Predictions and signs…
To help us kick off the holiday season, my mom, step-dad (Steve) little sister (Stacy) and I decided to volunteer at St. Vincent’s homeless shelter for women and families. Before our shift, the four of us met for breakfast at Bob Evan’s. Over our pancakes and eggs, we talked about how excited we were to serve. I’ll never forget what my mom said….”I have no clue what to expect, but I know one thing…it’s going to be life changing.” And she was right.
We got to the shelter at 10:30 and were escorted up to the kitchen and dining room. We met with 2 staff members (who were incredible!) and asked for direction on what we should do. We were going to serve lunch for two groups–first the single women, then the families. We quickly got to work. We buttered bread–getting them ready for the cook to make grilled cheese sandwiches, cleaned tables and got the line set up to be easy for us to serve.
I made a comment to my mom, “Next time we come here, we need to bring some music…we need Christmas carols.” One of the workers overheard and found a radio. He flipped it on and hunted for some Christmas songs. And what was the first song that came on? “Do they know it’s Christmas” For those of you who may not know this song (you would if you heard it I’m sure), it’s chorus is “Feed the world.” My mom was the first one to point this out–it was like a little sign for us.
30 minutes later, the women walked in the room.
The faces I’ll never forget…
They walked up to the window, grabbed a tray and set it in front of us so we could give them food. Each woman got 2 grilled cheese sandwiches, a small bowl of tomato soup and a slice of cake (that was well over a week old).
I looked each woman in the eyes and smiled…and every single one of them smiled back at me. I couldn’t help but think back to three days before: Thanksgiving. I spent it with my family, surrounded by more food than we were able to eat in a week. And now here I was, looking at women who literally had nothing. There were 43 women in total. What amazed me was their total appreciation. Nearly every one of them said “thank you” as they passed through the line–and many of them came back up to the window just to say thank you again. I knew that there were homeless people in my area…but it did something to me when I actually saw them. They looked like me…they were real people…and they had nothing.
It was a wake up call. I always knew I was lucky and am thankful for everything I have. But I don’t think I realized just how much I really did have. I go to the grocery store and fill my cart without a second thought. At home, if a cake was over a week old, we would probably throw it away. It hit me like a ton of bricks. I looked around the room at the group of women and realized that this was their home…they had no where else to go.
Their lunch was over by 11:30 and we had 30 minutes to clean up so we could do it all over again–this time for the families. This shift was really hard for me. It was tough enough to see all the women, but now I was looking at the faces of little kids. Moms and dads would come to the line…”I need lunches for 2 kids.” As a parent, I want to be able to give my kids everything they need…it was hard to imagine what it would feel like to not be able to feed my babies.
After everyone went through the line, we realized we had some extra sandwiches and soup. Although apparently it’s not the normal protocol, my family and I took the food and walked to each table offering seconds. Faces lit up with excitement and genuine appreciation. I realize when you write a blog the whole idea is that you explain something…but it is truly impossible for me to put into words what I was feeling handing out those sandwiches. I felt like I was making a difference.
When lunch was nearly over, a few of the kids started playing with us. I’m guessing they were 2-3 years old. They would peek their little faces around the corner to the kitchen…wanting to play “peek a boo” and hide & seek. We were cracking up. They had nothing…but yet, they did. They had happiness…laughter…silliness…and joy.
An unexpected connection…
Everyone else had left the dining room…there was just one family left. A mom, a dad and their little girl and boy. They sat there quietly eating their meal and talking to each other. My mom and I were in the dining room sweeping the floors and wiping the other tables when the dad started talking to us. He asked if this was our first time volunteering, what made us want to spend our day there, etc. As we were answering his questions, I looked over and the little girl smiled at me, made a silly face and started laughing. She was three years old–the same age as my daughter, Madeline. And in that moment when I looked at her…I saw my daughter. And my heart broke.
We talked with the family for probably 15 minutes. They never expected to end up in a homeless shelter–they had been there for three weeks and were trying to figure out what they could do to get back on track.
When they left, my mom and I just looked at each other. We knew exactly what the other was thinking. Turns out we were going to adopt a family this Christmas after all. Something just felt right to help them–we connected with them. (Later that afternoon I contacted the family and told them that my family would love to help them this Christmas. The mom, Ashley, started to cry. And so did I. 16 days later, I was face to face with the family again–this time delivering some Christmas magic. You can read about the amazing moment that brought things full circle for me here.)
When we walked out of the shelter after our shift was over, we realized that we were different than the four people who walked in there earlier in the day. We were changed. We went there to help others, but really we were the ones that benefited. We left with a new perspective on our lives…a new, deeper appreciation for everything that we had…a new compassion for those who had less…and the belief that we had the power to make a difference.