Inspire: Mary Beth Frey, Executive Director, The Samaritan Center

Compassion, care and community during crisis

By Alyssa Dearborn

Photo by Ana Gil Photography

If there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught us, it is that there will always be a need for compassion, care, and community. Despite fear, people still need to be shown compassion. When most people are preoccupied with caring for themselves, others still need to be cared for. And while social distancing has become an essential aspect of these times, it has not lessened the need for a sense of community. Even during a pandemic, these needs still preoccupy the Samaritan Center and its executive director, Mary Beth Frye.

“I think one of the most beautiful parts of the Samaritan Center is that we try to ensure each decision we make is grounded in our mission: how we can best serve our guests.” Frye stated when asked about the challenges of a pandemic world, “As we saw the pandemic approaching our community, our primary goal was to ensure that services could continue as best possible throughout what was likely to be an incredibly stressful period for those we serve and for our entire community.”

Like other organizations around the country, the Samaritan Center has had to adapt to a new normal, making adjustments for everyone’s safety. These adjustments included switching their services to a take-out style service, requiring all guests and employees to wear masks, and ensuring that social distancing remains constant.

“Within a Covid environment,” Frye explained, “we understood quickly that the meals we offered needed to be take-out. Our beautiful dining room would need to be shut down and our meal distribution would need to be fast and efficient to maintain limited contact, be operational with a limited number of volunteers, and promote social distancing within the facility. Samaritan has been able to retain its staff of nine throughout the pandemic with two employees working from home and our volunteers are gradually returning as the community opens back up.”

Though safety and addressing the logistics of adjusting to pandemic life has been of the upmost importance, it became just as important to address the emotional wellbeing of the Center’s guests.

“I would say the more difficult adjustments were in our engagement and support of our guests,” Frye said. “Samaritan Center is a place where individuals find a community kitchen table, a place to connect, feel supported, find a hug in celebration or grief, share victories and challenges with a chosen family of support-staff, volunteers, and fellow guests.”

“The stress and isolation of the pandemic on a population that already struggles with social isolation has been particularly hard,” she continued, “and the sadness of our guests as they attempt to navigate a closed world was palpable. We have done our best to create moments of connection: remembering to check in with guests whose moms were sick with Covid or whose health was just a worry to an adult son; a phone call or note to a guest in assisted living who can no longer get out to see us; sharing the sadness of a world changed, if only in brief interactions; being there with a smile, even if behind a mask. The sadness has begun to lift as the hope of reopening moves through our city. The challenge now will be helping folks put the pieces back together.”

A part of what helps the Center retain that sense of community is through their helpful network of volunteers. Though the Center has been forced to decrease its volunteer numbers on site, the same volunteers who were there before found ways to help from home.

“Outside of the center itself,” Frye said, “there have been untold numbers of volunteers sewing masks for our guests, collecting wish list items in support of operations, collecting hand sanitizer, sending donations and notes of encouragement. Their faith in us and their generosity towards those we serve warms my heart daily and I am humbled by their kindness of spirit. As the community begins to open up, we are strategizing the next phase for Samaritan and how to best bring back our full family of volunteers.”

Though the nature of her work is much more strenuous during more stressful times, Frye stills feels blessed that she gets make a meaningful, community impact. When asked about the most rewarding aspect of her job, she explained,

“There is a bit of magic that occurs at the Samaritan Center. If you have never experienced it, it takes only a day of volunteering to know that there is something very special that happens through the organization. It is a true community of individuals who find connection in their fundamental humanity. Whether guest, volunteer, or staff-person, each recognizes that we are there to walk beside each other and support each other as best we can.”

The Samaritan Center is a special place and resource for our community, and it represents a mission that—as Frye states—”pulls at the heart.”

“Fundamental at Samaritan Center is that everyone has a fundamental right to food, connection, and dignity. It is a clear and simple mission overlaid with compassion and kindness. It is a place that knows the power of a warm meal cooked with love on a cold day. Samaritan Center is a place where you are reminded daily that your ability to positively impact another human being can be as simple as a smile, a dry pair of socks on a rainy day, a look in the eye that says ‘I see you.’ It is a place where we, as a community, support the best in each other and say no one is alone. How could your heart not be pulled?”