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Thanks to volunteers, Shower the People gives its guests a chance to put their best foot forward

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More than six decades separate Shower the People's youngest and oldest volunteers. Ranging from 19 to 82 years old, people from all walks of life help keep the 100 percent volunteer-run operation afloat.

Every week, rain or shine, the organization provides showers to homeless and low-income individuals at its mobile stations, which are set up at sites in San Luis Obispo and Grover Beach.

CHANGING LIVES Shower the People, an organization that's 100 percent volunteer run, provides free showers to people who need them. - PHOTO COURTESY OF SHOWER THE PEOPLE
  • Photo Courtesy Of Shower The People
  • CHANGING LIVES Shower the People, an organization that's 100 percent volunteer run, provides free showers to people who need them.

Shower the People's team of about 25 volunteers includes a retired airline pilot, a retired physician, a mental health professional, and an air traffic controller, to name a few, said Gwen Watkins, Shower the People's founder and general manager.

"People show up, even when it's pouring rain and cold," Watkins said. "Everything is volunteer-run. We don't have anybody who's paid."

When COVID-19 threw the organization a major curveball, the volunteers stepped up, Watkins said.

"When the pandemic hit, we took a couple months where we closed. During that time, we redid all our protocols and retrained our volunteers so that we could deal with COVID," Watkins said. "So we started up [again] after two months off, and we've been active ever since."

Throughout the pandemic, Shower the People's volunteer staff never wavered.

"They just want to keep helping. We can see the help that it gives to these people that have no other help," Watkins said. "There was a core group of people who kept working as soon as we restarted, and most of them are still working. We were able to actually open more sites."

A shower can seem like a minimal thing, but it has rippling positive impacts for the clients Watkins' organization serves: It can help someone get a job and get off the streets.

"I think the volunteers are all driven by what a difference it makes—from someone coming in to take a shower, to after the shower," Watkins said. "People are so thankful. They feel like new. I think that keeps all of us coming back."

That's the best part of the job for site supervisor David Gross: seeing how the showers impact the people he serves.

"It's always heartwarming to see someone come out of the showers with a big smile on their face, especially if you could tell they had been having a rotten morning before they saw us," Gross told New Times.

"Every once in a while, we'll get a visit from a former guest who now has a job and a place with their own shower, and who comes back to share their success story with us, and that's nice, too," he said.

From writing grants to procuring donations to cleaning the showers, everything about Shower the People is volunteer-run.

"We let everybody pick their own role, because [the roles] are diverse," Watkins said. "For actually working at the site, the first volunteer that you would meet would be the intake person."

This person signs people in and hands out the items that Shower the People provides in addition to the 15-minute shower: new T-shirts, boxers, socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, combs, and razors.

"After that we have the three shower units, and we have anywhere from two to four cleaners," Watkins said. "The cleaners go in between every shower and clean."

Each site also has a supervisor role.

"They're the one who is certain that things keep moving, is ready for the next person, because there's usually a line of people who want to shower," Watkins said. "They're also the ones who deal with any problems that come up, and to be sure that the unit itself is functioning correctly."

Site supervisor Gross said he finds it most rewarding to engage in hands-on volunteer work.

"I like being out where the action is, right where people are getting the help they need," Gross said.

Since the showers are mobile, Shower the People also relies on volunteer drivers.

"We park at Saint Barnabas, the church in Arroyo Grande; they allow us to park in their parking lot," Watkins said. "So the driver will pick up the trailer and the van there and take it to our sites."

These volunteer positions keep the showers running smoothly, but behind the scenes, Shower the People has even more volunteers who keep the organization's internal operations going.

"The administrative manager oversees our volunteer schedule, so that everybody can schedule themselves in," Watkins said. "He also procures all of our goods. He's this incredible buyer; he looks for bargains and finds them, and it's just remarkable the amount of work he puts in."

Other operations positions include a data tracker, who analyzes the intake information Shower the People gets when guests check in for a shower; the operations manager, who maintains the trailers and manages repairs; and the volunteer coordinator, who is responsible for staffing. Watkins is the general manager, so she oversees all of the other roles. She also does grant writing and communications for the organization.

Right now, the mobile showers are at the San Luis Obispo library on Sundays from 12:30 to 3 p.m., at the Unitarian Universalist Church in SLO on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and at the South County People's Kitchen in Grover Beach on Wednesdays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

With plans to add a new site at the Gala Pride & Diversity Center this year, the organization is always looking for additional volunteers.

"We can handle all the volunteers that come because there is always something," Watkins said. "Our volunteers, I can't tell you how wonderful they are. It's fun to work with them." Δ

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at mmartin@newtimesslo.com.

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