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.
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.
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.