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Volunteering is an integral part of making communities better places to live. That can mean sprucing up a park, helping at a school, fighting fires or responding to medical emergencies. In the case of the WARM program in St. Mary’s County, it means providing meals and temporary shelter to men and women without a home.

WARM — Wrapping Arms ‘Round Many — for five years now has offered beds, food, warmth and fellowship to homeless people during the cold weather months at churches in the county.

Twenty-one churches take a week at a time to provide a dinner, a place to sleep and breakfast for up to two dozen homeless people November through March. Many other churches and groups send volunteers along to assist with cooking, help move the cots, along with the homemade quilts and other bedding, each week to a new location, or stay with the church guests overnight.

“Without volunteers, I couldn’t do this job. No one person could do it themselves,” Carol Barton, site coordinator for First Saints Community Church headquartered in Leonardtown, said.

At least 50 volunteers are needed each week to make the program successful, she said. That includes people to prepare and distribute food for dinner and breakfast as well as a male and a female to oversee the church shelter for two shifts each night.

Barton moved to St. Mary’s in 2000 and was shocked to see the extent of homelessness in the county. “I had never seen that before. I was truly bothered by it,” she said. “It’s heart-wrenching.”

The number of homeless people in St. Mary’s County, including those without any shelter, in emergency shelter and in transitional shelter, stood at nearly 300 last year, according to an annual survey.

In 2009, conversations among some of those working with the homeless and churches revolved around starting a program in St. Mary’s similar to ones already in place elsewhere, including Calvert and Charles counties. At that time the homeless population here and elsewhere was swelling as the recession took hold. Shelters were often filled beyond capacity during cold weather as homeless men and women slept on floors, filling every square inch of space.

About seven churches participated during the first winter of WARM. Now the churches taking part include a dozen different religious denominations.

Barton and her husband, Ron, jumped at the opportunity to help with the WARM program when it began five years ago. They befriended one of the homeless guests, and would pick him up to take him out to dinner or to church. He had lost parts of each foot to frostbite, she said.

The trio became close friends, she said, even after the man moved into a nursing home. One winter day, however, he checked himself out and stayed the night outside.

“He died. He froze to death,” she said.

The man’s death took its toll on Carol Barton, who decided she would do everything she could to make sure that wouldn’t happen to anyone else. She increased her volunteer efforts with WARM, and is the site coordinator for both First Saints Community and its sister church, St. George Island United Methodist.

“I usually hang out until everything has settled down [in the evening] and then I come back in the morning,” she said.

Mornings can be hard, especially when the temperature is low, as she and other volunteers send the guests back out into the world, she said.

“I think you also have to have the heart for it, to help others,” Barton said. “If it’s not real, they’ll pick up on it right away.”

And while it can be personally difficult to hear some of the stories from the guests, in the end it is a rewarding effort, she said. “I get a lot of hugs ... They’re very appreciative of what we do.”

Barbara Jarrett of Ridge signed on as a shift supervisor for one night during First Saints Community Church’s host week. This is the second year she and her husband, Earl, volunteered with WARM.

“I just like helping people,” Jarrett said.

It’s important to give back to the community, she said, but it does take an effort. “People have a hard time giving up their time,” especially those who work or have children to take care of. Jarrett, a retiree, said she often volunteers with her church and at local schools.

Second-grader Ben Messer was one of seven Cub Scouts who visited First Saints Community one night earlier this month to help.

“It is going to feel good to help other people,” he said before he and the other Scouts helped serve meals to the guests. A troop leader said service to the community, including volunteerism, is a key part of the Boy Scout tradition.

“The biggest thing these people need is for you to treat them like human beings. Be nice to them,” Jan Adair told the Scouts. She explained how sometimes people don’t have the money they need to afford a place to live, and it is their job to help people in need.

Sara Martin, the chairperson of WARM, said the volunteer efforts of church parishioners give men and women a chance to survive winter by providing meals and shelter.

Martin, who works as the administrator at Lexington Park United Methodist Church, volunteers her time on the WARM council and leadership team that meets throughout the year.

“There’s quite a lot of behind-the-scenes work happening,” Martin said. “The work of WARM never stops.”

The number of people served each night during the winter varies, usually between one or two dozen. Five or six are usually women, Martin said, although this year there seem to be more than in the past.

The program does not serve homeless children, according to St. Mary’s County Department of Social Services instructions, she said. Homeless children are placed in other programs, Martin said.

Roy Sims said he has participated in the WARM program since this season began in November. If it wasn’t for the churches’ kindness, he said, he would probably be sleeping outdoors somewhere.

“It’s pretty good at all the churches we’ve been at so far,” he said earlier this month. “They treat you right.”

It also helps just knowing that the many volunteers that pitch in to make WARM successful care about him and other homeless men and women, he said.

The basic schedule has not changed much since the program started. People meet at the Three Oaks Center in Lexington Park after being referred by the social services department. County-run buses pick up the homeless and take them to the church that is hosting them for the week.

They arrive each evening at about 6 and are fed dinner; lights are out at 10 p.m. In the morning an early breakfast is served, and everyone leaves the church via bus by 7 a.m.

Several churches this season have joined for the first time as host sites, including St. Peter Claver Catholic, First Saint Community’s St. George Island campus, Leonardtown Baptist and St. Andrew’s Episcopal, Martin said.

Other churches hosting the program again this winter are Trinity Lutheran, First Missionary Baptist, Church of Christ, Immaculate Conception Catholic, Real Life Wesleyan, Lexington Park United Methodist, Cornerstone Presbyterian, First Saints Community’s Leonardtown campus, Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic, Holy Angels Catholic, Trinity Episcopal, Church of the Ascension, Good Samaritan Lutheran, SAYSF Bible, St. George’s Episcopal, Patuxent Presbyterian and Mt. Zion United Methodist.

jyeatman@somdnews.com