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Local News

Casa Esperanza Volunteer Helps Bring Beauty to Shelter Residents

77-year-old Reba Gonzales committed to give of herself and brighten environment for the homeless

Even though she's surrounded on all sides by warehouses and commercial buildings, Reba Gonzales is enjoying the sunshine, and standing in a haven of sorts.

A small porch area has been lined with pansies and climbing vines, and the plant life has even drawn song birds to find refuge there, despite being in the middle of Santa Barbara's industrial heart.

The porch is nestled behind Casa Esperanza's shelter at 816 Cacique St., and Gonzales has worked to make it a little more beautiful and welcoming for those finding respite within the shelter's walls.

She's obviously got a green thumb and a proclivity for helping growing things thrive, but she's modest about her skills.

"I know how to put things in the soil," the 77-year-old said. "I enjoy trying to make things look neat."

Without volunteers like Gonzales, "we wouldn't be able to keep our doors open," said John Bowlin, the shelter's volunteer coordinator, known to everyone as J.B.

Gonzales has put in more than 100 hours of volunteer time at the shelter in the past month alone, he said, and stops in two or three times a week for several hours at a time.

She's one of about a dozen senior volunteers who have retired but say they've found a second career helping Santa Barbara's homeless at Casa Esperanza.

Thanks to the work of volunteer Reba Gonzales, freshly planted flowers are providing a dash of color. 'I know how to put things in the soil,' she says. 'I enjoy trying to make things look neat.' (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)
Thanks to the work of volunteer Reba Gonzales, freshly planted flowers are providing a dash of color. "I know how to put things in the soil," she says. "I enjoy trying to make things look neat." (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo)

"I think everyone wants to feel like they can be useful," she told Noozhawk.

Gonzales has lived in Santa Barbara for three decades and is working to help those without a home feel more welcome.

In front of Casa Esperanza, multicolored flowers line beds that were somewhat of a blank slate before Gonzales transformed them, with mulch coating the surface of the beds, enclosed by the curb of the concrete parking lot.

"We've been here for 13 years," Bowlin said. "We needed a little TLC.

"This is their home," he said of Casa Esperanza residents who have noticed the changes.

Gonzales said she thinks people have been appreciative, and noted that some of the residents have even pitched in to help with the gardening. Friendships and conversation have resulted.

She and the other volunteers are rooting for the people at the shelter, and hope they'll be able to succeed at whatever they're after.

"We want things for their lives," she said.

The hundreds of volunteers Bowlin oversees do everything from staffing the front desk to serving meals.

"We're so grateful," he said of those who turn out to pitch in. "They're our family."

As the holidays approach, volunteers are even more crucial to Casa Esperanza's operations, Bowlin said.

On Dec. 1, the shelter will expand to add 100 more beds through March 31, and extra help is needed.

Bowlin said volunteers are needed to work in more of a case management role with residents, which could mean driving someone to appointments and the like.

Leading a workshop on interviewing skills or how to conduct a jobs search are also needed, but Bowlin said there's an opportunity for virtually anything people are interested in doing.

"We want to make it fun," he said.

The shelter is also looking for volunteers with medical backgrounds, like registered nurses, to work with people in the shelter's medical and recovery beds.

Many volunteers have full-time jobs and come in after work and on weekends to help however they can, he said. For more information on how to help, contact Bowlin at 805.979.8710 or [email protected].

As for Gonzales, the sacrifice of time is well worth it.

"It makes you feel very special to make a little bit of difference," she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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