When I decided to go on AWB I knew right away that I wanted to go to Los Angeles. The work that was described appealed to me; the idea of helping people get on their feet and into the world was wonderful. But I was also afraid.
When people volunteer like this, they tend to assume all those in need of help will be grateful for it. I was afraid of this trip turning into that and becoming White Man’s Burdenesque.
Tons of questions ran through my mind: what if the people we help are ungrateful? What if they don’t want our help? And worst of all; what if we weren’t actually helping them, but simply convinced ourselves we were?
I felt like this especially when a member of PATH (People Assisting The Homeless) came to talk to us about how amazing our contribution was. She said nothing about how what we were doing would help the people who lived there, only told us we were doing good.
Since then I have been pleasantly surprised, and my outlook has brightened in the four meals since we were told that. Sure, we essentially just cooked some meals and spent some time talking, but those hours we spent there did so much.
Our counselors asked us today whether we thought our work at PATH did more for us than for them, and our entire team struggled with that question. One of our group even said that we were all jerks for thinking that our food and visits to PATH really did so much for the residents. “Most of them are already set up for permanent housing,” one girl said, “and all the rest aren’t trying to get out of the streets.” She went on to explain that our work didn’t change any of that. The people who were grateful for us already had permanent residence in their near future, and those who weren’t grateful didn’t have and didn’t want permanent housing.
My own experience leads me to disagree with her. I spent most of my time in the kitchen- peeling and chopping vegetables, stirring food, washing dishes, and sweeping the floor. The work in itself was satisfying; I could literally see our hard work come together and take shape before my eyes. But when the meals were brought out, I ventured into the lounge where the residents and AWB volunteers would eat and speak together.
My fears came true in that some of the residents didn’t talk to us, some complained about the food, one woman even told us she would spend the whole day away from PATH when she heard we would be there until the evening. But for each of those people who did not like us, there were others who praised us for our work. Deep in their heart every person wants someone to listen to them speak. This is true for everyone, young and old, conservative and liberal, homeless or sheltered. Having someone listen to you makes you feel worth something. Many residents told us they were grateful we spent our time with them. A man named Harold told me we made his Christmas night better, Michael took some of us to the garage to play with his dog, Manman. Others simply said that the food was good and that they enjoyed it, that ninety percent of the people who were in the room wouldn’t have been there if we hadn’t been there.
What feedback! Not only were we productive, but the residents of PATH enjoyed the food and our company!
These last few days will be forever etched in my memory, and I know that the people of PATH Hollywood have done more for me than I for them, if only by allowing us to hear their stories. By listening to them I have heard some of the best advice I could ever hope to receive.
“Don’t feel immortal,” one woman told us. “But don’t be afraid.” And another man’s last words to us were to “Always be strong.”
These people have been through the worst misfortunes and still they manage to find the strength in themselves to continue on and impart their knowledge to us. In my eyes that is the greatest gift one can receive.