Greg Marston was one of more than 350 volunteers Friday who fanned out across greater Sacramento to help complete 26 service projects. In the morning, he could be found at the Salvation Army’s Transitional Living Center, where he led a project to plant lettuce, celery and broccoli in five raised vegetable gardens.
“Normally, I’m out here all by myself,” he said, before the lunch break. “Today, everybody’s all hands on deck, doing what they can.”
Marston lives at the Transitional Living Center himself. First, he was a resident attempting to move out of homelessness; now, he’s a project manager, responsible for the upkeep of the roughly 35-unit, family-oriented complex in Arden Arcade near Watt Avenue and Auburn Boulevard.
While participating in the United Way’s first-ever Day of Caring, a one-day volunteer extravaganza that stretched across five counties, Marston shared that volunteering may have saved his life – or at least, diverted it from the bleak place it was heading.
Marston served in the U.S. Army from 1997 to 2001. Then he returned to Sacramento, where he fell into drug addiction and homelessness. He recalled a year of “couch surfing” with his girlfriend and his son, then a 1-year-old, in which the family moved from one friend’s house to another.
“We were deep in our addiction, literally dragging our son through hell with us,” he said.
“We are just really lucky that we never got caught with him in the car. Many times we would drive around with drugs on us, and him in the back of the car. As horrible as that sounds, when you are deep into your addiction, you don’t think about that.”
Marston eventually got help through a Veterans Health Administration rehabilitation program. That allowed him to move into the Transitional Living Center.
In 2011, the Salvation Army, with financial assistance from the Raley family, transformed a Sacramento apartment complex into the transitional living center for families that are either homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. The families pay a small amount to stay at one of the center’s units, which are equipped with furniture and kitchen appliances.
Families must be drug free, and can stay at the center for six months to two years.
“They use the time with us to take classes, or look for work, or just have a place to heal basically,” said Ava Simpson, community relations and volunteer coordinator with the Salvation Army. “We’ve had shelters for several years in Sacramento, but we haven’t had a program to keep the family units together.”
While a resident at the center, Marston attempted without much success to find work, he said.
“I was there pounding that pavement daily to try and get a job,” Marston said. “I caught a felony when I was in my addiction, so it was really hard for me.”
But Marston also was volunteering at the center. Salvation Army managers became so impressed with his work they named him the center’s project manager a few months after the man who previously held the position left, according to Simpson.
“Greg immediately was a stand-out,” Simpson said. “I know the very first time our upper management met him, they said, ‘We’ve got to hire that guy.’ It was that obvious.”
According to Marston, it means a lot to the center’s residents for volunteers to come out. Forty area volunteers spent Friday at the center painting banisters, laying down bark, cleaning the building, planting vegetables and sprucing up the playground.
“Sometimes, people have been out on the streets for so long, and when you are out on the streets, you encounter a lot of bad things and think you’re forgotten,” Marston said. “When you see a group of people where everyone cares ... it’s really uplifting.”
The 40 volunteers at the center were employees of the insurance company Nationwide, which sponsored and provided seed money for Friday’s event.
They were joined across the Sacramento Valley region by Nationwide co-workers who participated in other service projects.
Ten created a sculpture for a center for homeless children at the Women’s Empowerment site. Another 10 assisted at the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Ten more sorted donated clothing for women escaping domestic violence at the WEAVE Thrift Store.
Nationwide’s 110 volunteer slots went quickly, according to Brad Liggett, regional vice president with Allied Insurance, a member of Nationwide Insurance. Sign-ups to volunteer at the events closed one hour after they opened three weeks ago, he said.
AT&T, Bank of America, Intel and other companies also had some local employees participate in the Day of Caring. These volunteers helped at the 26 service projects, which were scattered across Amador, El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento and Yolo counties.
The event kicked off a fall workplace giving campaign, said Andy Sheehy, senior vice president of resource development at United Way.
United Way certifies nonprofits and attempts to secure donations to these organizations from local employees through payroll deductions. Approved nonprofits tend to focus on education, income or health – “the three building blocks to a healthy life,” Sheehy said.
Call The Bee’s Kurt Chirbas, (916) 321-1030