Monday, August 29, 2011

With a Little Help From a Friend

Thought for the day:  Some people claim to love humanity. It's people they can't stand.

Like last Monday's story about the starfish stranded on the shore, when you consider the hungry and homeless as a faceless crowd, it can be quite overwhelming and depressing. But just as that one woman was able to help individual starfish, one by one, so too can we help the homeless and hungry when we learn to see them as individual people, and to treat those individuals with respect and human dignity. One way to do that is by volunteering at a soup kitchen.

I don't know when they were first called soup kitchens, and I don't know how many of them have actually provided soup. But when you hear the phrase, you know what it means. It's a place where people in want can find nourishment. I can't speak for any other location, but I can say that at the downtown Atlanta soup kitchen where I volunteered for many years, I don't remember us ever serving soup. Not even once.

But OY! the peanut butter!

Our volunteer group of five or six would meet at our church, secure our valuables in the trunk of one of the cars we left behind, and then carpool to downtown Atlanta. We usually got to the kitchen, located in the basement of a huge church, just before 9AM, and the first order of business was making peanut butter and  honey sandwiches. We went through a ton of peanut butter, too. Not little wimpy jars, like in the picture, but enormous 3-gallon plastic containers of it, into which we stirred big gobs of honey. (The mixture turned into an unbelievably sticky ooey gooey mess, but it was a NUTRITIOUS sticky ooey gooey mess.) Our first job was to make trays and trays of sandwiches, and line 'em up and stack 'em up, sixty to a tray. Most of the bread was donated by local grocery stores, and most of it was fit to eat. Our group always threw away the moldy and brick hard breads, but unfortunately, that may not have been the case for all groups.

In addition to the sandwiches, there was always some sort of hot food. Usually a casserole of some type plus one or two vegetables. The cook was a former homeless man himself, and though he may not have been a world renown chef, he was reliable and hard-working. Some of his casseroles smelled a little "off" and barely looked edible, but rarely did we ever hear a complaint about the food. Occasionally, a chuckle, though. When some of the fancy catered parties in the area had leftover food, they'd donate it to the kitchen, so sometimes we served the prettiest little hors d'oevres and petit fours you ever saw.

Great Depression bread line

Some mornings,  people were already milling around outside when we got there, but most days, the line didn't start getting serious until about an hour before serving time, and by the time we opened the doors, it'd be snaking around the corner and way down the street. Reminded me of the pictures I'd seen of the bread lines during the Depression.

When the doors were thrown open, throngs of  people would stream downstairs and line up single file at the serving counter. Most of the volunteers stayed in the kitchen, and were kept busy filling plates and placing them on the counter or handing them out to the clients as they filed by. At the end of the counter were the sandwiches. Only one plate of food to a customer, but there was no limit on the sandwiches, so most ate one or two with lunch and took another one or two with them when they left.

But I didn't want to stay in the kitchen. I chose to go into the dining area. It was a cavernous room, dimly lit, with rows and rows of cafeteria tables on each side, and an aisle down the middle. An old piano sat against one wall, and occasionally someone would play it. Really well, too. And others might gather around and sing. Anyway, with a pitcher of black coffee in one hand, a pitcher of coffee with cream in the other, and apron pockets stuffed with sugar packets, I made the rounds through the room as the Coffee Lady. It was the job I always wanted, and it's a good thing, too, because no one else wanted to do it.

Spending time in the dining area gave me the opportunity to get to know some of the people, to talk with them, to listen to their stories. To know them as PEOPLE. 

Most of the clients were men, but there were also a lot of women and children. Whole families, many of whom bowed their heads and said grace together before eating. Some clients had mental health problems, and some had drug problems or reeked of alcohol. One man I assumed to be schizophrenic would hunch over his food, babbling incoherently, and watching others with eyes filled with fear and distrust. But each time I passed him, he'd grab my arm and say, quite clearly and desperately, Pray for me. There was a group of thirty-something men who usually sat together, and they all had AIDS. Those who lived in shelters were generally clean, but those who lived on the streets were in dire need of soap and deodorant, and possibly delousing. Several women wore multiple layers of clothes, regardless of the temperature, because they were wearing every piece of clothing they owned. Another lady pushed around a grocery cart filled with all her worldly goods, and the only way she could eat was if someone carried food outside to her. 

