“I hope that no one has to experience the fear, confusion and desperation and eventually resignation that we see every day from the homeless. It is an incredibly difficult position to climb out of once you are in,” Carla Traister wrote five years ago in defense of the Sheltering Tree, the cold-weather homeless shelter at Bunnell’s United Methodist Church that has periodically weathered community opposition and misinformation. “But after teaching school for 32 years, to think that every man and woman coming out of any school has average mental capabilities, has learned higher thinking skills, has an enriched cultural background, has been taught good work ethics and have all gained wisdom to succeed in life would be a little naive.”
Since co-founding the Sheltering Tree with then-First United Pastor Beth Gardner nine years ago–a severe winter when the shelter opened for 30 nights and provided beds for a total of 550 guests–Traister has been a fierce advocate for the county’s homeless, and a defender of the Sheltering Tree’s mission in the face of successive waves of not-in-my-backyard discontent. More recently, and after the departure of Gardner to another parish, the homeless who gathered at the church most days faced some resistance from the church congregation itself, though not from the new pastor.
On Thursday, Flagler County government announced Traister as the 2016 Northeast Florida Community Action Agency’s “Outstanding Community Leadership Award” winner. As always–because awards are not a new thing for Traister: she was the winner of a national Point of Light award in 2011, and has been routinely recognized for her efforts–Traister took the news with more embarrassment than pride, at least for herself, while turning over the entire credit to her volunteers.
“I don’t need awards. It’s uncomfortable,” Traister said this afternoon. “I’m so grateful for all the volunteers. The credit all goes to them. It really does. Dreams are pie in the sky without them.”
She has from 150 to 200 volunteers, all split in teams (10 of which are provided by Santa Maria del Mar church in Flagler Beach) that are assigned in turn to staff the shelter when it’s open, on nights when the temperature falls below 40 degrees. “It’s the volunteers that man the shelter, that feed, that set up the cots, that do everything,” Traister said. “I feel like I’m the last person that should be awarded. It’s all those people who get it done, it’s all those volunteers who have been doing it for nine years. I have the most incredible people that have made it exist. The shelter doesn’t exist without them, period. It is not I that is responsible for the shelter. It’s all those other people that I can call up, and they’ll say, sure, team after team after team.”
Last year, the shelter was open for 19 nights. The church has no issue with the shelter. “The shelter is going to be there and the church is very good about the shelter being there,” Traister said. Issues arose as homeless individuals hung around church grounds during the day, using the inside courtyard and using the bathrooms there. “The new pastor Terry Wines, is very pro-homeless but he also has to answer to some of the folks who attend the church and that were uncomfortable with people being there all the time, that’s all.”
County Human Resources Director Joe Mayer, a board member of the Florida Community Action Agency, nominated Traister based on selection criteria including serving a vital role that is not otherwise fulfilled in the community, inspiring others to engage in community service, and consistently demonstrating results.
“We have some wonderful people in our community, and Carla Traister is among them,” Mayer said in a release issued this afternoon. “One of the highlights of being part of the Northeast Florida Community Action Agency is having the opportunity to let others know about the warmth and dedication of Flagler County residents.”
“It was a simple gesture that opened the eyes and hearts of many to help others,” Mayer wrote in the application. “One sleeping bag was left for a homeless person who had been using a piece of cardboard to lay his head. Since that moment, thousands of homeless folks have been cared for the warm hearts of many people.”
The shelter facility is open to anyone who has no place to sleep, inadequate heat or is in need of comfort from the harsh weather. The Sheltering Tree Program serves meals, distributes clothing and provides “grace bags” filled with toiletries. It has also been used as an overflow shelter for individuals from Daytona Beach on cold nights, but last winter, with a temporary shelter open in Volusia, no Daytona Beach individuals traveled up to Bunnell. The shelter can accommodate up to 35 people between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Pastor Charles Silano received the same award in 2015 – also after being nominated by Mayer. He founded Grace Tabernacle Ministries, which operates the Grace Community Food Pantry. Other community contributions include: Access Flagler First, which provides a variety of social services once every other month and a faith-based, jail diversion and addiction-recovery program called Open Door Recovery in Bunnell.
“It’s a testament to Flagler County and the people who live here that we have back-to-back recipients,” said Commission Chairman Barbara Revels. “We may be a small county, but we have a big heart.”