Monday, July 28, 2014

Transition

E.F.

Emily on our End-of-Year Retreat
Hardwood floors.  "I'm a veteran!" Gas included.  "How you gonna tell me I can't eat here?!" Walking distance from public transportation.  "I served my country and this is how you treat me?!" August 1st move in.

As I stand behind the podium in the entrance of the Marquard Center, I watch Thomas* stumble through the doorway, asking for a numbered ticket granting him access to the dining room.  Catching him slur and smelling the alcohol falling from his breath, I informed him he was too drunk to eat here tonight and we would provide him with a sack dinner.  As I returned to my apartment search, I was surrounded by his screams.  I was surrounded by just how unfair it all was.  Why is he homeless, while I get to move on from this place and move into a physical home of my own?

2013-14 Franciscan Outreach Volunteers
As my year with Franciscan Outreach Volunteers comes to close, I can't help by expect my interactions with guests to cleanly wrap up with a bow tied on top.  How perfect would it be if by the time I leave, all my favorite guests simultaneously got housing?  I could pass through the same doors Thomas did, sigh with relief, one last look behind me, and walk into the sunset.  But that's not how it is.  I'll walk out the doors, get on my brand new bike, and ride on to my new apartment.  As I reflect on the last 12 months and countless meals I've served, it seems as though the bellies I've filled have left me filled with guilt.

How do I walk out the doors and carry this with me?  How do I be grateful without feeling guilty?  Almost one year into this work and I still teeter between numbness and hopelessness.  In attempts to walk in solidarity with my brothers and sisters, I have become massively uncomfortable.  This is what I now share with them.  While our discomforts will never be the same kind or level of intensity, I now have an acute awareness of injustice.  It creeps up when I walk home after college orientation, distraught by my future 8:15 mornings and Saturday classes, and pass a man asleep on the bench while another tries to fix a rusted child's bicycle.  It clamps the back of my neck when I am seated outdoors at a restaurant and the guest who I recently learned was a victim of domestic violence walks by.  Or when I am in a heated building.  Or sleep in a bed.
Ladies on the End-of-Year Retreat

We should never be comfortable with the way the world is; the inequality, the suffering, the indifference. And while this could easily morph into a beautiful and heart felt call to action, I've spent the last year in action and am left exhausted.  I've felt almost every emotion on the spectrum of human capacity.  I cheered in joy when Aaron* came in a suit one evening after a job interview.  I cried in the arms of my fellow volunteers after Cele* confronted the man who raped her as I sat consoling her.  I fearfully scored Danny* due to his drunken harassment.  My eyes and heart have been opened by every interaction and emotion, and I will never be able to turn away from the realities of this world.  And while my work here has an expiration date, my memories, new found insight, and discomfort never will.  And that's how it should be.

*Names changed

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

"Sweetheart"

Zach on the End-of-Year Retreat
Z.B.

What sort of deeds would deem a 300 lb, 6'3", African American man worthy of receiving such an angelic name as Sweetheart?  A warm smile? Words of praise and encouragement? Generosity? The truth is, absolutely none of these things.  Markus* is probably the least likely human being on the planet to receive such a name...on the surface. My first few encounters with the man had me second guessing what exactly I had gotten myself into.  Some of the more notable early encounters with the colossal "angel" involved his weekly shower at the Marquard Center, of which I was responsible for supervising.  He would frequently demand to be at the end of the list for showers so he had ample time to pamper himself and complain about a myriad of problems that were completely out of my control.  Out of the 15 minutes normally allotted for men's showers, Markus would frequently take closer to 30 minutes to finish his business and make my life a (temporary) living hell.  As a result of Sweetheart's exquisite taste in food, my efforts in the kitchen would frequently be inadequate for his VIP taste buds.  My salads were inedible "rabbit food", my stewed apples were an eyesore, and my Italian Beef was dryer than the Sahara.  Just in case I still didn't get the picture, Markus would always be there to give me helpful tips for improvement like "cook the food next time!" or "I don't eat apples, and I don't eat rabbit food."  Sometimes I felt as if I was cooking for Gordon Ramsay, or King Henry VIII.
Emily, Sara, & Zach at the Hunger Walk

