Sharing his gifts
Occupation: Certified financial planner, trust officer at M&I Bank
Family: Wife, Pam; daughter, Jessica, Madison; son, Chris, Madison; and new grandchild on the way in July
Favorite hobbies: Long-distance backpacking, racquetball, cross country skiing
Favorite books: "The Catcher in the Rye," "A Walk in the Woods"
Favorite movie: "Star Wars" (original)
Role models: Jesus
Three words that best describe you: Compassionate, logical, versatile
Defining moment in your life: Finding out I had colon cancer
What makes you happy: Seeing my family happy
JANESVILLE Paul Benish once did what a lot of people do when they meet a homeless person on the street: He averted his eyes and kept on walking.
No more. Not since Benish looked around Janesville in October 2007 and asked aloud in a Bible study group: "How can we do God's work in this town?"
He knew homeless women and families had shelter at House of Mercy. But homeless men had no lodging, especially in winter.
"We started brainstorming and called together pastors from the Janesville area," Benish recalled. "We didn't know what to do, but we knew we had to do something. God told us to take care of our neighbors in need."
An anonymous donor gave him 20 inflatable mattresses. The lifelong Janesville resident knew someone in the hotel business and gathered sheets, blankets and pillows. Then he and a small group of Christians called together 50 pastors to reveal a new idea in Janesville.
"I said, 'Folks, this is what we are going to do,'" Benish said. "On Sunday night, we are going to bring all these mattresses to your church, and they will stay there a week."
His group did not have all the answers, but advocates knew they wanted to house homeless men in churches, where heated space goes unused every night. They knew they wanted to rotate the location from week to week in winter.
The shelter opened on Christmas Eve at St. John Vianney, where seven men found beds and people who care. Only three churches signed up at first. Benish and other board members of the nonprofit group that came to be known as GIFTS spent the winter going from church to church "begging, pleading and praying to anyone who would listen," Benish recalled. "But the Lord has always provided. It was one miracle after another."
By the end of 2008, the group had 27 churches involved, with half of them being host sites. God Is Faithful Temporary Shelter (GIFTS) operated during its first winter on $1,000 in donations.
"We will not take government money," Benish said. "We will use God's assets instead. He has a lot more anyway."
Last year, more than 1,000 people volunteered, and the effort housed 70 men in its first season. No matter where the shelter is located, Benish provides a consistent and kind face who really sees the people he meets. During the day, he works with multi-millionaires on complex financial-planning issues at M&I Bank. At night, he works with homeless men. Benish speaks loudest through his deeds, like a modern day St. Francis of Asissi, who said: "Preach the Gospel, if necessary use words."
Rejeana DeViana, case manager at House of Mercy, serves on the GIFTS Board of Directors. She said Benish's presence "brings a sense of peace and compassion that cannot be anything other than genuine."
George D. Calhoun of Milton Seventh Day Baptist Church said Benish has not only helped the homeless, but he has "done more to promote unity within the Christian community than anything else I have seen in the community."
Dennis Hansch also serves on GIFTS Board of Directors.
In addition to helping the homeless, he said the shelter benefits volunteers, who get valuable insights from working with homeless men.
"The ongoing circular dynamic of caring, giving, receiving and appreciation certainly has a ripple affect throughout the community," Hansch explained. "Much of this is directly attributable to Paul's initial vision and determination to form a shelter."
Benish no longer looks the other way at homeless people.
"They are regular folks, who have fallen on hard times," he said.
"I sure hope if it is me someone is there to give me a hand up."