On two days a week, I volunteer at the front desk area (and other areas as needed) at a residential women's shelter. Different from an emergency shelter, these facilities are long term transitional housing. In order to qualify for this program, women have to have been homeless for more than a year (literally, not figuratively), and have self identified mental or physical issues. Once in the shelter, they don't have to leave until they are ready and they want to, as the purpose is to help them function in society, feel safe, get them the benefits they need and so on.
During these two days, I am officially "at the front desk". Since funding allows for only a single person (caseworker) to be on staff at any given time, my being there allows Courtney (or her substitute) to close a door and have one on one intensive conversations and more with each resident.
At first blush, my volunteer gig is probably the kind that many say that they don't want. There is what some might call "busy work". I answer the phone, I hand out medicine and give out bus passes, I pass out detergent and bleach, I open supply closets with the keys. You get the idea.
Here's the thing though: I also have long (sometimes deep, sometimes intense) conversations with these women, conversations that are often one on one. Sometimes they are as casual as talking about the last time they saw a family member or something they saw on the bus coming home from the clinic. Sometimes they are deeper, and often personal things are shared.
As I've talked about on this blog before, my late husband got Hepatitis C during a blood transfusion after major surgery almost forty years ago. Two of the women in my residential shelter have hep C. While I suspect they came about it a different way, the fear, the health concerns, the reactions are the same. I'm able to tell them that I lived a normal healthy (including the s word) relationship with someone who had a full blown case for thirty years-and that was ten years before all the treatments and drugs available today that he didn't have.
Another woman sews and knits (and puts me to extreme shame) on donated machines. She has shown me how to do various knitting stitches, and during that time we have talked in depth about her family, including a young granddaughter who gets to visit her grandmother in the shelter now that she is safe and healthy. I also spend a great deal of time talking with a women who has a bad case of diabetes (her blood sugar has measured a thousand), who has never had proper treatment or education, as every time she went for help, caregivers assumed she was exaggerating or trolling for drugs (and as a result she now has end stage pancreatitis)
This kind of one on one conversation, casual or otherwise, serves at least two purposes. It lets these women (most of whom have lived on the edges of society for far too long), know that they are worth talking to, and that they have value. It also enables both of us to communicate on a level that simply does not happen often, or often enough when we do things "for" others.
There are a variety of groups that come to the shelters that provide food (although the women have a kitchen, the food provided is very institutional and repetitive). These groups can be divided into two general groups. The first group provides the food, smiles and stands behind the pass through in the kitchen. The second group smiles as the women grab their food-and then they fill their own plates and sit among the women, eating and talking and laughing. While both serve a purpose, the the second group is longer remembered, and serves a larger purpose overall. They also become more educated about homelessness and the needs of the folks they serve than they ever could have by being in the first group.
This in no way implies that one has to volunteer with the homeless, simply that volunteering with (rather than to or for) is probably both more rewarding for the person doing the volunteering and more helpful overall to the recipient. Certainly there are other times of non-involved volunteering that have value (fundraising for example, if that is your skill and passion), but most of the people I know who do those non involved things are or have been involved on a different level with their cause or issue.
Volunteering with can happen anywhere. I used to have a friend whose six children were in high school or college, and who went to the elementary school across the street and read aloud to the second graders three times a week-while sitting on the floor and giggling, not from a chair or in the middle of the room. A fellow blogger tutors community college kids. Bob over at Satisfying Retirement has embarked on a ministry of talking with lonely and or depressed seniors on the phone. In Texas, my son and I regularly worked with Habitat for Humanity, one of the biggest examples of volunteering with, as the recipient and healthy family members participate with volunteers in building a house.
Even as I write this I am sure that someone is thinking, "but they still need THINGS, and they still need busy work". Both of those are true, but in almost any volunteer capacity, they are ways to deliver those things and services will still talking to and relating to the recipients as people, and often people just like us. In order to stop thinking of (students, homeless people, the handicapped, drug addicts) as simply the "others", personal interaction and true listening are of major importance.
So even though I've promised myself to slow down, and tried to only schedule a single project on many days, I keep on with my twice a week visits-knowing that they are just as valuable to me as they are to the women on the other end.
And so it goes, this Friday in retirement.
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