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Hospitality INC homeless shelter closes

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt not only in the country and state but also in Mason County.

On Wednesday, March 18, Hospitality in the Name of Christ (INC), a homeless shelter for men, made the tough decision to close its doors for the season, six weeks earlier than scheduled.

“This was an extremely difficult decision to make,” said Tammy Martin, a director with Hospitality Inc.

Martin, along with the board, felt it was the most responsible thing to do for both shelter guests and volunteers during this worldwide crisis with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both Tim and Tammy Martin are directors for Hospitality Inc. They both said they’ve done everything in their power to stay in contact with each of the 16 guests of the shelter since it closed for the season.

That has included helping one guest get to Clio to stay with family and another to Texas.

Tim said every year before the shelter closes, the staff sits down with the guys and talk about a plan for when the shelter closes. This year, that meeting happened six weeks earlier than expected.

Prior to the closing of the shelter, the Martins and shelter staff took steps to prevent COVID-19 by cleaning, disinfecting, adding sanitation stations and putting up signage at the shelter. During prayer, which is typically right before dinner, it was explained to the guests that hugging and hand-holding for prayer needed to end. They also talked to the guests about the importance of washing hands.

“Our whole intention was to get through this season,” Tammy said. “It was never our intention to close up shop.”

As the shelter was moving forward with putting these preventative measures in place, a stomach virus went through the shelter affecting guests and several of the volunteers.

“Something as simple as the stomach flu we were not able to control that in the setting that we were in,” Tim said. “At the Tuesday (March 17) board meeting (the second meeting in three days), I said I think we are fooling ourselves. If someone comes down with the coronavirus we would have to shelter in place and that would mean everybody, including out volunteers.”

Tim said, at that point, it would be housing 20 to 25 people in a basement with no ventilation.

“If we can’t contain the stomach flu, we probably can’t contain the coronavirus,” Tim said.

At that point it was pretty obvious to Tim and the board what needed to be done.

“I know our board made the right decision,” Tim said. “Especially after Gov. Whitmer made her executive order on Monday.”

On Tuesday, March 17, Tim talked with the shelter guests and informed them all of the situation and what the plan was going forward.

Tim remembers one of volunteers saying during the Tuesday evening discussion “here in the United States we are kind of united we stand. It seems like the opposite here, we are going to fall if (we) are united but if we divide and separate, we probably stand a better chance of surviving this thing.”

Tammy said during that time they were trying to figure out a place in the shelter for isolation.

On Wednesday, March 18, after much prayer and thought, the shelter ultimately closed for the season.

“Bottom line is how much risk are we going to take?” Tammy said. “We are just a bunch of volunteers trying to to a good thing.”

After making the decision the close Hospitality INC, the goal was to get the 16 guests somewhere, connected with family and friends.

“We did not promote camping, hotel or another shelter, as none of those options are optimal choices in the midst of this pandemic,” she said. “Finding a place where they can join family or friends where they are safe and cared for and they are able to care for others is ideal.”

The men were given food, a gift card and each guest has a location to stay. Tim and Tammy Martin along with some board members will remain in touch with them.

Tim said that local church volunteers will also help to provide them with meals a few time a week.

Hospitality INC plans to open for its 12th season starting Nov. 1.

The Jericho House, a Christian-based women’s shelter, is open according to their director Christy Sniegowski.

Sniegowski said the house did not close, and the three women currently living in the home are sheltering there while abiding by the rules of the executive order given by Gov. Whitmer on Monday.

“We have always stressed washing your hands,” Sniegowski said. “I think that we are doing fine. We are not closing the doors. We are going to do our due diligence.”

Residents of the home are also living through construction for water damage that has cost about $70,000 worth of damage to the facility, according to Sniegowski.

“We had extensive water damage here,” she said. “We are working around it the best we can to weather this storm.”

Sniegowski is also a board member with Hospitality Inc. and said the guys know that if I can help them in any way i will.

“We do try to not only be a resource for just women we do what we can to help the homeless community.”

Find yourself on… the North Country Trail

Editor’s Note: Looking for somewhere to go to walk but not be in a crowd? In the coming weeks, we’ll explore possibilities, some close by and others overlooked. If there was a time to take a path or trail less traveled, it might be now. Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order on Monday, people may engage in outdoor activity including walking, hiking, running, cycling or any other recreational activity consistent with remaining at least six feet from people from outside the individual’s household.

