When I interned in New York City during the summer, every day I would pass homeless people lining the sidewalks or sleeping on benches. I would walk a little faster as I passed them, avoiding eye contact and pretending I didn’t notice them. I couldn’t help but feel nervous in their presence.
During fall break this year, I decided to participate in Alternative Fall Break and immerse myself in that type of environment by volunteering at the Rescue Mission in Syracuse, New York. Three other students volunteered as well.
First on the agenda was helping out at Thrifty Shopper, a thrift shop owned by Rescue Mission. I had never been to a thrift shop prior to this, and I was surprised to find that it felt like an offbeat version of K-Mart or TJ Maxx. We spent two hours there sorting clothes, pulling out the ones that have been on the racks too long so the store could move them to one of the Rescue Mission shelters.
Once we arrived at the Rescue Mission, we were given a tour of the grounds. There's a building similar to the Thrifty Shopper we volunteered at in the morning, but all the clothes there are given away for free. The newly renovated shelter where some people stay has a fitness center and a room with computers where residents can learn typing and resume writing. Everything is very open so as to spark inspiration and a hope for a brighter future.
As we walked across the grounds, just as I did in New York City, I would still walk faster and avoid eye contact as I passed the very people I’d be helping. I kept struggling with this disconnect: How could I be uncomfortable in the mere presence of those that I volunteered to spend my fall break helping? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical and, frankly, just plain rude?
We ended the first day going to eat dinner in the food services center where everyone else eats. We were served some pasta, two slices of bread, and an apple. I didn't finish the pasta despite the small serving size, as it didn’t quite sit with me well, so I sought solace in the bread and the apple, two foods that are always the same no matter where you go. We all basically ate in silence.
When we left the dining hall, there was a line of residents hanging out outside the building. We all had to walk down the aisle between them, and again I felt that sense of discomfort and hypocrisy I just couldn’t shake.
For breakfast the next day, we ate at the dining hall: a pancake, a slice of bread, and a hard-boiled egg. The room was crowded, so our group had to split up. I, along with two other students, sat with two of the residents at a table and ate in silence. I thought, How do I start a conversation with people who have had such different experiences than me? What am I supposed to say? How can I make a connection?
A majority of the day was spent completing administrative tasks that didn’t involve interaction with the residents. We sorted donated clothing, helped in the mailroom, and worked in the maintenance department. Our final task of the day was to help in the kitchen preparing turkey that would be served on Thanksgiving, one of the busiest days of the year.
As we ate our final breakfast in the food services center the next morning — grits and a hard-boiled egg — a resident at a nearby table thanked us for volunteering.
In that moment, I thought about the first day I arrived at the Rescue Mission. I thought about all of the awkward smiles I forced and the multiple times I would hang my head to stare at the ground as I walked by these people. I thought about how, when it comes down to it, these people are just trying to get by like anybody else.
For the first time, I made eye contact with the resident — the man — and smiled a natural, sincere smile.
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