Monday mornings, iced coffee in hand, Helen Burke arrives at the Crisis Ministry to volunteer as an intake specialist in our Homeless Prevention program. Helen first came to the Crisis Ministry in response to a leaflet she received at Trinity Church about volunteering. “At first, I thought, well I could volunteer in Princeton,” muses Helen, “but when I came to Trenton for the interview, I fell in love with the city and the people.” Eleven years later, her love for the people of Trenton keeps her coming back to volunteer with us each week.
It’s not always easy. Helen remembers the difficulty of learning to navigate the system of state agencies, municipal offices, and local organizations to find out who can help and who can’t. “When I first started,” she recalls, “I was shocked by how difficult it is for people: how much paperwork and information they need to deal with, how much they have to bare their souls to the world.”
On a given day, Helen meets four to eight people seeking assistance for back rent, mortgage, or a security deposit. She listens as they share their stories, and captures their information for the homelessness prevention staff. “The doors open, and you’re immediately thrown into people’s lives,” she reflects, “some days the issues are straightforward, sometimes it’s more complicated. You never know who you’re going to meet.”
That opportunity to interact and learn about people first drew Helen to work in homelessness prevention, and continues to motivate her as a volunteer. “When you sit down and listen to people’s stories you learn that we really are all in this together—the line between those who need assistance and those assisting is so fine.” Without a personal or family safety net, people can find themselves facing homelessness for a lot of reasons: a job loss, a medical emergency, a long illness, an abusive spouse. As Helen points out, “so much in life is luck of the draw.” Yet she always returns to the grace and shared humanity she experiences with those who come seeking assistance, “we can’t always help everyone, but we can always treat people with kindness, dignity, and respect.”
Helen served on the Crisis Ministry board of directors from 2008-2014. In addition to her work with the Crisis Ministry, she also volunteers at Trinity Church and on the board of the Friends of Soko Fund, which provides scholarships to support women’s education in Malawi.