Bob was looking for a service project idea for our church youth group, so we brainstormed options within a tight time frame--a Wednesday night during the next few weeks, from 7-8:30 p.m. There aren't too many agencies that can use help at that time. I had given him and a friend who is a Boy Scout leader the same leads to try: serve dinner at an Innvision shelter, sort donations at Second Harvest Food Bank, go to the Family Giving Tree and do warehouse work, or gather treats and supplies for troops in conjunction with Operation Shoebox. It sounds easy to pull together a simple service project for a Wednesday night, but it really takes at least a month of planning; coordinating with the organization and with the youth takes some time. Luckily a local organization, Innvision, has taken over management of several shelters in the Bay Area and they have a dedicated volunteer coordinator. After Bob filled out an online volunteer opportunity request, she called him back with a group assignment.
The designated night arrived and I figured it would invigorate my work-drained soul to join Bob and the youth group at Innvision's Loaves and Fishes Family Kitchen. We would serve dessert and sing Christmas carols to the men who would be staying in the shelter that night. Logan printed off the lyrics so we wouldn't get stuck after just one verse. We all met and loaded up into cars to make the drive downtown. When we arrived it was a little chaotic, as the coordinator must have missed a step in communication to the supervisors. They were a bit rattled to work outside their routine, as dinner had already been cleaned up. However, a large jovial man named Emmanuel was willing to rally the daily residents for a post-meal cookie and cider buffet accompanied by "Silent Night" and "Jingle Bells."
The kids seemed a bit uncomfortable at first around the strangers as they set out their abundance of chocolate chip, oatmeal, snickerdoodle, brownies, Rice Krispie treats, on platters and plates. But just when I wondered how I could help lighten things up and make it fun, one of the men called out, "We're all homeless!" It was a deep message for me during the holidays, though the kids later suggested he was stating the obvious. No, he was a smart guy, and his inflection was exactly that: All of us are homeless in a sense. Nothing is secure in this world. I'd heard this before, it's a saying that keeps the indigent looking up and the proud looking back. With his declaration, I started to see these men, rather than a bunch of guys in a shelter for the night, but individuals with hopes, dreams, and wishes just like ours.
With cookies heaped onto plates and hot cider poured into plastic cups--nearly hot enough to melt--our group began the carols. One spirited gentleman realized he could sing along. "I'm engaging them," he told Emmanuel with a childlike smile. Another man in a perfectly clean white tee and khakis would neither engage in carols nor partake of the treats. Finally, toward the end of our visit I noticed he had filled an entire paper dinner plate full of cookies. The one next to him smiled. "These are real, homemade!" As we gathered our supplies and prepared to leave, I asked Emmanuel how often the residents get homemade cookies and desserts. He said hardly ever, and to have a visit after dinner was out of the ordinary and extra-special to these guys. Their Christmas tree would be set up the next day and this was a perfect way to set the tone for the holidays.
As I sit in a cozy living room reflecting on our little service project last week, I am listening to Michael McLean's "Forgotten Carols," and the song "Homeless." I think about Emmanuel and the guys at the Loaves and Fishes shelter. We can never take our circumstances for granted, not during the holidays nor during the rest of the year. The gentleman was right, we must remember that unpleasant things can happen to any of us. They've happened to me, and they've happened to people I know. The only way to remember how lucky we are is to keep reaching out to those who have less, and when we get outside of our comfort zones they reach back out to us. They "engage us" and remind us of what is truly important in life; sometimes all it takes is a plate of cookies to step back and realize how blessed we are and how much we have to give.
These organizations can always use your help!