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Frontline Heroes: Community caregivers

How Lighthouse of Oakland County continues to serve community amid pandemic

OAKLAND COUNTY, Mich. – Lighthouse of Oakland County has been servicing community members in the area for 48 years now.

Their work centers on building communities that drive to end homelessness and help people become self-sufficient. They gather food and distribute it. They create and offer shelter for those in need. They take care if their neighbors.

Despite the new COVID-19 world we all live in, Lighthouse and the volunteers who help carry out selfless missions have kept at it, knowing that help is needed more now than ever before.

A legacy of do-gooders

James McQueen is the community outreach and pantry manager for Lighthouse. He has a drive to help people which has literally been handed down from his mother.

“I just have a passion for helping people and I think that someone has to step up and help when there’s a crisis,” said McQueen.

I asked him where that drive to help others comes from.

“Oh wow, so, umm, my mother volunteered with Lighthouse for 27 years and that’s where it started. So, I saw all that she did and how many lives she changed. I feel it’s my duty and obligation to continue that process,” he said.

McQueen speaks about his mother with love and emotion, and you can tell this is all so personal to him.

McQueen is standing in the middle of a warehouse in Waterford, Mich., a new inventory home for the Lighthouse team. Behind him are pallets filled with boxes. Those boxes filled with food and everyday household supplies ready to be deployed to families in need. Volunteers work in the background, putting boxes on carts to roll out to cars that will handle the delivery. McQueen has to run to the back of the warehouse, to the loading dock area, for a moment.

I watch the volunteers and organizers work together on a Tuesday afternoon. I have a moment of clarity, which is to say, I notice that everyone is happy. They’re talking with each other with smiles on their faces, while working with a singular goal in mind. It makes me happy to see, and it also makes me realize that these people who are helping others have their mind on exactly that - helping. They aren’t thinking about anything else. Not thinking about bills, COVID-19, politics or anything else that may cause anger, drama or general uncomfortableness. When you focus on something good, you feel good -- I think?!

James McQueen, community outreach director and pantry manager for Lighthouse talks about their volunteers. Waterford, Michigan, Tuesday, August 4th 2020.
James McQueen, community outreach director and pantry manager for Lighthouse talks about their volunteers. Waterford, Michigan, Tuesday, August 4th 2020. (WDIV)

The warehouse winds around to the right and there is the mother load of canned goods, food items, cleaning supplies and more. McQueen walks me through the area and points out furniture off in the distance.

“Right now we have about 109 shelter clients inside a hotel and the process is once they get housed and into permanent housing, we provide them with furniture to take with them,” he said.

The furniture looks brand new, because it is. These couches and loveseats are courtesy of Gardner White. Donations of all kinds are welcome and it’s pretty easy to do it, click HERE for quick access.

Delivering promises

Out front, just beyond the garage door that leads to the stacks of supplies is a line of cars. They’re waiting to be loaded up with boxes to be taken to families who are in need. The people behind the wheel of each respective car is a volunteer with their own story and their own reasons for wanting to help.

Alex Gioiella is a case manager and volunteer.

“It’s great because you know some of these people are just having a hard time now and will definitely pay it forward later,” said Gioiella.

While Gioiella steps away a silver Chevy is being loaded up with boxes, a woman named Julianne Reyes tells me: “I thought it was just delivering boxes, but it turned into so much more, because I was able to connect with these families.”

A volunteer hands a box of food and supplies to a family in need. Waterford, Michigan, Tuesday, August 4th 2020.
A volunteer hands a box of food and supplies to a family in need. Waterford, Michigan, Tuesday, August 4th 2020. (WDIV)

Reyes then got in her car, which was being driven by her 15-year-old son, and headed out for deliveries, and I followed.

Driving through the rain, to another part of Waterford, we pulled into a driveway. Reyes and her son got out and started bringing boxes to the porch of a house. They were greeted by Danielle Miller, who was quick to sing the praises of Reyes and the programs that help people out, but she lead with a bleak realization many have come to,.

“People have lost the connection to be kind. People just aren’t kind anymore and that’s what’s hard," said Miller .

Miller says her connection with Reyes, who has been delivering her food and supplies regularly has changed that perspective a bit.

“It was nice to have someone who wanted to be connected with me,” said Miller.

Reyes graciously said thank you as she left the porch and then climbed back into the car for another delivery.

She pulls up to a house in northern Pontiac, where Kayla Burns greets her, umbrella in hand. The rain is coming down pretty good, but that doesn’t stop Reyes and Burns from having a long discussion on the front lawn. Burns has a wide smile and is over the moon about Reyes and her kindness.

Julianne Reyes (LeK) delivers food on behalf of mycovidresponse.org to Kayla Burns (right.) Pontiac, Michigan, Tuesday, August 4th 2020.
Julianne Reyes (LeK) delivers food on behalf of mycovidresponse.org to Kayla Burns (right.) Pontiac, Michigan, Tuesday, August 4th 2020. (WDIV)

Burns said Reyes has not only delivered food and supplies, but also helped Burns get a refrigerator.

“When I put our meat in at one o’clock in the afternoon and it was frozen at eight, it was like joy! I can’t even tell you, because I was freaking out that we weren’t going to be able to get one and we were going to blow through all the money that we had just getting food, so, you know, that was a blessing,” said Burns.

Reyes is listening, looking emotional. Both expressed their gratitude with one another and as Reyes walked away she said, “It is what it’s all about! I mean, I am overwhelmed by their words and I’m so thankful that I could make a difference in their lives.”

Back at home base

James McQueen is running the operation from the garage, making sure food gets out, while new shipments make their way in. Items need to be sorted and stored -- some in the cold storage trailer they have parked at a loading dock. He’s working to help others. He’s working to make his community better. He’s working to carry on a legacy, I asked McQueen if he thinks his mother is looking down on him with proud eyes, he was confident in his answer.

“Absolutely, absolutely! Yes, absolutely. She’s smiling down on me every day, I believe it, yes.”



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