Today i spent the morning volunteering in a low income neighborhood in the Bronx. I have some time on my hands these days, and I figured there is absolutely no excuse not to use some of it for good. I wouldn’t call the place where we volunteered a shelter because nobody sleeps there, I don’t think, but it was a facility that offered meals and haircuts and showers and clothes to folks who obviously appreciated all those services. I went with my friend Pierre and we were both assigned to unpack and fold donated clothing alongside two regulars at the facility, Norma and Anne. They were both in their 50s or 60s, lived close by and were members of the community we were serving.
I felt a sense of connection with both Norma and Anne, and a number of the guests who stopped into our room to “shop” for new outfits. I have donated clothes many many times, but never really seen what happens to them on the other end. Our process for distribution was too rip open dozens of giant garbage bags that crowded the floor space in the room, discard any and all clothing that wasn’t in good enough shape for you or I to wear. “If it’s not good enough for us, it’s not good enough for them” Norma proclaimed. Once QA’d, wed fold and sort by size, and do our best to separate things out onto the gender appropriate shelving within categories like “long sleeve womens” and “girls jackets.” The system thinker in me initially agonized over the inefficiencies in our process…but this was Norma’s process…she ran the show…and not only was there not really room for suggestions…it wasn’t really about maxing out on efficiency.
Yes, we wanted to do our best to find the right clothes for the right people, but the conversation, and the connection, and the expression of both support, gratitude, and community were as, if not more, central to the guest experience. There was something about the relationship between this facility and it’s guests that felt very grounding and consistent and regular…in people’s lives who i’m sure face many destabalizing forces. Even though technically we were volunteering or giving, it was without a doubt a privilege to be invited and welcomed into this community…and for that I am grateful.
I know I just dropped in for a day, and it’s difficult not to sound cliche’d when you are a privileged white male reflecting on your morning of travel uptown to volunteer, but I am consistently amazed and inspired by all which is consistent across seemingly very different slices of humanity. All I hear all day long is politicians slicing us into separate groups and demographics and buckets…and i’m tired of it…we are so much more the same than we are different…today was a welcome reminder of that for me.
this is where we went if you are interested in learning more: http://www.potsbronx.org/
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