The Valley of the Sun United Way is expecting at least 500 homeless guests to find aid and assistance at its Project Connect event this Thursday, July 18, and is hoping its own volunteers will find a home as well: in the hearts of the guests they aid.

“Volunteers play a key role in ending homelessness as guest guides at Project Connect events,” said Amy Schwabenlender, vice president of community impact for VSUW, in a July 9 press release. “Volunteers also gain a rewarding experience, working one-on-one to transform individual lives.

The event will be at Tempe’s Grace Community Church (GCC), 1200 E. Southern Ave., and guests will be paired with volunteers and help them navigate among the more than 30 human services providers and organizations that will be on-site to help those guests.

“That is why it’s a rewarding experience,” said Beth Lucas, marketing manager for the Valley of the Sun United Way. Volunteers and guests will get to share and know each other on a personal level.

No prior experience is necessary to volunteer and Lucas said the organization is expecting to need about 400 individuals to help and Tempe is one of their busiest locations for the Project Connect events.

Steve Vlahovich, the stewardship pastor for the church, knows just how busy it can be. In its first year hosting the event last year, he said they were expecting about 375 to 400 guests and ended up serving more than 500.

“It’s a not just a service that we’re providing, it’s a privilege for us,” he said.

Last year was the first of a three-year agreement the church came into with the local United Way arm to host the event. Vlahovich said a number of staff and members of the congregation attended Project Connect events in previous years and decided to talk to the church leadership about becoming more included.

Among the regular items like food and clothing, guests will also have portable showers, be provided with haircuts, can get their bicycles repaired, and volunteers will taxi guests to get bus passes or go to the DMV. Vlahovich said that GCC works with Tempe Community Access Agency and Interfaith Homeless Emergency Lodging Project to provide these services and works with them on other projects throughout the year.

Volunteers can work a morning, afternoon or a day-long shift. They are provided breakfast and lunch by Chandler’s Without Walls Christian Center, according to Vlahovich. Morning shifts are 7 a.m. to noon, the afternoon shift is noon to 4 p.m., and the day-long shift is 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“Each volunteer has a unique and rewarding experience, working one-on-one with guests. After donating their time to transform lives of people they meet face-to-face and come to care for, they truly understand that homelessness identifies no one, and can be overcome,” said Lucas. “That is why we say ‘individuals experiencing homelessness,’ because it is not the definition of anyone. The guests who come to connect are working hard to take the steps they need to overcome or prevent homelessness.”

According to the 2012 Homelessness in Arizona Annual Report, submitted by the Department of Economic Security to Gov. Jan Brewer, 60 percent of the homeless population resides in Maricopa County, despite the county only accounting for 50 percent of the state’s total residents.

Lucas said 45 percent of the guests from last year’s Project Connect in Tempe had kids.

In a press release for the event, VSUW said thousands of families, veterans and other individuals experience homelessness due to things like job loss, foreclosure, or unexpected medical bills.

“Homelessness impacts our entire community. Project Connect is a big part of a regional solution to end homelessness. It is a national model which changes individual lives and will transform the entire community,” the release said.

Valley of the Sun United Way works to ensure children and youth succeed, end hunger and homelessness, and increase the financial stability of individuals and families in Maricopa County. Through programs such as Project Connect, which meet every month in different cities throughout Arizona, and the development of Permanent Supportive Housing partnerships, United Way is committed to end chronic homelessness in our community.

For more information and to register as a volunteer, visit

• Aaron Rop is a senior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.

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