by Vicki Smucker

This past Tuesday was a bit disorienting for me. There wasn't anything on the calendar, but I seemed to be missing something.  There was just a shadow following me that day.

Of course, I knew the reason for this.  Tuesday is the day that, for the past 30 years, has been the day I spent volunteering at the front desk of the Center for the Homeless.  This was the first Tuesday of my "retirement" from my volunteer job that I wasn't traveling.


The Center for the Homeless has been part of my life since I first moved to South Bend in 1988.  At that point it was still in the planning stages.  The old Gilbert's Men's Store on South Michigan had been purchased, but no steps had been made to repurpose the building. However, The United Religious Community of St. Joseph County was putting out the word that the day was coming when volunteers would be needed to help as the Center opened.  I heard about it from the service committee announcement at church and it piqued my interest.  The work and population would fit with the work and training I'd had in social work and vocational rehabilitation.  It would also give me a way to engage with my new community.


The Center opened much sooner than anyone expected.  A fire in a transient hotel made a large number of people homeless overnight.  The Center opened without furniture or a kitchen.  The community scrambled to pull together beds and meals for a group of people suffering loss and trauma with nowhere else to turn.  This was a show of compassion and generosity that drew me in.  This was something of which I wanted to be a part!


I became one of a small group of volunteers who chose to work on a regular basis manning the front desk.  There were only a couple of paid people at the time, so the place was staffed by volunteers.  That's probably where I came to my understanding of  volunteering.  If I didn't show up to answer phones and do intakes on new guests, there was no one answering phones and doing intakes.  If I couldn't cover my shift, I would find a replacement by switching with another volunteer.  The seriousness with which we volunteers took our commitment to the Center is the kind of commitment most people make to their daily jobs: you showed up; you stayed with it.


I enjoyed showing up.  I gained so much in staying with it. 


You only get one life.  My life is good—a loving Christian upbringing, a wonderful husband and family, a good education, good health, a nurturing church community, and financial stability.  If I live in a community of people just like me, then I have a certain picture of the world.  I have a certain understanding of life and of people.  It's a little skewed.  Maybe a lot skewed. 


I learned about a different kind of life from the people at the Center.  Every day there I met people who have challenges I'll never face.  Not just the challenge of homelessness, but the causes of it.  How would it be to need to survive in a world where you had to face it all alone, or with a mental or physical illness that you couldn't afford to treat, or with no education or skills, or with insurmountable debt, or addiction, or a prison record, or crippling grief, or just plain poverty and hopelessness?


There are personal stories of tragedy that touched me deeply.  I won't forget the woman who came to the Center years ago, weighed down with grief and the responsibility of caring for her children after the drive-by shooting in which her husband was killed.  She got well and started a day-care center in her home when she moved out.  She came back for a time because a rent increase forced her out of her house.  I also won't forget the family who left their home in Gary,  IN because it was getting too dangerous to live in their neighborhood.  Their 18 year old son chose to stay behind.  He was killed in a gang shooting two weeks later.  And I won't forget the man whose parents abused him and told him he'd never amount to anything.  That legacy follows him.  He finds nothing worth living for.  He has debilitating depression and has tried suicide on several occasions.  I won't forget these moving stories which expand my understanding of life and of people. 


I've known some people at the Center for nearly 30 years.  They're friends.  I know their children and, in some cases, grandchildren.  I've been treated to meals in the homes of former guests.  I've received gifts from meager resources.  I've been amazed by their generosity and resilience. Their acceptance of me is a true blessing.


I've also been dismissed by some people.  Maybe they see me as too different, too privileged.  I understand this.  It's always a good reminder—I am privileged.  That reminder makes me work harder to understand the chasm that can exist between us…and work harder to overcome it.  I'm reminded to be intentional in my interactions with people, because a careless remark or action can be taken as a purposeful insult or prejudice.  I'm reminded to be humble, to take criticism, and try to make something good of it.


I'll miss the people who I've met at the Center.  I'll miss the occasional phone call from a former guest who calls on a Tuesday because he knows I'll be at the Center and he just wants to hear a friendly voice and catch up.  I'll miss the "old timer" who stops by the Center to know if I  remember him and to let me know that he's doing well.  I'll miss the new guest who asks if I know who she is and is delighted when I recall she lived there with her mother many years ago. 


I've learned a lot through my volunteering, but two things stand out.  First of all, by the most important measures, volunteering has given me far more than I've given it.  Secondly, the effects of showing kindness may not be immediately knowable, but should never be underestimated. Sometimes it works miracles.