A Christmas Day Volunteer story…
It was 5:59 when my alarm went off. It was Christmas Day. There would be no Santa for me, no presents to open but there was plenty of giving to be done. I got dressed, made my sandwiches, packed my bags and set off to a location in Bermondsey, London.
In the dark of the morning I was greeted at the gate by 3 cheery people in high Vis jackets who wished me a very merry Christmas, welcomed me and directed me to the check in area. I was volunteering at a Crisis Foundation shelter for the homeless. This was a secret location and the guests were only allowed in if they had been referred by a day care centre elsewhere. It was only open from December 22nd until January 2nd and provided food and accommodation for 214 guests.
This was a first time for me to volunteer and I was nervous, excited and apprehensive. I was stepping into the unknown but I was looking forward to the challenge. I was not alone. As the clock ticked towards 7.45am the room filled up with a lot of people…. mothers and daughters, boyfriends and girlfriends, fathers, sisters, brothers and me. We were greeted by shelter staff who were completely dedicated to the cause and clearly delighted to see us. We were briefed on the do’s and don’t’s for the day ahead and assured that we could handle whatever this special Christmas day had in store for us.
As soon as the briefing broke up we were assigned our first task of the day. I found myself partnered with a lovely lady who was a social worker by profession. Our job was to “man” an exit location outside in the yard to prevent the shelter guests from wandering off. It was extremely cold and wet and even though we were both well wrapped up the wind was numbing. This gave me a glimmer of the cold and physical challenges that our guests encounter on a daily basis.
My day moved quickly and my duties ranged from outdoor work to cleaning the toilets, helping the guests with storing their belongings, cleaning up the dining room after lunch, mopping out the shower room, assisting guests with any enquiries that they made have. The facility provided la number of valuable services such as a dentistry, optician, hairdressers, computers, along with a supply of clothes and personal products.
So what did I take from my day?? It was hugely enlightening. The guests who I crossed paths with were all kind and courteous and showed their appreciation for any small kindness bestowed on them. Some were happy to engage in conversation which was great to share. They saw life from a completely different prospective than I did so I was keen to learn. One gentleman told me of the 4 blogs per week that he writes for a platform called “Politico”…. he was articulate and clear of thought. He was funny and engaging but to look at him you would never have seen any of this. What you would have probably seen would have been an old man, nearly toothless, unshaven with tatty clothes which were ill-fitting. This is what most of us would have seen.
The common assumption is that the homeless are uneducated and not aware of what is going on in the world. They are very much aware as they are on the receiving end of a thoughtless society they have difficulty and a fear of engaging with.
Some guests questioned our motives for being with them on Christmas Day. Some were of the opinion that they did not deserve our time, which personally I found very humbling and embarrassing. It was an honour to serve these men and women. Their politeness and appreciation of every kindness shown to them was heart felt and warming to me.
They showed resilience and pride and determination and courage. Their daily lives brings danger, hunger, humiliation, abuse, temptation and isolation. Having someone to talk to and to be listened to, to have food and hot drinks makes a big difference to them. This day was filled full of fun, warmth, music, caring and understanding.
There is a wide variety of circumstances which has resulted in the guests being in the position which they now find themselves in. From neglect and abuse at home to alcohol dependency or drug use. Some are homeless as a result of unemployment and not being able to pay rent. At our briefing we were asked not to enquire of their personal circumstance unless they wish to share…. Some did but not many.
My shift was 9 hours in duration and I although I never stopped at any stage of the day, time went by very quickly. There was not a moment where I saw anything that made me uncomfortable or nervous. Quite the contrary, I was engaged and uplifted by the way the guests behaved towards each other and to the volunteers. To refer to them by their name brought the broadest of smiles tinged with a slight confusion of someone knowing it. The guests were from a diverse group, most men. We served 153 lunches and only 4 were to women. The men were a mix of races and nationalities but most notably there was a large amount of Polish. I suspect had come to the UK to work in the building industry but lost employment and found homelessness. I observed a comradery which was borne out circumstance.
I went home emotionally charged and questioning. I saw the different faces of the human race, how we can fall, how fragile we can be, how resilient we can be when we have to be, how cruel we can be to others, the kindness, the caring, the determination to survive and to help. The giving of time meaning more than the giving of money, that appearances are deceiving and that there but for the grace of God go you or I. Fortunately for me I had a home to go to on Christmas night and every other night but as I left I wondered where would happen the people once the shelter closed it’s doors on January 2nd.
So, if you see a person who is homeless please give them a second thought. Behind the appearances of dirty clothes, perhaps begging, there is a real person, a human being who responds to kindness and courtesy. For whatever reason that their world has disintegrated they are still human and could do with a helping hand. A smile and greeting doesn’t cost us anything but it gives a recognition of their humanity.
To all the people who I shared the volunteering with I am full of admiration and respect. They too have a story to tell but most importantly they gave the most precious of gifts – their time. From the smiles on the faces of the guests in the shelter it most definitely was not time wasted.