12/15/2010- 7Hills Homeless Shelter
We had planned on passing out 100 bags to 7Hills, along with about 100 coats that Har-Ber High School collected for us. It’s funny how things work out. We passed out 66 bags and didn’t have space to take the coats. Things went beautifully and wonderfully. NWA Hope Center had coats, socks and other wonderful goodies. Things could not have worked out any more perfectly.
Pulling up we had all felt some of the same nerves running through us, we all knew that this would once again be an experience that ruins us even more, in a beautiful, beautiful way. We knew that after we left, we would never be the same, as it is with most places we take bags to. This one just felt different and more powerful.
Let’s rewind about a month. Shay Kelly, from Project5050, had told us the importance of physical touch, even something as small as a handshake. She told incredible stories of people whose lives had been changed because of a simple touch, hug or handshake. We believed her stories and thought they were incredible. Little did we know, her stories would stick in our minds and would soon become our own. I had to see the significance for myself to fully start to understand the power of touch or the gift of conversation.
Yesterday was that for me. It helped open my eyes even more to the beauty in conversation and beginning steps in friendships. We have had so many conversations in the past year, but this one was one that will forever change who I am and who I want to be.
Jimmy was an older man who had been living in a camp for a little over 2 years. The exhaustion and wear and tear of living in homelessness was apparent on his face. With his face covered in tired wrinkles and the corners of his mouth turned down, I gave him a bag and introduced myself. Then I saw it. I saw his tired eyes were a brilliant blue, longing for something more in life. We engaged in conversation about how long he has been homeless and how he makes it through 3 degree nights like the ones that are well on their way.
I asked him if he thought there were enough resources/shelters in NWA to help the community. He bluntly said, “No. No there ain’t. If i had a million dollars, I would build one for myself and everyone else going through the same thing.” My response was the same, so would I. It wasn’t until later that I processed that statement.
He would build a homeless shelter if he had a million dollars. He wouldn’t build a house for himself, he wouldn’t buy a nice car, and he wouldn’t put it into a saving account to save for a luxurious retirement on the beach. A man who has nothing has the dream of one day living in a shelter with other people. If he won the lottery that is what he would do. Share everything he has.
Even with nothing, selflessness runs through his veins. If that is not humbling, I am not sure what is.
After talking for a little while he started giving me a funny look. He was surprised that I was making eye contact with him. I asked why he was so surprised and he said, “You’re making eye contact with me? You’re not ignoring me…why?”
That is who we have been conditioned to be. People who overlook, people who ignore, people who pass by. Something is terribly wrong. We often say how tragic it is that people living in homelessness are overlooked…WE ARE THE OVERLOOKERS. Something, once again, is terribly wrong.
My response was, “No, I’m not ignoring you. I care about you and want to know about you.” I could feel one brick out of the wall of judgement, brokenness, and hopelessness being knocked down.
His face changed. He said, “No one has made and kept eye contact with me in years.”
I can’t even being to fathom not having made continuos eye contact with someone in that long. I sometimes get frustrated at people who won’t make eye contact with me during a normal conversation, and thats once. One minute. That cannot even be compared with a lifetime of no eye contact and being overlooked.
Think of how often you get offended if someone doesn’t make eye contact with you, now imagine that every second of every day. People acting like you don’t exist. People acting like you are worthless. People acting like you don’t deserve their time. You, I, we…are not fooling anybody. It hurts.
He continued to be surprised, but we continued to talk until his bus arrived. The final thing he said to me was, “Would you shake my hand?” My mind flashed back to what Shay had said about the littlest touch making the biggest difference. I took his hand and we stood there for a little while, gloved-hands together. Saying it, it sounds weird and cheesy, but that was one of the most beautiful and perfect moments in my life. Knowing that handshake meant so much to him, and knowing how much it meant, and will continue to mean to me.
That hand shake, just like the chocolate chip cookie, changed my life.
With a heavy heart,