This guest post was contributed by Jared Brown about his experiences volunteering at a homeless shelter in Seattle, WA.
Part 1 – Read Carefully!
My story began in the summer of 2008. Jacquie, a friend of mine who at the time was the chairperson of the Jewish young adult group at a local synagogue, was looking for volunteers.
Apparently, I had misread her request. It was paired with an invitation to a social gathering, and I thought Jacquie was looking people interested in both a schmooze as well as an opportunity to perform a low-obligation mitzvah by volunteering one time at a homeless shelter.
I let Jacquie know I was interested participating in what I thought was a social event with a little volunteering on the side, and before I knew it, I had committed to working once a month, overnight, at a homeless women’s shelter. No trivia, no refreshments, no schmooze.
When I realized my mistake, I weighed my options. I could back out or I could give it a shot and maybe do some good. I decided to go for it.
Volunteering at the shelter was an overnight gig, and though I was daunted, the first time went smoothly. I arrived at work the following morning feeling fulfilled and ready for the day. With that, I was hooked.
Part 2 – Opportunity Knocks. Again. Do you answer?
Just when I found myself comfortable with the volunteering at the shelter, I was presented with a new challenge. It was my turn to work on a cold, winter evening in December 2009. After picking up our guests and bringing them inside, one woman told me about her dream from the previous night. She dreamed she found work and changed her circumstances. “Think it could come true?” she asked.
Though not all of our guests are cognitively or emotionally able to hold down a job or live on their own, this particular woman was. I said that I thought she could change her life but the look of skepticism upon her face told me clearly she didn’t believe me.
Her expression haunted me. I understood why someone in her position would doubt my opinion. After all, I’ve never been homeless. I’ve never been abused or addicted, which is not the case for many homeless people. How could I truly know if she really has the ability to change her situation?
Once again, I was faced with a decision. I could shrug it off and hope she’d find what she needed to move on or I could take some action to help her and possibly others as well. As before, I gave it a shot.
First, I wanted to find someone with credibility who could inspire these women. After I made calls to other shelters, I tracked down a woman who used to be homeless but now works in the shelter system. She agreed to meet with our guests to share her story.
Second, I needed to provide some concrete assistance to the women. I found a non-profit organization that specializes in job placement assistance and career counseling, and brought some of its pamphlets to the shelter so I could give them anyone interested in changing their circumstances.
Finally, I wanted everyone to have the resources necessary to succeed. I purchased interview folders, pens and paper. Inside each folder, I put a worksheet with tips on finding work as well as my personal contact information, and the materials from the job placement program.
After all this was in place, I held a seminar at the temple so that the women could hear their former peer share her inspiring story. I was naively confident that this would be a complete success, a day of miracles for our guests. Of course, it didn’t go as I had planned.
The problem was that I hadn’t anticipated all of the guests’ needs and problems. While some of the homeless people are simply down on their luck, many are suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues or have experienced emotional and physical abuse. Many are also in the process of reengaging society after a period of incarceration. I simply hadn’t considered any of this.
The format of my seminar was not well suited to this audience. Few spoke or participated in any way. And of the ten guests in attendance that evening, three people sat through the entire thing and took folders with materials as they left.
Part 3 – You Never Know!
I viewed my seminar as a failure. Instead of inspiring our guests and providing them the guidance they needed to succeed, I felt like I had wasted everyone’s time – mine, the speaker’s and the guests’.
But two months later, I received an email from a woman who had attended the seminar. She took a folder that night and had been trying to find a buddy to work with just as I had suggested. She hadn’t yet found anyone but she wanted to thank me for giving her hope and some guidance.
Time. Stood. Still.
I was thrilled as I read and reread her email. I couldn’t believe that I had helped someone that night. I responded immediately and offered to be her buddy through this process.
Since then, we’ve been meeting consistently for an hour a week, and I’ve watched her make some incredible strides towards changing her life. She has updated her resume and improved her cover-letter writing skills. She is also in the process of obtaining current identification. She has applied to several jobs, went on two interviews and has even started to work part-time. Though my work with this woman is far from over, she is certainly on the right track.
Part 4 – Reminder! Read Carefully!
It’s been two and a half years since I misread Jacquie’s volunteer request and I have no regrets about the commitment I accidentally made. The rewards have definitely surpassed my expectations. You never know where taking a chance may lead. It might just set you on a journey to fulfillment and along the way, you might help another person change her life.