In these days of unprecedented, mandated “social distancing,” a hike in the woods can do wonders for one’s mental health. The fresh air, sunshine and exercise are good for our physical bodies and immune systems, too.

The North Country National Scenic Trail, the longest National Scenic Trail, crosses Lake, Mason and Manistee counties as it wanders 4,700 miles from Vermont to North Dakota.

Most of the local trail is in the Manistee National Forest and is maintained by the Spirit of the Woods Chapter of the North Country Trail Association.

A free, interactive map of the entire trail can be found at https://northcountrytrail.org/the-trail/trail-map-and-downloads/. The three counties mentioned are approximately between Michigan mile markers 781 and 860.

Many of the places to park where you can access the trail are free. A few require a daily fee or the yearly pass which you can get at the Manistee or Baldwin Ranger Stations (contact each via phone first). The federal senior pass is valid as well. Display on your dashboard when you park.

The fee parking lots are at Upper Branch Bridge (mile 844, on S. Branch Road, and currently only accessible from the north until damaged road is repaired), Timber Creek (mile 841, where the trail crosses U.S. 10, three miles east of Branch), Udell Trailhead on M-55 (mile 807, 12 miles east of U.S. 31 at Manistee), and Highbridge (mile 801, on Highbridge Road 3 miles north of M-55 near Wellston). The fee parking sites have extra amenities such as a latrine.

However, there are many places where hikers can legally park for free. See miles 856.5 (Jenks Road), 855 (76th Street), 849 (Bowman Lake), 846 (40th Street), 822 (Free Soil/ 8 Mile Road), 814 (9 Mile Bridge), 789 (Upper River Road), and 780 (Hodenpyl Dam). Additionally, there are other unofficial places one can tuck in one or two cars along back roads.

These three counties include 80 miles of trail. Most of it is easy walking, suitable for families or those who can’t take on bigger hills. Particularly pleasant is the trail between Bowman Lake and 40th Street (moderately hilly), and generally north and south of U.S. 10 at Timber Creek (slight hills). South of 76th Street is lovely, but be aware there are some early spring maintenance issues there.

There are a few road walks, which can easily be distinguished on the map because the red line is dashed instead of solid. That said, the only one of these road walks that is really unpleasant is on 5 Mile Road in Lake County. For those who wish to avoid hills, there is one steep climb with steps just south of Upper Branch Bridge. The hilliest sections are in the Udell Hills (near Big M Ski area), and north of Upper River Road. The spur trail from that parking area to the North Country Trail is a notorious hill, worse than anything on the trail.

It’s still early spring, and not all trail maintainers have been able to make it out to the woods to clean up their sections yet. Be patient if you encounter trees down across the trail or other problems. There are going to be some muddy sections at this time of year. Generally, you should not have any trouble following the 2-inch by 6-inch rectangular blue blazes. When you see two blazes, one above the other, the top one is offset in the direction the trail turns. The treadway can usually be easily followed.

If you like goals, and find yourself momentarily adrift, for the past five years the North Country Trail Association has been sponsoring a program called Hike 100. If, in a calendar year, you hike more than 100 miles on the trail, you earn a patch.

These do not have to be unique miles. In other words, you could hike the same five miles 20 times. This would be a great goal to set and begin working toward during these disrupted weeks. Sign up www.atnorthcountrytrail.org and you’ll be entered in monthly drawings for cool gear as well.

Enjoy sparkling lakes, streams, emerging spring plants. Geology is easy to study before the leaves reappear. The birds are returning. Wildlife you may see include deer, raccoons, squirrels, porcupines and all the usual suspects. I watched ring-neck ducks on Sterling Marsh last week.

I’ve been on the North Country Trail four of the last six days last week, and I’ve encountered a total of six people. Two were little boys with their grandparents. It was pretty easy to keep a six-foot distance in the great outdoors.

Go find some cheer and sun.

MCC provides meals, more during closure

SCOTTVILLE — The food service department at Mason County Central Schools has been working on a daily basis to keep children fed during the shut-down of Michigan schools, and that there are no plans to stop, even as more and more people are staying at home to contain the spread of COVID-19.

Each day, a small crew of workers led by Mary Ann Nielsen, MCC food service director, prepares hundreds of breakfasts and lunches for kids up to age 18 — and people with special needs up to age 26 — from throughout the school district and beyond.

On Wednesday, as cars pulled up to the Upper Elementary — which is being used as a distribution site for Scottville families — food service workers had something special for the people who came by.

People at each of the sites received “Rainbow” bags, which contained a few fun items to help kids and families pass the time at home during the quarantine period.

