2018-01-11 / Front Page

Warming Center Shelters from Storm

By James Merolla

Kitchen manager Cornelius Butler (“Corn,” to friends), happily served up nearly 400 cups of coffee at the Seamen's Church Institute warming center during last week's winter storm Grayson. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) Kitchen manager Cornelius Butler (“Corn,” to friends), happily served up nearly 400 cups of coffee at the Seamen's Church Institute warming center during last week's winter storm Grayson. (Photo by Lynne Tungett) The homeless man had hunkered down in an unnamed lot behind a dry-docked boat, mere feet away from waves that had frozen in mid-curl.

The day before the Jan. 4 blizzard covered his makeshift tent and his torn comforter with 15 inches of blinding snow, he thought he could get through it.

But Rhode Island had never had a sub-zero week like this in his lifetime, with wind chills dropping the mercury to minus 30.

During the storm, half blinded by horizontally blown snow, he somehow found his way to the Seamen’s Church Institute, 18 Market Square, where he was greeted with a cup of hot coffee, soup, and the dignity to protect and warm himself, no questions asked.

“I was afraid I might freeze up to death,” the man said, not giving his name, days later. “Never felt that way before. Glad I made it here.”

For 10 days and nights, around the clock, under the directive of the Newport Fire Chief, Seamen’s opened up as a warming center, offering care for the homeless during dangerously cold temperatures that had killed others exposed in areas outside of Rhode Island since Christmas.

A cadre of volunteers, five per shift, worked from 4 p.m. to 7 a.m. each day, providing up to 20 cots, blankets, food, beverages, and sensitive conversation. Kitchen manager Cornelius (“Corn,” to friends), worked tireless 12-hour shifts daily, preparing meals for the cold and hungry, with a smile.

Seamen’s Church Institute, 18 Market Square, has been functioning as an overnight warming center since Dec. 27, ending Sunday morning on the eve of an anticipated Monday warm-up, where temperatures climbed above freezing.

The only day the center wasn’t open was the day of the storm, because the all-volunteer staff could not get to the building.

The last time the hospitality center did this was in January 2015, but only for two days, not 10. “We have never done this many consecutive days,” said Leslie Streuli, marketing and events coordinator for the institute.

Seaman’s has offered 20 cots nightly, since the run of frigid temperatures began, in late December. Sometimes, eight people stayed. Sometimes, 16. Some days, some stayed for hours, but didn’t sleep there.

As Dec. 26 became Jan. 6, it felt like the dangerously frigid conditions would never end.

“The weather forecast seemed daunting to say the least, but we were determined to open as many nights as possible as a warming center for those in need,” said Tara O’Hare Gnolfo, Lodging Manager and Administrative Assistant.

“The most beautiful aspect over the course of the week was seeing so many individuals from all walks of life working together.

“Our cafe manager, Cornelius, worked countless hours cooking delicious warm meals each evening and returning first thing each morning to serve breakfast. Our Acting Superintendent, Heather Braga, stayed through multiple evenings to ensure things ran smoothly, and our homeless clients thoughtfully helped us tidy up each morning to restore our Café’s lounge. Despite the freezing temperatures, there was a warmth in spirit that revitalized all of us.”

Streuli credits the community with making the warming center a reality. “The warming center is staffed by almost 100 percent volunteers, and we could not do it without them. The outpouring of support from the community was breathtaking. We were inundated with donations of clothes, hats, gloves, coats, toiletries and food. We are incredibly grateful to the generosity of the Newport community."

Storm Response

Seamen's Stats

Over an 11-day period, we held 10 overnight warming centers

We provided 109 beds for 39 unduplicated clients

105 Male & 4 female

36 additional clients made use of the warming centers but did not stay overnight

375 Cups of coffee provided

225 Dinners provided

145 Breakfasts provided

82 Free showers

42 Loads of laundry

42 Volunteers filled 78 volunteer shifts. Of those 42 volunteers,

30 were NEW volunteers

22 extra volunteers (turned away but put on list for next time)

3 Staff members & 2 board members worked at least one shift.

Other Shelters/Services

Gaudet Middle School, 1113 Aquidneck Ave., Middletown

Staffed by the American red Cross and open to all Aquidneck Island residents to provide shelter to people who had lost electricity or heat throughout the duration of the 13-hour blizzard.

McKinney Cooperative Shelter, 15 Meeting St., Newport

The shelter was staffed day and night, as they do in situations such as these. Overflow people could fill the hallway spaces available.

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