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By SARA NEWMAN

Staff writer

For some Calvert County residents, the first snowfall before the end of the year means a day off from school or work, a chance to bundle inside and escape the cold. For others, being exposed to these elements could be life-threatening.

To help prevent hypothermia, many area churches are sheltering homeless people during the winter by participating in Safe Nights of Calvert County.

The first hypothermia-related death was reported early this month by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. A man between the ages of 45 and 64 died in Prince George’s County. The department said the death occurred between Nov. 26 and Dec. 2. Officials say in the 2012-2013 winter reporting season, there were 30 hypothermia-related deaths in Maryland.

Safe Nights is an interfaith emergency shelter program that is supported by the Calvert Interfaith Council and operates for 20 weeks during the “colder months,” Sue Bilek, co-director of shelter operations, said. This year, the program began Nov. 17 and will continue through April 6. Shelters are held in 20 different host churches throughout the county.

Bilek said Safe Nights provides shelter from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. seven days a week for homeless individuals. Each church hosts a group of guests for one week. She said more than 2,000 volunteers work to provide people with a cot, clean linens, toiletries and an evening and morning meal and a bag lunch. Bilek said volunteers also help clean and maintain participating churches and provide transportation.

“There’s a lot of different kinds of jobs required,” Bilek said.

So far, Safe Nights has helped a group varying around fewer than 10 individuals come out from the cold.

Bilek said the number of guests fluctuates every year depending on the weather and economic conditions. Bilek said Safe Nights has seen this number of guests before, but “overall,” the number of guests is “declining slightly.”

The Safe Nights program began about six years ago. In 2007, Project ECHO, a homeless shelter in Prince Frederick, was still in its old building and was limited in the number of people it could serve. At that time, Project ECHO, Calvert Interfaith Council and St. John Vianney Catholic Church representatives met to discuss what could be done to house more people during the winter months.

Trisha Gipson, executive director of Project ECHO, said Calvert County Safe Nights coordinators meet every week to discuss who Project ECHO may be able to take in from the Safe Nights program or who may be leaving Project ECHO and seeking services of Safe Nights.

“It’s proven to be effective in keeping tabs on those at risk and ensuring they do have shelter during these brutally cold months,” Gipson said.

Bilek said both guests and volunteers benefit from the program.

“These people would not have a warm place to stay if it weren’t for these generous churches who open these doors and welcome these people in,” Bilek said. “For the volunteers who work with them, it’s a privilege to serve people who have that kind of need.”

Bilek said anyone who needs shelter with Safe Nights should call 443-486-8670. Shelter is provided by appointment only, and applicants must go through a background check and must sign a guest agreement and an alcohol and drug abuse policy stating they will not use drugs or alcohol in the shelter or come in under the influence. Anyone who has a felony conviction cannot participate in the program, she said.

Docent training offered at JPPM

Jefferson Patterson Park and Museum is recruiting docents for its 2014 class. JPPM is seeking a group of people to work with school groups and in the MAC Lab, Exhibit Barn, Patterson House and more. This is an opportunity to meet new people, make new friends and interact with the archaeologists, educators and historians who bring Southern Maryland’s past to life, a press release states.

The intensive 10-week training course will provide applicants with in depth knowledge of the archaeology, history and culture of Southern Maryland with a specific focus on the land where JPPM sits today. They will examine techniques and education strategies for engaging museum visitors in meaningful explorations of the past. After completing the initial training course, JPPM docents further the educational mission of the park by offering regular, high-quality interpretive services for the public in support of annual programs, workshops, exhibits and more, according to the release.

Docents will receive regular volunteer benefits, including a Friends of JPPM family membership, a 10 percent discount in the Show Barn Museum Shop, Friends’ newsletter and a discount on special event entry fees and workshops. The biggest benefit is the chance to work with some of Maryland’s top archaeologists and educators who are preserving Southern Maryland’s heritage through the JPPM programs, the release states.

The training course will take place on Wednesdays beginning Jan. 22 from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. The classes will be presented by professional archaeologists, historians and JPPM staff. Class size is limited and registration is required. Tuition and fees are $15. Class materials will be provided.

FAFSA workshop offered

A line-by-line discussion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) will be offered Jan. 11 from 9:30 a.m. to noon at the Huntingtown High School auditorium by Southern Maryland College Access Network. This is an opportunity to get answers to questions regarding the FAFSA, as well as gain an understanding of why certain questions are asked.

SoMD CAN is a nonprofit organization that provides direct services to junior and senior high school students regarding the selection, application and financing of higher education options, a press release states. SoMD CAN also provides financial aid seminars to parents and guardians of high school students throughout Calvert County. This is a free event. All county high school senior parents and guardians are encouraged to attend. Go to www.somdcan.org, or call Shelby Potts at 410-474-0742, for more information. Inclement weather date is Feb. 8.

snewman@somdnews.com