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Petaluma Around the Clock: Sunrise at the Mary Isaak Center

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PETALUMA AROUND THE CLOCK

This story is part 1 of a new 10-part Argus-Courier series. Beginning this week –with a look at COTS’ Mary Isaak Center at 6 in the morning. Each week, we will then skip ahead a few hours, clockwise, moving from place to place and person to person, capturing the colorful details, conversations, interactions and activities that make up an average day in Petaluma. Next week, in part 2, we jump ahead to 9 a.m. at the Eastside Famer’s Market, as local food-growers, artisans and others arrive to set up for a busy day at the market. And so we will go, all around the clock.

See all of the stories in this series here.

At 6 in the morning, just outside Petaluma’s Mary Isaak Center, a hazy moon glows distantly overhead and the first SMART train of the day clangs jauntily by. Though the pre-sunrise air is sharp and cold outside, there is a warm, welcoming light shining brightly from inside the building. Operated by COTS (The Committee on the Shelterless), the Mary Isaak Center is Petaluma’s largest facility assisting those without a home of their own. On the other side of the building — at the back entrance to the facility — the first signs of morning movement have just begun.

Up in the trees outside, a flock of red-winged blackbirds silently perch in the branches, letting out only the occasional call. Down on the ground, carrying the light, simple mats on which they only recently awoke, a steady stream of people step through the doors, chatting sleepily, and make their way to the storage container where the bedding is kept. Inside the Center, it’s warm and comfortable, and a small smattering of folks sit here and there, some making use of computers to check messages and scan the news.

“This is a pretty typical morning at this time of year,” explains Sarah Quinto, COTS’ Chief Development Officer. She keeps her voice down, as just around the corner and through a short hallway are the dormitories where many of the residents are still sleeping. “In addition to our year-round residential program, of about 100 people, we operate a winter overnight shelter, with about 30 to 40 beds made available in the dining room. 6 a.m. is wake-up time for them, so everybody’s getting up right now, gathering their belongings, picking up a sack breakfast we provide, and heading out.”

During winter shelter months — which last from early mid October to late March — those sleeping in the dining room are responsible for setting up the sleeping area, moving aside the tables and chairs, and returning everything to its previous set-up in the morning. The winter shelter guests must be out of the building by 7 a.m., Quinto explains, as that’s when the facility’s year-round residents get up, with breakfast served in the dining room.

“This is kind of a grumpy hour, between six and seven,” laughs Quinto, who explains that Stephanie Winston, the nighttime Site Coordinator, has become expert at gently waking the sleepers in the dining room.

“We go in quietly, about five minutes to six, and we turn the lights on low at first,” says Winston. “That gets people moving. Then, exactly at six we come in and turn all of the lights on. Got to get them moving by six. This late in the season, they’ve gotten pretty tuned in to the light system. So they’ll get up, start folding up their blankets, getting their mats together, go do the restroom thing, all of that.”

At about 6:15, Winston continues, the dining room begins to be put back together.

“By 6:45, they’ll be pretty much all ready for their day, and by 7 they’re out,” she says, adding that the sack breakfasts — usually including a pastry or a sandwich, some fruit, a healthy snack, and a drink — are put together the night before. “If we happen to have any candy, I’ll throw some candy in there too,” she adds. The residents, meanwhile, begin to be woken up around 6:30, and once the dining room is clear and ready, will be served a cold breakfast, ranging from a bowl of cereal to hardboiled eggs, pastries, etc.

PETALUMA AROUND THE CLOCK

This story is part 1 of a new 10-part Argus-Courier series. Beginning this week –with a look at COTS’ Mary Isaak Center at 6 in the morning. Each week, we will then skip ahead a few hours, clockwise, moving from place to place and person to person, capturing the colorful details, conversations, interactions and activities that make up an average day in Petaluma. Next week, in part 2, we jump ahead to 9 a.m. at the Eastside Famer’s Market, as local food-growers, artisans and others arrive to set up for a busy day at the market. And so we will go, all around the clock.

See all of the stories in this series here.

“I have a wake-up list for the residents,” Winston explains. “We’ll go through the list and wake people according to what they need. Some of them have jobs to get to. Some like to wake up early and just hang out, out here, using the computers to look for housing, look for work, whatever.”

Winston, who began her 12-hour shift last night at around 7, will be relieved at 7:30, when the day staff arrives. The center’s busiest time, Quinto estimates, is around 11:30 a.m., when the Center hosts a free lunch for whomever needs it.

“A lot of the residents are gone, out on their jobs or wherever they have to go,” she says. “But people come for lunch, or to use the various services here. On average, I’d say that between 350 to 400 people come through this lobby for various reasons.”

Leading the way into the dining room, Quinto points out the sturdy, recently donated tables and chairs, a big improvement, she says, over the folding tables and chairs they used to make due with. The winter shelter guests are just beginning to place the tables and chairs back in order, carefully following a diagram posted on the wall.

“New tables, new set-up,” says Quinto. “It’s part of the agreement we have with the winter shelter guests, that they will put things back the way they found them. They are very responsible, doing that.”

Back in the lobby, Winston chats with some of the residents who’ve just woken up. She’s now turned on the lights in the residence dormitories, and is writing down her “shift notes,” deatailing anything that might have happened during the evening.

“There’s not much to write about today,” she says with a bright smile “It was a pretty quiet night. Most nights are really pretty quiet here. And mornings are always busy. That’s just how I like it.”

(Contact David at david.templeton@arguscourier.com)