On the eastside of Olympia, I park my car and look for the address of the SideWalk Advocacy Center. The houses look alike—aging, comfortable, worn yet loved. I spot the address, 1139 Fifth Street SE, and step onto the porch. It’s cheery yellow exterior reminds me of my grandmother’s house. Upon entering, I sense that nostalgic feeling again. Directly in the entry way, a well-worn staircase creaks as people pass. I enter the living room and the air crackles with good cheer. People are reading newspapers, drinking coffee, laughing and chatting. I sit down a little confused. I couldn’t separate the clients from the volunteers.
Jill Esbeck, Operations Director for SideWalk, is responsible, in a large part, for the seamless interaction between those who are helping and those who need help. Four and a half years ago, Esbeck was one of the co-founders of SideWalk with Phil Owen the Executive Director. At the time, she decided her mission was to work with the volunteers who would primarily staff the center. She felt intrinsically that in order for SideWalk to succeed, volunteers would likely carry the burden—and the joy—of working with the homeless of South Sound who need housing at critical junctures in their lives.
In the years Esbeck has been at SideWalk, she has trained over 220 volunteers who attend six to 40 hours of training before they are ready to serve the clients of SideWalk. She focuses on a few key principles.
“Potential volunteers, and also people in the community, need to understand the homeless come to SideWalk not because what they have is a deficit, instead they have a situation,” says Esbeck.
“The volunteers at SideWalk focus on direct service. They are committed to helping people find safe and affordable places to live. We have different programs for different people, but the volunteers learn to read the clients and help them decide their best options,” she says.
Daniel Richard is a special volunteer at SideWalk. As a veteran who served in combat, his job is to counsel and support fellow veterans in need of housing support. He also helps them with their Veterans Affairs paperwork.
“Jill taught me how to talk to people, communicate, what to do when someone gets riled up. I call it OJT—on the job training,” he says.
In a recent survey SideWalk conducted with its volunteers, of those who participated in the survey, 91% say they have fun at SideWalk and 94% percent believe the SideWalk staff positively influences the culture of the center. Esbeck’s passionate commitment to advocacy is likely a driving factor in the unique melding of volunteerism and progressive engagement with clients.
“Sometimes all we do for an individual is be present. We listen. The ultimate goal is to help people become independent, but there are days when we are the only people who will listen to them talk for an hour. We give them that hour. It is respecting them as individuals,” Esbeck remarks.
Esbeck has the reputation of giving people her complete time and attention. Her eye contact is steady. She is not aware of noise or disruptions. This remarkable character trait has been a part of her professional life for years. Esbeck volunteered (and later worked at a staff member) at the Northern Virginia Crisis Hotline. She also worked for Otto Kroeger Associates, a Washington DC based Myers Briggs consulting firm as a consultant and trainer.
“I had to decide if I wanted to go into the corporate world and work in Human Resources. My other choice was to follow my heart and go into Social Services. Obviously, that is the path I took. The most meaningful jobs I have had come from being a volunteer. It changes you. It informs you,” she says.
Volunteers play many roles at SideWalk: a hospitality greeter smiles when a client walks through the door. Assessment and intake advocates screen the clients and begin the process of helping to support their needs, and stability advocates develop on-going relationships for 6-12 months as clients move into self-sufficiency.
Without Esbeck’s ability to look others in the eye with compassion, shut out the world to listen fully, and train volunteers to tap into their innate gifts to help people, that feeling of comfort and nostalgia might not be there when walking through the door of SideWalk.
Volunteer Janis Chisholm comments, “She is solid gold surrounded with diamonds.”
“Ditto,” says Phil Owen, Executive Director of SideWalk. “She is able to retain remarkable volunteers.”
“I don’t mean for this to sound odd,” Esbeck says, “but I really think this job was looking for me.”
SideWalk works alongside the Drexel House , St. Mike’s Men’s Winter Shelter, the Family Support Center of South Sound, and Community Youth Services. If you have questions for the volunteer staff at SideWalk, call 360-515-5587 during business hours to speak with an Intake Specialist. Applications for housing and shelter are processed at SideWalk during business hours, Monday – Thursday between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. A comprehensive directory of organizations is also available at SideWalk Resources.