FORT DETRICK, Md. -- Brenda Bell is always on the go.
Bell has worked at Fort Detrick for over 40 years, spending the majority of her time in various roles for the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Agency and as a building manager on post.
But it's her volunteer work in her hometown of Frederick, Md. -- helping the local homeless population and assisting with the annual Great Frederick Fair -- that Bell has found most rewarding.
"I just like being around people," she said. "I like helping people."
That drive to help others is what prompted the 59-year-old's initial involvement at the Alan P. Linton Jr. Emergency Shelter some 30 years ago.
She started as a volunteer at the Frederick homeless shelter, helping for several hours in the evenings, mostly handling check-in for clients and simply offering a kind ear to those who have fallen on hard times.
Each year, her role increased, eventually resulting in a job as part-time staff member. Bell currently serves as the assistant shelter director.
"I was starting to like live there myself almost," she laughed. "It was crazy, but I felt like I needed to help. ... Each client has a different story."
The shelter serves homeless men and women over the age of 18. The center opens at 6:30 p.m. each night, offering clients snacks, showers and a place to sleep.
Nick Brown, executive director of the Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs, which operates the year-round shelter, said Bell has been "really, really integral" to operations. He said most folks who know about the shelter have "had some type of interaction with Brenda in some way."
Already working full-time at Fort Detrick, Bell said she first got involved through a church community outreach initiative in the late 1980s. She quickly embraced her passion for service.
Seeing the need, Bell felt her local knowledge and community connections could help link folks to needed services, like housing, job placement, mental health or substance abuse treatment.
"When I retire, I really would like to go over more and help out more, to be there for them," Bell added. "I guess I'm just a people person, and I enjoy doing it."
Bell's helpful attitude has served her well in her career as well, which started through a high school work study program in 1978.
She first worked as a file and supply clerk for the Fort Detrick garrison, before transitioning to USAMMA in two different stints.
Bell took on an all-purpose role of sorts during her time with USAMMA, handling tasks like ordering medical equipment for Army hospitals around the world, serving as a drug destruction officer for a time and helping with supply and equipment turn-in tasks.
"They had us doing all kinds of other things," she said. "They didn't have enough people to do it all, so I just did it."
About 20 years ago, Bell was named facility manager for the former building that housed USAMMA. She then played a role in the push to build the new Defense Medical Logistics Center, which opened in February 2009.
The center brought the medical logistics operations of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Defense Health Agency all under one roof.
"It was a big project," Bell said. "That was a good feeling when they did the ribbon cutting and we got into this building. All the services got along. It just really worked out really well."
Away from work, Bell said she's watched the need in the homeless community rise steadily over the years. Some clients, she said, have been coming to the shelter for at least 15 years.
Brown said the shelter's client base has remained steady at roughly 400 people in recent years, with Bell serving as a "vital piece" of that support structure for folks who have found themselves without a home.
"There is a connectivity that she has to the residents that we serve that I don't know I could find again in our every day average employee," Brown said. "She has a great ability to not only reach the residents, but also motivate them."
Bell said she loves getting to know her clients and being there for them in any way she can.
Sometimes that involves driving them to the hospital or medical appointments, taking leave from work to attend meetings with social workers or probation officers, and going to homeless camp sites to make sure folks have blankets during the cold winter months.
"I even have some right now, they're like 'Miss Brenda, can you talk to my supervisor but don't let them know I'm staying at the shelter?' And I understand," Bell added. "They're trying to get back on their feet and don't want people to know."
'FAIR IS MY LIFE'
Bell is equally as passionate about the local agriculture community.
Every April, she anticipates a phone call from the organizers of the Great Frederick Fair, asking her to begin thinking about who she plans to enlist as judges of the household goods building, which she oversees.
There, visitors can see participants' entries in contests ranging from baked goods and quilts to photography and jewelry.
Over three decades in the making, it's a role that also started as a volunteer job before Bell was asked to come on staff with the fair. In any case, she looks forward to the event every year.
"I've been going to the fair for 59 years. The fair is my life," she said. "I was like eight, nine months old (when) my grandfather took me and I've been going every year since then."
Why is community so important to Bell? She said her "people person" nature stems from two hardworking women who came before her.
"I had two grandmothers who worked their butts off, and one of them I was with constantly," Bell said. "I swear that she rubbed off on me. She worked over at the YMCA for years and helped everybody.
"I just think, 'what did she do to me?'" she laughed.
Despite sometimes earning the title of a "workaholic," Bell said her time at the shelter, where she's met people from all walks of life, backgrounds and situations, also has reaffirmed a valuable life lesson.
Never take anything for granted, because homelessness does not discriminate.
"It can happen to anybody," Bell said. "It doesn't matter who you are -- you can be just one paycheck away from being homeless."