SLOWLY (I emphasize this word because glaciers could probably move faster) but surely, my relationship with Markus progressed.  As his sense of entitlement continued, I began to joke with him about being a princess for asking to receive special treatment on par with Princess Diana.  I noticed that this began to entertain him, at least more than my meals did.  Eventually there came a point where I had endured so much of his criticism, all I could do it laugh.  Unfortunately, the quality of resources we have at the Marquard Center is not quite up to a 5 star Michelin restaurant.  This became a comical topic of conversation between this sweet man and I.  Our conversations ranged anywhere from sports, to the tangled web of politics that makes up the governing body of Chicago, to commentary on my relationship with "Miss E" (my girlfriend).  I really began to look forward to these interactions and by now I have realized that I have learned a wealth of information from him that I could not have ever received in college or traditional education.  Because of Sweetheart, I have seen a vast improvement in my "street smarts."  This is a kind of intelligence that I could not have received in my traditional suburban Illinois background.  Everyone I had ever been surrounded with in my life was from a similar background, and it was not until this experience that I've realized how sheltered I have been my entire life.  Markus is definitely partially responsible for this revelation, however, so are all of the guests that I have had the privilege of working with this year.  As a result of Markus' unconventional way of showing affection, I have learned that his nickname may not be entirely ironic.

*Name changed

2013-14 Marquard Center Volunteers

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sammy

K.C.

Kelly enjoying the sunflowers

There he was, sitting in a chair with his legs crossed, mesmerized by John Wayne’s charismatic charm on the television. Imagine a 59-year-old African American Santa Claus with a stumbling gait, minus the red coat and hat. His toothless smile could make just about anyone chuckle. Let’s call him Sammy*. After just taking a shower in our facilities, he was clean-shaven, groomed and ready to venture back out into the scorching, humid Chicago weather. With the forecast never fluctuating much in the summer, dehydration and heat exhaustion are constant fears for the homeless. Recently, Sammy was one of the guests whom I worried about the most. The pallor of his skin tone and dismissive attitude couldn't indicate more clearly that someone was wrong. He had been losing his appetite and the once jolly grandpa that had everyone laughing was now silent in the corner. Like my actual grandpa, Sammy is stubborn.  It wasn't until his condition became worse that we insisted we call an ambulance for him.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Homeless for 17 years, being on the streets had taken a toll on him. But despite having no money, no home and no family, Sammy always had his smile on. Out of all of the guests whom I have interacted with this year, Sammy is the one that I feel most connected to. He takes everything with a grain of salt and never takes life seriously. After being checked into the hospital for about 2 days, he left against medical advice. I saw him that day when he came into our lunch program. Oddly enough, I convinced him to check himself back in. Although not my original plan, I ended up taking 45 minutes to walk him to the emergency room. During that walk, he told me about his family, his wife, and story. Building up the relationship with him this entire year has led to this conversation. I felt touched that he trusted me with the details of his life and that he could be so open with me.  At one point he had tears in his eyes and said, “you can’t go now, I will miss you too much”, referring to the end of my program. I knew he had an impact on me, but I didn't know that I had such an impact on him.
Sassi and Kelly


Sammy is someone who I strive to be in the future. Mostly carefree but serious at times, his personality cultivates likability in others. Despite his difficult predicament, he never fails to see life in a positive light. Like many of our guests, he has made the most of what he has. Often he tells me that he is a veteran survivor. The reason why he has survived on the streets for so long is that he knows how to make something out of nothing. Many Americans, including myself, need to take a step back from our lives and appreciate what we have. Not only in material possessions but also the emotional relationships and the intangible memories that are ingrained in us. If this year and Sammy have taught me anything, it’s to cherish life. To stop worrying about the clothes on my back, my appearance or material possessions and to live a more simple life. We are all humans. Everyone is worth your time. You are not more important than someone else because you are able to provide for yourself. My service has taught me to give humankind a chance—to not walk away from a hungry beggar on the street and to spark up conversation when you can. Even after the end of my program, I plan to remain in contact with Sammy and see how he is doing. 

*Name changed