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How to help

Needs at the Compassion Center at Second Presbyterian Church in downtown Bloomington fall in two categories:

• Volunteers are needed to help provide support services. Training classes are at 6 p.m. the second Monday of each month. Call Jessica Crooks at (309) 828-1022 for information.

• The center operates solely on donations. Soaring numbers arriving for help have increased the center's need for snacks and simple foods, such as soups that can be cooked in a microwave.

Other needed items include phone cards so clients can phone long distance to family or to search for jobs or to check on official business, such as court dates.

Supplies of personal hygiene items like deodorant and razors are depleted.

Clothing is also needed, including coats, hats, gloves, scarves and long underwear for both men and women.

Compiled by Scott Richardson

By Scott Richardson

BLOOMINGTON - Mark Purcell is a pharmacist who knows people face trouble medicine can't cure.

Poverty and homelessness, just to name two.

That's why Purcell, 48, a pharmacist for Wal-Mart, volunteers for the Compassion Center in downtown Bloomington.

Located at Second Presbyterian Church, the day center, which opened in March 2004, ministers to people with nowhere to go.

The Compassion Center could not do its job without Purcell and the other volunteers who provide support services to homeless men and women from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, said Alicia Girard, manager for homeless services for PATH Inc., which manages the center.

Client numbers are at a record high with winter coming on, she said. The 11-member staff provided by PATH, the Occupational Development Center, The Baby Fold, The Salvation Army, a GED teacher and a therapist from Collaborative Solutions Institute are stretched to the limit. The 30 or so volunteers are about half of what's needed, Girard said.

Volunteers free the center's professional staff to provide the employment, benefits and personal counseling clients so desperately need, she said.

"We couldn't run without them," Girard said.

"We would be nowhere without our volunteers," echoed Karen Zangerle, executive director of PATH Inc.

Purcell was first exposed to homelessness as a college student in Indianapolis. He is involved in helping a medical clinic in Haiti, where he has traveled several times. But even places like Bloomington-Normal are not immune from having people who live in shelters and on the street, he said. He saw the problem every day when he worked at a now-defunct drug store on the western edge of downtown Bloomington, he said.

"The problem of homelessness, some would say, is masked due to the affluence of the community," Purcell said. "The problem is hidden."

But, he said, the fact a crowded day center like the Compassion Center and the homeless shelters where people find a place to sleep are evidence of the need.

Purcell decided to get involved at the center after he attended its grand opening and attended volunteer training.

"I essentially felt called to assist. It's part of my Christian faith that I'm instructed to serve my fellow man," he said.

The numbers of people showing up at shelters and places like the Compassion Center normally soar at this time of year. Girard explained landlords generally evict tenants behind in their rent during summer. But, the arrival of cold weather drives most indoors, and thinks numbers at the center are also rising as people learn of its existence by word of mouth.

About two weeks ago, the center set a record for clients served in one day at 87. Normally, that number averages about 55.

Some come just to escape chilly temperatures. Some come to get a shower or do laundry. But, some are in hope of getting a GED, finding a job and escaping the streets. Purcell has seen people move from homelessness to finding work and their own place to live.

Purcell said some people come through the center's doors looking for something else during the holiday season. They just want to talk. Purcell and the others are there to listen.

"I think the emotion that rises to the surface most at this time of year is loneliness," he said. "They remember times with family. A lot of times, that's missing."

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