A while ago I participated in a week-long service immersion trip in Denver, Colorado. The theme of the trip was “Faces of the Homeless”. Denver has a homeless population of about 4600 people including children. During this time we lived communally in a house built in 1888. The house was in a predominantly Hispanic community with many of the inhabitants falling below the poverty line and most of the residents were undocumented immigrants in the US.
Arriving in Denver was refreshing. Coming from harsh Chicago weather I was surprised by the beautiful Denver weather. Not forgetting the immaculate rockies. It seemed like the continuous snow-capped mountains served as a backdrop to any view from any point in the city.
The recurring idea throughout the trip was to “live simply, so others can simply live.” One of the ways we aimed at achieving this was through the communal living which meant we shared EVERYTHING! Amongst 8 people we shared one bottle of shower gel, one bottle of shampoo & conditioner, one bottle of lotion (which I provided being ashy is not a good look). We made huge sacrifices like not eating meat everyday. Although not a totally vegan diet throughout the week we stuck more to a vegetarian diet. We made all our food and avoided fast food places or restaurants in general. We could bring no electronic gadgets with us including PHONES. That meant a week of no Facebook, twitter, email, text and everything else web and electronic based. I have a new found appreciation for my phone.
The first place we served at was the World Vision Warehouse.
Our task at World Vision was to prepare caregiver kits and pack them into boxes. These caregiver kits are made for care givers taking care of HIV/AIDS patients and this particular shipment we were working on was going to Southern Africa. It was a satisfying task for me in particular knowing this aid was going directly to my homeland.
The next day Kate and I were assigned to volunteer at Metr0-CareRing Center– a food pantry. We arrived early in the morning only to be turned away because the center is closed every first Wednesday of the month. There began my understanding of a homeless person’s reality. They never know what tomorrow holds and constantly have to deal with food pantries being closed or soup kitchens having run out of food. We were later reassigned to a place just down the street, Senior Support Services. Our duty at the center was to wrap up Christmas presents which included candles, gloves and cosmetics.
While at Senior Support Services I decided to venture out and explore the neighborhood. The area around 18th St is sprawled with Churches, bars and liquor stores. All three are huge indicators of poverty; people either seek God in hardship or choose to drown their sorrows through drinking. After I returned to the center I met a boisterous African-American female in her mid-50s, Ethel-May. WOW!!! She sat right by where I was working and talked persistently for three hours. Half of what she said was incoherent but bless her soul she meant no harm.
That same night we went to Broadway Community Center, a soup kitchen, for dinner. We stood in line just like all the other people and sat and ate with patrons of the center.It was such a humbling experience sitting amongst the homeless and realizing there was nothing different between them and me.
We had the opportunity to volunteer with many other organizations such as DenUM- Denever Universal Ministries, St Vincent DePaul Thrift Store, Mt Saint Vincent School and most importantly Habitat for Humanity which I was really looking forward to. This was my first time doing any kind of construction work but I can certify that I am now a professional drywall specialist. It was an exciting and equally tiring task.
Habitat for Humanity builds homes for individuals who have need and the condition is that the individual put in 250hours either on site or at the Habitat for Humanity Hardware store. The individual also has to pay for the house but gets an interest free mortgage and they have to make monthly payments which equal 25% of their income.
The entire week was surely a life changing experience . Each night we had reflections and each reflection brought up challenging topics that changed the way I viewed the poor and the homeless. During one of the sessions a team member read an excerpt from a poem by Oriah Mountain Dreamer– “The Invitation“
“It doesn’t interest me
to know where you live
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up
after the night of grief and despair
weary and bruised to the bone
and do what needs to be done
to feed the children.”
I came across a plaque at one of our volunteering sites which sums up my understanding of service