For the past 3 months, on the first Sunday of each of those months, I have been leading a group of youth volunteers to a local shelter and food bank called Good Shepherd Ministries. I am an active member of a leadership organization, and one of its main advocations is instilling a sense of awareness to community and social needs. For my group of youths, between the ages of 14-15 years old, we have spent the past few months working on a project looking at the effects of poverty and homelessness and ways in which we can do something to help those overcome such challenges in their lives. Just yesterday, after almost half a year of researching and volunteering, they presented their experiences to over 70 younger students at a local elementary school. And other than one final presentation that they have to do in from to their peers during their final leadership sessions, they are finally done.

For those that are interested in learning more, Good Shepherd opened its doors in 1963 as a shelter for those that need a warm bed at night, with food and clothing aplenty. Other than providing the basic necessities of life, it has also helped people overcome addictions and access health care at their in-house medical clinics. Each year, an estimated 16000 individuals use one or more of these services, and with its doors opened 365 days a year and led by a dedicated group of staff and volunteers, Good Shepherd has essentially been a beacon of hope for the less fortunate.

Entrance to Good Shepherd Ministries at 412 Queen Street East

Entrance to Good Shepherd Ministries at 412 Queen Street East

Although I have been to Good Shepherd as a volunteer once before, I went in with the same curiosity and inhibitions that my group of youths had. This was, of course, outside of their comfort zone. As one of my kids pointed out during the presentation yesterday, most of the times they would look away or avoid interacting with people on the street as it is customary in our current social context. Now, here they were, opening themselves to seeing some of the crippling realities that a lot of people face and struggle with in life.

On the three separate occasions that we went, we were able to help out at the different areas of the shelter that needed the most assistance. In October, we spent a lot of time in the kitchen, serving meals for the daily patrons that visit the shelter and  preparing packages for families during Thanksgiving. In return, we always had a free meal which we were always happy to receive after all the hard work we put in.

Preparing food for lunch time with some of the youths in my group

Preparing food for lunch time with some of the youths in my group

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A look at the cafeteria. This usually is filled with people by the lunch hour, both volunteers and people looking for a meal.

We also had a chance to help out in the upper levels, where we helped with cleaning and making the 91 beds that were located at the facility. Although it seems to be very arduous work, none of the kids in my group complained. I think they were all very happy to be able to contribute in any way that they could.

Making beds

Making beds

Mopping and sweeping the entire housing floor

Mopping and sweeping the entire housing floor

Finally, on the last two times that we visited Good Shepherd, the youths and I had a chance to work in the Clothing Room, where we helped to organize and separate the clothing for the men that came to the shelter. On the last day, my kids also had a chance to give a donation of warm socks to the staff members. They had made friendship bracelets and sold over fifty of them and were rewarded with the chance of seeing their time and energy be used meaningfully. We were told by the staff member at the front desk that he would distribute our socks directly to the people that came into the shelter that day, seeing as how the temperature was starting to get cold again.

Sorting out the clothing

Sorting out the clothing

It was very rewarding to volunteer our time at Good Shepherd. For the kids, it was a chance to see their efforts put into good use. Growing up, all of us have different opportunities at school to raise money or donate non-perishable food items/clothing. But, to be honest, do we ever think about where these items actually end up? My group had a chance to see that for themselves, and it was a humbling experience. I think the biggest change that I saw amongst my kids, and, in some ways, in myself, was the attitude that they had towards the less fortunate. When we see someone on the street asking for money or sleeping on the ground, our initial reaction is to look away or consider what troubles they must be in. During our presentation at the local elementary school, my group asked the students the same question. Most of the responses were ones that you would expect – the people on the street were probably there due to drugs, alcoholism, or mental health problems. And that might be true, given some of the conversations that we overheard while at Good Shepherd. But the biggest take-away that we got from our time at Good Shepherd was just how genuine and friendly the people were. Whether it was the cheerful staff members and volunteers or the people that dotted the cafeteria, there was a sense of vibrancy and togetherness that you may not expect from where we were. Everyone was in a positive mood, which quickly worked into my own group as we eagerly helped out wherever we were called upon. The food that we served, although not 5-star material, was abundant and left everyone satisfied and full. Outside we are told to be respectful and polite, but inside Good Shepherd we were seen as a large-extended family. For our efforts, minimal as it was now that I think about it, we were greeted with encouraging words and unconditional kindness. The people that worked and used the services may not have a lot in terms of tangible goods, but they were rich beyond measures in how they went about their lives.

During the school presentation, one of the youths in the group brought up Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, amusingly comparing ourselves with both Beyoncé and the less fortunate. Amusing as it was, he struck a chord in the students that were listening to the talk. Our priorities are really based on where we stand in society, and what we are given. Beyoncé may worry about her music career, and we may worry about getting the latest gadgets in time for Christmas, but what about the children and families who don’t even have enough to satisfy some of the most basic psychophysiological needs that are at the bottom level of Maslow’s pyramid? And this is the same for those with mental health or addiction-related problems. Rather than look away and blind ourselves to what they might be facing, perhaps it is time we actually opened our arms and invite the opportunities to play our part. Regardless of age, my group of youths demonstrated that it is possible to make a difference. Even if it only meant volunteering at a local shelter for 3 hours each month and donating warm socks to those that need it, these are the small tokens that can lead us to bettering society as a whole and reducing the stigmas that come with mental health and issues like poverty.

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