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 mentally ill. Many are also 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.

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.

Scrapbooking Retreat: A Page from the Garden

Storybook Creator Garden Page

Twice a year I attend a weekend retreat not far from Apple headquarters, where I pursue my love of scrap-booking. Tucked into a cozy conference room with 16 like-minded, creative, and uniquely wonderful women, I pursue my craft. Pam and Staci, the Creative Memories consultants who put together this retreat, take care of all our basic needs: meals, snacks and caffeinated beverages. This is the first year I’ve left my clever tools and colorful papers at home so I could dedicate my energies to learning Storybook Creator 4.0, the latest in digital scrap-booking from CM.

I wish I could say it was all smooth sailing, but like most endeavors involving a computer, I did my share of hand wringing along the way. Of course the weekend isn’t just about crafting. Like a modern-day quilting bee, the women in Meeting Room “A” laugh and share stories of love and courage, strength and loss and the inevitable changes of life. I’ve learned Pixels2Pages and the spirit of camaraderie, the intricacies of 4.0 and the importance of a softly closed door. I marvel at the stereotype of the “weaker sex” as I’ve shared meals and space with this powerhouse group of “croppers,” a sharing, caring group of women who’ve got my back.

What does all this have to do with gardening? Just this: on the darkest of days, my life blooms with sisterhood. With gratitude to the female posse that helps me grow.