It was a balmy, windy Thursday evening at the Downtown Waterville Farmers Market, and Elizabeth LaBua was sitting at a small table under an umbrella.

She was not selling seedlings or herbs or ice cream — she was soliciting signatures from people interested in volunteering at the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter where she works as the part-time volunteer coordinator.

“We have 60 active volunteers,” she said. “People volunteer once a week, once a month or seasonally.”

The shelter, at 19 Colby St., serves an average of up to 50 guests a night, according to LaBua. About 15 Colby College students volunteer there during the school year and spend time with the children. On the annual Day of Service in the spring, they help clean the play yard, LaBua said.

“We always need volunteers to help cook meals, work in the office, do maintenance, child care and fundraising events,” she said.

A soft-spoken woman with short brown hair, blue eyes and a brilliant smile, LaBua said she loves her work.

“It’s just remarkable. I started on Jan. 2 and there hasn’t been a day that I haven’t had a reason to smile and laugh, and that’s because of the generosity of the volunteers.”

It was LaBua’s first time setting up at the farmers market on Common Street downtown and she said she plans to be there the last Thursday of every month. By 5:43 p.m. Thursday, four people had signed up to volunteer at the shelter. LaBua said anyone interested may also email her at [email protected]

I asked LaBua about her life and how she came to be volunteer coordinator at the shelter. It turns out she has spent a lifetime volunteering and working for nonprofits.

In 1988 when she was 21, she did a summer internship on Skid Row in Los Angeles, working with homeless people. At the time, crack cocaine use was epidemic, the drug of choice. AIDS also was on the rise. She operated a soup kitchen that served 500 meals a day and worked at a homeless shelter that had eight guests.

“Ever since then, I’ve always felt that I need that experience,” LaBua said. “It opened my heart to an awareness.”

She also interned at a sanctuary in El Paso, Texas, where she worked with people seeking political asylum.

“It was two invaluable internships that I had. I was given an opportunity at a young age to learn something that was so far from my life experience, my upbringing, and I met people there that I still think about, and I made a lot of friends amongst the homeless people, who were kind and caring.

“I was raised by parents who taught us that you don’t know somebody until you walk in their shoes, and I think that’s what I learned with my internships — what it was like to walk in someone else’s shoes.”

LaBua grew up in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and enrolled in Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, where she studied history and secondary education.

Later, while living in Baltimore with her husband and two daughters, LaBua did a lot of volunteering and started working as volunteer coordinator for a fair trade organization.

“I liked that position because it was a global nonprofit. They did a lot of local fundraising for different local nonprofits.”

She and her husband moved to Maine from Baltimore two years ago. They love Maine, as they had vacationed at Rangeley Lake when they were raising their daughters who now are 26 and 27. LaBua felt fortunate to land the homeless shelter job.

“When I moved here looking for a part-time position, I said, ‘This is perfect.'”

You never know, she said, where your life will bring you or who is going to make an impression.

“I feel like I’ve had so many blessings in my life. I’ve been able to travel. I have an incredible family.”

She encourages people who have never volunteered to do so.

“It really is rewarding,” she said. “It helps you be a better person. It makes a difference in your life and the lives of others. We live in a very volatile time with lots of anger in the news. I get up in the morning and go to a job where people are really making a difference. It’s so lucky. It’s really, really lucky.”

Amy Calder has been a Morning Sentinel reporter for 30 years. Her column appears here Mondays. She may be reached at [email protected]. For previous Reporting Aside columns, go to centralmaine.com.

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