Supper at the Shelter

Same old rutted, dirt parking lot. Same loitering, scruffy men and women lingering on the sidewalk. Same feeling of wariness that leads me to lock my purse inside the trunk rather than bring it inside. But something had changed.

Last Thursday I returned to duty, as it were, helping to serve supper at a local homeless shelter. A few years back, after making the acquaintance of the shelter’s director ( now long gone), I decided to try to get my church involved. Folks got interested right away — not many, mind you — but enough to staff one dinner a month. I served for a few months before managing to convince another person to take over as liaison and coordinator. After abut a year, I stopped serving there.

If was always difficult for me to go but also gave me a good feeling. I came away counting my blessings. It’s such a cliché, I know, but I always felt that way. But I also felt disappointed in my shyness. I always hid in the back of the kitchen, volunteering to scoop the hot main dish onto the plates; even though this was the hottest job, it was the furtherest away from the people coming through the line. I wanted to help, but I didn’t know how to BE around these unfortunate folks.

I knew from the director many of their stories (with no names attached because of privacy, of course, but I got the idea). Many of those we were serving were men and women who were working but underemployed. Most lived at the shelter because they couldn’t afford housing in New England. Some lived elsewhere but couldn’t make ends meet and came to the shelter for food. The open door policy for the kitchen made such possible. Some of the folks there were handicapped or elderly. One ancient guy — George — looked and acted remarkably like George Burns and was an incorrigable flirt! Some of those who lived at the shelter were very young — in fact, they were only 18 years old and fresh out of foster care but unable to make it on their own. These I found particularly disturbing — to think that as soon as they were of age, the system dumps them on the street as if they are now fully capable of handling whatever life throws at them. Some of the 18 year olds in the shelter were not even finished with high school yet!

Anyway, I went back this month after a long hiatus. While the clients seemed pretty much the same, I had changed. I arrived a little late and thus had no choice but to work the counter — the position with the most contact with the people coming in for a meal. I didn’t mind a bit. In fact, I was glad. And furthermore, I started chatting with people. I looked them in the eye and made small talk, even asked one guy to give me a report later on the dessert he had chosen. A lone, multi-tiered parfait-ish looking thing had been sitting on the tray for a few minutes, but there were no takers. He grabbed it and I commented on him being the brave one. After supper, he came back up and said it was a delicious chocolate mouse and raspberry concoction. What a smile on his face. And I felt so natural and at ease the whole time I was there.

I was so surprised to see George there as well — and amazed that he still remembered me. He asked, “Where ya been doll?” Oh, working, I replied. I could have answered in so many other ways, I suppose. Too busy to be bothered helping y’all. Too chicken to keep putting myself out there. Too overwhelmed with the duties of being a working other. Too focused on helping other people who also needed me. So many answers. So I just said, working. He smiled and said, “Glad to have you back!” Good to be back, I replied with a cheery and honest smile.

What changed? I’m not sure. I do know that when I came back from Peru, my first instinct was to go back to the shelter and start serving again. Why? Again, I’m not sure. Maybe it’s just a matter of my realization that I’m not cut out to go to a developing country to serve, so I’d better do what I can in my own neck of the woods. Maybe it’s just the fact that I spent some time with the poorest of the poor in Peru and so I feel more comfortable interacting with these good folks now, less afraid. Maybe it’s just that I’ve learned from several sources lately how important it is that we treat people as if they exist. A guest preacher at my church earlier this month mentioned a study that showed how people who feel invisible experience negative health effects. She said that even a simple interaction that acknowledges a human being’s presence — a smile, a greeting, a compliment — can alter the chemicals coursing through one’s veins.

Whatever the reason for my sea change, I left the shelter feeling grateful — yes, I expected that — but also happy about my own actions for once and hopeful that I can make a difference, however small, in the lives of those in need. I’m learning and growing!

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7 Responses

  1. I’m surprised you felt shy before, but not surprised you volunteered at a shelter.
    Great post.

    As far as the shyness goes, I totally understand.

    Just think, maybe one person you help there makes it out of the shelter and helps someone else. That person helps someone else, etc. 🙂

  2. Yeh, I’m both very shy and very extroverted — kinda schizo, I know! But when it comes to things I feel nervous about, I tend to become very shy. But I am so delighted at the change. And, yes, I agree — one person can set off a chain of good things…

  3. I know you have been blessed by God because of your willingness to put your faith to work in a practical manner. Thanks for your williness to leave your comfort zone and for sharing your soul searching thoughts on it. God bless you as you serve Him serving “them”. Bryan

  4. Thanks for the wonderful story. I used to do a lot of volunteer work, which I enjoyed so much. It just seems like life, once again has gotten in the way. Thanks for bringing it back to the forfront of my mind, as it is always I plan on doing “tomorrow”.

  5. Bryan: Thanks for the kind words!

    ladybeams: Yes, it’s so easy to find time slipping away…. I can’t believe it’s already April! YIKES!! Times a wastin’…. I’d better get to work. 🙂

  6. Way to go, kiddo!
    It’s funny, we live in a world of “us and them.” And we think that WE will never be THEM. But most of America lives one paycheck away from poverty. Take it from me, I know from experience. You can do everything right, and still be faced with tough decisions, and hard circumstances.
    It’s gratifying to know that your heart hasn’t hardened, and that you’re willing to give. Evey single person you touch will be affected. And we can hope that every person that THEY touch, will be affected too.
    It’s like a “chain letter of love.”
    From the deepest part of this little heart, Thanks for sending it. You’ll be better for it. Just wait and see…
    Your blessings are on the way…
    RR

  7. Thanks so much, RR! Certainly I feel very blessed already. 🙂

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