While driving to St. Vincent de Paul, I saw a billboard announcing that the first game for the Cardinals was going to start in an hour. My mind began to wander about Opening Day while I was beginning my first season away from the NFL.
Those thoughts vanished as soon as I turned left on Jackson Street. In the distance, I saw about 50 people assembled even though the doors wouldn’t open for 90 minutes. It was obvious that games were the last thing on their minds and, for the next four hours, they didn’t cross mine.
I signed-in and immediately helped stock supplies on the tables. There were about 20 volunteers from two local churches and one Knights of Columbus chapter. I chatted with several people who said they try to serve here monthly. Commitment like that is crucial to meet the ongoing needs of serving 13 meals a week. St. Vincent de Paul is a popular recipient for volunteer inquiries during the holiday season but they often turn people away after the shifts are covered. The help is much more coveted January-October.
Leading the charge was the energetic dining room supervisor, Mrs. Jones (like that 70s song she’s quick to say). She’s a deft multi-tasker, answering questions from every direction while instructing the crew about their various tasks. She always referred to the pending guests as “clients.” For some reason, that struck me as a sign of compassion and respect.
Moments before the 11 a.m. opening, she gathered everyone in a circle to hold hands and recite the Lord’s Prayer. She also said, “Everyone is welcome, we don’t judge here.” It was a special day because clients could enjoy a free wash and haircut.
The dining room is just one of five they operate throughout the Valley. There’s an on-site garden to promote healthy eating and reduce food costs. Every night the room serves as a shelter with a capacity for 180 men, 55 women and 28 spots for those in wheelchairs or dealing with another physical disability. The line usually starts to form at 7:30 p.m. for the chance to sleep on a cushioned mat on the concrete floor. The daily wake-up call is 5:00 a.m. and clients must depart within 30 minutes so prep can begin for breakfast on weekdays and lunch on weekends.
I offered to serve as the greeter. I wanted to gauge the clients’ first impressions at the entrance. My duties were to welcome everyone, recite the menu (Chili Mac, lentil soup with chicken and pastries) and offer to store their belongings into a cubby while they ate. A few eagerly unloaded their weighty items while others were reluctant to momentarily lose touch with all their possessions. Most had backpacks but some just had plastic bags and others had full suitcases on rollers.
Demographically I noticed a balanced split among genders and races. Ages ranged from 20s-70s. Several brought their dogs and a few wore veteran’s hats and shirts. One commonality is they all seemed grateful and a few made a point to thank me for my time and service.
Almost an hour into the shift, Mrs. Jones checked in on me. While we chatted, I noticed she made a concerted effort to welcome many clients by name and I asked her how she could remember so many names.
“Well, that’s because many of these people were my friends when I was homeless for two years,” she answered. “My husband and I had good jobs then we got foolish with drugs and our lives went downhill from there.”
If I was searching for an example of how St. Vincent de Paul saved lives, I didn’t have to look far. She lost her home, children and everything she owned. These daily meals helped her survive.
One day, she wanted to pay back the organization in the only way she could afford. She offered to volunteer for one shift to feel what it was like on the other side of the counter. She was immediately hooked and her initial stint blossomed into one day a week then increased to 30 hours a week.
When the position of dining room supervisor opened, she applied and held her breath. The executive who met with her said, “your interview skills suck but I’ve seen your incredible work ethic so you have the job.” That put her life on an upward trajectory 16 months ago.
We served a total of 508 lunches. As clients would leave, I said the same thing every time…”take care of yourself out there,” They nodded or waved then resumed their daily routine.
My experience was simultaneously heartbreaking and inspiring. I think people of all ages (but especially teens) would find it fulfilling to put their phones down for a couple hours and interact with people who appreciate a rare smile and friendly encounter.
Please visit http://www.stvincentdepaul.net to donate, volunteer or learn more about upcoming events.
NEXT SUNDAY: Rockstar Canine Rescue and Sanctuary