‘Tis the season: On Tuesday I’m dialing for dollars

There is absolutely nothing in the world I like more than calling strangers at their homes over dinner and asking for money. There is just no faster way to make friends and influence people.

And so I might be calling you on Tuesday night – especially if you live in Vermont. I will be dialing for dollars for Burlington’s Committee on Temporary Shelter – a.k.a., COTS – volunteering to pick up the phone because the group does more important work in a day than I will do in my lifetime. Also, they have really good snacks. And they’re going to give me a bell. I get to ring the bell whenever some stranger on the other end of the line agrees to make a tax-deductible contribution to the homeless shelter. I’ve volunteered to make calls for the organization three or four times in the past, so I have a pretty good sense of what will happen.

A few people will ask me to spell my name, either because telemarketers have been driving them crazy or because they have read one of my books and want to see if it really is me.

A few people will honestly – and in great detail – tell me how they are when I ask, either because telemarketers have been driving them crazy or they are really (and I mean really) lonely.

And a few people will start crying on the phone, because they have given to COTS in the past, but simply cannot afford to make a contribution this year. Maybe they have been laid off at work. Maybe someone in their family has grown ill and the cost of care has decimated their savings. Maybe they are one paycheck away from being homeless themselves. Make no mistake: It’s rough out there.

How rough? One hundred and forty schoolchildren in Chittenden County were homeless in October. Nearly a thousand people descended upon the COTS daytime shelter last year. One hundred and seventeen families stayed in one emergency shelter or another – and almost always there were more on the waiting list.

I’m not as good as some of the volunteers who will be working with me on Tuesday night, but I’ve been a big fan of COTS for many years and so I am capable of getting pretty passionate. I’ve stayed focused when people have reminded me how much I must hate it when telemarketers call me at my home, and when they’ve asked me for my phone number.

But the thing is, I’m not a robocall. You can talk to me. Likewise, I’m not going to yell at you. I’m not going to scream about socialists or the Tea Party. I’m not even going to try and sell you a calling plan for your cell phone or a crate of Omaha steaks. I am simply going to ask you to do what I do: Be thankful that I have a roof over my head tonight by helping someone who might not.

So, if you hear from me on Tuesday, be gentle. Be kind. And feel free to tell me how you really are when I ask.

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            The annual COTS phone-a-thon begins tomorrow night and concludes on December 11. The goal is $175 thousand to help the shelter weather the winter – a nightmare season for the homeless or those flirting with homelessness. In addition, COTS is one of the “Free Press” Giving Season charities this month, along with the Chittenden Emergency Food Shelf, the Warmth Program, and Jump (the Joint Urban Ministry Project). Trust me: Helping a family have food, shelter, and heat on Christmas morning will give you a much deeper glow than unwrapping a boxed set of “The Real Housewives of New Jersey” on Blu-ray and DVD.

Finally, if you want to call COTS before we call you, here is the number: (802) 864-7402.

(This column appeared originally in the Burlington Free Press on December 1, 2013. Chris’s most recent novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” was published in July.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.