My first day volunteering at Boutwell Auditorium was eye-opening, but yesterday – yesterday was moving and at times almost spiritual. I arrived a little after 4:00 p.m. and while disappointed I didn’t have more donations to offer (yes, that was my first attempt at a subtle guilt trip, you guys need to step up) I planned on staying as long as they needed me to and hoped that would be an acceptable trade, albeit maybe not an adequate one, for my lack of donations. (Remember, I’m Catholic, I can give a guilt trip that would make the Pope cry).
When I arrived, I immediately had this feeling of ‘belonging’ and it’s a feeling I’ve missed. Being a part of something like this changes a person – for the better. I’ve donated items before, helped feed the homeless for one night, spent an afternoon organizing donations at a local shelter, but when you spend ten consecutive hours getting to know these people, listen to their stories, see the look of surprise on their faces when you hold their hand as you walk with them to the donation room, that is something that changes you. It’s a powerful and wonderful feeling knowing that you are making a difference in a person’s life. One gentleman, his name is Walter – helped me unload blankets out of my car yesterday. While we were doing that, he kept apologizing for his appearance. He went on to tell me how he used to look ‘real nice, all day long’ and that one day soon he would again. Walter has a job interview this morning and you may remember yesterday in my post, I wrote about the man who needed size 11 shoes. I was unable to get them donated and while I was feeling a little disappointed about not having them, now I knew I had to get them before the end of the evening. I told Walter I understood about wanting to look your best and how we only get one chance at making a first impression. The sweetest smile appeared on his face, and he sheepishly said, ‘Miss Roseanna, I bet you always leave an impression – I replied, ‘honey, you have no idea!’
Once inside, we began setting up to let the homeless in. I giggled to myself when they asked if I would help with the coffee – it’s like they knew I have some sort of primal connection to the all mighty coffee bean. About this time, the homeless began to line up outside. First there were maybe 20 and within minutes the line was down the street and the next time I checked, the line wrapped around the building. I know there are rules, but I wanted so badly to open the doors and let them all in. It was cold and it was raining. The director said we had to wait until 5:30 – but he didn’t see the mama with the baby. I’m not sure how it happened, it’s all a blur, but that mama and her baby boy were able to come in from the rain before the doors officially opened – that’s all I’m going to say about that.
Finally the doors opened and I’ve never seen people so happy to come inside and be handed a cup of coffee. There were so many more than the night before. I handed one lady a cup of coffee and she put her hands around my hands and said ‘bless you’. It would be the first of many times during the evening that I would fight like hell to hold back tears. While all this was going on, the head of the program asked me if I would like to participate in an ‘extra-curricular’ activity. Anyone else probably would have asked for details, but my personality is more of a, ‘say hell yes now, ask questions later’ type. Before I knew it, I, along with two other volunteers, one who was a dead ringer for Aretha Franklin, and a gentleman who looked just like “Bookman” from ‘Good Times’, were each driving a 15 passenger van to the BJCC. It was dark, it was raining, I’ve never driven a vehicle that size before and I don’t know that part of downtown at all, especially at night. But I had to laugh at how I seem to always end up in the most precarious of situations. At one point, “Aretha” was in the van with me and the other vans were following us. All of a sudden we see flashing blue lights in the rear view mirror and this woman starts singing…and what does she sing…”Chain of Fools”, by Aretha Franklin! I was laughing so hard I could barely catch my breath. The police weren’t chasing us, although a chain of white vans following each other through questionable parts of downtown had to look a little shady.
Back at the shelter, I began sorting through the piles of clothing donations and once again was shocked at what some people thought the homeless needed. The temperatures are in the 30’s, a sequined tank top isn’t going to be of much use to anyone. One by one, the homeless came in the donation room and we would help them find their sizes and give them what they needed for the night. With plenty of help, I left for a few minutes to grab a cup of coffee. As I walked through the lobby, I heard singing coming from the auditorium. It was sweet and soulful. I walked towards the singing and when I got to the top of the stairs, I looked down and saw and heard the most beautiful thing. As dinner was being served by a group of young college students, one of the homeless men started singing a gospel song and the college girls all joined in. Slowly, other men joined in and it was the closest thing to hearing angels sing that I will probably ever encounter. Their voices echoed through the auditorium and I felt like time was standing still, I couldn’t even move, I just stood there, listening to this amazing sound. I was moved to tears. These men have no place to call home, no family, everything they own is in a small box or back pack and they have smiles on their faces and are singing, praising the Lord. You can’t experience this watching a three-minute news clip or reading an article in a newspaper (does anyone even do that anymore). No, you have to be here, you have to see and hear it for yourself. I could write a thousand more words trying to capture what happened last night, trying to convey to you how moving it was, but it wouldn’t come close to doing it justice. I am blessed to have been a part of this.
