Celebrating Volunteers: UT System Employee Helps to House, Feed Homeless

This week, we’re celebrating National Volunteer Week with stories about faculty and staff who give of their time and talents to make a difference in our community. If you would like to share the way you volunteer, send us a note. Include your phone number and e-mail address. And, if you have it, send us a photo of yourself volunteering.

Sign up to volunteer in selected activities on the Center for Leadership and Service website.

Leigh Cheek is a detail person.

As compliance officer for the UT System’s Office of Institutional Compliance, Cheek helps to ensure that all of the UT campuses are complying with the details of regulations governing research, campus safety, students, and other matters.

Outside of work, Cheek helps homeless families attend to life’s most pressing details—food and shelter.

For nearly fifteen years, Cheek has volunteered with Family Promise of Knoxville.

LeighCheek600

Family Promise is a national organization that unites churches in an area to provide nonemergency housing to families with children who have lost their homes. The churches open their doors to house four to five families for a week at a time. Families tend to stay in the system for one to three months while getting back on their feet.

“My church, Bearden United Methodist, is part of a local network of twelve churches that provide overnight accommodations and a few other churches that provide volunteers,” she said. “Once a quarter we turn our Sunday school rooms into bedrooms for a week and feed our guests dinner for the week. Other churches in the network provide additional volunteers.”

During the day, a Family Promise social worker assists the families in finding solutions to their problems. That often means finding employment or applying for disability, securing transportation, locating affordable housing, or something else.

In the evening, the families return to their church “homes.”

“This past month, my church’s rotation started on Easter Sunday,” Cheek said. “In the morning, after Sunday school was over, I helped unpack the trailer, set up air mattresses, make the beds, set up an alarm clock and lamp on a stand, and block the windows for privacy.

“On Sunday evening, I helped make omelets for Easter dinner,” Cheek said.

She said the families often have made-ahead or quickly assembled meals provided by church members. Casseroles and spaghetti are the typical fare.

Cheek decided she wanted to do something special for Easter, so she set up a made-to-order omelet bar that gave the families a choice in their meal.

”I have the hospitality gene,” she joked. “Nobody goes hungry on my watch.”

At the end of the week, on Saturday night, Cheek spent the night at the church with the families.

“Then early Sunday morning we packed up everything and turned our classrooms back to Sunday school rooms,” she said.

Cheek said she was part of the group that started the local network.

“I love seeing the successes and helping the children,” she said. And, she added proudly, “Our network has an 85 percent success rate of solving whatever caused the homelessness.”