This year, on the morning of Christmas Eve I decided to go down to the George R. Brown convention center and help volunteer by feeding the homeless. This is an annual event in Houston, Texas sponsored by the Houston City Wide Club. It was my first time volunteering at a large event like that. What I thought was going to be a day of serving food and smiling turned out to be far different than I anticipated and it was fraught with a wide range of emotions.
From the moment I arrived at 7:30 in the morning, things were sort of chaotic. I wasn’t really surprised because I knew there were going to be a large number of people volunteering and anytime you have large crowds you have organized chaos. What did surprise me though was that all the volunteers were asked to bet here at 7:00 (yeah I was late…shocking) yet nothing really went on at all for hours. There were stations set up almost like a store with different departments. There was the serving area, and area for children to choose a toy, a section for clothing/blankets and a final section where canned goods were being organized in bags for the guests to take home when they left. I had signed up to volunteer on the website assuming that I was going to be serving food; however I quickly learned that all the slots for serving were in high demand and were full until 1:30 or 4:30 that afternoon. I couldn’t stay that late. As I looked around I was completely dumbfounded as there were hundreds of volunteers just sitting. All of the “departments” were full to capacity and weren’t allowing any more volunteers. It was just wasted man power. Frustrating to say the least and likely going to discourage people from participating again.
Though it was full, my fast talking girlfriend talked our way in to the canned goods area where my brother had already set up shop. It was not what I had anticipated doing that day and seemed rather tedious, but at that point I was just happy to have something to do. The task was easy or so I thought. Take brown paper bags and fill each with 6 canned goods, one dry good (either rice, beans or pasta) and then while supplies last add in a box dinner or granola bar or a “goodie”.
As I took my first bag and looked at the small supply and variety of canned goods I suddenly felt very guilty about my life. I am by no means well off or rich. I’m totally average, yet in that moment, I felt spoiled. I felt wasteful and snooty. The canned goods were separated into groups with like kinds together. As I hustled down the aisle making my selections, skipping the section with 30 or so cans of enchilada sauce (who donates that???); I revisited a thought/fear that had crossed my mind at one of the lowest points in my life. Many of us are only one lifeline away from being homeless or stricken by poverty. By lifeline I mean we have that one person or job or big break in life that has kept us from falling to hard or failing. Continuing down the aisle, I thought carefully to myself about who might select each particular bag and I felt troubled because I didn’t know if it would be a family who needed cereal or a single person who would prefer rice or noodles. There just wasn’t enough food there to choose from and the weight of deciding who would receive what was overwhelming. Each person was to get so little that it had to be perfectly tailored or I was worried someone would go hungry. While making these selections, I thought about where I would be in life if I had not had my mother. She has been my ultimate lifeline. How many times has she bailed me out of a mess??? What if she was not around or if she had been someone that struggled with drug addiction or was just completely neglectful like many parents are today. Had I not been blessed with the family I have, I could have easily been the person in line instead of the person packing the take home bags.
I had my daughter at 22 years old and I had a bachelor’s degree yet raising her has been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. Law school certainly would not have been possible without my family. And what if I had her at 16 and was only able to make minimum wage and had a crappy family? One word can sum that up…Screwed. That’s what I would have been.
Truth is I have done a lot in my life, but I’m no further than one lifeline away from the other side of the canned goods table and I’m willing to bet a lot of others are too.
One thing you can’t teach in school is perspective. I have been blessed to have a unique perspective on life because I have seen both sides of it. In law school I sat next to people who have never had money issues their whole lives. I overheard conversations in the student lounge about trust funds and tax loopholes. Things that amused me because it was so far from the world I lived in, but many were very good people nonetheless. Some spent many hours organizing food drives and volunteering out in the community yet I know they have no actual idea what it would be like to be on the other side of the table. How could they? It’s not something learned in a book, it’s lived. And there is nothing wrong with that. I want that for my daughter.
However, the down side to privilege is that it can prevent someone from ever fully understanding the plight of a homeless person, or a single mom living at poverty level. I’m sure anyone from any walk of life can sympathize, even truly care and have a passion for helping to find a solution, but to actually understand it is different. On the other side of the spectrum from my law school friends I have many friends from Alief. I mention Alief a lot in my writings because it is where I grew up. It’s a school district on the southwest side of Houston. It’s not completely impoverished but definitely has its areas. Many people that I grew up with have turned out fine and are your everyday middle class individuals. Some were fortunate enough to become famous athletes and others are accomplished professionals….but some….yes some, could easily be in the line for the Christmas Eve feast and the bag of canned goods, or the toy and the clothes. And I understand that just as easily as I understand the lifestyles of my more privileged friends. I learned the perspective of the poor as a child and the perspective of the rich as an adult. Having those two viewpoints and understanding that opportunities in life are not distributed equally has been humbling and empowering.
The dry goods ran out first, then the cereal and then the box dinners so we were instructed to begin packing bags full of 8 cans and that that would be all that the person or family receiving that bag would get. I spoke to a man who was “Captain” of the canned goods area who admitted that at Thanksgiving they have 3 times as much food donated and that HEB has stopped putting the Red Barrels out in their stores at Christmas time to collect food. I saw in his eyes that he was troubled by this. I watched him over the next couple hours and realized he has a passion for service and that some of the decisions he made while volunteering were not easy. When all the food was distributed he decided we should pull out the bags of rice and separate each large bag into zip locks so that more people could have some. This act was thoughtful yet depressing. How much rice have I thrown out in my lifetime..... I wondered….
That morning changed me. It wasn’t an Earth shattering change but it humbled me. It will effect decisions that I make throughout the year and probably my whole life. It reminded me that a commitment to service is necessary because one day I could be on the receiving end of someone’s donated time. I keep a small group of close friends and many of them know that 2011 was difficult for me and has been one of inconsistency and change. Neither of which I handle very well. I started a new job, ended a 5 year relationship, relocated to a new part of Houston and my closest girlfriends moved out of town resulting in me just feeling kind of isolated. It sounds really dumb when I write it. Lol. Wow rough life right. Lol. But that is my point. It is dumb. Much of those internal difficulties and struggles was what led me out to the George R. Brown that morning to begin with. I went looking for something to help me because I wanted to fill a void I have but I left realizing I don’t need help, I need TO help. Everyone in that line would trade my problems for theirs.
I wrote that whole blog just to encourage you to get out in the community and help when you can. Take a look at your own life not for what it is, but for what it could have been. I still struggle with feeling guilty for the things and the life I have even though I’m pretty regular. Service will definitely be a focus of mine this year and perhaps while helping others I can finally put my own heart at ease.
And those are my inside thoughts…..