A volunteering story by: Kimberly McLaughlin

I volunteered for Shade Tree, a shelter for battered women and children, in the Las Vegas area over the holidays during high school. This shelter was located on the dreadful “D Street” which was known as a very crime ridden, poverty stricken area for the homeless population in the bright, shiny city of Las Vegas. Where lights and neon signs lit up the infamous Sin City, “D Street” fell in the shadows of what once was a promising, expansive real estate gold mine. In these gloomy areas, crimes were unsolved, abuse was evident, and people were losing their homes without any hope of a brighter future. Shade Tree was a safe haven for the women, children, and pets savagely beaten with no place to go. This shelter helps more than six thousand women a year and offers shelter, meals, educational assistance, and even medical opportunities to those in need. This safe place has been serving the community for twenty five years and manages to mend the wounds of those suffering trauma from abuse, trafficking, drug addiction, and sex crimes. Their mission is to provide stability and a firm, healthy foundation to create a better tomorrow. I was introduced to this organization by one of my mom’s friends, Marsha Gallagher. Her daughter and I had been in school together since the fifth grade and our parents were constantly encouraging us to give back to those less fortunate than ourselves. We went to a private college prep school where all the families fell within the middle to upper class. Marsha’s family was particularly stable and she made it her mission to donate as much of her time and finances to this meaningful organization. She told my mother who carried the message to our family. During the holiday season, the shelter needed volunteers to purchase presents to donate; the children would then come into the large room with the available gifts and pick ones for themselves and their mothers. Each volunteer needed to bring a few items, mostly feminine in nature since it is a primarily women’s shelter, and also some wrapping paper and tape to close up the chosen items for the children. My mom had my dad and I join her during the holidays to give back to this tragic place and really drive home what this time of year is about. We bought some perfume, makeup sets, and nail kits to offer up as potential gifts for little children and their mothers. The kids came in and chose our presents and we asked them questions to help them feel comfortable and safe. The children would go on and on about their mother or how much they liked Christmas, and it was truly a joy to see how excited they were to give their gifts to their family. We would wrap the presents, eat and drink holiday treats and listen to upbeat music. Then, the mothers would come in and stand in awe of what this shelter could do in just a few hours. The children and mothers would laugh, cry, and smile, while creating very unique holiday memories that year. Our family was truly blessed to be a part of this special time for them and really appreciated the opportunity to give back of what is ours.

The Inspiration

I was truly inspired by Marsha and her family’s generosity to the shelter. They all had such a passion towards helping the homeless and abused in our area and really made it their personal mission to get as many volunteers from the school involved and committed to this cause. I was very fortunate growing up and Christmas presents were expected, albeit appreciated, but never doubted, and here these struggling families in crises were and they did not even know if they would be without shelter and food for the holiday, let alone have gifts to give each other. It was an extremely eye opening experience to see how little people had and how they still managed to hold on tightly to one another being ever grateful to simply be safe. Seeing the strength in these women and children was also immensely inspiring and made me want to give more and more of my time and energy. They were truly deserving of a fresh start and without the help of others, it would not be possible. The families in this shelter wanted to better their lives and escape their abusers and unfortunate circumstances. The organization offered work assistance opportunities and mental health treatment; this group of people were actively trying to change their life and in watching them, I desperately wanted to help them through it. I have always been very inspired by those who come from debilitating situations and manage to persevere through hard work and dedication. The women and children within this shelter were those people to me, and their goals and visions for the future were the inspiration. The holiday season is a very happy time for people in warm, loving environments, but can be truly devastating to those who are struggling to find their next meal or a pillow to lay their head on. When I was helping this little girl pick out her present for her mother, she lit up when she saw this 50 piece makeup set and exclaimed, “I want to give her that!” I of course brought the present back to our table and started wrapping it and she said her mother never wore makeup anymore and that she thought it would make her mom feel pretty again. My heart broke hearing this kind, innocent child describe her motivation behind her choice in gift and I felt an incredible connection to her at that very moment. I thought about the entire encounter and felt I finally realize why volunteering that Christmas was so important. There is truly no better feeling than remembering the look on the mother’s face when her daughter proudly extended this makeup set and the warm embrace that followed. Our family continued to help each holiday season to ensure more memories such as the one with the little girl and her mom were created.

The Aha! moment…

I learned the true joy in volunteering and the huge impact it makes on people in need. I have always felt a deep empathy for those struggling in the world but was unsure of how to make a dent in the millions of people out there who need help. Finding one specific organization, going with my family, and committing to it for a season each year was a simple enough solution, but came with extreme value. Seeing the problems as a whole can be overwhelming and I did not know where to begin, but focusing on an area, such as women and children in trouble, made volunteering for Shade Tree a perfect fit. There are so many people that are connecting to organizations they feel powerful about, and all it really takes to help is asking and showing up. Spending time with my family giving back to the less fortunate was also a wonderful bonding experience for us and we all learned to be so much more thankful for what we have. I learned that I always feel better about myself when I give back to others and make volunteering a priority. Whenever I feel like life isn’t fair or times are tough, I can think back to the women and children at the shelter who were the happiest with just hot chocolate and a blanket. Lessons like these cannot be just shared, they must be experienced and I know that I must continue to seek out volunteering opportunities to keep those lessons fresh in my mind and firmly planted in my heart.

To summarize it in three words…

  • Inspiring, Gratifying, Exciting

Why should you do this

I sincerely recommend people volunteer as I did for the Shade Tree. The experience was unlike any other opportunity I have had and remains pure in my mind as one of my happiest memories. That holiday season made my family closer than ever because of what we all had shared and given at the shelter. I encourage people who can open up their hearts to the idea of women, children, and pets being abused and find time to be of service to the tragedies they are going through. When you see individuals going through what you could only imagine as your worst nightmare, I hope you can find a day or a season to donate your time, energy, and assistance. The small portion we give of ourselves means the world to people with little to nothing at all. Any organization that a person can find value in based on their beliefs is an idea worth pursuing and seeing through. As a woman and hopefully a mother one day, this organization really pulled at my heart strings and I felt a duty to go and make their holiday season just a little bit better. For others, those suffering from tragic diseases or world disasters may call to them personally. I was asked by a few friends how my time went at Shade Tree that Christmas and I felt I could barely put into words the amount of love and respect that came out of that experience, so I simply said, “it was the best holiday I have spent with my family yet.”

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