My 12 New Things

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

New Thing #5- April 2010- Discovering We're No Different

For my New Thing in April, I visited a local homeless shelter for women and children and volunteered to help with an upcoming event. The signficance- thus the New Thing- was that I discovered regardless of station in life, we all just operate the best we can in the circumstances we've been given. We all are really no different from one another.

When I first decided to volunteer with a homeless shelter as a New Thing, my idealism briefly shot into overdrive. However, as I drove through the neighborhoods to the inner city location of the shelter, I felt fear creep in and my walls go up with every street corner that was inhabited by a scary looking individual.

It reminded me of my days as a case manager for a teen pregnancy program. For two years right after college, I worked for an inner city organization that provided services to familes through home visits. I was straight off the farm (almost literally) and thought I'd go make a difference in the world. At the time I didn't really understand what I was signing up for or the depth to the challenges that my clients would need to overcome to be succesful. In hindsight, I also realize that my definition of success for them was off. I conveyed my definition of success on them, not knowing how difficult each individual circumstance would be.

I thought that I would be working with girls similar to myself, but that had just accidentally gotten pregnant. It was my only frame of reference as I'd never really been exposed to such extreme circumstances and poverty. My clients were girls ages 14 to 20 and I was only 21 myself when I started my internship (that later turned into a full time position). I was in no way prepared for the atrocities that many of the girls had endured. Many had been victimized in some way by the people that they were closest to.

The despair of some of the circumstances I witnessed was beyond my comprehension at times. My girls and their babies made me cry on the way home from work and their stories sometimes kept me up at night. I wanted to take them all home, take care of them, and let them know that everything was going to be all right. But, I couldn't do any of those things.

Little by little, I felt the walls go up. I wanted to help them all so badly, but it was too much for me- odds were completely stacked against them, the heartbreak of repeated setbacks was overwhelming and the definition of success for many of them was not too much past survival. I had no way of making the level of impact I wanted to make. I had to get out. Almost 2 years to the day of starting with the organization, I resigned and started graduate school. That same week, a home-visiting case manager from another organization in the community was stabbed to death by a client. That affirmed my decision to move on.

When I decided to visit a homeless shelter in April, I was truly out of my comfort zone. For years, I'd built walls around myself. It's incredibly overwhelming otherwise. There's too much in the world that needs saving.

Despite my brief interlude of idealistic optimism when first choosing the New Thing, my walls were up when I walked in the door at the shelter and I didn't know how willing I was to break them down.

One of the staff members graciously met with me, shared the history and goals of the shelter and then toured me around the fairly large, but humble facility. She introduced me to women and their children along the way. One was meeting with a staff therapist. Another was utilizing the computer lab. Another was picking up her toddler from the resident childcare area and another was in one of the shared kitchens making dinner for her kids. All the women were friendly and greeted me with a smile. Some shared with the staff member and I details from their day. I met a few children that were excited to tell me stories about their recent resident talent show. One little boy shared with me what what his routine for the show had been and how everyone cheered when he finished.

Throughout the course of conversations, I heard some of the struggles the women had been through, and it shocked me to realize that ultimately their goals were the same as mine. They all wanted a good life for their children and themselves. They wanted their children to be safe, be able to sleep in a bed, and have food in their stomachs. You can dress up survival into success with expensive houses, clothes, and college diplomas but at the end of the day doesn't every parent want the basic things for their children first? When I was pregnant, every night I would pray that my baby would grow to be happy, healthy and safe. I still do that. I am no different than the women I met at the shelter, I just happened to draw a different lot in life.

Sometimes it's hard to break through the walls and let people in. I hate the prospect of setting myself up for disappointment and therefore tend to shy away from situations. But, if you turn away from anything that could ever possibly disappoint you, you'll end up a shell of a human being.

Here's what you can do...

Learn more about Sheffield Place and how you can support them by making a monetary or supply donation by visiting this page on their website. Sheffield Place provides long-term shelter and comprehensive services to fifteen families. Their purpose is to help families increase their income and educational levels, obtain and retain permanent housing, and ultimately achieve greater self-determination, respect and happiness.

According to their website, more than 80 cents of every dollar raised for Sheffield Place is spent directly on program activities designed to help families become self-sufficient. They also always need a variety of linens, hygiene products, as well as office and cleaning supplies. Additionally, Sheffield Place conducts a Mother's Day Drive every year for small things to give the moms- lotions, cards, jewelry, slippers, etc.

Here's some information on homelessness from the Sheffield Place website:

The women and children that we serve are often victims of their environment. Many of the homeless women who come to live at Sheffield Place are undereducated, lack job skills, live in poverty and have been abused by a husband or boyfriend or other family member at some point in their lives. At Sheffield Place we help our mothers address and resolve these underlying issues so that they can become self-sufficient and create a home for their families. By helping the mothers, we help break the cycle of poverty, abuse and homelessness and give their children a chance. Below are some general statistics that establish the ever increasing need for our community to provide assistance to homeless mothers and their children.

The average age of a homeless person today is 9.

Each night in America, roughly half of all children seeking shelter do not find it.

Homeless children are twice as likely to be held back in school as non-homeless children.

Contributing Factors
Over 30% of homeless families have an open case for crimes such as child abuse, domestic violence, incest or neglect.

Nearly 50% of homeless children either have witnessed or have been subjected to violence in their home.

In 1998, 46% of cities surveyed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors identified domestic violence as a primary cause of homelessness.

I believe we all have a role to play in this world. What's yours?

*All photos in this post were taken off the Sheffield Place website at

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