As people gathered Wednesday evening at the Good Shepherd Parish Center in Oak Bluffs, Father Vincent (Chip) Seadale was getting some good-natured ribbing from his friends and colleagues.

They were there for a volunteer orientation session for those interested in helping to staff Houses of Grace, a system of winter homeless shelters organized at three churches by Island clergy. Father Seadale was nervous that only a few people would show up, which would signal problems in filling the nearly 360 volunteer shifts it takes to operate the shelters seven days a week from Jan. 1 to March 31.

His friends were needling him about his lack of faith.

But then the organizers had to set up a few more chairs as interested volunteers continued to come in from a cold, crisp night. Then they had to set up a few more chairs, as more people came in. Then they had to move the head tables back, in order to squeeze in more chairs.

Over 70 prospective volunteers filled Good Shepherd Parish House. — Mark Alan Lovewell

By the time the orientation session began, the parish hall was packed with approximately 70 people who wanted to help.

“It’s awesome, it’s absolutely awesome,” said Lisa Belcastro, who is going into her fourth year of helping with Houses of Grace. “Martha’s Vineyard is a wonderful community. People help each other, people care.”

Father Seadale explained how the program got started four years ago to fill a void and provide a warm place to sleep every night during the coldest months on the Island. He outlined the nuts and bolts of how the systems works, and what would be expected of the volunteers, including staying overnight in the shelters. He said there is a huge need for shelter and a warm safe place to sleep, though it may not

be evident to everyone. “There are high school students that sleep in sheds and cars, there are adults that sleep in sheds and cars,” Father Seadale said. “They may be silent, they may not want to be seen. You may not know them. You may know them and not know that they’re facing those kinds of issues.”

The shelters are open at three different churches throughout the week, beginning Jan. 1. On Mondays and Thursdays, the Federated Church in Edgartown hosts the shelter program. On Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday guests can stay at the St. Andrew’s Parish House in Edgartown. On Wednesday this year, the overnight shelter will be hosted at the Good Shepherd Parish Center in Oak Bluffs. The church facilities are open to men, women and families who need a place to stay.

Guests have to check in by 8 p.m. and leave by 7 a.m. the next morning.

Several would-be volunteers had questions about safety, and how to handle the occasional unruly guest. Program coordinators said those situations are extremely rare, and police are always ready to step in and help, but that usually a little common sense and understanding solve what few problems crop up.

“We think we’ve got a program now that we feel is very safe, especially for the staff but also for the guests,” Father Seadale said. “And we think we’ve got it so that everyone on the Island should feel comfortable to use this if they don’t have somewhere to stay.”

Dorie Godfrey, who helps coordinate volunteer shifts, said the people who use the shelters are grateful for the program, the hot meal, and even a sense of camaraderie that develops.

“What makes it really great is the supper you’re giving them at night is like a family meal,” Ms. Godfrey said. “It’s like the first time in a long time they’ve sat down as a family and had a meal. They are just so appreciative of that community that builds in the shelter over three months.”

Ann Bassett has never volunteered for the program before, but she came Wednesday evening to get the training and offer her help.

“I worked with homeless people before, and I’ve done counseling,” Ms. Bassett said. “There’s obviously a need. I figure if I get the training, I can take it from there.”

Father Seadale ended the orientation session by explaining that past volunteers have told him volunteering for the Houses of Grace shelter program was one of their most rewarding life experiences. “The people that seem to get the most benefit out of this program are you,” Father Seadale said. “It may change your lives.”