Metzler's Nursery helps nurture care and concern for the homeless Owners collect, deliver donations WEST COLUMBIA

December 09, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

For John and Dotty Metzler, the Christmas season is a whirlwind at their family-run nursery in Hickory Ridge. There's a forest of fresh cut evergreens to price and display, brilliant poinsettias and other plants to arrange, and the imposition of year-end bookkeeping for the tax man.

Then there are the homeless.

"The homeless are really just forgotten by our society," says Mr. Metzler, an affable man who sports a salt-and-pepper goatee and a baseball cap. His wife of 28 years nods in agreement.

This season, as they have for the past three years, the Metzlers have set out a wooden crate as wide as the oak tree near the entrance to their nursery and garden center, just off Owen Brown Road.

A poster above the crate politely asks for donations of clothing and non-perishable food for the homeless on the streets of Washington and Baltimore.

"John and Dotty Metzler and friends will deliver donations themselves," notes the sign.

But the crate full of donations is just the beginning.

"We'll load just about all the winter clothes we collect into vans and drive on in to one of the cities and hand it out to the homeless," Mr. Metzler says. "There's a lot of stuff."

"About every week we empty the crate. Everything goes into either our garage or into the Brinks'," says John.

The Brinks are Steck and Diane Brink, friends the Metzlers credit with getting them interested in helping the homeless.

The couples try to organize two trips before Christmas and two in January. Distribution trips are made several other times during the year, but donations run strong during the holidays.

"Seems the homeless get a lot of attention around Christmas. But afterward they are forgotten again," says Mrs. Metzler.

"I don't take any summer clothes down," she says. "Summer clothes are no good this time of year. These people need sweaters, coats and socks. Lord, they need socks."

This year the crate went out early. They set it up in mid-October with a sign asking for donations for victims of Hurricane Andrew in Florida. The response wasn't good, so those items will go to the homeless, too.

Around Thanksgiving the Metzlers pinned up the sign asking for Christmas donations to assist the homeless.

The stream of boxes and bags began.

On more than a few mornings they have found bags of clothes left in front of their home, next door to the nursery and garden center.

"Word has gotten around I guess over the years. Our customers are real responsive and a lot of relatives send down donations too," Mrs. Metzler says.

"I'm not really sure why we picked the homeless to help," says Mr. Brink, a graphics illustrator.

"There are a lot of good causes around. The problem of thhomeless just seemed to be the one that got under our skin.

"We're not in it simply for the warm fuzzy feeling you get helping people. What's pretty clear in my mind is that just about anyone could become homeless, including me. We've met people who go to jobs everyday but have nowhere to live, to sleep."

The Brinks and the Metzlers round up a handful of friends and store employees to volunteer a day's work helping them distribute the clothing.

Food items are taken to shelters and some of the items are donated to charitable organizations in Howard County.

Before they make their treks into the cities, though, Mrs. Metzler and Mrs. Brink pull together a group of volunteers, sometimes a scout troop, and they get cracking in the kitchen.

Before each trip, the group prepares about 100 sandwiches, usually peanut butter and jelly ("Easy to chew for people who don't have such good teeth," Dotty says).

The sandwiches are packed in paper bags with fruit, candy bars, crackers and sometimes toothbrushes and toothpaste or other personal care items.

"We also take a lot of hot chocolate," Mrs. Metzler says.

The meals are loaded in the vans, along with the clothing.

"My big worry is always if I'm going to have enough volunteers thelp us deliver everything," says Mr. Metzler. "It's a lot of work; better part of a day out of a busy time. But to me it's very rewarding."

"It's kind of sad too," says Mrs. Metzler.

"Yes. There are two emotions you have: a sadness and a happiness," says her husband. "You never saw people smile and show their gratitude the way 90 percent of these people do when you hand them something that will keep them warm. But there's a sadness because these people are just forgotten by society."

The couple has seen one woman -- "Connie at the White House" -- every year.

They usually encounter her near Lafayette Park in Washington, a popular spot for some of the city's homeless directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

The Metzlers say she's lived on the streets for 10 or 11 years.

"She welcomes us with a big smile and open arms. She's wonderful," says Mr. Metzler.

Over the years, experiences with the homeless have shaped a belief in the Metzlers and Brinks that most homeless people shouldn't be faulted for their circumstances.

"Homelessness should be treated as a disease, just like cancer rTC and AIDS," says Mr. Metzler. "Our society doesn't see and treat ** homelessness in this way. If we did, we would have a lot fewer people living on the streets."

Says Mr. Brink, "I remember a woman who was pregnant when we first met her. A few months later we saw her and she said she had the baby and the state took it. She had her dignity, though. Everybody does, I've found."

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