This is part of a weekly series I’m writing in 2016 to focus on one of my three words for the year: beauty. At the start of every week a post will explore some aspect of beauty that I’ve been considering. Read more about my focus words of the year.
Last week I was on Spring Break. And instead of going to some sunny tropical location to sip pina coladas on the beach, I took a group of high school girls down to St. Louis for a service trip. And it was a beautiful thing. We spent 4 days down there, exploring the city, checking out some of my favorite spots (the Zoo and Ted Drewes), and serving those in need. I’m still reeling and contemplating the days we spent with these extraordinary individuals. Here’s what I learned about the Beauty of serving others.
Each day we worked with a different organization to help those less fortunate. Day one found us at a maternity home that served those who are pregnant and homeless. Day two gave us the opportunity to serve at a nursing home for those with low to no income. Day three allowed us to get to know those who are homeless at St. Louis’ only day shelter. Needless to say each and every day put us in front of people from very different circumstances and situations than any of us could ever imagine.
At each and every location we got the chance to not only serve those in need (we sorted donations, polished woodwork, made lunch, escorted residents to and from the dining room, sang an impromptu concert) but more importantly it gave us all a chance to talk to these people. And through talking we learned. We learned a lot. At one point while one of our group was talking to a homeless woman at the day shelter, she asked if we were judging her for being homeless. And our group member responded with ‘I’m not judging you, but I’m learning a lot.’
And we certainly learned a lot. We learned that women who are pregnant and homeless often have jobs but not ones that can support them. They have family members who are also low income and cannot help as so many of our families would jump to do if we were in a similar situation. We learned that they want so many good and noble and wonderful things for their yet to be born children. That they are already dreaming of what they will do and who they will become.
At the nursing home, we learned that everyone has a story. Some were left their by relatives who never visit. Many are lonely and just want a listening ear and a smiling face. One little old lady after being escorted to and from the dining room by a smiling teen, gave her a hug and with all sincerity said ‘Goodbye. I love you.’ It was touching and heartbreaking at the same time. We learned the simple joy of a sing-along song – getting all the residents to sing Meet Me in St Louis was a highlight.
At the day shelter, we learned firsthand the intricacies of homelessness. How some are down on their luck. Some have addictions they can’t kick, or ones they are working hour after hour to conquer. We learned that some have held jobs and served in our military only to find themselves at a given moment down and out with no where to turn. We learned that in St. Louis alone there are roughly 3,000 homeless persons at any given time in the city and last year alone the youth center served more than 6,500 youth who were homeless or in need of support. We learned that many of them are struggling to find a job, taking night shifts which no one wants, which means surviving on very little sleep.
Through all the stories I heard, all the conversations I had, two things stuck out to me. Time and time again the people showed their extraordinary resilience and their faith. They are resilient. They have survived unemployment, living on the streets, the stigma of their situation, judgemental looks or comments from friends and strangers. They have been turned away from jobs, abandoned by family, treated as animals. They have been beaten down time and time again, whether physically or emotionally or mentally. They have lived on little sleep, little food, in sub-par conditions. They have become victims of substance abuse, some have overcome the addiction while others are still trying. It’s as if life knocks them down again and again and again and they get up each and every time. And they weren’t overly bitter. They weren’t mad at the world or mad at their situation. Overall, they kept chugging along, kept moving forward. They are Resilient.
And they have Faith. It amazed me to hear time and time again how they were trusting in God and their faith to get them through. One of the women I was talking to said she was trusting in God to get her through her pregnancy and to reconcile her with her mother – that she found strength and courage that way. One of the men who was homeless said the only way he was able to continue day in and day out was with the Lord. Another mirrored his sentiments saying he was only able to ditch his cocaine habit completely through relying on God day in and day out. It was really eye-opening to see how they could live and thrive in difficult circumstances and do it with a love for a higher power.
For the girls I took along on the trip – this was eye-opening and some even said life changing. They were able to walk a couple hours in the shoes of another. They were able to see life outside of the rosy bubble they often live in. They were able to step outside their comfort zones and learn the art of empathy. Seeing the transformation of the girls; the eagerness of those we served to talk and share and connect with another human – all of that was truly a beautiful experience.
Where have you found the beauty of serving others?