What I Learned from the Homeless

During the weekend, I went to The Mustard Seed to volunteer with a couple of friends. For those of you who don’t know, The Mustard Seed is a non-profit organization that provides shelter, food and support to the homeless. I haven’t had much experience in working with the homeless other than a couple of times during my university years, so it really was (forgive the cliché) an eye-opening experience.

My first task when I arrived was to open lockers for people. Each person has a locker to store their personal belongings and only I had the key to open these lockers. Before accessing their lockers, everyone had to pass through a volunteer or staff member at a desk to have their Mustard Seed ID checked and their locker number verified. Once that was done, they would proceed and stand patiently beside their lockers to wait for me to come to open it for them. I don’t know why I had a pre-conceived notion, but I was pleasantly surprised at how polite and friendly the men and women were. Every single one of them said “thank you” and some of them even told me that I didn’t need to rush (because I was running to get to everyone – that locker room fills up pretty quick!). Although the lockers smelled like body odour, cigarettes, and urine, I can honestly say that I truly enjoyed conducting this simple act of service.

The second task that I was given entailed handing out hygiene products, towels, socks and clothes. This was quite simple, I would wait by a window for someone to request shampoo, a razor, or a towel, and I would hand these items to them. I should give credit to my past summer jobs working as a cashier, server, and barista because I surprised myself when I automatically switched to customer service mode with a cheery “Hi there! What can I get for you today?” This might also have to do with the fact that I am naturally very eager to please… not something I’m particularly proud of. Anyway, I was able to squeeze in a couple of conversations with these men and women, and what really struck me was that they had such a grateful attitude. They didn’t expect or demand anything. If an item they requested was not in stock, they would shrug, smile and say “that’s OK, thanks anyway!”. I remember on so many occasions when I worked in customer service that if I made a mistake or could not give a customer what they asked for, they would glare at me and complain to my supervisor. And even with the problem resolved, they never said a word of thanks. What a striking difference! I was so humbled by the gratefulness of these homeless men and women. They have nothing and yet they possess more than some people will ever have.

Toward the end of the night, the volunteers were invited to dine with everyone else so we lined up and got a hot plate of rice and curry with a side salad and naan bread. I stood with my tray of food looking for a place to sit. For a while, it felt like I was the new kid at a large high school cafeteria. I finally found a spot in that packed dining hall with two of my other friends and in an instant we were joined by a gentleman (I regret that I do not recall his name). He sat down with us and began teaching us about quantum teleportation. He took out a pen and rapidly scrawled numbers, diagrams, and graphs on a piece of paper towel in an effort to educate us about a topic that made me reminisce my horror years of chemistry and math in high school. Suffice it to say, I didn’t understand a single thing, but unlike some of my past high school teachers, he did a very good job of holding our attention.

Before we knew it, the night had ended and it was time to go home. It wasn’t until I was brushing my teeth that night and crawling into bed that it truly struck me how incredibly blessed and fortunate I am to have a bed to myself, to be able to take a shower whenever I want, to never have to worry about food. I have all the comforts of life and I didn’t even recognize these blessings until after I had returned home. I think I could learn a thing or two from the homeless at the Mustard Seed – how can it be that I have so much and I don’t even feel satisfied when they have next to nothing and can genuinely give thanks? When I stepped into that building that night, I had hoped to make a difference. But it was really they who had helped me.

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2 thoughts on “What I Learned from the Homeless

  1. I’m so glad to hear this wonderful experience! It’s amazing to see how these events can be such a great experience… where you think that you’re walking in to “help” them when in reality… they’re the ones you taught and you’re the one leaving with something new! How empowering it is!

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