WALLA WALLA — The first night, Friday, there were four. The next night, eight people showed up. And on Sunday, when the warming station at First Congregational Church was supposed to be over and done with, a dozen people came in out of the cold, said the Rev. Cecilia McKean.
As temperatures plummeted at the end of last week, county officials, church leaders and social-service agency heads hastily pulled together a plan to keep unsheltered people safe from the predicted bitter cold of the weekend.
While the local American Red Cross brought in cots and blankets, First Congregational Church on Palouse Street opened its doors to offer space and heat.
And so much more, McKean said Monday. “The outpouring from the community was staggering.”
People brought food, blankets, clothing and themselves, she said. “We had more volunteers than we had slots to put them. It was pretty amazing. I’m proud to live here.”
Original plans called for the Walla Walla warming station — by definition, such centers are used in cases of severe weather or times of natural disasters — to close after Saturday. However, the wind chill continued to make things miserable into Sunday night and the decision to stay open was made easy by the eagerness of community volunteers to keep up the work, officials said.
Noah Leavitt was one of those. The Whitman College educator and community activist took the midnight to 6 a.m. shift Monday, in the last hours of the warming station. In addition to 12 people, a few dogs and cat stayed inside for the night with their owners, he said. “People were super appreciative, and also that they were able to hear about it.”
The speed that word went out via Facebook postings, word-of-mouth and fliers made the town’s first cold-weather emergency sheltering effort successful, Leavitt said today.
One family that has been living in a broken-down vehicle arrived at the church for shelter, said Jim Duncan, director of emergency management for Walla Walla County. Word was spread of the need to get the car running, and a volunteer stepped forward to make that happen, Duncan said.
The swift collaboration between government, nonprofit and religion entities was heartwarming to witness, Leavitt said. “Hopefully it will be more than just having this one weekend. Hopefully it will stimulate larger discussions in the community.”
He’s heard at least two other area churches are interested in participating in a cold-weather safety network, he added.
A community education event about the homelessness situation in Walla Walla is being planned for Jan. 15 and details will be coming, Leavitt said.
Sheila Hagar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 526-8322.