SHARE volunteer says conversations are key

Talking, listening helps her help those in need

By Erik Hidle, Columbian staff writer

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Web: SHARE

Phone: 360-695-7658.

In the 20 years that Chris Soltisiak has volunteered at SHARE, she says it's the simple conversations with run-of-the-mill folks from Vancouver that may have made the most difference.

Soltisiak, 67, says she isn't sure exactly how many years it is she's been volunteering with SHARE, a group most well-known for its homeless shelter. But she's worn quite a few hats during the decades. She's worked at the evening shelter doing check-in for those seeking a warm bed, on fundraising efforts and outreach campaigns, and she even served on the executive board of the nonprofit for seven years.

Still, she thinks the role of talking, and listening, may be the most important job she does.

"A few weeks ago, we had an 18-year-old young man come in to the shelter," Soltisiak said. "I spoke with him about what was going on. He shouldn't have been there."

The man had been kicked out of his home, Soltisiak said. But she could tell, it wasn't that bad of a fight. So she told him to "go back and apologize, on your knees if you have to."

"I haven't seen him since," she said, smiling.

She hopes that talk, that advice may have stopped a vicious cycle before it began. Perhaps the young man, who she describes as "very polite and respectful," won't need an emergency shelter again. And if that one life is changed, it's worth the whole year of volunteer hours she puts in at the shelter.

Soltisiak is excellent at drumming up a conversation. A retired management consultant, she effortlessly works a room, shaking hands and trading stories. Last week, during a lunch at the SHARE House, the Vancouver location that doubles as a men's shelter and administration building, Soltisiak shook hands and shared a laugh with a couple of men in the dining hall.

"You try to talk to everyone and figure out what it is we can do to help them," she said.

While a warm bed may be a lifesaver during the winter weather, SHARE also offers up other programs to help those in need to break a cycle of homelessness, and sometimes drug abuse or mental illness.

The nonprofit requires those staying in the shelter to spend time looking for work, to be sober when they check in, and strongly pushes for them to take advantage of its many programs such as classes on résumé building and interview skills.

Katherine Garrett, SHARE's outreach director, repeats the familiar adage that the nonprofit provides, "a hand up, not a handout."

"For us this is 365 days a year," she said. "And it's almost all because of our volunteers. They do almost all of the meals, they do the classes and the résumés, they're critical."

So while the organization is happy to accept financial donations to keep the mission going, it also needs more helping hands. It needs more people like Soltisiak.

"It's not just your money we need," Soltisiak said. "It's your help, it's your heart, it's your service. Think of providing a warm bed for someone. Think of helping do that. Homeless people don't have that, so they see it and, well, you might as well have given them gold."

Erik Hidle: 360-735-4547; http://twitter.com/col_clarkgov ; erik.hidle@columbian.com.