Decorated hall at the shelter (pic could be a year old)
Last Christmas, I was fortunate enough to be in a role, where I had the entire Christmas break off. I decided to do something different. I volunteered at Caring at Christmas; a local organization, which houses about 80 homeless people from December 24th – Jan 1st, on a 24/7 basis. They have access to free food all day, manicures, haircuts, board games, pool, clothing, television, massage, dentists, doctor visits, chiropodist, the works. During the year, a smaller numbers are offered a bed, and food for the night. Rules stipulate, they must leave the next morning. Caring at Christmas is also open to others during the day. Anyone is welcomed to stop in, and help themselves to anything on offer.
During induction, we were made aware, that anyone at anytime can be homeless. Some of the people who frequent the shelter, once served in the armed services, held good jobs. You might be talking to a former engineer, teacher, civil servant etc. Chances are, we might be the only ones who bothered to sit, and have a chat with them all year. The Christmas season is the only time the majority of guests had a warm place to sleep, and food all day.
As much as I wanted to, a recent back injury prevented me from being at the shelter every day. I went as often as I could though. What an AMAZING experience! I didn’t know what to expect, but realized very shortly, how grateful I was to be able to do this. Naturally, I wanted to commit the experience, and the people whose paths crossed mine, to memory. Permit me to introduce you to a few of the people I met (names have been changed).
On my first shift, I met John. A fellow islander, he eagerly entertained me with card tricks. He told me how he had spent time in prison. His mom was suffering from terminal cancer. In a matter of fact way, he recounted the struggles he faced. I was impressed with his commitment to just keep going. I also spent time with John and Richard, who invited me to play several rounds of table tennis. John was very matter of fact in giving me hints, and tips on ball movement, paddle handling. The fact that I hadn’t played since I was a teenager? None issue.
Terry moved to Bristol a few years ago from London. He was well dressed, and well spoken. By all accounts, life was good in London. What led to the move, I didn’t know, and didn’t ask. He wasn’t interested in participating in the games, or activities. Terry was content to sit, and observe. He complained about not getting enough sleep at night. Apparently, some of the other guests stayed up all night! He had no choice though, he needed to eat.
Sandra had just moved to Britain from Spain. She was staying in a rundown hotel. One of my duties was to keep the clothes table tidy, and assists the guests with any items they needed. She had one request; a towel. Apparently, the ones at the hotel were flimsy, and not always clean. I gave her two. Wished that I could give more. The look on her face when she received the one item she asked, for will always stay with me.
Graham, he lived in a small town outside Bristol. He was nursing a broken ankle. His monthly benefit money wouldn’t come in until January. Every single day, he walked 5 hours to the shelter, because if he didn’t, he wouldn’t eat. He didn’t have money for bus fare. I struck up a quick rapport with him. Graham is tenacious. Carrying on, doing what needs to be done.
Sam was only interested in putting puzzle pieces together. We spent hours chatting over a 1000 piece. He didn’t share much about himself. So we kept to neutral, everyday topics. Time, naturally flew by. His thing was puzzles. No games, no television. Nothing. Just puzzles. And the company, of anyone who wanted to help him put them together.
Keith was a total character. A man with more than 5 City & Guilds qualifications to his name. We shared a mutual interest in pottery. Keith was the resident scrabble champion. He continually boasted about this to anyone within ear shot. One day, I put the word out, that I would challenge him. The next day, another player joined us. Come to find out, Keith had a habit of making up his own words. I came in second. I won’t forget this fellow. Keith, you’ve made an impression. May God bless you!
I could go on and on. Sometimes, I think my life is hard. The struggles, too great. I want to give up. Just like you. Then I volunteered last Christmas. I will not forget this experience, for as long as I walk the earth. I realised, I have more than I can possibly need. Before hand, I had asked some of my friends to donate unwanted clothing, and other donations. The second I place them on the table, hands came out of nowhere and swiped them away. One man’s trash is indeed another man’s treasure. Thank you to Leanne B and Sylvia K. for coming through in time, and those who promised to do so later.
I will be back this year.
Until the next post,