If I were to describe every situation that has taught me something meaningful that I’ve encountered in the last few months at the women’s shelter where I work, I could probably write a book. Oftentimes these moments are seemingly simple, and I don’t even realize the impact they’ve had on me until later. Sometimes I have a hard time pinpointing or articulating what these moments were and how they’ve impacted me, but then again some moments are just too beautiful not to share, even in their great simplicity. Try as I might, I will never understand what it truly means to face homelessness without experiencing it for myself. However, as I’ve attempted to embrace vulnerability and to open my ears and heart to the sometimes devastating truths my clients share, I have found that their stories have weaved their ways so delicately into my own. And I simply can’t help but share snippets of some of them, in hopes that you too may find your own story impacted, even gently.
Earlier this week, Shauna*, a spunky four-year-old skipped through the doorway of the Family Programs Area with her head held high and joy beaming in her smile. We have seen her and her family a lot lately at the shelter, and I have gotten to experience both the good days and the not so good ones with this family. But if the extra skip in her step was any indication, that particular day was destined to be a good one.
Seconds after I managed to relinquish my morning coffee long enough to muster a greeting, Shauna skipped over to me, put one hand on her hip, and held up wiry her right arm, proudly displaying a colorful rubber band bracelet that had not been on her wrist the day before.
“A girl gave this to me last night. She told me that I’m strong.” The determination in her voice and the sparkle in her eyes alluded to a newfound sense of confidence I hadn’t seen in her before. For the rest of the morning, Shauna took every opportunity to hold out her wrist for others to see, always making sure to tell the story behind the bracelet: “She told me that I’m strong.”
I recently read a Colorado Public Radio news piece exploring the links between poverty, stress, and academic success among teenagers. While the results of the study were not overly surprising (teens living in homelessness and poverty face a significant amount of stress and for a number of reasons often experience less academic success), one quote in particular really stuck out to me: “Youth have often told me — it’s taken one teacher noticing them, telling them they have potential that’s made the difference — that allows them to see their own potential.”
In a world filled with so much need, it can be so easy to become completely overwhelmed at the mere thought of trying to make a difference. In my months at The Gathering Place, I have lost count of the number of days that I have left work feeling completely burned out, exhausted, and really, really small. I leave frustrated at the fact that affordable housing is so hard to come by in Denver. I leave feeling devastated after witnessing the effects of trauma and neglect on young children. I leave overwhelmed at the realization of the prevalence of mental illness. I almost always leave wishing I could have done more, said more, given more. But this study and a story about a simple rubber band bracelet remind me of the power of just one person: One person who tells a young girl that she’s strong. One person who stops long enough to simply listen to a frustrated friend, coworker, or complete stranger and be present in the moment, even if it feels completely inadequate. One person who looks into the eyes of a teenager and points out the unique gifts he or she possesses. One person who recognizes the presence of God in their neighbor, regardless of skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, physical ability, or financial situation. At the risk of sounding cliché, it turns out one person can really do a lot.
Even people who are in the midst of the most devastating life situations are not helpless, passive beings. People possess an incredible amount of strength, beauty, and power, if only they are able to recognize it.
So today, take a moment to recognize your own power, my friends. And dare to share even just a spark of that beautiful power to ignite the power and strength in others.
*name has been changed