Today I visited two non-profit organizations because, honestly, when forced to choose between worth-while causes, the simple answer is to choose both.
Got up at the crack of 6:30 this morning to be at the St. Mary’s soup kitchen (can you tell I’m not a morning person?). When I got there at 7:15, Martin greeted me with a smile and put me straight to work making sandwiches. Martin is in charge of making the soup, and frankly I am impressed. It must be difficult to make such large vats of soup without scorching the bottom, stay organized enough to handle such a large number of volunteers, and act as the enforcer. This is what it is like to volunteer when the guests arrive:
Two meals are served during the course of the morning. They consist of coffee and a pastry, and then sandwiches and soup. First, there is the coffee hour. The homeless that congregate here know the rules. Ladies are served first, a rule that hearkens to a more genteel era; only one cup of coffee at a time; you may pick one of two randomly selected choices of pastry. Martin is standing by to make sure there isn’t any trouble. From what I understand trouble is an unusual occurrence, but mental health is a real problem in the homeless population, so its nice to have someone standing by. The pastries are donated by Starbucks and the coffee smells delectable. About 70 people come to coffee hour.
Between coffee hour and lunch, we ladle hearty helpings of white bean and minestrone soup into styrofoam cups so that everything is prepared for serving quickly during the lunch rush. We also act as prep chefs dicing potatoes for future soups. There are about ten volunteers, most of them women, many of them non-catholic, many volunteering on a weekly basis. Its nice to listen to them discuss exercise classes and grand-kids while doing work that keeps your hands busy.
Serving the homeless is a joy. Everyone politely accepts two sandwiches, some cookies, some crackers, and the soup with a “thank you” and often a “God bless.” About 110 people file through. It is nice to be able to interact with people if you wish to (I’m a Chatty Kathy, so this was perfect for me). One person explained that his life spiraled out of control after he discovered he was HIV+. Due to his lifestyle, his family will no longer accept him in their lives. He is funny and smart. Articulate and alone. You can tell he is not used to having anyone acknowledge that he is a person and he matters. He is not the only person you meet who is constantly judged. When you volunteer at St. Mary’s, you get to help people with their most basic needs, not only by providing food, but by providing encouragement with simple things like eye contact and a smile.
Another place where eye contact and a smile serve well is SRVS. SRVS is a learning center for people with developmental disabilities. I cannot articulate how much I loved being at SRVS. They do not turn anyone away, and it is clear that there are varying levels of ability among the clients. Everyone working at SRVS is obviously passionate about their job, and when Precious, a high-functioning client asks us if we are happy, the honest answer is “yes.” How could you not be when you are surrounded by such affectionate people?
After assisting briefly at lunch, we move into a classroom. The montessori style of learning seems extremely effective. Most of the clients in the room I got to help in are able to read. One, My-Asia, does a worksheet about “similar words.” She is 22, and I help her understand the difference between “too,” “to,” and “two.” In the end she spells that she is twenty-“T-W-O.” Possibly the proudest moment of my life.
The other clients in the class are very social. Especially Clifton who talks to me about dinosaurs, cars, and his favorite movies. He shows me the auxiliary classrooms in which the clients can practice real life skills including a model apartment. The apartment is typical of SRVS. It is charmingly decorated, well-lit, and comfortable. I love it here.
Its important to remember that the clients do have their issues. Some act out, but they are calmed down quickly because the staff know them so well. They know what’s bothering them and eliminate the issue gently. Its because there are many case workers engaging in behavioral observation, assessing what might trigger negative behaviors, and finding creative ways to teach the clients how to cope. Everyone here is so dedicated. Let me reiterate that I cannot say enough how amazed I am by SRVS.
Home at around 5 pm after 10 hours of volunteering. Today was a long day, but a great day. I feel truly blessed to have met so many wonderful people, and I hope to work with both non-profits I visited in the future.