On multiple days each week, Mike Harrison can be found at Cornerstones’ Embry Rucker Community Shelter discussing bluegrass music festivals with clients as he dishes up hot meals from the shelter kitchen; or providing them with encouragement and job leads he’s picked up as he goes about his other duties as the shelter’s front desk receptionist.
A long-serving volunteer, clocking in some 250 hours a year, Mike provides a source of continuity for residents at the shelter. He is a rock in a world where change is a constant. When Mike observes a new face at the shelter, particularly of a young person, he engages with them, looking for ways he can help them improve their current situation. He knows the longer they stay in the system, the harder it is to shake the stigma of homelessness. Mike is also well-respected by the older, chronically homeless clients. His presence at the shelter helps define it as a safe and familiar place where they can come and find a welcoming face and someone who acknowledges them as people, not just as “homeless”. In short, he provides them with a sense of belonging to the larger community.
A retired educator from Fairfax County Public Schools, Mike is refined and well spoken, has a ready smile and laugh, a great sense of humor and the empathetic nature that made him everyone’s favorite teacher and now everyone’s favorite volunteer and workmate at Embry Rucker Community Shelter.
Mike is plain-spoken and yet encouraging. As a former teacher, he is skilled at getting residents to open up about their lives, think about their goals, and understand and overcome the obstacles they face.
Shelter staff know too that they can count on Mike. With his depth of experience and skill working with clients, he can hold down the fort when staff are called to attend an off-site meeting, host a program, staff an exhibit booth, or act as an ambassador, spreading the word about Cornerstones.
“When I asked Mike Harrison what draws him to volunteer, he said he wanted to help the homeless and to treat them with dignity because they are not often afforded that in their lives. For over 15 years, Mike has been offering that kindness and sense of dignity to homeless individuals in our area. He finds the good in everyone and acts as the mirror that reflects that good back for them to see in themselves. He is a treasure.” Susan Alger, Volunteer Manager, Embry Rucker Community Shelter.