Monday, November 21, 2011

Winter shelter manager reaches autumn of his life

~ Colleen Cason at

As the nights get cooler and Thanksgiving approaches, Tom McLaughlin's thoughts turn to the big meal.

He orders enough meat, potatoes, vegetables and biscuits to feed 100 or so guests. He makes sure public transit can transport them to the feed. He gets more than 100 blankets and towels laundered so guests can stay the night. He establishes a rapport with city officials, police and the National Guard, in case of trouble. And there is always trouble. He hires a service to clean up afterward.

This big meal is not Thanksgiving, although those who eat it may feel gratitude. Or not; McLaughlin is fine with it either way. This is the nightly dinner served to the homeless at the winter warming shelter, which will open Dec. 1 in the National Guard Armory in Ventura. The shelter, run by the nonprofit Society of Vincent de Paul, alternates each year between Oxnard and Ventura.

For the past nine Novembers, McLaughlin — the shelter manager — has devoted his life to making sure the refuge opens every night prepared to provide homeless men, women and children a safe, warm place to sleep until the shelter closes in March.

This year is different, though. This year, McLaughlin of Thousand Oaks is fighting for his life. Diagnosed with melanoma, he had surgery last fall. He later learned the disease had metastasized. Melanoma is among the worst of the bad actors in all cancer land after it spreads.

After a patient is diagnosed with Stage 3, the end usually comes quickly.

McLaughlin said he is not quite a Stage 3 patient; the cancer has not invaded his organs or bones.

An experimental drug shrank his tumors. But after his second treatment, he couldn't get out of bed, sleeping 22 hours a day.

McLaughlin quit taking the drug a few weeks ago and says he feels better now. When we talked last week, the father of eight looked younger than his 79 years.

McLaughlin admits he stopped the drug in part because it would have rendered him incapable of getting the shelter up and running this year.

His dedication is known to everyone who sees him at work.

"I have volunteered at the shelter and was so impressed at how he treated the clients with such dignity, humor and camaraderie," said Nora Howells, co-founder of the No Room at the Inn fundraiser for the homeless.

McLaughlin insists everyone who stays at the shelter be called a guest. He makes sure volunteers or staff serve them their dinner plates. No standing in a soup line for them.

He feeds the guests supersized meals and plans on their demolishing 10 ounces of potatoes each night. His wife of 56 years, Audrey, bakes cupcakes twice a week as a treat for the guests.

After his own hard-luck childhood, McLaughlin developed a heart for the down and out.

His pre-employment screening for the paid staff consists of this question, "If a nasty drunk is calling you obscene names and then vomits all over you, what would you do?"

If they answer anything but "clean it up," McLaughlin doesn't hire them.

"Tom is out there working among the lilies of the field, clothing the naked, the hungry and consoling the frightened and embracing the leper," said Jack McGee, who successfully nominated McLaughlin for the Jefferson Award for service in 2004.

McLaughlin is the king of understatement.

"It's not a healthy population," he said of the homeless who will stream into the armory this winter.

Some arrive with head lice, scabies, AIDS and MRSA, a vicious form of staph infection.

He lays in a supply of gloves for employees to delouse the guests or clean up their body fluids.

A retired scientist who worked for Hewlett-Packard when it was a startup, McLaughlin discovered he was effective in getting things done for the underprivileged. A deeply religious man, he considers it a sign he is doing what he should be.

This year, though, Audrey is not so sure. She wants him to go back on the treatments.

"Fatigue won't kill you. Melanoma will," she tells him.

McLaughlin does plan to turn over management of the shelter to his successor in mid-December.

Then, with his oncologist, he will decide if continuing the experimental treatment makes sense.

He changes the subject back to the shelter. Coffee. The shelter needs someone to donate coffee, sugar and creamer. To McLaughlin, it just won't do to have guests and not offer them their morning Cup Of Joe.

Star file photo: Tom McLaughlin of Thousand Oaks sets up some burners to heat up some chili at the Winter Warming Shelter at the Ventura Armory in 2008.

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