The email containing the December schedule for the homeless shelter where my wife and I volunteer was as welcome as a petrified fruitcake.
“They want me to work Christmas morning?”
We’ve been volunteering there for years, but this was the first time either of us had been asked to come in on a major holiday.
Christmas morning? The morning when the grandkids open their gifts? The morning when carols are playing on the stereo and the house is filled with the aromas of sizzling bacon, holiday muffins, Irish coffee …
Not a chance. I emailed the volunteer coordinator back to say I couldn’t make it.
Why would they even have the shelter open on Christmas morning? Who would want to spend the morning preparing makeshift meals and washing acres of dirty dishes when they could be home enjoying the holiday with their families?
By coincidence, the email with the December schedule arrived on my regular morning to work at the shelter. It was a typical Tuesday there except for one thing – a man who stood out from the crowd.
You get used to seeing people who are down and out when you work at a shelter, but this man appeared to be suffering more than most. He was sitting on a walker with a built-in chair, his face a study in misery.
“Excuse me,” he said as I approached his table. “Could I have some milk?”
A few minutes later …
“I’m sorry to bother you again, but could I possibly have another cup of milk.”
When I returned with it, he asked it there was a place where he could lie down.
“I’m in a lot of pain. If I could just lie down somewhere for 15 minutes …”
It was cold outside, and the shelter was filled to capacity. There was absolutely nowhere for someone to lie down. The operations manager helped him from his walker to a chair while I found a towel he could roll up and put on a table to use as a pillow.
“Thank you,” he said. “I spent last night in the hospital, but they kicked me out.”
“Because I don’t have a real doctor.”
Here was one of the people we read about in the news, but most of us seldom meet. No doctor, no health insurance, no home. I’d seen some hard cases while volunteering at the shelter, but for some reason this man got to me more than most. He was polite, well spoken. He wasn’t drunk or stoned. He was just in a lot of pain.
“He has other issues as well,” Rick said.
Mental illness, perhaps? It’s epidemic among the homeless. Addiction? A criminal record? I didn’t ask. All I knew was that he was hurting and that the most we could do was make him slightly more comfortable.
He reminded me of another homeless man at the shelter several years ago. He was in a lot of pain, too – recovering from major surgery on a borrowed lounge chair.
He was one of the lucky ones. He and his family have since found a home, jobs and are doing well.
The lucky ones are few. For every success story, there are far more people sleeping behind the shelter, on the cold pavement of Cooper Street.
I don’t work at the shelter because I’m a saint. Far from it. I’m there two mornings a month, a small commitment. And if not for a dream, I probably wouldn’t be working there at all.
It was the most vivid dream I’ve ever had. My wife, our son and I were standing on the steps of my old high school when a tsunami struck. With an enormous wave about to engulf the school, we ran inside and flailed helplessly as the rising water carried us to within a few inches of the ceiling. My last thought while taking my last breath was that I should have done more to help other people.
That was when I started working at the shelter.
It isn’t often that you feel like you’re truly helping anyone there. I’ve been up close and personal with a lot more dirty dishes than people. But a few of the people’s stories have become personal:
The homeless woman who sat in the same chair every day, knitting clothes for people who needed them more than she did.
The man who lost his job as a banker in the crash of 2008 and was using the shelter as a temporary home for his struggling family.
The man who asked me to help him take his things to a nearby skateboard park. He was crippled and could barely walk, and his “things” completely filled the back seat and trunk of my car. He was so grateful for a short ride in a warm car that he hugged me and cried.
And of course the man trying to cope with his pain with nothing more than a folding chair and a towel for a pillow.
His politeness and quiet acceptance of his pain changed my mind about not working Christmas. How could I welsh out of volunteering and enjoy breakfast with a clear conscience knowing that five minutes away people were waking up in alleys on Christmas morning?
Maybe we need the Christmas spirit of good will now more than ever. With our leaders giving tax breaks to the wealthy while cutting programs to help the poor and prevent homelessness, what better time to show that compassion hasn’t died, and that good will toward men, women and children is timeless?