Later that evening, Birmingham’s Mayor, William Bell, came by for a visit. I had only seen him on television and it was quite an honor to personally meet him. I was impressed by how long he stayed, actually talking with everyone – the homeless, the volunteers, the city employees. He seemed genuine and real, rare qualities for a politician.
Fortunately, there is only one child in our shelter, he is 18 months old and his mama might be in her early twenties. I don’t know their story, I don’t ask, I only listen if they want to share. But I had to ask her what her son needed because he looked as if he was sick and his clothes were old and unclean. She didn’t say much but when I sat down next to her and put my arm around her she cried. That’s all she needed to do. Tears often speak louder than words and I understood each and every one. I calmed her down, made her a plate of food and told her the only way I could help her was if she told me what she needed. She hesitated again but handed me her baby’s diaper bag. In it was one diaper, a pacifier that should never be put in a baby’s mouth and a dirty blanket. I lost it, she never saw, but the tears were pouring down my face and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do to stop them. I finally pulled it together, the last thing she needs is me falling apart. I told her my name and that I would be right back. The desperation in her eyes seemed to say please don’t leave me. I ran up the stairs and into our donation room, we didn’t have anything for babies – no diapers, clothes, nothing. I felt so helpless. Without even giving it much thought, the next thing I knew I was driving through downtown looking for a store that sold baby items – there were none. I drove to another town and found a Wal-Mart, which I usually refer to as the 7th Circle of Hell, but let’s be honest, it is the only place you can buy diapers, spark plugs and Corn Flakes – all under one roof and they are always open.
I found all the necessities for this sweet baby boy and a few things that his mama might need. Then I thought about the man who we weren’t able to give mittens to because we ran out and then there was Walter who needed shoes for his interview and the lady who was getting an unexpected visit from her ‘monthly visitor’. And Tonya, she showed up barefoot and needed socks but we ran out of those as well. It was all a little overwhelming. But I had clothes on my back and a closet full of them at home, both my babies, ages 8 & 18, had what they needed, I had a home, central heating and a family that drives me bat shit crazy, but they love me. I also had a Wal-Mart gift card that was given to me as a Christmas Gift by a friend. That combined with some of my Christmas money could pay for all the things that I needed for everyone. I had a new sense of joy knowing that I would be able to buy everything – but it ended quickly when I got to the register and was short about $25. I put a few of the items back, feeling somewhat discouraged, but still happy that almost everything needed would be given to them shortly. Besides, I had a back-up plan, this mama always has a back-up plan. Her name is Gionna, she is my daughter, my sidekick and she always comes through when I need her to. Through a series of text messages, Gionna knew what to buy and where to deliver them. My sweet girl has been working after school since June and it made my heart so happy that she used her own money to help others and didn’t even think twice about it
Back at the shelter now, and waiting for my daughter, I went downstairs to visit this mama and her baby. They were both laying together on a cot. He was coughing and had a runny nose and his cheeks, chapped from the cold weather. I showed her everything I bought and told her I wish I could have done more. She sat up and her body started shaking, she was so overcome with emotion. She put her arms out and pulled me close – I’ve never been hugged like that before. She looked at the clothes and blankets for her baby and ran her fingers over them like they were sewn with strands of gold – she was in awe. She asked me why I did this, I just smiled. I asked her if I could hold her baby and she said yes. I wanted to see how sick he was. He had a fever, and there was some ‘rattling’ sounds in his chest. I know plenty of home remedies to hopefully cure this so that will be my mission today when I return.
In just a little over an hour, Gionna had everything I asked her to buy and was at the shelter. It was late and the lights had already been turned out in the auditorium but Gionna & I snuck down the stairs and found the mama with the baby. They were still awake. I wanted Gionna to see who she was helping. Gionna had bought a teddy bear for the baby – something she did on her own. The mama gave us a sleepy smile and I told her I would see her tomorrow.
Tonight is my last night. In a few hours I will return and I will wonder if I will ever see these faces again. God I hope so. Some of their names I don’t know – but they all know my name, or they have given me a nickname. One gentleman calls me “Beautiful”, another calls me “Smiley” and a young mother with a baby boy calls me, “Miss Angel”. The shelter closes tomorrow at 7:00 a.m. and will open again on Wednesday. My little boy comes home from visiting his father the day before but Gionna has already offered to watch him so I can return to help out at the shelter. Gionna is my angel which allows me to be an angel, with a very crooked halo, to the homeless who have touched my heart in ways they may never know.