Here’s an excerpt from an article in the Amherst Bulletin, by Debra Scherban, 11/7/13:
Mindy Domb, director of the Amherst Survival Center, considers herself a lucky woman.
Not only because she took over a well-oiled operation in a gleaming new building last summer, but because the sense of community she finds inside and outside of the center is something this veteran human services worker has rarely seen.
With few and in some cases no questions asked, people can get basic needs met, from filling their stomachs to seeing a doctor, mainly by volunteers, in a place donors shelled out $2.5 million to construct.
“It’s a very happy place,” Domb said in an interview after she took me on the tour. “People come in and they are in need, but they are getting those needs met by others who show up every day because they want to be here. It’s one of the most optimistic places I have ever worked in.”
Those volunteers, about 200 a week, join two full-time and eight part-time paid staffers to keep the center open 20 hours a week. The volunteers get as good as they give. Domb said she recently approached one to thank her and was struck by the woman’s response. “She wrote on a piece of paper ‘I need this.’ That was sort of an epiphany moment for me.”
The spacious, well-equipped building with its kitchen, large pantry, dining area, community room and physicians’ examining room speaks volumes to its guests. “It says we welcome you here,” said Domb. “There is plenty of room.”
She’s right. The 6,000-square-foot building is a gem, supported by a successful capital campaign headed by her predecessor, Cheryl Zoll. Zoll left shortly after the center moved last December from its longtime home in the cramped basement of an old school building on North Pleasant Street into new quarters on Sunderland Road. After working there for six years, Zoll was ready for a new challenge.
Domb is aware she has a tough act to follow. “I filled the shoes of someone who was incredibly visionary, skilled and talented — thank you, Cheryl — and I say that quite often every day,” said Domb.
Aside from Zoll’s work, support from individuals who dug into their wallets to help impresses Domb. “Amherst really wanted to do this. I’m not surprised by the generosity of the community but being in this building every day makes it very, very tangible for me.”
The center holds three major fundraisers a year and operates on a $475,000 budget. However, last year it received $750,000 in donated goods and services, Domb said, which allowed the center to provide $2.50 in services for every dollar spent. Between 160 and 320 people use it each day — on Thursdays closing time is 7 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. — including about 100 who come for the free lunch.
One of her goals is to find out what else center patrons want. A survey is underway. “The Amherst Survival Center works. I don’t want to break it,” she said. “It is a beautiful dynamic of people coming together to help each other. My job is to support that in the short term and my long-term goal is to make sure I continue to respect that.”
Few questions asked
During the tour Domb pointed out what she calls her favorite room. It’s the consultation room and it has a door that can be closed for privacy. “The reason I love this so much is because this is where community partners come in and we get to extend our service,” she said.
For example, on Mondays someone from Health Care for the Homeless comes to assist people with health insurance, on Tuesdays, a representative from the Western Massachusetts Food Bank is on hand to help people apply for food stamps. In the afternoon someone from the Salvation Army arrives to give people emergency vouchers for things such as clothing, prescriptions or utilities. And for three hours on Thursday afternoons, a counselor from Eliot Homeless Services based in Lexington provides mental health services.
If a person shows up at 11 a.m. when the center opens, he or she gets a ticket to pick from the supply of fresh fruits, vegetables and baked goods that are on hand every day. That individual also can go over to a table at the side of the dining room and get a pre-lunch snack of fruit or pastry and then wander over to the free store, with its racks of clothing neatly displayed along with household items, children’s toys, even musical instruments, and take anything.
There is a washing machine and a dryer for public use and 14 lockers where homeless individuals can store their belongings on a first come, first served basis. Adjacent to that is the pantry with a huge refrigerator and freezer, where people who sign up can select 20 to 50 pounds of groceries from canned goods to meats once a month. There is an activity room where organized exercises are offered daily, including yoga, two computer terminals for anyone to use and an equipped examining room where volunteer doctors offer medical care for a few hours two days a week. In September, the physicians saw 50 patients.
Then, of course, there is the highlight. At noon, four days a week, a bountiful lunch is prepared and served by volunteers. The day I was there this was the menu: salmon, chicken, pasta, brown rice, white rice, tossed salad, fruit salad, tempeh, quiche, butternut squash, peas, green beans, swiss chard, three kinds of soups — cauliflower cheese, butternut squash and potato leek — bread and hummus and baked goods for dessert.
Spreading the message
Domb, 54, has lived in Amherst for 15 years and raised two daughters with her partner, Matthew Sadof. She worked for many years in the public health field mainly focusing on HIV and AIDS. She grew up in the New York/New Jersey area and got her start in human services out of college working for U.S. Rep. Ted Weiss, who represented Manhattan and the Bronx and focused on people’s basic needs, she said. “He described basic needs as human rights, so that was eye-opening for me as a young woman in my 20s.”
Another goal for her as director of the Amherst Survival Center is making the clientele’s voices heard beyond Amherst.
“I don’t know what that ultimately will mean, but I want to see how our experience at the Amherst Survival Center can inform policy.” She sees need growing every day. The center’s use has increased 20 percent in the past year. Though she acknowledges that some of that can be attributed to the new building’s appeal, she thinks it also has to do with the condition of the nation’s economy. “It’s harder and harder for one paycheck families to make ends meet.”
A recent center event underscored that. On Food Awareness Day in late October, staff invited people to write messages about the center, or hunger and need in general, on paper plates that they hung on the wall of the food pantry. The plates will be sent to U.S. Rep. James McGovern, this area’s congressman, who backs programs that help the hungry.
The plates bear poignant notes. One, in particular, supported Domb’s point: I work, my husband works, it’s not enough.
Poverty, Domb said, is not the only force behind hunger. It’s also low income that spurs worry that maybe there won’t be food tomorrow, or the next day.
McGovern visited the Amherst Survival Center last summer. The day before he came, Domb was in her office watching on her computer screen as he made an impassioned speech about proposed cuts in the food stamp program to fellow members of the House of Representatives.
As he spoke, Domb said, she looked out her office window at the dining area, where a long line of people snaked up to the kitchen to fill their plates.
“And as I was watching that line got longer and I thought that’s the trend right now. The lines are getting longer, people are still hungry and they’re getting hungrier. The fantastic thing is that in this part of the world the community wants to help.”