by John Zielinski
From October to April every year I find myself doing something that I never imagined. Once a month on a Saturday after a full work week, I get up at 4:00 AM, throw on some clothes, get in the car and drive about 20 minutes to a church of which I’m not a member. I’m not going there for services. I’m going there to serve.
For some number of years now I’ve been part of a small crew that cooks and serves breakfast to a group of people at a shelter who have no place to call home. They get to spend the night somewhere warm and have a safe place to sleep. They get a hot dinner in the evening when they arrive and a warm breakfast before they have to hit the streets and get through another day. Sometimes it’s as few as 40 guests.Some days it’s been close to 70. Sometimes the shelter has hosted only men. Other times it’s been men, women and children. Seeing the kids is the toughest part for me, especially the toddlers. We serve scrambled eggs, sausages, hash browns and English muffins. There’soften fresh fruit – usually bananas – that can be taken when people leave. It’s the kind of breakfast that many ordinary folks take for granted. For our guests this may be the best breakfast that they’ve had in a while. Around holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas we try to provide some kind of treat as well – candy, cookies or something similar. Perhaps most importantly, we get an opportunity to interact with the guests. This isn’t an amorphous group known simply as “the homeless.” These are individuals and each has her or his own story about how they ended up where they are.
There are a lot of stereotypes about people who live without the benefit of a permanent residence. They’re mostly negative and spread by those who have never met, much less gotten to know, one of these people. As with all stereotypes, it’s possible to find individuals who match it. That is, after all, why stereotypes persist. Based on my own (admittedly limited) experience, though, there are many more who don’t fit the stereotype. Regardless, these are all people who have nowhere to call home. They live on the street or – when they can –in shelters provided by charitable organizations.
I never planned to become a volunteer at a shelter. I have to admit that it was my wife who got me involved after she had well over a decade under her belt. When I first started doing the work I was apprehensive. I’d never been around so many people in this condition at one time. I never had to really interact with any one of them except when encountering them on the streets of downtown Chicago. I never realized that there were so many people living this way in the suburbs. As time passed, I put aside my apprehension,began interacting and got to know my guests as human beings.
As Christmas approaches it’s difficult to avoid encountering Charles Dickens’ famous A Christmas Carol whether in its original written form, as live theater or in one of its various film incarnations. Yes, the story is a bit maudlin, but at its heart it has something important to tell us 175 years after it was first published. It surprises me how many people know the story but have never learned any lesson from it. Perhaps the most important lesson is, “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Herein metropolitan Chicago there are a number of organizations that provide shelter to those who have nowhere to call home. The one with which I work is called PADS.That’s short for Public Action to Deliver Shelter. There are PADS organizations all over the area as well as in other parts of Illinois. Just Google ‘public action to deliver shelter’and you may be surprised at the number of results. In other states or other metro areas you should be able to locate similar organizations.I’m not telling you this because I expect you to become a volunteer although you may decide that you’d like to do so.
Most of the organizations that are providing shelter to those without homes rely strongly on donations. While this principally means financial donations, many organizations (or individual shelter sites)also accept donations of clothing in good condition that can be made available to those in need. I’d like to suggest that as part of your holiday preparations you take a quick look in your closets and drawers. You may find a coat that you haven’t worn in years. You may find shirts or sweaters that aren’t quite your style (or your size) any longer. Collect these together, call the main number for your local organization and ask where and when you can drop them.Consider these Christmas gifts.
Here’s one last thought from Dickens on the subject.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
May whatever holiday you celebrate during this season be happy and may you bring a bit of that happiness to those who don’t have a home for the holidays.