Lifted Spirits: My Personal Journey

For close to a year now I’ve been volunteering at Lifted Spirits, a drop in center for homeless women in downtown San Jose. It feels like home.

Back patio: a sanctuary for the women we serve

There was a time in my life when this work would have overwhelmed me. I started out on the fringes, dropping off donations of needed clothing or making contributions from a “safe” distance. Eventually my friend Mary invited me downtown for a tour. They were looking for additional volunteers to work in the clothing boutique.

Social Hall for meals and Friday bingo

I took a breath and jumped in. What scared me? That I would be emotionally unable to work closely with such a vulnerable group of women without falling apart myself. To the contrary, the work continues to be rewarding and engaging. This is not to say it’s always easy. Some of the women we serve are living with mental illness. Many are abused. Toss in addiction to drugs or alcohol, jail time, and mind-numbing poverty and it adds up to a group of women in crisis.

How do I make a difference? I’m a professional organizer who put myself through college working retail jobs. In my early career I worked as a theater costumer, so I’ve measured a number of actors in my time. I’ve put these skills to work offering bra fittings for the women we serve in the boutique, a complete reorganization of the physical space, and regularly re-working the boutique to keep it looking fresh and inviting. We’re there to lift spirits after all.

 

It’s the skills I didn’t know I had that surprised me. I’ve been able to remain present for women in crisis without losing myself. I can offer a hug to anyone, recognizing the restorative value of human connection when it’s warm, sincere and sustained. I’ve earned the trust of women who’ve been let down by others, probably for a lifetime. And for the most part, I’ve lost that fear.

I also have a lot to learn. A few of the women we serve push all my buttons. They’re rude, demanding and aggressive. It’s a challenge facing them on a regular basis. I want to be as understanding and compassionate with them as I am with the women who arrive emotionally overwrought or with a blackened eye. That’s the real work.

This Friday I begin a free, five-week course offered by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). It’s a targeted provider education course recommended for people who work or volunteer with individuals living with mental illness. In the end we’re all people needing love, support and understanding.

Special thank you to Mary, Stephanie, and Bonnie for helping show me the way.

How about you? Have you faced a fear head on with positive results? Please share your thoughts below.

49 thoughts on “Lifted Spirits: My Personal Journey

  1. I have not taken on that kind of challenge with a large group of people. I’m around those suffering with mental illness enough to know what you are talking about so I take nothing personally. How wonderful that you get a 5 week course to help. That can be useful for other areas of life as well. My daughter has volunteered to pass out clothing to the homeless population here and has had similar experiences. Having someone be verbally abusive when you are trying to help has to be hard but it helps that you understand it’s not about you. I’m not surprised you wade in neck deep with this project. It’s who you are. The woman with a huge heart.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Marlene, thank you for your vote of confidence. I know you’ve supported a number of people with mental health issues. I’m glad your daughter is reaching out to other homeless folks in your community. One thing that I find helpful is the connections I’ve formed with other volunteers. We all can relate to each other.

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  2. Wow, Alys. I knew you worked in the shop, but not that you did SSSOOOOO much. And find it so rewarding and telling of your own strength. I bet the course is going to be really helpful and give you new ways to be with some of the women. Good luck. Sometimes when someone is difficult or I find them hard to be with, I try to remind myself that in some cases, the only thing you can do is stand with someone–or in a more Buddhist terminology, be present for them. And that can be difficult.

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    • I dream of being a completely centered and always present human being. I’m a work in progress. I grew up with a family member with a number of mental health issues. I had many challenging years, so this is at least familiar to me. I have high hopes for the training. The course runs for five weeks, three hours a day, and of course taught be experts. Thanks for commenting, Lisa. I hope you are doing well.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. So proud of you Alys!! ❤ I know that fear, I lived with it from the beginning and only began to overcome it in my 40's. I think working with that thing of 'feel the fear but do it anyway' is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for the world. And standing firm in ourselves, recognising it is not about us, but all about the other is a slowly gained skill that can fall from our grasp at any moment. I sometimes remember to take the praise and the abuse in the same spirit – it is never about me, it is always the heart of the other that speaks. Easily said, hard to do! I just know your warmth and interest and caring will shine a great light for those you work alongside. For some it will be healing, for others it will be too scary to accept – for now. Consistency wears them down 🙂 The Dalai Lama often speaks about the practise of kindness. 'Whenever possible, be kind' he says 'It is always possible.' I think you epitomise this xoxo

