Have you ever had the pleasure of teaching a youngster the fine art of whistling? How about attempting to communicate with an individual who speaks a completely different language? How would you convey to a blind person the magnificence and splendor, contour and texture, beauty and awe of clouds? Seemingly impossible tasks, wouldn’t you say? It’s hard to fathom things beyond our own narrow scope of reality. Without having relatable experiences, we are left with vague interpretations, frustrating abstractions, and a plethora of misunderstandings.
Winter is definitely upon us here in the US. As is common, there are certain areas (ahem, I’m talking to you: the southern ends of California, Arizona, and Texas; Hawaii; and the Florida panhandle) who refuse to participate, but as I survey my purplish-pinkish-blue fingertips, I can’t say I blame you! And it’s not like I haven’t been through a winter or two up here in the north end (it’s no Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, or Maine), but sometimes, I’m just taken aback a little by the biting cold and reminded of my own personal vulnerabilities. It’s because of this that I was drawn to a new opportunity to help serve in a little yet profound capacity. And when describing this new venture to a family member back home (in a non-winter-participating location), I became aware of our simple short-sightedness in light of lack of experience.
In most large metropolitan cities, there are men’s and women’s shelters that are run continuously throughout the year, day in and day out. These facilities provide lodging and meals for those who are without the means to provide for themselves the basic needs of food and shelter. Regardless of how one ends up in such a situation, it’s a beautiful thing to know there are those who are willing to step in and bridge the gap, whether through monetary donations to keep the shelters up and running, through donations of food and supplies, or through donations of time, serving and developing relationships with those who walk through the doors of the facilities in need of assistance, in need of a hand up, in need of hope for tomorrow, in need of a sense of humanness in their lives. In colder climates, even in the midst of full-time shelters, there are what are referred to as “emergency cold weather shelters” that open in the event that the weather is forecasted to drop below freezing overnight. These are temporary locations set up within churches, businesses, and other community outreach organizations, coordinated through bands of volunteers for the express purpose of providing safe, hospitable shelter during unsafe, inhospitable weather – further bridging the gap and reaching out to a segment of the community most in need of compassion and warmth (both figuratively and literally).
As I became more acclimated to “winter” – read: temperatures below 50 degrees F – I had heard from time to time the mention of these “emergency cold weather shelters”, but was rather unfamiliar with them. Just this season, however, I had the opportunity to invest whole-heartedly into my community’s outreach program, and become a volunteer! There are actually three participating facilities within the city where I live that coordinate to make sure each day of the week is covered, if need-be. My specific affiliation facility handles Thursday nights; however, since finishing up my studies, I didn’t see any harm in disseminating my name throughout each of the three facilities, to make sure I could be of benefit whenever needed! Each night is broken up into three shifts: 7pm – 11pm, 11pm – 3am, and 3am – 7am. There are always at least two volunteers during each shift, a dinner served at 7:30pm, doors locked and lights out at 10pm, rise with breakfast at 6am, and doors locked again at 7am (to allow for those who have jobs to attend to, time to get off and going). Granted, the “emergency cold weather shelters” are not open every night – only when the weather is forecasted to dip below freezing (32 degrees F), so there are days that go by when there is no need for the volunteers. There are, however, other times when the shelter is open for several days at a time. And because the shelter is hosted by different participating facilities on different nights, the supplies (mattresses, pillows, linens, toiletries, check-in paperwork, etc.) has to be picked up, packed up, transported, unloaded, re-disseminated time and time again – all through the hard work of the volunteers and coordinated effort of the outreach program.
I’ve had the pleasure of shaking hands, filling soup bowls, brewing coffee, and sitting down to engage in conversation with several of the guests of the cold weather shelter in my community. I know several guests by name, and while only a couple remember my name (which isn’t a big deal to me), quite a few recognize me and greet me tenderly. The humility, graciousness, and true gratefulness I’ve seen displayed by these guests is heartwarming.
Twenty years ago, I had never witnessed a snowflake falling from the sky. I’m not complaining; I was blessed to grow up without the fear of frozen pipes, black ice, or snow drifts (of course that also meant no snow days – ever!) Because of that, though, I also never would have known what an “emergency cold weather shelter” was, nor would I be able to explain how they functioned; my narrow scope of reality was dictated by my experiences. Even more so was my shielded view of those beautiful people who walk through the doors, thankful for a warm meal, a warm place to lay their head for the night, and a warm, friendly face, sharing with them the simple “hello” of humanity.
I am grateful for new relatable experiences that help to clarify vague interpretations, add definition to the abstractions of life, and sort out, slowly, the plethora of misunderstandings.