Every once in a while, a family walks into The Gathering Place and straight into my heart. Earlier this week I had the privilege of meeting another one of these families. As they left today, having made new connections and having regained a sense of stability, I felt part of my heart walk out the door with them. I didn’t realize the extent to which they had managed to touch me in a matter of just two days until I walked through the door of my own house, greeted a couple of my housemates, and instantly, despite my best efforts to maintain composure, surrendered to the tears that had begun to flow.
This family’s story is not unusual for the families who show up at The Gathering Place. They just moved to Denver from another state, fleeing an unhealthy (and quite honestly devastating) living situation. But there just seemed to be something different about them. The kids had energy. They had enthusiasm. They were excited to be there. The latched onto and loved all of our Family Programs staff instantly. They didn’t share the exhausted, defeated, or hesitant gaze many of the kids who are in their situation possess. I spent two days with them making crafts, building epic train tracks, molding animals out of Play-Doh, stacking an entire wall of cups, coloring pictures of Spiderman, and building sandcastles in the sandbox. We talked about sports, the presidents (they agreed that it was time for a female president, so I decided I liked them right away ;)), science projects, and music. They were possibly the most respectful, well-behaved kids I have ever had the privilege of knowing. And I will forever treasure the meticulously colored picture of Spiderman now hanging by my desk in their honor.
However, it was their mother who perhaps transformed me the most. Women come to us with all sorts of different stories, as well as educational, employment, socioeconomic, and familial backgrounds. Maybe it was because this particular mom shares more in common with me than the vast majority of people I have come to meet at TGP. She has a college degree. She loves kids. She spent time working in social services. She comes from a similar world that I do—one of relative comfort and privilege. She was quick to tell me that she had never experienced homelessness or any situation like it before. However, she had been desperate to get out of her previous situation and was now doing her absolute best to stay strong and in control for her kids. And is she ever strong. As we stood on the rooftop garden looking at the mountains, she told me, “This last week has been an absolute blur. I feel like I can’t even fully take in this view right now, but one day soon I will. The kids don’t really know what’s going on. They think we’re on a fun vacation… You know, it’s crazy. I don’t think I’ve even really cried at all. I mean, maybe I did a little bit last night because it was our first time ever staying in a shelter, but not really even then. I think it will hit me when this all calms down. Then the tears will come.”
Perhaps what amazed me the most was her willingness to open up to me, to share her story with me, and then the genuine curiosity she took in mine. She asked me where I was from. She asked about my family. She asked about what it was like to grow up on a farm. After she found out I was a full-time volunteer, she asked me about Urban Servant Corps. She asked about my musical taste, my weekend plans, and my plans after this year. And she was truly interested. I became more than just a volunteer who was there to meet her needs. For one of the first times at my placement site, I felt like a three dimensional human being—with my own needs and my own life outside of my particular role at TGP. Instead of a typical client/service-provider relationship, we became equals. Two women, neither really sure what to think about big city life, both dearly missing people back home, both with our own hopes, dreams, and passions, just trying to navigate this big, crazy world while sitting on the rooftop, soaking in the beauty of the mountains and Colorado sunshine. I can’t say if my presence will make a lasting impact on her, but I will be forever grateful for the simple gift she gave me: the gift of truly being seen, of being known, and being loved.
At work, we talk all the time about the importance of treating clients with dignity and respect, which is so often denied to many of the people we serve. We talk about the power of choice, about reaching out to people to hear their stories, and about taking time to truly be present with people. I knew such simple actions were powerful. I knew that making someone feel valued and loved could be as important as providing them with a box of food, new clothes, or diapers for their baby. However, I wasn’t prepared for the power of this one simple role reversal. I was humbled in recognizing the fact that I do not always have to (or get to) be the giver. Sometimes I do in fact simply need to receive. And that’s okay. My privilege, my education, my role as a service provider does not make me immune to the most basic of human needs. And thanks be to God for that, as both giving and receiving are beautiful parts of human existence. We can’t effectively have one without the other. And it is this simple lesson that has brought me to tears over and over again today. Life isn’t meant to be lived alone, and sometimes the people who show up to accompany you at just the right moment show up in the most unexpected places.
So, today I am humbled, inspired, and simultaneously emotionally drained and completely fulfilled. But most of all, I am so grateful for this beautiful, messy journey. Soli Deo Gloria.