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2nd Annual Contemplation of Feet

This past Wednesday I had the honor and privilege to once again serve Nashville’s homeless by washing their feet. The event was Project Homeless Connect and I was there with 23 (yes twenty three) of my amazing nursing students volunteering with Room in the Inn (shout out to those at Room at the Inn – you all ROCK!!) at their foot clinic and at registration. Some students were “down in the trenches” with myself and other volunteers (including one of my most favoritist persons in the world – you know who you are). Other students helped to register people for the event – which included taking a brief history and hearing a lot of their stories.

This year, as last year, I was profoundly impacted. My role was a little different this year – I was the only medical-type person there for much of the day, in addition to coordinating students.

We think we have problems. We get upset over trifling things we call “problems”- bad traffic, long lines in stores for Christmas shopping, difficulties at school (as an instructor or as a student), problems with this or that relationship, etc. We let these minor problems fill our thoughts and assume such importance. Truly they are as nothing. A day volunteering in a setting like this really puts things into perspective. Traffic may be bad, but we get to drive and have the luxury of a car. Lines may be long, but we have the money to buy presents (however small) for our loved ones, and we will likely receive presents in return (something we often take for granted). School may be hard – but we have the luxury of attending or in my case – the luxury of having a good job. We may have problems in our relationships, but we know there is someone who loves us. For many of the individuals we met Wednesday, many or all of these luxuries are so far out of their reach it is hard for me to even begin to fathom how difficult to obtain things I so easily take for granted.

I met some amazing people Wednesday, not only the homeless persons, but also the volunteers as well. People who freely give of their time, not just this one day, but on a regular basis. One man with kindly eyes was there last year, and told me he volunteers every week in different settings. Another gentleman said he volunteered at RITI every week that it helped him to achieve balance in his life. He told me he worked at the front desk of one of the high-rise condos within walking distance of RITI’s Campus for Human Development. Condos there run from almost 200k to well over a million bucks. This lovely man told me about how demanding and self-centered some of the tenants are and that many of them have so much. He walks from work to volunteer for a few hours with the homeless persons at the campus and it helps him maintain balance he said. Balance. I think we all need to remember that. The image of the wealthy man in a high-rise condo right up the block from the homeless shelter is imprinted in my mind…a picture of balance.

Several things  in particular struck me this year: calves, swollen ankles, smiles and introductions.

Calves: I really noticed some powerful calf muscles – so much so that I commented on several pairs. The owners of those calves just smiled and said “yeah”. “Walking.” Miles and miles and miles of walking. One particular pair of calves seemed totally incongruent with the rest of the woman they belonged to. She had tiny little ankles and Rocking-hard calves – but was otherwise obese. I wondered how much of that trunk fat was her body’s way of protecting her, sheltering her from the cold and the elements…just like her powerful calves enabled her to walk the miles she must walk. Her face will stay with me for a while. She seemed so touched that the pair of socks I gave her matched her sweater…she knew I picked them out just for her, and that seemed to mean so much to her. Just a pair of socks. I didn’t even buy them. But you would have thought I gave her the moon.

Swollen feet and legs: Now this is something I see regularly. And I have a regular response: (in short) elevate your legs above your heart, balanced fluid intake, reduced salt intake. I couldn’t respond that way here, and I found myself at a loss. How can I tell someone to elevate their legs when they must be on their feet and walking most of their day and they DON’T have a consistent or safe place to do elevate them anyway. Dietary instructions are a challenge as well, because when you eat what you can get when you can get it, it is hard to be choosy. I take for granted having a faucet to fill my water bottle with filtered water to drink my fill of and the luxury of walking down store aisles to choose reduc.

Smiles: such heartfelt smiles. Really thankful and grateful for what they were receiving. Not grasping or needy or asking for more. Just so grateful. Again and again I was told I had a “special place in heaven” because of the care I was giving them. They had no idea that they were giving me so much more than I could ever give them. Some people who were not involved have commented to me “ugh, feet” and “how could you wash feet”,  “thats gross” and other comments of that nature.  It wasn’t about the feet. It was never about the feet. And truly, the feet were beautiful and amazing.

Introductions: I try to introduce myself to people. I tend to forget people’s names (a horrible impediment as a teacher and a nurse) and I project that others do the same – so I introduce myself. Sometimes more than once. Students and other volunteers would often call me (as the medical resource person) over to look at something on someone’s feet and it would have been really easy to look at the foot, give advice, and move on. I made a conscious effort to stop and say “Hi, I’m Jennifer” to each person and make eye contact. Their faces would brighten for just a minute in just such a way that tore at my heart strings. Those faces said “people don’t usually see me” – a mixture of surprise, shyness, quickly averted eyes or incredulous eye contact. It is true. We normally try not to see them. I normally try not to see them when I encounter them on the street, especially when I am alone. My fears fed by the stereotypes. I am ashamed to admit that, but it is true. We all need to be seen, to be acknowledged, to be heard, to be cared for.

Two people that I will never forget:

A young mother of three. The youngest child 9 weeks old. She had been clean for 8 weeks. She seemed to be working so hard to make her life better for herself and her children. She wore her NA chips on a key ring at her waist proudly.

A very young man whose foot was partially amputated last month. Diabetes. He was doing what he could. Walking. Walking. Courageous.

I am grateful for my life. I am grateful for my life. I am grateful and thankful for my life.


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