A volunteering story by: Jeremy Tecktiel
I want to start off by saying this was not a normal volunteer experience. My synagogue was a part of a national program called Panim el Panim, or Face to Face, that culminated in a sophomore year trip to Washington D.C. to confront homelessness and hunger. I was, and still am, very close with my classmates and we were very excited for the trip to Washington so we could spend time goofing off in the nation’s capital. Now, almost 10 years later, I could ask any one of them what they remember the most and they would talk about their experiences with the homeless people and not goofing off or anything else we did. It was an incredibly powerful experience and I know that all of us still carry it with us today. I interviewed my best friend, Alex, who was also on the trip. We were taught about homelessness by professionals who spent their lives combating it, but the real experience was going out into the parks and on the streets and getting to know them. We each brought items of clothing to give the homeless people and the main goal was to learn their stories and give them the items. One of the days, we were actually seeing museums and not interacting with homeless people, but it was over 90 degrees and humid outside. A couple of us decided to buy a pack of water bottles and pass them out to homeless people to keep them hydrated.
There were so many people that we met that made an impact on Alex. One of the ones that stood out most was actually a former NFL player. He was very funny and outgoing and drew a group of us in right away. He was one of the biggest people I have ever seen and spent a half hour joking with us before we started to ask real questions about why he wound up where he did. He told us that he had been in the NFL for a handful of years, we of course later googled him and confirmed it, and had lived a lifestyle that was a little too glamorous. He told us about all of the bad influences, and the lack of good influences. He had gotten hurt while playing and it ended his career. He turned to drugs and alcohol and his money didn’t last long. He said he had tried many times to turn his life around and get a job, but without having a home address to list or a place to take a shower, or proper clothes for an interview, his efforts had been mostly futile. He told Alex that there is nothing he wants more than to go back and change the decisions he made or go back and warn himself of what his life would be like. He told Alex to make sure that he never gave into peer pressure and always thought about the long term implications of his decisions before he made them. Another person we met was very shy, so we offered to buy him some lunch in the hopes that we could gain his trust. He walked with us over to Subway to get lunch, but when he went to order, they wouldn’t serve him. It was an eye opening experience for all of us. The person behind the counter didn’t believe that we were willingly buying lunch for a homeless person and even though they came around and gave a half-hearted apology, we left and took our business elsewhere. When we left, he actually felt the need to apologize to us for embarrassing us. We had never felt what it feels like to be treated like that and Alex said it is something he will never forget.
The Aha! moment…
Alex said that he learned more about life on that trip than he has at any point before or since. He remembers one of the homeless people telling him that the worst part about being homeless wasn’t the hunger or the cold, it was the way people look at and treat you. You are viewed as an animal, and not a pet. People look at you as if you are garbage that doesn’t deserve to live. Many times, the circumstances surrounding someone being homeless aren’t avoidable. That person told Alex that it makes her day when someone looks her in the eye. Even if they have nothing to give, looking someone in the eye shows a level of respect that is worth more than food to many homeless people. He learned, as we all did, that homeless people are simply people who have made a bad decision or two and weren’t able to get the second chance that the rest of us are given.
To summarize it in three words…
- respect, judgement, decisions
Why should you do this
Since that trip, Alex said he has always made a point of stopping and giving money to homeless people if he has it. He has made sure to inform people that the simplest gestures go the farthest. We made sure that our synagogue kept the program in tact when they were thinking about cutting it.