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Wednesday, August 05, 2009

An Honest to Goodness Eye-Opener

Yesterday was my first day of volunteer work. It started with a brief orientation with the center director. She told me that the center provides assistance for people who live in the South Bay. They have a food pantry where they accept food donations and give out food baskets to the needy. They also provide temporary transitional housing for families. In addition, they provide job placement and skills training services for parents as well as childcare and tutorial services for the kids. Their mission is to help the needy get back on their feet.

My role is to man the front desk. I welcome new and existing clients to the center. After helping them fill in an application form, I find out what they need and assign them to one of the caseworkers on staff. In addition, I also meet with people who come in to make donations – whether money, food, clothes, or household items. I take note of these items and issue a receipt. Lastly, I help keep those waiting "entertained", point out the restrooms, play with the kids, and hand out cups of water.

I thought it would be easy-peasy. After all, how busy could it get? Well, in the 4 hours I worked there, we had 22 clients (individuals and families) that came in. Case workers typically meet with each client for about 30-45 minutes so there was plenty of waiting time for the walk-ins. I also had 3 people come in to make donations. One donation was a bag of baked goods, which was easy. But another was a trunkload of clothes and shoes that had to be sorted.

Not only was I caught off-guard by how busy it was (Later I was told I was lucky because I came on a “slow” day!), but I was also a bit flustered because I could not tell the clients apart from the donors. I know this will sound very prejudiced. But I sort of expected that the clients would look like the homeless people you see in the streets, or would be immigrants who spoke no English, or people high drugs or drunks. But they were not all like that.

I met clients who were Asian, Caucasian, African-American, Latinos. They were from all walks of life. I met a man with a PhD in Physics but was living in his car because the bank had foreclosed on his home. I met a charming old couple that had no family to take care of them and were on welfare because they lost their life savings when the stock markets crashed. I met a young single mother with a college degree and who used to live in a home that overlooked the ocean but was now living in a shelter with her kids because they were running away from an abusive husband. I met kids who matter-of-factly told me they sometimes don’t have anything for dinner because their daddy lost his job. It was a bit strange to sit there and hear all these.

I don’t mean to sound so sheltered and pretend that I don’t know how much poverty there is out there. After all, I come from a third world country and have been exposed to the poor. I have volunteered for many organizations back home that help the underprivileged. When I was in college, I taught catechism for 4 years to kids who lived in squatter areas. I will never forget those days where we would teach kids about the bible amidst heaps and heaps of garbage. I have seen my fair share. So, it is not with any sort of naiveté on my part when I say I was surprised to see so many people who needed help.

I guess what surprised me is that there are so many people who live below the poverty line here in America. Isn’t this supposedly the land of milk and honey? The land of excess? The land where if you work hard, you can most certainly reap the rewards? It was depressing to read some of the statistics. For example: there are 23,000 families in the South Bay who lived below the poverty line. IN THE SOUTH BAY! This is the community where I live – where median home prices range in the upper $500K, where we have one of the best school districts, huge shopping malls, beautiful beaches, and well-kept parks. There are no squatter’s areas or shanties here. There are no homeless people roaming our streets. How could that many people, considered to be poor, live in this quiet, middle-class, suburban neighborhood? Another statistic: last year there were 12,000 people who regularly visited South Bay soup kitchens in order to have dinner. And: the average age of a homeless person is 6 years old! I cannot get over these facts.

Even now, 24 hours later, it still seems so surreal. Part of me is heartbroken to hear such sad stories and meet those people. Part of me is encouraged because even at their lowest points, I still saw a lot of laughter, hope and optimism. And part of me is so overwhelmingly grateful to be blessed with so much and to be given the chance to do my little part to help out.

8 comments:

Auntie Lillian said...

It makes one feel so blessed and fortunate when you hear first hand stories of homelessness and deprivation of meals . These are times we question why do bad things happen to good people. There is a reason tho' we might not be able to see it at the moment. Giving your time and compassion means so much to them. Continue your good work and you'll be blessed so many times over, Joanne.

joyeee said...

Nice blog dets. I was touched and moved by your blog. It makes me want to do my part in helping as well. Maybe through simple donations and simple acts of generosity!:) What your doing is really great and very inspiring. You really have a big heart and I know you are doing this to help others... but your acts of kindness will come back to you in some way as well. Keep it up dets. I truly have a GREAT sister. (generous, responsible, ethical, accomodating, and true.)

mom said...

I am very touched with your shared experience. No matter how much we hear of the misery and problem of others we are never really prepared when confronted with the reality of the pain and suffering that poverty can afflict on people. I am so proud that you have decided to volunteer your service to help others. I do not think there is any finer act than to give generously of oneself to help another. Keep it up! You will realize soon enough that more than the people that you are trying to help it is really you ultimately who will benefit from this experience.

leslie ty said...

i agree with Joy...you really are very generous...not only in monetary things but also with your time =)

keep it up Jo! I hope I can do my part also here in Manila =)

Anonymous said...

it's devastating how much poverty there is in the world.

you couple that with the idea that food stocks currently existing are enough to feed the entire global population 3+ times over.

it's really aidos. there should be no difference between one with or without wealth.

tash

Auntie Alice said...

Hi Jo. It's devastating to hear those stories. All the more I feel so fortunate and blessed, I thank God for that.

Jo, keep up with your good work and I am so proud of you in doing volunteer work.

Joanne said...

Thank you everyone for your kind words. But you are pouring far too much praise on me! It will be very hard to live up to it all.

Tash, I am so happy to hear from you =)

Marc said...

Hi Dets! It's very nice of you to volunteer and help the needy. It is seldom we find people that realize how lucky they are in life. Most people just take what they have for granted and never realize how grateful they should be for what they have. Nice people like you are a rare breed. Please keep it up and I hope you can spread this trait as well! =)