The sun was beginning to set, the sky a sherbert orange, the clouds a peachy pink, and the wind a delicious flavor of cool desserts. Still the sun’s bright beams brought a blanket of comfort and security. All the signs and typical attributes of a signature sunset in Phoenix.
This was my first time going to a homeless shelter. My knee bounced up and down, my feet made soft tapping sounds on the floor. I dragged my palms across my pant legs one more time as the bus turned around the corner to reveal colonies of tents, clusters of shopping carts overfilled with clothing, and anything else that was necessary to live on the streets of a big city.
My mind raced as I thought of the warnings that my mother issued to me as we drove through the city streets. Mother always made it a point to avoid contact with the homeless, as if their station in society was a disease that could not be spread.
“Don’t look,”she would order my siblings and I as we passed homeless people on the street corners. Over time I learned to be cautious of them and my siblings learned to view the homeless in an abhorable light.
All the while this persisted in my head I knew that I had to get those mandatory services hours for Interact, a community service club at my school. In other words if I wanted to avoid becoming like them, I had to interact with them. I had no choice.
I entered Andre House, passing the unfortunate, refraining from eye contact with them. Andre House smelled of cleaning products and the floors sparkled, recently moped. Racks of food lined the hallway as we walked in, each shelf was labeled with its contents.
To prepare the food that was to be served I chopped tomatoes, watermelon and honeydew with some students and friends in my class. We discussed our favorite things, just chatting and nearly forgetting the purpose of our visit to the shelter. I thought that chopping and preparing food was the most that I would be doing. However, job reassignment was announced.
I did not think that I would actually be conversing with the homeless. All at once my nervousness began to come back. I hoped for a job that was individual and that involved little direct contact with the people waiting outside for food. I was tasked with serving bean sauce. I remember thinking Bean sauce? What in the holiness of Mount. Olympus is bean sauce?
But that was just a slight distraction. I served bean sauce to people who wanted it. It was obvious who had been homeless longer than others. Their clothes were more ragged and worn. And they were the ones that were willing to take everything that they were given while the newly homeless were picky and would only take what they considered to be acceptable. Most people looked just as worn as their clothing this made the recently homeless more noticable. The newly homeless faces were relatively clean as were their shirts while the older people were hunched over almost folding into themselves.
Some people were picky and quick to shout and blame others for a mixed order.They made big scene to the point I actually believed that a fight was about to break out. But there were other people too. The good people. The aggressively positive people. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw them.
A lady with dirty blonde hair, her feet black in her duck taped slippers, wearing a pilled, gray-holed-jacket, approached me and when I asked if she would like some bean sauce she smiled, showing her jagged teeth, laughing heartily.
“Put it to the side, the other side, the front, the back put in anywhere I just want everything. Girl, I just want everything,” she rasped out. Her voice was surprisingly cheerful yet abrasive.
I could not help but laugh along with her. Her presence and enthusiasm was like light, you couldn’t help but look and admire it.
As clean up was underway I realized that some of the homeless people were cleaning alongside the volunteers. They stacked chairs and lifted their plates so volunteers could clean under them.
As we were exiting Andre House, a Phoenix soup kitchen, I was surprised to see that the homeless people were no longer tense and afraid, instead they were placid. I realized that the reason I was afraid to look them in the eye before was because I was felt guilty. I felt guilty that I had what they did not. I felt guilty because I was the person who passed them in the streets ignoring them. I felt guilty because I was afraid of them. But that was before Andre House, after talking to them it was easier to see them as more than homeless but as just people. It was easier to realize that I may have somethings that they don’t have but we all had hearts and the capacity to love and feel happy, sad, frustrated and everything in between.
At the end of 4 hours I could see that they were a person as much as I was. I looked back and heard them whisper and call out to us again before we entered the bus. Their words of thanks followed us back to school and resonated into the rest of our lives.
It was only after this day that I found that the Interact motto, “Service above self,” had a true meaning of treasured community service and the impact of a helping hand on others of the community.