Sunday, May 2, 2010

Amazing Experience #1

Right now I am sitting here reflecting on things that have happened and everything I have done the past several weeks and I am exhausted. I am also peaceful, content, proud, and inspired. I have had opportunities this past week to have experiences that are the polar opposite of one another in most ways but that have combined to teach me more about myself, who I want to be, and what I can accomplish. This post is about the first of the two.

Our last project for the semester for one of my classes was a group service learning project which required us to work within a group assigned by our instructor, choose a place or cause, volunteer 4 hours of our time then write an essay and present something to the class about what we did and what the experience was like. She wanted to know how we interacted within our group and with the people involved or served by our cause. My group had a bit of difficulty narrowing down and selecting where we wanted to go. The process was made more difficult by the unavailability of a large number of the volunteer coordinators with various groups and agencies we tried to contact. Ideas we explored included the VA, Wayside Christian Mission, St Jude's (a halfway house for women in recovery), and Saint Vincent Depaul which runs halfway houses, thrift stores, job training, and outreach programs. We were finally able to reach Tandee Ogden who is the volunteer coordinator for Volunteers of America and arranged to go work at the Emergency Shelter for Families. This, I think, is where I would have chosen if I had taken more time to sit down and think about each organization that the group was open to even though I was not the one who championed the idea. Actually, nobody championed the idea- it was more of a default selection because everybody in the group seemed willing to help out there and they actually took our call and were glad to have our help after alot of voicemails had gone unreturned by other agencies.

We divided into two groups due to our widely differing schedules and also due to when the shelter actually needed people to help out. There were only 2 of us in my part of the group but I think that was for the best actually because, in my opinion, we were able to do more and be more valuable to the regular staff during the hours we spent working with them. Jill and I met at school on a rainy Sunday morning and set out to find where we were headed and get 2 hours done during their lunch time with the intent we would return at the same time Tuesday or Thursday to finish the last two hours and be done. Neither of us knew what to expect and, honestly, neither of us was completely sure we wanted to go or how we would handle the experience.

We got to the shelter without getting lost amazingly enough and rang the doorbell to be let inside even though we had no idea where we were supposed to go once in the hall. We made our way to the desk and they weren't expecting us- the coordinator had forgot to tell them we were coming. While we were talking to the receptionist Miss Gloria was standing at the end of the desk watching us like she wasn't sure what we were going to do or that we were capable of doing much at all, I think she had sensed that we weren't entirely confident about what or how much we could do just from nonverbal clues like body language while we were talking to the receptionist who was trying to figure out what to do with these two nervous girls in front of her. She turned to Miss Gloria and asked her if she could use our help. It turned out Miss Gloria was the one cooking for the house Sunday. She was the only one in the kitchen actually and had expected to have to do everything herself including cooking for all of the residents, serving their trays, and all of her cleaning and sanitizing in the large kitchen. When she said she could use our help and had stuff we could do we were all grateful. Me, Jill, and the receptionist that is. Miss Gloria tried not to show her apprehension but I thought it was hard not to notice it.

Miss Gloria smiled, showed us where we were going and what the house was going to have for lunch. We would be cooking for more people than I had ever imagined cooking for at once before. I believe she put the number of children alone near 40 and of course there were the adults as well that needed to be fed. We were going to make salad, fried chicken, peas, french fries, fruit, and desert for them. Kitchen work is hard work but Miss Gloria never stopped smiling and when she would get overloaded with tasks she never let her stress show. Instead she would say "God is good" or something similar then keep going. She looked out for all of the children and knew who could eat what, who had other things going on that a little extra attention and encouragement would help, and how to make every child from toddler to teen who came through smile and feel a bit better about themselves or their situation. She was amazing despite how tired she must have been. She tried her best never to let anybody see her with anything but a smile on her face and her attitude and dedication were inspiring to Jill and myself.

At 1, with lunch nearing completion, our two hours were up. It didn't matter. Jill and I both had the same idea and after talking to each other we approached Miss Gloria with the idea that if we weren't in her way too much maybe we could stay and help her with dinner as well. We weren't sure what she would think or say because we weren't sure if we were really a help or a hindurance. Miss Gloria was shocked and that was obvious from her face. She was also happy to have us stay as were some of the residents we had spoken with during the morning and early afternoon. They were amazed we wanted to stay and take care of them when we could have been doing other things with our afternoon and, after all, we had already spent the time required by our project. We were inspired by Miss Gloria's dedication and how much she cared for each and every child, mother, and father who came through her cafeteria. How could we leave her to do everything by herslelf? We stayed through clean-up, talked to the residents, and played with a pair of children trapped inside do the rain. Then we stayed through dinner preperation and served dinner to the families who live there. Now we could really see that we were doing some good- Miss Gloria was more relaxed, the receptionist asked if we had lost track of time or something (we hadn't), and the residents kept asking, "have ya'll been here all day?" I had so many people come and thank me that I felt embarsssed. The best thanks though was the kids who came back in for more of the homemade macaroni and cheese I had made or the 17 yr old who was there with his mom but had been upstairs asleep. I sent him a plate (piled a little higher than most because a 17 year old boy needs more food than most everybody else) and he came down to find me to thank me and asking how I knew he'd want extra ham and macaroni and cheese but not so many of the green veggies on his plate.

Having teen nephews I have seen exactly how much they can eat and, well, Miss Gloria had inspired me so much with the things she did to make the small children feel good I wanted to do the same for one who belongs to a group more often forgotten about. Actually, I wanted to do something for somebody who could have been one of my nephews and why should teens not be looked out for and cared about as much as younger kids? Everybody, but especially children and teens need to know somebody cares and that they matter.

After dinner it was time for Jill and I to leave and my lupie self could tell I had overdone things physically but the smiles we saw that day and how good it felt to actually step out of our comfort zones and normal social groups to do something for others was more than worth the fatigue and exhaustion I felt that night and the next day.

I'm lucky to have a comftorable place to live and people to support me through my struggles and who are there for me when I need a shoulder or a hug (even the virtual kind!). I hope that I never forget that lesson and that the next time I get angry or depressed over everything lupus has taken from me I will stop and take time to remember everything I have been given as well.