Today’s post comes from Dana Carmel Bell, an L.A.-based world traveler, cultural explorer, and frequent volunteer passionate about global citizenship and voluntourism. Dana balances married life with writing, volunteering locally and abroad, and plotting short term volunteer adventures for her travel business, www.TimeTravelPlans.net. We chose this post because Dana reminds us that we don’t need a passport to get outside our comfort zones, and we don’t need a lot of resources to make a difference. She is honest in her accounts and has a unique sense of humility that every Everyday Ambassador can learn from.
Although global citizenship through travel and short term voluntourism are at the helm of my travel ambitions, for me, global citizenship starts at home. So between voluntourism lulls abroad, I channel my altruistic energies to weekend food drives where I connect with like-minded volunteers to prepare and distribute hundreds of brown bag lunches to some of downtown L.A.’s homeless living on the streets of Skid Row.
On any given day volunteering on Skid Row, I never know who or what I’m going to encounter. As a result, my Skid Row volunteer days have left indelible images in my mind: a barefoot and pregnant woman walking around in a drug-induced haze; inadvertently kicking human feces in the middle of the sidewalk; a drug-addicted couple in desperate need of a sleeping bag to stay warm at night; a local drug dealer offering me a hit of crack.
Although we’re not a church-affiliated group, we often receive requests for prayer from some of the homeless we feed. Though happy to oblige, one-on-one prayer often entails touching of some sort: laying hands on an individual, holding their hands during prayer, or a post-prayer embrace. As insensitive or not-politically correct as it may sound, the germaphobe in me wonders where the hands I’m holding have been; clearly, the streets lack everyday luxuries like flushing toilets, wash basins, or even toilet paper. I take comfort in knowing that hand sanitizer awaits me in the car and a warm shower awaits me back at home where, following afternoons spent pounding Skid Row’s pavement, I always feel a renewed sense of gratitude for my comfortable bed, a fully stocked fridge, and a clean bathroom.
But it’s during these moments of reflection when the faces of Skid Row haunt me the most, and I wonder if I’ve done enough—have I really made an impact?
During a recent carpool home with my fellow volunteers after a day spent distributing lunches, we passed around the hand sanitizer while exchanging stories about some of the homeless we’d encountered that day. I spoke about Geraldine, a homeless lady who asked me to pray with her to overcome her drug addiction. As we prayed, I took her hands in mine and squeezed them tightly as I felt our spirits connect. Emotions ran deep; she desperately wanted a way out of a cycle of drugs and poverty, and I desperately wanted to convince her to believe that she could find her way. But more than that, I wanted her to know that she wasn’t alone in her plight. I wanted her to know that someone cared—that I cared. So I followed the prayer with a warm embrace. I told Geraldine to stay strong and let her know that I’d be back the following month.
As we parted ways, neither my usual concerns about sanitation nor my skepticism about whether I’d done enough to help dominated my thoughts. Instead, I walked away from Geraldine feeling a deeper connection to her than I’d felt to any other homeless person I’d served, in large part due to a shift in my thinking that took place as we prayed together. As we prayed, I sensed that the lines of separation between me and Geraldine were erased; any false sense of her inadequacy was eliminated right along with any false sense of my superiority. Unbeknownst to her, she served me that day just as much as I served her.
I shared this revelation with my volunteer mates as we sat trapped in a typical L.A. traffic jam. I told them that going forward, I was going to challenge myself to incorporate more touching into my interactions with the homeless.
“What do you mean?” they asked.
“Well, there’s power in human touch,” I said. “Imagine that you’ve been living on the streets, you haven’t showered in ages, you haven’t brushed your teeth, and unless you’re using a public restroom, you’re not able to wash your hands after using the restroom or before meals. You’re dirty, you’re afraid, and you’re alone. To top it off, you live in a tent blocks away from some of the biggest names in corporate America, yet you’re in a section of town that’s largely ignored because no one ventures there because they’re either too afraid or they just don’t care. Then, imagine that a volunteer comes to your tent to feed you and pray with you, and despite your dirty hands and your squalid living conditions, that person is unafraid to hold your hands, embrace you, and be present with you in that moment. Imagine how that would make you feel!”
I know that Geraldine’s battle against addiction will be one that lasts a lifetime and her battle to get off the streets likely won’t be won overnight. But for now, I hope that my touch encouraged her as much as hers encouraged me.
*All photos provided courtesy of Passporters – Live, Don’t Merely Exist®. The first two photos are with the Passporters volunteers and the last photo (food drive 3) is with a Passporters volunteer, the Passporters founder (blue shirt), and me (red shirt) with one of Skid Row’s homeless.
“Wednesday Wisdom” is a weekly series curated by Everyday Ambassador partnerships director Meg VanDeusen. Every Wednesday, we will feature updates from our partners and reflections from the Everyday Ambassador community. To stay current with our latest posts, follow #wednesdaywisdom or #wordstoliveby on our other platforms, and check back regularly for updates.