SALT LAKE CITY — Besides all the services that the Weigand Homeless Resource Center of Catholic Community Services of Utah provides to people who are homeless, the staff at the center goes beyond merely tending to needs but instead cares for all the individuals as though they are family by celebrating their birthdays.
The Weigand Center, adjacent to the St. Vincent de Paul dining hall in downtown Salt Lake City, “is the only 12-hour shelter of its kind,” said Danielle Stamos, CCS director of public relations and marketing. It is a place where individuals experiencing homelessness can go to do laundry, take showers, use computers, receive clothing and case management and, most of all, make connections.
“Those connections are fostered through staff that put love and care into their work. Our staff is trained in mental health, first aid and trauma-informed care, which aids them in helping individuals through a very stressful time in their life,” said Hailee Hernandez, CCS innovation and improvement specialist.
The clients at the Weigand Center often reach out to staff during difficult times because of the type of environment the center provides, Hernandez said.
“One day a guest informed me that he had relapsed and was experiencing withdrawal symptoms. He continued to tell me about the anger he had within himself because he was finally getting closer to recovery and self-sufficiency,” said Hernandez, who sat with him, and together they made a plan for his recovery.
Unfortunately, the next day Hernandez received a call from security, informing her that the person was having suicidal thoughts.
“Kim Russo, who is a certified mental health officer, our security guard, and myself sat down with the client and informed him that, no matter what, we are here to support and help through this time, and expressed how important he is,” Hernandez said.
Some time later, the person told them that he had no connection to his family and the support he was receiving at the center made him feel like he had a family that truly cared about him.
“Later on, through conversation, the client shared that he had relapsed around the time of his birthday. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, special occasions such as birthdays and holidays can be triggers for individuals experiencing mental illness,” Hernandez said.
After working with that client, she decided that “as a community, we have the ability to prevent the feelings of loneliness or withdrawal during birthdays and holidays.”
From that point on, Hernandez has worked with members of the community to collect birthday cards and donations to throw a monthly party at the Weigand Center. On the last week of the month, all of the center’s clients who have birthdays that month receive a hand-written birthday card, and a birthday party is held the last Friday of the month.
The Department of Workforce Services, Utah Communication Authority, the Utah Highway Patrol Outreach team and Judge John H. Baxter’s Salt Lake City Justice Court team have partnered with the Weigand Center in this effort and “attend the birthday parties and sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to our guests,” Hernandez said.
She added that, with this celebration, they have noticed a heightened sense of community among their clients and “a better understanding that they have a whole community to support them on their road to independence.”
The list of those clients enrolled in the Weigand Center programs who are celebrating a birthday each month is compiled by Weigand Center staff, Stamos said.
“That list then shows up when clients scan into the center and staff wish them a happy birthday and hand them a hand-written card,” she said. “We work with grocery stores and dessert shops around the downtown to collect donations for the birthday party. We send out invitations to our birthday party at the beginning of the month. The birthday party is scheduled the last week of the month and all guests are notified of the party six days prior and are informed when handed a birthday card.”
Almost 30 birthdays are celebrated each month.
“It’s beyond heartwarming to be able to do this project every month with individuals that rarely have conversations with others in the community due to stigma,” Stamos said.
Many Weigand Center clients are withdrawn and shy due to society looking down on them, rather than lifting them up to their full potential in being a member of the community, she said.
“A good portion of our clients have grown to become desensitized to celebrating birthdays and holidays due to their current life situation,” she said, adding that the staff hopes and prays that any clients who enter the building lose that shame and “understand we as human beings all need help and assistance at some point in our lives. It is one of our main priorities to give our guests all opportunities possible to voice their needs and feel heard.”
Understanding that the clients, living in circumstances such as having to sleep on the streets and losing everything, may have feelings that they can’t express, “we do our best to address all needs to get them to a normalcy,” said Matt Melville, CCS director of homeless services.
“We provide a center where they can take a shower, receive clothing and a meal, so when they are ready to express their need for help their basic needs are taken care of,” he said. “We hope providing those services can give them a sense of pride in themselves as well as we hope that there are people who are rooting for them and are there to support them on their road to self-sufficiency.”
In the future, “Catholic Community Homeless Services will be using birthday parties as a way to connect guests and clients with jobs and outside agency resources,” he said. “We will be incorporating a job fair into the party; with doing so we hope to make job availability more accessible to them by bringing employers to the guests.”
To donate cards, decorations, or cake for the birthday parties, contact Hailee Hernandez, innovation and improvement specialist, firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-328-1894 ext. 1125.