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Adventures in Volunteering

Something about “having” to write that freezes my fingers. I need to do a write up for the volunteer activity that I organized and participated in with students this past Wednesday. I can’t seem to get my thoughts together, so I thought this is a good place to throw some words down and perhaps I can assemble something worthwhile out of it.

 This is my third such event, but I don’t think it will ever stop being an amazing experience. This time we did several things differently. First of all, it was not part of the major initiative “Project Homeless Connect“, but rather was a day of volunteering at Room In the Inn’s Campus for Human Development. (RITI’s CHD) We called it “Project Motlow” and sometimes “Project Motlow Clinic”.  RITI regularly has foot clinics on Mondays, and volunteers come in and essentially give pedicures: cutting toenails, massaging feet, treating fungus…  We set that up and additionally had a blood pressure screening clinic, and some students just hung out in the Respite area (where individuals are recovering from medical conditions or substance abuse issues).

This time  I collected monies for supplies for the foot clinic – and that was an extra special treat. I got to go shopping for socks and athletes foot cream, as well as lotions, scrubs and soaks for the feet. The best part of that was carrying in the supplies and seeing the wondrous gratitude on the faces of the workers as they opened the foot cleaning bounty. But here I am already getting ahead of myself.

38 students signed up to volunteer. 33 actually came, which I think is pretty phenomenal considering that most of them live 45minutes to 2 hours from Nashville. I really hope that this experience was as worthwhile for them as for me.  What it is all truly about is the human connection. Jeff Moles, the Spiritual Development Chaplain at RITI shared with the students in the morning how for most of the individuals we would interact with that day, the caring physical touch they received from us would likely be the only touch they would receive that week that wasn’t violent or sexual. Also, as I have discussed in previous posts, how the homeless are the overlooked and avoided, and that it might be the o nly time someone looks them in the eyes and calls them by their name. The day was really all about connecting, about thrusting aside prejudices, judgments, and fear and breaking through barriers of feelings of worthlessness and shame. I wanted to be a way-shower for my students, so I greeted every person I could with a smile, a handshake and an introduction. I wanted to teach them to be unafraid, to teach them how to see the beautiful person under the unkempt appearance and sometimes foul odor that hung like a cloud over their unwashed bodies. I think I did that, and in the process I broke through barriers of my own and was able to connect with so many wonderful people that I otherwise would not have connected with.People who were broken, who were struggling to put the pieces together, who feared they would never get back on their feet. People who laughed, who sang, and even cried. There was such ease and camaraderie,. One gentleman (the singing one – and he really had a good voice) came back at the end of the day to tell me what a pleasure it was to meet me. “No really,” I said, “the pleasure was mine.” And it was. 

This was also a very different experience for me as far as my “role”. I am a nurse. I am used to caring for people. I am a psych nurse, so I am even used to caring for homeless persons. This just felt different. It felt like the human connection was deeper, more sincere. Perhaps because they knew that I wasn’t there for a paycheck, or offering them my care because I “had to” because it was my job. Maybe that made a difference for me too. Maybe it was because there were no roles. No strata to define what side of what line we each belonged on. We were able to just be people, giving and receiving care.

 On several occassions as I sat talking with those waiting for their foot care, I was at a loss for words (and this is a pretty rare occurance as, according to my husband,  I must have started talking before I even left the womb). What do you say to someone who tells you how he wears steel-toed boots to protect himself, because he doesn’t want to carry a weapon and end up hurting someone…again. What do you say to someone who is worried about making it to the free meal on time – because it will likely be the only meal of the day for him. I can’t imagine…I don’t want to imagine, because it is painful. It hurts to see others suffer and it makes me want to do more, to “fix it” as one of my fellow faculty shared. I can’t fix it. What I can do is offer something as simple to me as a smile and a little of my time; things that meant so very much to the homeless persons that we saw on Thursday. Little things that are so easy for me to give and yet I am stingy with them and I take their impact for granted. We all heard so many times “thank you” and “God bless you”. But really and truly we were the ones blessed and the ones who should have been thanking them. I tried. I said as they left: “thank you for coming”, but I can’t imagine that they could understand the blessings they gave to me that day. Many of the students that participated posted on a discussion board about the event how very grateful they were, and how the experience made them realize how very blessed they are. Even when things are “tough”. That in itself is a blessing, to realize that all the complaining and grousing we do about the little things – when they really just aren’t important enough to waste time on. Because when it comes to the things that matter – we have the bases covered and so many people do not. I am blessed. I am so blessed.


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