By Naomi Silver
It has been two years and my life has never been the same. I went out on the Ve’ahavta van for my first volunteer shift two years ago and I was hooked. I came home that night with a new level of appreciation for the blessings in my life. I had never noticed how soft my sheets were and how solid the walls of my house were. I savoured every drop of water that fell from the shower and was grateful for every drop of rain blocked out by my roof and windows. I peeked in on my 3-year-old and her soft angelic face made me realize how much love I am surrounded by. I opened the fridge and was in awe of the freedom I have to eat nutritious food whenever I wish. The faces of the people I had walked past over the years echoed in my memory. Their names and stories engraved in my mind forever. How the simplest gesture or kind word could be the first human contact that person had received all day astounded me. I had found my place.
I have the pleasure of spending a couple of nights a month volunteering on the van along with my best friend Glorianne. Every shift is a little different like Forrest Gump says, “like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get”. Some nights people are very talkative, sometimes it is really busy, and we meet many new clients. The one constant is the same, the need is great. I think I have gone through every emotion known to humanity. I treasure the openness the clients have with me and the relationships that have developed over the years. I have mourned their losses and celebrated their successes as few as there are. I have become frustrated with the systems in place or lack thereof and tried to lobby with my city Councillor only to learn that the work we do on the van is where my energy is best used. I have learned the most important thing I can do for the clients is not necessarily the items we bring to them (of course vital) but simply a smile is often what they need most. I have seen young, old, mentally fit, mentally ill, every cross-section of humanity to learn that homelessness isn’t selective.
I have certainly changed my thoughts and opinions on what lands a person on the street.
One of the things I have learned through this experience is the ripple effect my volunteer work has had on my family and community. Over the years my front mudroom has become a makeshift donation centre where people in my community often drop off items. I regularly post urgently needed items on social media, especially for the respite shelters this past winter. I would come home, and my mudroom would be filled with 30 bags of dog food as that was what had been requested. Urgent need for size 14 shoes for a man I met without shoes and hours later a new in box pair landed on my doorstep and I ran them down to him that night. My four year old organized a blanket drive at her school this past November when I told her the van shift the night before had been full of requests for blankets and we had none to give out. She won a community award from her school. This is the impact of Ve’ahavta in my home. I am so in awe that my love of volunteering with Ve’ahavta has spread through my neighbourhood and everyone knows me as the lady who collects for the homeless. I love that!
When is it hot out, when it rains, when it snows, when the winds blow an arctic chill I think of the faces and names of people I once never knew. When I get in the van with the incredible outreach workers we go through a checklist of how clients are doing, did “blank” get a coat, have you seen “blank” lately? I have seen the horrors of the shelters, the impact of substance abuse, the deterioration of health. I have also seen strength of spirit, families formed by friendship, a resilience and resourcefulness.
I hope that by sharing my experience in the trenches with the homeless and marginalized communities of our city will inspire others as well. I have met the most amazing people through my journey the last couple of years. I used to walk past homeless people and had stereotypes associated with homelessness and street youth. Now, I have faces and names that echo in my head. I now know they are Veterans, Aboriginal people, those affected by mental illness and addiction issues. As well, there are educated professionals, abused men and women and youth, immigrants and some people that just landed in unlucky circumstances. Homelessness affects people from all walks of life, financial circumstances and education levels. I have certainly changed my thoughts and opinions on what lands a person on the street. These are the most resilient people I have ever met and every time I am on the street I am amazed by the stories I hear. The clients we encounter on the street are the most grateful, polite and gracious people I have come across. Their gratitude and manners should be a lesson to many.
Homelessness has a face and a name for me now and I have a place in this community. I am so blessed to have Ve’ahavta in my life and hope to continue to volunteer as long as I can.
Whatever your reason is for volunteering, there’s lots of ways to get involved at Ve’ahavta.