- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
Lorry Carlson and her daughter Avery Carlson experienced similar sensations when they first volunteered at the Trinity Center, a downtown refuge that helps the homeless neighbors of St. David’s Episcopal Church.
“The minute you walk in the door, you can feel the sense of love and community,” Lorry, 59, says. “That’s the way it’s structured. It allows for one-to-one interaction. And it offers services that other organizations can’t. It feels like a privilege to serve there. It’s what we wanted to share with our daughters.”
Avery’s older sister, Mackenzie, now at the University of Texas, also has volunteered there. Avery, 17, first showed up while she was in the seventh grade.
“At first, I thought, ‘Early mornings, this is going to be fun.’” Avery shrugs, then smiles. “Once we got there, I fell in love with the place right away. The ladies were just so welcoming. I immediately felt a part of the community, both the staff and the neighbors.”
All three family members, originally from the Midwest, found their way to the Trinity Center through the Lake Austin chapter of the National Charity League Inc., a nonprofit established in 1925 that yokes the charitable efforts of mothers and daughters.
One or more Carlson has also volunteered for the Settlement Home, Mobile Loaves and Fishes, Court Appointed Special Advocates, the Race for the Cure, Meals on Wheels, the Blanton Museum of Art and Zilker Theatre Productions.
Those groups that help the homeless, however, like the Trinity Center — which stages its annual benefit, the Barbara Jordan Celebration and Cocktail Hour, on April 25 — often go to the top of the list.
“In Illinois, one of my best friends’ brother experienced homelessness,” Lorry says. “He was in and out of it. That was a very personal experience.”
What brought them to the door
Lorry Carlson was born in Oak Park, Ill., and grew up in several places in the Midwest. Her father was a mechanical engineer, and her mother worked for a real estate appraiser.
She studied business at Southern Illinois University, where she earned an MBA before working as a college instructor and in strategic planning. The family followed her husband’s job to Austin, and they live in West Lake Hills.
Avery Carlson was born in Columbus, Ohio, and grew up in Chicago and Austin. She attends Westlake High School, where she does particularly well in chemistry and math.
Volunteering has always been part of the Carlson culture.
“It’s what we value as a family,” Lorry says. “We give back where we can, realizing that everyone needs help along the road.”
After chipping in for a while at the Trinity Center, Avery wanted to do something special. She decided to revamp the center’s Clothing Closet.
“It’s a program that allows women to shop for clothing and toiletries while feeling special,” she says. “I came up with a plan to organize it and increase productivity during the seasonal clothing changeover.”
The National Charity League gave her some means to complete the project, and three other mother-daughter teams helped refurbish the Closet with new bins, shelves and apparel.
“We reorganized the clothing racks and off-season storage to make it more efficient,” Avery says. “The experience meant a lot to me and to the Trinity Center staff and other volunteers. I hope I can do more to further give back to the organization, which has done so much for me.”
She also urges her friends to volunteer at the Trinity Center and other programs around Austin.
“Not everyone can volunteer,” Avery says. “But they don’t understand how one-on-one it is. They think it’s serving food to people in an assembly line. But we meet the people and hear their stories. I share that so that my friends understand better.”
One step away
One thing strikes the mother and daughter over and over: how close anyone can be to homelessness.
“It can be six months away,” Lorry says. “It could be the loss of a job. Or a major illness. You can lose your home very quickly. And if you lose a person with that illness, that’s a lot of life events.”
One homeless teenager confessed to Mackenzie that she had made poor choices, didn’t respect her parents and found herself out of the house one day.
“The good news: We didn’t see her after a couple of weeks, so hopefully things turned out well,” Lorry says. “She was sharing with my daughter: ‘Don’t take your family for granted.’”
Avery discovered many similarities in the stories.
“They hit a low point in life and need help getting up,” she says. “Homelessness is not always a constant thing. It might be temporary. Growing up, I thought the homeless were a certain set of people. But it can happen to anyone, and it’s a diverse set of people. Some of them had similar upbringings to me. Then in college, they didn’t know how to find themselves, or they lost a family member and found themselves without a support network.”
Lorry says she admires the Community First Village founded in East Austin by Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Alan Graham, who thinks the homeless condition is less about the absence of an abode and more about the lack of a lifelong community network.
“It’s wonderful that they focus on the long term,” Lorry says. “The Trinity Center, too, does so much to support people, whether they are experiencing temporary or long-term homelessness. It’s another effort giving dignity and respect to the individual.”