Every Thanksgiving, many shelters face at least three problems: too many volunteers, not enough volunteer shifts and waitlists. How can we balance the increased needs of the vulnerable with the volunteers?
What is at the core of every person who volunteers is a sense of humanity and the desire to give back. For some, volunteering is a family tradition. Some families serve at a shelter first and then have family dinner in their home, or vice versa. Some families volunteer and eat Thanksgiving dinner at the shelter. Some companies schedule teams of volunteers. Some volunteer privately. Some donate generously. Many give anonymously.
This year, privacy and anonymity will be less of an option as the cost of living rises along with national evictions. Many who stayed in campgrounds, parks and their cars will seek shelter from the unsympathetic, frigid elements. In addition to being forced to vacate their homes, many Americans will also be forced to vacate their pride, dignity and identity because that’s what standing in lines does to the vulnerable.
No home. No food. No shower. No bathroom. No address. The daily routine of the homeless is sometimes rummaging, rifling and renewing their resolve to survive one more day. Most of us don’t have these concerns. How can the most of us help the least of these?
Each year, I volunteer at a shelter. I have noticed that there is no certain type or profile of people who show up. However, what they all have in common is a need for a little help and sometimes hope to get them over a hump.
Sometimes the only thing that differentiates the servers from those being served is an apron, hairnet and gloves.
Inside one such shelter was an older man with a scruffy gray beard. His eyelids covered half of his bloodshot blue eyes. His clothes were wrinkled, and his hair was disheveled. His silverware clanging against the plate brought attention to him because his vein-bulging hands constantly shook. When people looked at him, he would grit his teeth which showed the deep crevices along his jawline. I later learned his name is Ed. Ed was a regular at the shelter. His story of loss was tragic, heartbreaking and sad.
Upon entering the shelter, Ed was often judged by his appearance. There was nothing outwardly obvious that distinguished Ed from the people he was serving. Last year, like every year previously, he signed up to volunteer. This year, he lost a dear friend and promised to dedicate a day of service to honor him. His eyes were tired, clothes wrinkled and hair messy because he had driven Uber passengers all night. Rather than stop at home for a shower and shave, he completed his shift and went straight to the shelter to fulfill his annual commitment — to give back.
Ed’s dedication to serving at the shelter reflected the inventory he took of his life — assessing what’s important, what matters and what difference he could make. In his assessment was not an equation of what he could get out of the experience, but rather what and how he could give to others. This is an exercise we could all consider as demands for help hikes, desire for hope heightens and the desperation for housing hastens.
Perhaps one way that we can make an impact is to look at how we can extend our hearts and hands to humanity. How can we uplift mankind in a meaningful way? Can you comfort someone who sleeps on a cot? Can you host someone who has no home?
Perhaps volunteers can sign up in the months before and after Thanksgiving. Donations can be made for mobile showers. Nurses, doctors and dentists can volunteer examinations. We can create care kits and include socks and rain gear.
An act of kindness, expression of giving or extension of empathy can transform lack into abundance, worse into better, danger into safety and worry into relief — for at least one day. What if we all volunteered at least one day?
Thank God for compassionate volunteers and the opportunity to serve.
Theresa A. Dear is a national board member of the NAACP and a Deseret News contributor.