Two people in particular stick in my mind. One was a timid young woman. She asked for such a simple thing. A tampon. Which we didn't have. Can you imagine how terrible that was for her? And my purse was twenty miles away, so I couldn't even give her money to buy any. But her shy request made me aware of yet another awful aspect of homelessness I'd never before considered. And have never since forgotten.

The other person was a homeless man, maybe in his thirties or early forties, but he looked much older. What's that expression? Rode hard and put up wet. Anyhow, we always chatted. Like friends, ya know? Laughing, kidding. He was an alcoholic, but he was battling it, and battling it hard, and making baby steps toward sobriety. One day, when he came in, he walked right up to me and kissed me on the cheek. (Man, you should've seen the looks I got from the other ladies from church. Looked like they'd all sucked on a lemon.) But the thing is, that man was celebrating six months' sobriety that day, and he wanted to share his joy, his pride, with ME. Like a friend, ya know? To tell the truth, I felt honored. (Last I heard, he was still sober. And had a job.)

The thing with the homeless, with the poverty-stricken, is sometimes we forget to look at them as people, and forget they have personal stories that brought them to such a rough patch in life. It's much easier to dismiss them if we lump them all together under a single label, but it's much harder to forget them once we see them as individuals. You'd be amazed how many homeless men are military veterans, suffering with PTSD or drug and alcohol problems. You also might be surprised to know many of those homeless people used to have homes and hopes, good-paying jobs and responsibilities, how many of them lost everything and everyone because of catastrophic illnesses. But whatever their story, no matter their lot, they are still PEOPLE. Sadly, sometimes even they seem to forget, as though they've swallowed the poisonous propaganda insinuating that the homeless are somehow less than human. They shuffle their feet. Their shoulders are slumped. Their eyes are downcast.

BUT ...

 It's amazing what being treated with respect can do for them. What a difference a hot meal, a simple conversation, a joke, a shared laugh can make. It can make a homeless man feel comfortable enough to kiss a friendly suburban gal . . . a friend . . . on the cheek.

Until next time, take care of yourselves. And each other.


  1. We have a drop in centre close to the down town core that is heavily used. It is run by a nun, Sister Christine Leyser. She is a dear, gentle soul who can, as you can, see the person under the grime and strange behaviour.

  2. Amen.

    I hope we meet in person someday, because I would be honored to shake your hand. :)

  3. I'm sure you were much more to those people than "The Coffee Lady". Thanks for sharing your incredible story.

    There's always so much more to people than what we see on the outside, isn't there?

  4. Thanks for sharing your story. Oh, the lack of a tampon. Wow. No, I can't say I ever wondered what a homeless person would do. I suppose they are thrown back to the time of "rags." And Anne is right. I'm sure you were much more than "The Coffee Lady."

  5. Hi, ladies. Thank you so much for your comments.

    Delores- I believe anyone can find the person under the grime if he takes time to look.

    Linda- Aw, how sweet. I'd love to meet you someday, too. We can shake hands if you'd like, but be warned: I'm a hugger.

    Anne- You're right. Everyone has a personal story, but very few of those stories are apparent by appearance alone.

    Dianne- Yeah, that tampon story really brings it close to home, doesn't it?

  6. It is also amazing the power we have, even in one small act, to change someone's life for the better. Great post.

  7. Hi, Florida. You're absolutely right. We really can make a difference. Thank you, ma'am.

  8. What a great post! Thank you for sharing your story.

  9. “Whatsoever you do to the least of my people, that you do unto me.”

  10. As you probably know I have run "soup kitchens" for homeless and other people (we never served soup either) until recently.
    I would like to say two thank yous to you.

    First thank you for volunteering! Charities like that just aren't feasible without the wonderful people like you who give of themselves.

    Second, thank you for seeing people for who they are and not just as "homeless" or "psychotic" or what ever... Such a noble spirit must reside in a very special person.

    The tampon story struck a chord for me. We had a lovely old lady who would come in every week to top up our "secret" stash of feminine hygiene products.

    Thank you again

  11. Hi, Kara. Thank you, ma'am.

    Hi, Starting Over. Amen.

    Hi, Natasha. Glad you enjoyed it.

    Hi, Al. Thanks for all your kind words. Seeing people as people doesn't strike me as being either noble or special. It seems more peculiar to me that someone wouldn't.

  12. What a wonderful post. It makes me want to go out and do something good.

  13. Hi, Karen. Thank you, ma'am. Glad you enjoyed it.