The Oracle

How to help the homeless: Volunteering at Shelters

The Oracle

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Written by: Shawna ChenStephanie Zhang and Wayland Fong

Every time I walk down University Avenue, my eyes always wander to the many homeless people sitting beside the street. As I stare at their ragged clothes and smudged faces, I can’t help but to feel sorry for them. My mind jumps to the various ways in which I could help them: run into the nearest cafe and buy them a sandwich, or simply just sit down to talk to them. But I find myself always too “busy” to ever follow through with these ideas.

It wasn’t until last month that I finally kicked myself in the butt and decided to take action to help the homeless around my community.

When I went to search for volunteer opportunities around my area, the first place that caught my eye was Innvision Shelter’s Family Program. The job required volunteers to help out at their Children’s Center after school to look after the children and to help them work through their homework. These children grew up in families that were previously or currently homeless and whose parents were finding work after school. I love working with young kids and couldn’t wait to see what skills I could offer them.

The first day I visited the shelter, I was a bit overwhelmed by all of the screaming kids jumping around the room. However, as the day progressed, I found myself making emotional connections with these children. Throughout the day, I was able to engage these kids in fun activities while helping them work through their homework. Many of the kids were having trouble with their multiplication table, so we concocted a reward system as motivation to memorize their numbers. Near the end of the day, one of the kids, Helen, shared with me how much she looked forward to coming to that day-care center because she always learned new things and had fun with her friends.

Although I was exhausted by the end, it was so rewarding to be reminded that, in a small way, I might have equipped these children to be better prepared for the competitive society that approached them in their future.

Helping out at the Innvision Shelter really opened my eyes to all of the people, young and old, that need help around my community. Although it only took three hours of my day, I could see that just helping the children with their simple fractions gave them a better idea of how fun learning can be.

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Eighteen years of ignorance has made me numb to the lives of homeless people. I knew this when I first stepped into the Asian Americans for Community Involvement (AACL) building. After I received my name tag, I was sent to a playroom and greeted by about a dozen confused faces. For the next six hours, I tutored and played with these children.

Helping the homeless has turned into a cliché. People have lost sight of how much of an impact they can make. It was bittersweet to realize that I could come home at the end of the day without worrying about having food on the table, but that these children did not have that same privilege.

Growing up, I didn’t have a worry in the world. As I looked at the younger children, I saw that same bliss in their eyes. They played with donated toys and interacted with adult volunteers. When I looked at the children who were a little older, however, I saw their mild unease. I approached one of the middle school boys and started helping him with his math homework. Looking at his blatant disinterest and exaggerated expressions of boredom, I saw myself at his age. His name was Travis, and he lived with his baby sister and his parents. There was something about him, either a courageous optimism or maybe a simple calmness, that stood out from the other kids. When I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he replied, “a doctor because I want to help people.”

I never truly understood the financial circumstances of those children, but it was endearing to see kids with such enthusiasm for life. Knowing that Travis was a boy with financial problems because he was homeless, wanted to help others in need made me rethink what I could be doing. I came to help that day with the intention of giving back, but only afterwards did I realize how much I really gained. Helping out at shelters not only aids these families, but helps people gain a different perspectives on their lives. Through my experience, I became more grateful for my life and began really thinking about how I could help people like Travis in the future.

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Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been taught to treat others the way I would like to be treated. That was the golden rule. But helping the homeless? No, that never really hit the mark, not until my parents took me to visit an unnamed homeless shelter. I was 10 years old, and along with my dad’s colleagues, I spent the afternoon cutting up vegetables, washing fruit and preparing dinner for the homeless.

Although reluctant at first, I soon found myself enjoying the experience. In my house, I was famous for destroying recipes. Dumplings, soup, rice– I could ruin it all. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that making hot dogs and chili stew were relatively manageable with my skill set.

Then the time came to serve. A long line of ragged, worn-down people bundled in blankets and thin clothes stood waiting for us to open. But even in the wintry cold, warm smiles lit up their faces as they moved one-by-one down the buffet. Almost every person who walked by me thanked us for our service with a simple, “God bless you.”

Their grins and gratitude gave me a taste of true happiness. They were freezing, probably distressed at their situation, but still they found joy in our service. They were living in the moment; they were happy.

I definitely didn’t bring them out of their struggles, but the appreciative looks on their faces showed me that my simple act of kindness reached out enough to inspire a rainbow of smiles. I could’ve donated to a charity or attended a fundraiser, but physically helping them gave me the chance to connect and tell them face-to-face that I want to help. And at the end of the night, I believe that by directly going out to help the homeless, I showed them that people are willing to give and assist.

1 Comment

One Response to “How to help the homeless: Volunteering at Shelters”

  1. Maggie Allen on February 4th, 2016 10:43 pm

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences working at a homeless shelter! It is so inspiring to hear about how your volunteering has led to so much personal fulfillment. In fact, reading this really makes me want to go out and help out people in need too! And for some reason, I’m craving chili dogs too…

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How to help the homeless: Volunteering at Shelters