For 26-year-old Megan Dean, the David Lambert Community Drop-In Center in Sonora is a place where she can go to feel safe for a few hours a day.
“There’s no conflict here,” said Dean, who has been without a home off and on for about a year. “I don’t have to keep my eye over my shoulder, which is nice.”
Dean is among the thousands of people who have come through the center’s doors since it opened in May 1999.
The center, located at 347 W. Jackson St., will celebrate its 20th anniversary by hosting an open house from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday.
There were about seven people hanging out at the center on Wednesday, including Dean, who was there to see if she could get a ride to Mother Lode Job Training.
Dean is looking for a job after getting off drugs nine weeks ago through an addiction program that she got into with the help of volunteers at the center.
“I haven’t needed help for a few months,” she said. “The last day I used was the last day I was here.”
Stories like Dean’s are what make it worthwhile for the volunteers who keep the center open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, entirely without pay.
Rent for the building and utility costs are paid for by the Tuolumne County Behavioral Health Department, but everything else offered at the center comes through donations.
“We’re kind of like the first line of defense if you’ve become homeless or just got out of jail,” said Jeanette Lambert, the volunteer coordinator and mother of the center’s namesake. “We help direct them to resources.”
The center was originally opened by the county Behavioral Health Department as a place where people being treated for mental illness could go to socialize.
After four years, funding was cut for the paid staff, and it didn’t look like the center would stay open much longer.
Lambert, a longtime advocate for the mentally ill, stepped in to help keep the center open by making sure at least one volunteer would be present at all times during operating hours.
About 18 volunteers take turns operating the center, typically in shifts of two at a time, and they’re always looking for more help.
“We think we’ll be a benefit to them, but it turns out they’re a benefit to us,” Lambert said of the rewards from working with people at the center. “You may have a preconceived idea of people who are homeless and with mental illness, but you see that they are just like anyone else when you come to volunteer.”
Not everyone who comes to the center is homeless or mentally ill.
Sometimes, people who are neither will come to the center just to socialize, have a free meal, use the telephone, surf the Internet on one of the computers, or watch TV.
Lambert estimated an average of 15 to 25 people filter through the center each day it’s open, with at least one or two first-time clients every week.
Some of the people come back each day and stay for varying lengths of time, others may come once and never return.
There are seven former clients scheduled to be at the 20th anniversary celebration on Friday to talk about their experience at the center and how it made a difference in their lives.
Volunteers will also be at the open house to talk with anyone interested in finding out what it’s like to help at the center.
“None of us feel frightened or threatened or scared to be here,” said Lambert, who recently turned 86. “I plan to keep doing this until God calls me home.”
Lambert said volunteers can typically resolve any issues themselves, but Behavioral Health counselors will respond if someone needs more help.
They rarely have to call the police, Lambert said, adding that the officers do a good job at working with their clients when it does happen.
Sonora police officers have said in past interviews that calls about crime related to people who are homeless noticeably decline during the hours of the day when the center is open.
Drugs and alcohol are prohibited on the premises, and anyone caught breaking the rules can be temporarily or permanently banned, but Lambert said they typically come back to apologize.
“Most really respect us,” she said.
Everything offered at the center is free to the clients, including food, toiletries, camping supplies, clothing and other basic necessities.
Clients are asked to perform one task a day while they’re there, such as cleaning tables, sweeping, or other maintenance needs.
The center also has a yard sale that serves as its major fundraiser each year, with the one this year scheduled June 1.
“This community supports us really, really well,” Lambert said.
Lambert previously served on the former Tuolumne County Mental Health Advisory Board while her son was still living at home. She also was one of the founding members of the county chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.
Earlier this year, Lambert became the first recipient of Motherlode Martin Luther King Jr. Committee’s Laurie Aretsky Bailie Social Justice Award. She has also won numerous other awards for her work in the community.
The Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to formally recognize the center’s 20th anniversary at a public meeting on Tuesday.
David Lambert started to experience mental health issues at 21. His family arranged for him to live at a group home in San Joaquin Valley after his behavior became unpredictable by the time he was in his 40s.
In September 1998, he got on the wrong bus during an outing to Lake Tahoe and became separated from the other patients. His body was found several days later in a drainage ditch in Pollock Pines after he became disoriented due to the unfamiliar territory and died of hypothermia.
Jeanette Lambert said she cried when she found out the Behavioral Health Department was going to name the center after her late son. She said it would have been a good place for him to go if he were still alive, because people being treated for mental illness are often isolated from others.
“I was pleased and honored that David’s name wouldn’t be forgotten,” she said. “This is my big child, and my volunteers are my family.”
Contact Alex MacLean at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4530.