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  4. I am so unsurprised that you do this, Alys. As Marlene said, you are the Woman with the Big Heart! 💜 I am sure that the challenges you feel facing the more difficult women are not reflected in your attitude and behaviour to them, but it will be great to learn so much more.
    This maybe tangential, but maybe not….I came across this video and found it fascinating. Gabor Mate talks about the link between addictions and trauma. There may be some insights there for you too.

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    • Thank you, Anne, for your kind words and for your ongoing support. I often think about the light you bring in to the world through your art and your love of nature. We all find our way to connect. Thank you for sharing the link to Gabor Mate’s interview. He wasn’t even on my radar, yet clearly he’s renowned for what he does. I’ve listened to part of it, and will save the rest for the weekend. Many years ago I read that 80% of the people incarcerated were abused as a child. We continue to punish instead of trying to rehabilitate. That said, with such deeply seated trauma it can take a lifetime to recover and a willingness to work at it. When you’re living on the edge all the time, I imagine it’s hard to find the resources within to work through it. I’ve had my own childhood trauma around the early death of my father, living in poverty and mental illness close at hand, so I know the work that’s involved. You’re the best, Anne. Thank you. xo

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      • Yes, it is so sad that we punish before we rehabilitate. I believe that very few people who are truly bad and society keeps perpetuating the same mistakes.
        It’s brilliant that you are taking the time to help these women pick up the pieces of your life, Alys.

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        • I agree, Helen. We have to figure out how to work smarter, not harder. And if something isn’t working, we have to be willing to look at that and find a way to change and move forward in different ways. Government especially, seems to move a a glacier pace. Many of the organizations like Lifted Spirits are more grassroots and nimble in doing this work.

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  5. It is simply great that there are people like you in the world Alys! Keep up the hard work, good luck with the course, and perhaps most important of all – enjoy that feeling of being able to help. 🙂

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  6. You are doing a brilliant job and well done for pushing through that comfort zone we all find ourselves in. I know at some point in the future I am going to have some free time and will be looking at what services I can offer to our community. Giving back is a vital part of life.

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    • Giving is a vital part of life. I’m often surprised that everyone doesn’t understand that. Everyone benefits when we can lift each other up. Women especially, need all the love and support they can get. I look forward to hearing what you decide to do.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. When I was reading, I kept thinking, “Of course she’s doing this! And of course, she’s excellent and indispensable!” It seems to be the perfect place for you to be, really–using your skills and strengths and building new ones. They are very fortunate to have you . . .

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    • Thank you, Kerry, for your kind words and for your vote of confidence. It really does feel like home. I’ve done some sort of volunteering throughout my life, but Lifted Spirits has my full heart and soul. I’m so glad to have this opportunity.

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  8. What an inspiring post! And an honest one, too. For over twenty years, I volunteered at our town’s food pantry and faced many of the issues you have. Sometimes I handled them well; sometimes I didn’t. But I remained present, just as you have. That course sounds fantastic. Keep us posted!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Laurie, I’m so happy to hear of your own experience. One of the things we’re learning in the NAMI training is understanding and normalizing feelings as part of the journey. Empathy is he word of the day, and we have got apply that to our own shortcomings as well as the shortcomings of others. It’s not always easy, is it? Thanks for your interest, and thank you, too, for making a long lasting difference in your community.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Lynn. I complete understand how you feel, and hope you’ll give yourself credit for trying. Most do not. I see you doing work in other ways, especially with your dog charity work. We all find our way. As I said, this work would have been hard for me even twenty years ago. I’m so glad I can be present there now, with my boys grown and getting on with their lives. It’s a place to nurture and grow. xo

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  9. In answer to your question at the end of your post, yes I have faced fear and trauma. It’s complex and disturbing, so not something I can describe without writing a tome, which still wouldn’t do the situation justice. At the same time, I would think that most people have traumas of one kind or another and most of it remains hidden because of fear, ultimately, of being blamed in some way for it.

