“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity. Charity is so vertical. It goes from top to bottom. Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person. I have a lot to learn from other people.” – Eduardo Galeono
I am a recent college graduate now completing a service year with a major national service organization. In this position, I am working with university student volunteers to acquire edible food, which otherwise would have been wasted, and use it to create meals to feed people in our client organizations. This not only helps to eliminate food waste, but also feeds approximately 400 people per week and empowers students to have a hand in creating tangible change.
Every Thursday night, we host a free dinner at a local homeless shelter. Most of our clients are chronically homeless, meaning that they have been homeless for over one year. This dinner is something that our clients have come to rely on, and look forward to every week.
Once the doors are open, we have one policy: respect. There is no ‘us’ serving ‘them’, it is just ‘us’.
As a result, friendships are a natural occurrence at dinner. In fact, we encourage our attending students to take off their gloves and sit down with the clients, swapping life stories, ideas, and passions. I become elated every time one of my student volunteers tells me about how they received genuine life advice or heard a funny story.
Despite how society depicts them, those experiencing homelessness can have a lot of wisdom. Personally, I often connect with my clients over music. My great great uncle was a musician, of whom one man happened to be a huge fan. Since that initial connection, he comes up to me every week and asks if I’ve heard a certain song. Typically the answer is ‘no’, but at least I learned something! The other person who stands out to me is someone that I met when he helped us in the kitchen at the shelter. He was singing and dancing, and I found myself to be in the presence of so much warmth and kindness with this man. I complimented his talent and instantly became friends. As we spoke, he graced me with the honor of telling his life story, which is not
something quickly given in the homeless community. In this story, he shared a history of unimaginable suffering: a meth-addicted father, having a child with a woman who left him for another man, his diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis, and his own mother’s recent death. He said that he relied on music and his faith to keep smiling because he was just “lucky to be alive.” I honestly felt like the lucky one that night and I carry his inspiring wisdom with me every moment of my day.
I often tell people that I leave every Thursday night with my heart both immensely full and entirely broken, at the same time. It is common for me to tear up a little on the drive home, not so much because I am sad, but more that I am filled with the deepest sense of love for those I refer to as “my people.”
As a young woman, I think it is common to be told not to talk to socially unconventional people. Sure, being alone on a street corner, I might be wary of who I get too close to. However, working in a space like the shelter affords me the opportunity to smash those deep social barriers. It is a space where I feel safe and, more importantly, so do the rest of ‘us’. Nowadays, I don’t assume the worst of a person when I see them un-showered and shivering behind a sign and a change bucket. Instead, whenever I walk downtown, I find that I look for my new friends, in the hopes that maybe I can treat them to a cup of coffee and make sure that their socks are dry (I always keep extras in my car, for that reason).
Homelessness is not a simple issue and there is no all-encompassing solution. Nevertheless, there is nothing that can outshine kindness toward a fellow human being. In fact, I highly encourage it.
Feeling inspired? Nearly every major metropolitan area has some sort of homelessness or anti-poverty program. Additionally, most cities also have some form of anti-hunger and food waste program. These organizations typically run on minimal financial support and are always looking for passionate volunteers, and sometimes offer internships!