“They’re bags that the administration has put together. It’s got card games, coloring books and reading books. So each family, as long as they last, gets one,” Nielsen told the Daily News, emphasizing that Angie Taylor, director of compensatory and migrant education at MCC, spearheaded the effort to place give them out with meals.

Taylor said it was an opportunity to spread some happiness in the midst of uncertainty.

“We really wanted to have the opportunity during these uncertain times to spread some joy, kindness and fun through distributing surprise rainbow bags at our food distribution sites,” Taylor stated in an email. “The rainbow bags included books, academic resources, community resources, snacks and a game.

“It is our hope to be able to continue with ‘pop up’ surprises during these uncertain times as we look at all ways to support our families and students during this time.”

The food service program — which got underway on Tuesday, March 17 — provides breakfasts and lunches to hundreds of students per day, according to Nielsen, with more than 400 going out on the first day.

“We’ve been doing about 350 lunches and 350 breakfasts each day, and that’s pretty much stayed the same,” Nielsen said. “We do have some families coming and asking for three days of meals, because we do meals for the weekends.”

It’s hard to determine exactly how many families are served, she said, because there are some who pick up food for children of parents who are still working and deemed essential personnel by the governor’s executive order.

Students from any school district can receive meals through MCC’s program.

“As far as school district, it doesn’t matter. If you go to Ludington, you can come to Scottville, and vice versa,” said Nielsen, adding that there are distribution sites throughout the area.

In addition to the Upper Elementary, where food is available from 11 to 11:45 a.m., there are also distribution sites at Victory Baptist Church, the Branch Fire Department and Legends Taxidermy from 11 to 11:45 a.m.; St. Paul’s United Methodist Church and Evergreen Church from noon to 1 p.m.; the Free Soil Community Center from noon to 12:45 p.m.; the Grant Fire Department, from 1 to 1:45 p.m.

So far, the program has run smoothly for the most part, though there were some issues early on with supplies.

“Last week was a scramble. We couldn’t get milk, because … when they shut the schools down, everyone said they had all this (unused) milk, but then on Monday, all these sites were starting and people were saying, ‘I need my milk back.’”

Nielsen said the state has been understanding of the difficulties school districts face, since certain nutritional requirements need to be met.

“The state has been awesome … We were able to substitute (milk) with juice and a string cheese,” she said. “We have to meet the requirement for protein, bread, a fruit and a vegetable. The vegetable (requirement) is hard. You can do baby carrots and celery, and that’s about it. The state has told us we can do two fruits and then omit the vegetable, but they have to be two different fruits.”

Some of the supply difficulties are starting to get sorted out now that the program has become a routine.

“It’s starting to come around a bit. I’m able to get more fresh fruit,” Nielsen said. “My main vendor is Gordon Foods, and they’ve been great.”

Nielsen said her small crew of five people tries to stay ahead of the curve, finishing up the next day’s meals before they leave on a given day.

MCC’s food service department also provides Meals on Wheels to homebound seniors in the area, and she said the number of homes they’re visiting has increased.

“Actually, I’m getting more and more calls,” Nielsen said. “I’ve probably added at least six people between Monday and Tuesday.”

She said her staff took precautions with homebound seniors “from the get-go,” pro-actively asking if they were comfortable still receiving meals from the food service workers.

“My staff is incredibly excited about doing it. We’ve had no push back at all, and my staff is like, ‘Lets do this. Let’s get people fed.’”

MCC Superintendent Jeff Mount said he “couldn’t be more proud” of the food distribution program, which is a collaborative effort between the food service and transportation departments.

He commended the school district’s employees for adapting, working together and responding quickly to changes as the COVID-19 situation continues to develop.

“These are unprecedented times and everything seems to be changing hourly, daily, and we don’t know how it will change things,” Mount said. “But we’re going to continue to provide (meals). It is an essential function of our community, and Gov. Whitmer came out and clarified that schools should be doing everything they can to offer meals.

“I just can’t say enough great things about the food service department and the transportation department … And I would be remiss without sharing the work of our central business office. Angie Taylor spearheaded the Rainbow bags, and they’re really popular. Chris Courtland-Willick, (Taylor) and Karen Cameron have made sure all the functions of this office continue and that we make sure our employees are being paid during this time. It really is a team effort.”

Nielsen said breakfasts, lunches and weekend meals will continue to be provided during the week of spring break, and through the extended K-12 school closure, which is now expected to last until April 13.