WINCHESTER — When you’re living in a tent or on the streets, something as basic as a hot shower is a luxury.
Willa Banks of Mount Carmel Baptist Church came to this realization two years ago after reading about the struggles of Winchester’s homeless population, so she rallied her pastor and members of the church’s congregation to launch Showers for Souls.
“Each Wednesday, we open up for them to take their showers,” Banks said Wednesday morning after she and about 10 other volunteers served six homeless people who came to the church’s Family Life Center, located behind the main church building at 1317 S. Pleasant Valley Road.
This week’s turnout was pretty low. Banks said they average 13 to 17 people a week and have served as many as 35 individuals at one time.
In addition to hot showers in the Family Life Center’s six shower stalls, attendees get a fair amount of pampering. Snacks and hot coffee are served, and sometimes there is a full meal. They also can get a shave, toothpaste and toothbrushes, clean clothes and shoes that were donated to or purchased by the church, even a free haircut.
“Around Christmas time, we give them baskets with gloves, hats and stuff in them,” Banks said. “Anything that we can do to help them feel better about themselves.”
“We pick up, too,” added James Washington, chairman of the church’s deacon ministry. “We take a van down to CCAP [Congregational Community Action Project at 112 S. Kent St.] and get anyone who needs a ride.”
Volunteers minister to and pray for anyone who asks, but religious interactions are optional.
“All races, all religions are welcome,” said the Rev. Gilbert M. Mack Jr. “It’s about filling a need, period.”
Mack, Mount Carmel’s senior pastor, said his church coordinated with other assistance organizations such as CCAP and Winchester Rescue Mission to make sure its efforts were not being duplicated.
“This was a need that was not being met,” he said of Showers for Souls.
The program relies on the generosity of others. Banks said program volunteers are always happy to accept donations of clothing, toiletries and money to purchase needed items.
“Most of the food, we donate ourselves,” she said. “We don’t get a penny for it, but we get the appreciation from them.”
Mack said the Showers for Souls volunteers put in the hard work because of a lesson from Jesus in the Bible’s Book of Matthew: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
“It’s about us doing what we believe God has called us to do,” Mack said.