Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Emergency Shelter

Today I started volunteering in the local rescue mission's Emergency Shelter. Eight days ago, I was walking past the door of the shelter and thought, "I have some free time, and I've thought about trying to volunteer there before... Let's see what's available." So, I walked in and struck up a conversation with the guy behind the desk. "The Bubble," as they call it. It's basically Command Central for the men's mission. I asked him if they could use some extra help, and he referred me to the volunteer coordinator after we chatted for about a half hour about the Mission, its purpose, and its Christian foundation. Two hours later, I got a call back and had scheduled an individual orientation session for last Tuesday. Fast forward to today, and things have gotten off to a great start.

My responsibilities are really anything and everything that comes through the door, from dispensing and logging residents' medication to handling and forwarding various issues like locker assignments, signing out equipment, answering telephones, monitoring security cameras, escorting new people to various locations, and buzzing people in through the many entrances to the building. That last one is pretty cool; when someone pushes the buzzer by an exterior door to get in, I answer the phone to speak with them while pulling up the security feed to make sure nothing shady is going on before I let them in.

Aside from all of those miscellaneous, random tasks, probably the biggest (and BEST!) responsibility that I have been given is talking to people. This is absolutely amazing. Multiple times this morning, as guys stood at my station waiting for rides or for a class to start or for their sack lunch to get made and brought up from the kitchen, we just talked. Many of them simply long for someone to talk to and share their story with, so often all I have to do is introduce myself and, once I know their name, say, "So what's your story?" After that, it's a piece of cake: I listen and encourage.

One guy that I met today stands out in particular - we'll call him Stan. Stan is just 23 years old, and was released from prison last month after two years of incarceration. Two years, which he summed up in one very distinct word: lonely. His eyes teared up multiple times as he shared his story with me. Stan moved from Albania with his sisters when he was just sixteen years old and has never learned to read or write, though his spoken English is quite good. Can you imagine being in prison for two years without ever being able to read a book or read/write a letter from/to a loved one or a friend? I can't imagine the isolation...

I learned that he is on strict probation for the next two years, and will then move down to a more relaxed probation for three more years. He didn't say much about his offense, and I didn't pry, but he did mention that he has what's called a CSC - Criminal Sexual Conduct violation. He said he is not allowed to go near any underage children at any time; to do so would be a parole violation. He acknowledged that he "had done a really bad thing," but we didn't discuss much more along those lines. I knew that many of the guys living at the shelter have issues like this, so it didn't surprise me. I just tried to listen and talk to him, focusing on the person that I saw in front of me instead of the stigma associated with his criminal conviction.

My conversation with Stan focused on things like what he was learning in his GED classes, what types of things he liked to do now that he was out of prison (the freedom to ride his bike, as long as he stayed away from schools and parks, was a big one), what his favorite fast food restaurant is (McDonald's, as opposed to my Burger King - though he agreed with me that the Whopper is the best burger out there, and I agreed with him that it was too expensive), why he thought things weren't going well with the classes (he's too shy with his tutors), and what he would like to do with his life someday (work with his hands on things like bikes and cars). I think that Stan probably has a learning disability that makes it much harder for him to read and write and focus on things like that than most people. I think he also doesn't see much benefit in learning to read, given that his skills and background are more trade-oriented. Stan opened up a lot with me, which I found out later was not normal for him. Next week, I hope to encourage him to focus on his reading lessons by explaining that a lot of the time, when you're trying to learn how to do something new with bikes and cars, it can be really helpful to reference written manuals and tutorials.

I could go on and on about how great it was to get to know Stan a little bit, and to encourage him to learn and to keep moving forward with his plans to become reintegrated in society, but unfortunately I have to get to sleep in preparation for my Analyt quiz tomorrow morning. What I will say is that this opportunity to volunteer at the Mission is going to be incredible. I feel like I'm going to make a difference in peoples' lives, even if it is just by listening to them and encouraging them to do the best they can. I want to show them that I care, and many of these men simply want to feel like they matter to someone.

Seems like a good fit to me.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I think this is great, Justin. I'm glad you went in there to offer your help. I bet there will be impact both for you and those you meet up with.

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