Despite the departure of its inspirational leader, the Sheltering Tree is well rooted in the community.
It was cold for a winter day in Northeast Florida, with the thermometer registering not much above 30 degrees. Carla Traister was on her way to the First United Methodist Church for Sunday services in Bunnell when the sight stopped her in her tracks: A man huddled in an alcove in the church courtyard lay sleeping on a cardboard box.
"I thought, one foot inside the door and he would've been warm. What if we opened that door?" Traister recalled recently.
That was nine years ago, and the church did, in fact, open its doors — to that man, as well as thousands of others since then.
Traister herself knew how it felt to try to relax enough to sleep, to shut her eyes against the frozen air. Years earlier, when she was down on her luck and living in an old farmhouse in Pennsylvania, Traister didn't have enough money to buy the kerosene needed to warm her humble living quarters.
So in 2008, in Bunnell, she teamed up with the Rev. Beth Gardner, then-pastor of First United Methodist, to begin what would become the only cold-weather shelter for the homeless in Flagler County. At first, the church just provided throw rugs and blankets and invited individuals to seek refuge on the floor of their fellowship hall when it was 40 degrees or lower. Eventually, they were able to offer cots. And hot food. With donations from parishioners and other community members, they begin passing out clothes, toiletries and other basic supplies.
"The shelter has changed my life so much. I could never be the same person. [The homeless] have changed me more than I could have ever changed anyone."
Now, nearly a decade later, Traister is returning to live near family back in Pennsylvania. While it's tough to say goodbye to all the people she's known over the last 35 years she's called Bunnell home, it's even tougher to leave those she calls "my family," referring to the shelter's all-volunteer staff as well as its clients, many of whom have become more like friends.
"The shelter has changed my life so much," said Traister, 70. "I could never be the same person. [The homeless] have changed me more than I could have ever changed anyone."
But others are more willing than she is to comment on her legacy. Traister has inspired many, and her shoes will be hard to fill, according to Susan Bickings, a Sheltering Tree board member who has stepped up to take over day-to-day operations for Traister.
"This could not have been started without her passion and hard work and drive," said Bickings.
Bickings and nearly 100 volunteers and board members who rotate shifts overseeing the center and distributing resources are determined to keep Sheltering Tree not only going but growing into the future.
Lee Willman, a former board member, said the shelter's opening served to raise awareness of the issue of homelessness in Flagler County.
"In the beginning, it was mostly just a lot of men; then we started to see more women and families," said Willman. "Sometimes, they just didn't have heat or utilities. You talk to many of them, and maybe they had a job and they lost it or got sick. It could be almost any one of us."
Since launching, the mission of the Sheltering Tree has evolved and expanded. The shelter has set up headquarters in a side building off First United Methodist Church, with a drop-in center open every Wednesday. Its volunteers now not only sort through donations of clothing, canned food, items for grooming, bedding and backpacks, but also help clients with more pragmatic obstacles to getting them off the streets.
Staff work closely with Flagler County Human Services to help individuals get proper identification for job and housing applications, to front them deposits on apartments, and even with transportation to doctor's visits and other appointments.
Said Janet Nickels, program manager for the County's division of Human Services, "If it weren't for this partnership [with Sheltering Tree], we wouldn't be able to meet the needs of our clients as much. What Carla has done has made all of our lives richer here in Flagler County, and it truly reflects what a caring, selfless person she is."