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    • Thanks for sharing, Helen. I agree that most of us have some trauma in our lives. I think some can be managed more easily than others. Facing the trauma, getting support and help and finding empathy are the pillars of the NAMI training. I hope you found what you needed to help you move thorough this trauma, and that you are feeling more whole as time goes by. It’s not easy. xo

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      • Different people react differently, so support needs also differ. I’d say ‘empathy’ is the hardest to find because most people haven’t been through the particular circumstances. Or the person in need of the empathy is in denial – a coping mechanism used by some. I think it’s better if a person can confront their feelings though, so that they are better armed in the future.

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  10. What a wonderful place to contribute your skills, Alys. And beyond your ability to organize and add to the function of the clothing boutique, I know you’re a strong asset to the women being served. Some time ago I volunteered once a week in a homeless center, primarily in the kitchen with food preparation and then serving. I learned so much! More seasoned and better prepared volunteer coordinators and staff had such marvelous wisdom and insight into the different personalities and helped me grow into a more compassionate volunteer. I’m very happy that the center has you on board. I know you’ll contribute so much, and I think, in turn, you’ll be rewarded with appreciation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Debra. That means a lot. I’m happy, and also not surprised) to hear that you, too have worked with this vulnerable population and that you’ve learned a lot. I often think that if everyone would dip a toe in how the other half lives, we would all be better off. It’s harder to make judgements when people move from being “the homeless” to individual human beings with stories and lives and loss.

      I can’t wait for the stars to align so that you and I can meet along this great state of ours. Perhaps this summer with warmer, longer days we can make a plan. I would love that.

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  11. What a wonderful thing you are doing… it takes a great deal of strength to overcome fears of anything, but the situation you are putting yourself in must be particularly challenging. Aggressive and rude people are hard to deal with at the best of times, but these women have so much (fear) in their backgrounds that might lead to it. It’s impossible to put ourselves in their shoes and so all that you can do is your best and hope that even a tiny bit of support and care makes them feel that the world is not such a terrible place.
    You have my greatest admiration.

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    • Thank you for your kind words, Jan. I’m always acutely aware of how easy life is for me compared to the women we serve. I try to keep that at the forefront, always. Every one of these women faces daily trauma, simply by being on the street. It’s not a safe place for anyone, but even more challenging for women as we all know. I think aggressive behavior directed towards us can put us in a defensive position, either out of self preservation or simply old habits. As a friend said, and as I know simply from parenting, sometimes the ugliest behavior is a cry for help. I appreciate your thoughtful comments and kind support.

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  12. Bravo Alys. As many have acknowledged before me, you have a big, beautiful heart. I see the need for places like Lifted Spirits, everywhere we travel. As you say, it’s often due to mental illness and/or addiction that brings a person to the brink of despair and homeless. There in lies a bigger problem. Healthcare is expensive no matter where you live. There’s always more in need than money available. We are not immune to cutbacks and shortfalls in Canada either. The clothing area looks great, I’m certain they value your commitment a great deal. Good luck at the seminar too. It sounds like you’ll find a few new tools for the toolbox in regards to working with the more challenging guests. I know I couldn’t do what you’re doing, I’m so proud of you hon xoxox K

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    • (((Boomdee))) Thank you for being my cheerleader. I know you have a tender heart for the unhoused and the downtrodden as well. It’s a problem everywhere, but as San Jose is now one of *the* most expensive places to live, it makes it all the more challenging to address the complicated issues at hand. I know we can do better though. I remain committed to this program and the women (and men) we serve. Thanks for visiting. Miss you to pieces.

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    • Thank you, Sheryl. It’s been a wonderful place to spend my time and energy as well as resources. I’m so glad to be a part of this. Some days are very hard, but it makes me want to work harder, learn more and continue to help. I learn something new everyday.

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