Megan Owens wears her servant heart on her sleeve—her drive for service palpable through the conviction in her voice and proven through her actions.
“I have volunteered with HOTEL INC off and on for the last four or five years in their Manna Mart, doing personal fundraisers, things like that, and I just fell in love with it, and I just prayed and was like ‘God, I just really feel like I need to keep giving back, so I just want you to show me where to go.’”
That prayer guided her to a night of volunteering with Room in the Inn Bowling Green—a winter shelter program in which churches take turns hosting homeless citizens overnight and providing them with two meals. Owens is now on the Board of Directors for the organization and is the AmeriCorps part-time shelter coordinator.
Formerly under the umbrella of the Homeless and Housing Coalition of Southern Kentucky, Room in the Inn BG is now branching out as a separate entity, working toward a 501(c)(3) nonprofit designation.
The move has spurred a rebranding, along with increased fundraising.
“To be honest, I think it’s just growth,” Owens explains as the reasoning behind the change. “We’re growing a lot, and we just want to have more flexibility for fundraising efforts and things like that.”
The Room in the Inn program now has about 16 churches participating as hosts through the season, which begins Nov. 15 and runs through about March 15. Depending on the weather, the season could be shortened or extended.
“That (16 churches) sounds like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s really not on a night-to-night basis. So part of our efforts this year is trying to get more churches to sign on,” Owens says, but adds a disclaimer. “A lot of people who do know about Room in the Inn think Room in the Inn/church congregations, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be a church congregation that are innkeepers. If you have the space and the people, you can be innkeepers.”
The requirements include having central heat and air, working bathrooms and the ability to serve a dinner and a breakfast.
“There are a lot of ways to volunteer. All you have to do is ask and we can pair you with something,” Owens says.
For those who cannot give their time, donations are always needed and welcomed at the warming shelter on East 11th Avenue across from State Street United Methodist Church—particularly socks, shoes, gloves and other clothing items, to list a few most-needed items. Gift cards in small increments so guests can purchase food if they’re turned away for the night, bus passes and sleeping bags are also suggested.
“We work strictly on donations, so without donations from the public we can’t do what we do,” Owens says.
Megan Miller felt compelled to volunteer after learning about Room in the Inn from Owens.
“I had never heard of it, and that’s one thing she’s (Owens) really trying to change. She started volunteering back in December, and she started telling me about it, and it just sounded like such a good experience, a heartwarming experience to be a part of, so I said, ‘Can I come with you? I want to be a part of this.’
Miller has found the experience both rewarding and heartbreaking. Room in the Inn operates by lottery, so when potential guests show up at the warming shelter at 5:30 p.m., they draw a chip with a number on it. Only the first 12 numbers get housing through the program for the night.
“The thing that bothers me most is the send-away nights. I just feel like if more churches knew … that they were going to be out in the cold all night, so we had more congregations and churches that could be willing to open their doors because I can’t tell you what that feels like to be like ‘I’m sorry. Your number didn’t get drawn,’ and that’s it,” Miller says, shaking her head. “And those snowy nights to see someone walk off into the dark. The nights that we send them away, we’re in near tears when we leave.”
Miller recalls one interaction with a guest that had an impact on her.
“One older gentleman there, he’d had a stroke and he’d lost movement in his left arm. I took him back,” Miller stops to stifle tears as she remembers the man. “His shoes were just soaking wet, and he couldn’t use his arm and was trying to dig through his possessions, and I helped him. I helped put his shoes on, and I don’t know, it was just so touching because it was just such an intimate moment.”
Owens finds the volunteer experience humbling.
“You leave (from volunteering) and you’re like, ‘Whoa, that was amazing,’ or you leave and you’re like, ‘Wow is this the world that we live in?’ but those nights motivate you to want to do as much as you can to change that,” Owens says. “We’re all, I don’t care who you are, we’re all one or two paychecks away, one severe medical situation away from needing our help,” Owens says. “My goal, not only to get our name out there and have people know what we’re really about, is to just really realize that these people are just like us. These people may have been your neighbors.”
The guests also leave lasting impressions on Owens. A particular guest was well-known around the shelter.
“You meet him and the first time you talk to him you feel like you’ve known him your entire life,” Owens recalls. “And he and I really connected and just talking to him about his family … part of what I love about volunteering is really hearing their story.”
The man would proudly tell everyone he “worked with” Room in the Inn.
“He’s like, ‘I take out the trash; I sweep the floors,’ and he took pride in that. And that is something that really stuck with me because, you know. I’m here to help YOU, but you take so much pride in helping us.”
After some struggles with housing, the man is now living in a small rental home his nephew helped him secure.
“He’s doing really well so I’m super excited,” Owens smiles proudly. “It’s those success stories that really keep you coming back. As terrible as some of it all is, you take home all of that. You feel guilty for your warm bed. You feel guilty for the dinner you eat that night. But it’s really those success stories that make you come back for more and you fall in love with it. When I first started I was like, ‘God, if I can touch just one person, if I can just help one person, it will have been a success to me.’ And it has just snowballed rapidly into this big thing, and it’s just really been life-changing, and I would not have it any other way.
Find more information on Room in the Inn Bowling Green at facebook.com/RoomintheInnBG.