A bigger vision

Retired educator Barbara Andersen now spends her time serving Athens’ homeless population

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Barbara Andersen Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker.

For most people 5 p.m. means it’s time to go home. For Barbara Andersen (EdD ’82), it is time to start answering the phone.

“At 5 every night I take the first 16 people who call me with no questions asked except, ‘What name would you like to be called?’” she says.

The people who call are homeless, struggling to survive cold Athens nights.

Since 2001 Andersen and her husband Richard have run Bigger Vision Athens, the city’s only emergency homeless shelter.

The Andersens lived in Athens in the late 1970s and early 1980s while Barbara earned her doctorate. After graduating, she taught at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga until 1998 when the couple retired to Athens.

Upon returning they began volunteering at a local church that operated an overflow shelter to take in the homeless when the regular shelters were full. Soon the other shelters closed, and the Andersens found themselves trying to house all of the Athens residents seeking shelter from the cold.

“At that point we realized we needed to become a nonprofit organization,” she says. “We called it Bigger Vision Athens, because our vision was that it would eventually become more than an emergency shelter. Our eventual dream is to be open 24/7 and to provide more services for getting people back on their feet.”

For the past nine years, the Andersens have operated Bigger Vision Athens from Oct. 15 to April 15. The shelter has changed locations almost every year based on where the Andersens could get permission to house it. For the past two years, it has operated out of a building on Lumpkin Street that sleeps 16 people. The shelter is run by volunteers who bring hot meals and serve dinner each night.

After dinner the Andersens offer books and games for people to use before bedtime. When the lights go out, everyone receives a mat, two blankets and a pillow. Two staff volunteers stay overnight and wake the shelter inhabitants with a continental breakfast at 6 a.m. the next morning.

This year Bigger Vision moved to a permanent location on North Avenue that can hold 35 homeless people year round. They will open the facility once they have met the city’s zoning requirements.

While that process has been frustrating, Andersen remains undaunted in her mission to serve the Athens homeless community for many years to come.

“I run Bigger Vision because I am meeting wonderful people there, and I enjoy it,” she says. “It’s more interesting than winning a game of golf or bridge or anything else I might do in my retirement. Helping people is the most rewarding and enjoyable thing you can do.”

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For more information on Bigger Vision Athens, go to http://www.biggervisionathens.org.