned twelve. “It’s always nice to talk to the guys and understand their situation,” says Aaron, who is now sixteen. “You realize that there’s nothing different between them and us except the amount of opportunities they have. So many people have a negative perception of homeless people, but it’s just an assumption — most of the guys I’ve met have or are in the process of trying to get jobs.”
Aaron was struck by the care the men took to maintain the shelter. “They each have a job to do like sweeping the floor and doing dishes, and they are all so on top of it,” he says. “Even with the little they have, they want to give you everything that they can.”
Aaron says that he hopes to pass on what he has learned from the shelter to his own kids one day. “This experience has helped me understand how important it is to help people, and that just because somebody needs your help doesn’t mean you should look at them differently.”
In December, for the first time, Justin (now eighteen) and Aaron will sleep over at the shelter on their own, without Sherri.
“I’m so glad I started this family tradition,” says Sherri. “The shelter is helping me teach my kids to be good humans.”
Volunteers are currently needed to sleep over at the shelter December 20–January 10. Sleepover volunteers arrive by 8 p.m. and leave at 6:15 a.m. Volunteers sleep in the Women’s Lounge, which has sleeper couches, available clean bedding, wifi, and a locked door. Please sign up here. To learn more, view instructions for sleepover volunteers or email firstname.lastname@example.org.