Of all the things on Mike Vercauteren’s mind today, the most significant is gratitude.
Vercauteren has been the director of the nonprofit Laramie Interfaith since June 2017. Supported by grants and individual donations, it runs a food pantry and provides financial assistance for rent, utilities and other bills for people at risk of homelessness. Friday was his final day as the nonprofit’s executive director.
Reflecting on his time as director, Vercauteren said he’s feeling a great deal of appreciation for the staff, volunteers, partners, donors and clients that made his experience at Interfaith rewarding.
“There are 100 active volunteers, people that come in and want to give — it’s just amazing,” he said. “I’m grateful for being able to witness that. I’m grateful for people who came through financially, for the partners, and I’m grateful that I had the privilege of someone that’s suffering showing their wounds and asking for help. It’s not easy to ask for help no matter where you are on the economic spectrum. I’m grateful for that.”
Living in Laramie since 1988, he’s served with a number of community organizations that showed him there’s a real need to help a great number of people living in poverty in Albany County.
“I was blown away by the severity and depth of poverty in Albany County,” Vercauteren said. “I couldn’t believe how many people were suffering and how deep that suffering was.”
Vercauteren has a master’s degree in social work from the University of Wyoming and has worked on social programs aimed at curbing substance abuse and preventing suicide. Combining that expertise with a passion for helping others, he started volunteering at Interfaith.
One day working as a volunteer, Vercauteren said a single mother came in seeking help, clearly exasperated. It was clear, he said, she had been trying desperately hard to keep her head above water.
“She said, ‘Mike, I’m really tired of being strong,’” Vercauteren explained. “It got me to appreciate how hard it is to live in poverty and how much work it takes and how strong these people are and how hard they work on a daily basis.”
After walking out of the room where he’d been speaking with the woman, Vercauteren said he saw another woman bringing in loads of groceries to donate, with a smile brimming from ear to ear. That contact, Vercauteren said, convinced him that Interfaith’s mission was something he believed in.
“There I was sitting in the confluence of compassion and caring and suffering and it’s truly what interfaith is — I recognized that,” he said. “It’s a place where people are working and slip on a banana peel and need help, and it’s the rest of our community that wants to make a difference. Seeing how our community will step up and help. That’s the other part of the equation that gave me confidence we could do something about it.”
With those and other experiences to fuel his drive, Vercauteren got to work as the nonprofit’s director.
Looking back at the last three years, Vercauteren said there’s plenty of work that’s been done to be proud of. Interfaith moved to its new facility, it’s almost doubled the people it serves and the nonprofit has been fortunate to build a team that Vercauteren said he believes can go above and beyond.
“The staff there now is so cool,” he said. “They’re young, intelligent, passionate — they’ve got this.”
Even with all the accomplishments in his time, Vercauteren said he knows there’s always more work to be done. Laramie, he said, doesn’t always see the problems of homelessness and poverty on its streets.
“The trauma of homelessness is something we need to pay attention to,” he said. “To protect people from that trauma is something Interfaith focuses on, but we’re not done yet.”
It’s always difficult, Vercauteren said, to send homeless people on a bus to another community because, for all the resources Laramie does have, it’s still lacking in some key areas. However, he said a number of programs for the future are in the works that he thinks will help address key issues like homeless and food security in more effective ways.
Some of that work will be taken on by Interfaith’s incoming executive director Brittany Brigham. For his last week at Interfaith, Vercauteren said his focus would be making sure his successor has all the tools she needs to take the reins.
A small retirement party took place on July 24. At the party, Vercauteren had an experience that he said brought something full circle from his time at Interfaith.
The very first person he interviewed as a volunteer came to him a broken person.
“She came in looking for rental assistance,” Vercauteren explained. “She was a woman that had made some mistakes in her life, and was regretful. She was really suffering the consequences. She’d lost her kids because of it. But I could tell within her that she really wanted to make it right, really wanted her kids back and she knew she had to change her life.”
That woman showed up to the party, letting Vercauteren know she’d been reunited with her children. She wanted to express her gratitude to Vercauteren for the help he’d given her when she was at her lowest point.
Vercauteren said that was a moment validating some of the work he’d done.
“She came in for help and got the support she needed to turn her life around,” he said.
As for what’s next, Vercauteren said he’s going to take a little time to kick back and read some books while he waits for the COVID-19 crisis to die down. But, he said it’s probably not the last time Laramie will see him helping out those in need in one form or another.
“I guess that’s safe to assume,” he said with a slight smile.