Armed with a telephone in one hand and a pen in the other, 73-year-old Doris Topping battles tirelessly each day to find temporary shelters for homeless families in Prince William.
In most cases, Topping succeeds. But as the number of homeless families grows steadily, Topping finds her task increasingly difficult.
"We help as many as we can, but we can't help everybody. It saddens me," Topping said, as she worked the telephone in her office -- really a desk in the corner of the kitchen. "The most frustrating thing is that you just can't help everybody."
Topping, a coordinator for a private humanitarian organization in the county called SERVE, has helped hundreds of families find shelter and food since the organization began 13 years ago.
SERVE, an acronym for Securing Emergency Resources through Voluntary Efforts, began with a handful of people who attended Manassas Presbyterian Church. Topping and fellow members of SERVE started by sending food to those who called asking for help.
The first year, the organization spent about $17,000 on food, Topping said. Last year, SERVE spent more than $130,000 to run a shelter and in providing food and other necessities for needy families.
The organization is supported by donations from the state, the county, the City of Manassas and residents.
Topping said SERVE gave food to more than 2,800 people, prevented eviction in 114 cases and housed nearly 300 people in its shelter in Manassas last year.
In the past, Topping used to visit people and organize programs to help the homeless but has been forced recently to work out of her home, arranging shelter and finding food and money for utility bills for people who can't afford them. Topping is legally blind, which prevents her from driving and reading.
"I work mostly on the telephone," the 26-year resident of Manassas said, "I can't read books or newspapers or anything like that. I can't drive, either. But I find ways to get around it."
Topping has been awarded numerous volunteer of the year citations by the state, the county and the city that are on a wall in her modest home.
"Things like that are terribly embarrassing to me because you can't do this by yourself," Topping said, as she ran to the kitchen to get another phone call about the shelter. "You need the help of the community."
But community leaders credit Topping for getting programs organized and working. "She's been phenomenal," said Ricardo Perez, director of the county's Department of Social Services.
For example, on a recent afternoon Topping received a phone call about a problem. A shelter's full-time bookkeeper had just quit.
Topping suggested using a part-time bookkeeper with the help of a new computer donated by IBM.
"The rents are going up so quickly that a lot of people are being evicted because they can't afford it," Topping said. "We need more subsidized housing and low-income apartments."
Topping cites what she believes is at the source of some of the problems. "Employment rate in the county is something like 3.4 percent. It sounds wonderful, but people don't realize how meager the wages are. They're employed, but they can't afford the housing here. The shelter is just a Band-Aid to a huge problem . . . "
On her role in helping the homeless, Topping said: "It makes you feel kind of good when you can help, even if it's a little bit."