A few weeks ago, I was presented with the opportunity to give back to my community by volunteering to help pass out food and care packages to the residents of Skid Row. For those of you who don’t know what Skid Row is (and don’t feel like taking the trouble to open up a new tab on your browser to Google it), it’s basically a large homeless community located in the heart of Downtown Los Angeles.
Initially, I didn’t really know what to expect out of the experience, having only learned about the reputation of Skid Row through television (thank you, Kardashians. See everyone, they are good for SOMETHING), social media (thank you, Google Images) and various first hand accounts of those whom I asked (to quote my supervisor at work, “It’s sad more than anything”). Truthfully, I didn’t volunteer hoping to get extra karma points, or so I could brag about it on my various social network accounts – I hardly told anyone about the opportunity until after the fact. More than anything, curiosity was what sparked my interest, and of course the idea of giving back to my community in hopes to not only better myself, but also hopefully making someone’s day a little better.
This opportunity came through Science Council at my school (the large council that blankets over all of the other clubs within the College of Science – I was representing Kappa Mu Epsilon, the Math Club), and since it was a first come, first serve basis with limited spots, I jumped at the opportunity, avoiding any possibility of a “whoops, I waited too long, and now I can’t go, oh well” situation. I’ve been looking for opportunities to have great experiences, instead of sitting back and watching everyone else snatch them up – something I’ve done way too much of in the past. And honestly, I just figured it would be a really cool experience, but I was definitely not expecting the experience that I got.
The day of the event finally came, and I started second guessing myself. It was a brand new situation that would send me flying out of my comfort zone, and it was a situation that I had no idea what to expect from. In the past, I would just throw my hands up and quit, in an attempt to avoid any potential awkward situation, any potential dangerous situation. But it was exactly that attitude and mindset that I was beginning to grow tired of, which is what motivated me to volunteer for this in the first place. So I went along with my plans, and followed through with the commitment I had made several weeks earlier.
The streets were lined with tents, cardboard boxes and old damaged furniture. People in soiled clothing walked up and down the streets and looked at us with curious eyes. It was 8pm, dark, and the realization finally sank it that literally anything could happen in this wide open (and unprotected) space.
The mere idea of infiltrating an area of town I’ve never been to before – a homeless community with a less than pleasant reputation, nonetheless – was enough to bring my anxiety to the forefront at full force. But once my group arrived at the meeting site, and was prepped by the head in charge of the event, every possible bad situation that could happen all came rushing into my already wild imagination. He warned us of previous altercations and complications that had happened in the past, situations ranging from gang fights to an individual who had just shot up heroin that was tormenting the volunteers with an exposed used needle. “Volunteers have been attacked in the past,” he warned. Did I mention that Skid Row is also a cesspool of untreated individuals with mental disorders?
But despite those potential bad things that could happen, he assured us that those were the absolute worst things that could happen. In the past three years that he has overseen this event, the bad things happen so few and far between. But still, when someone puts those potential situations in your head, that’s all you can think about until you actually go through the experience.
I’ll assure you that none of those things were even close to happening during the actual event. I had a wall up through the beginning of the event, but as soon as I started working face to face with these individuals, that wall immediately came down. I quickly came to realize that these people weren’t bad people – they were good people in a bad situation. Some of the residents were surprisingly generous when it came to the distribution of food – “I’ll just take a water, save the food for someone else.” Despite the seemingly unsatisfying food that was being passed out – peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, two pieces of fruit, and a bottle of water – those that were receiving had nothing but gratitude for what they were getting. None complained, and many came back for more, as many “God Bless you” smiles were given right back to the volunteers.
For majority of their lives, these people have been treated like nobodies. They have been ignored by the greater part of the population, and were abused by their own neighbors. Many have been raped, beaten senseless, and abused almost on a daily basis. Many more go to sleep each night, unsure if they will wake up the next morning. I quickly realized that despite these things, the residents weren’t looking for pity, or for someone to feel sorry for them. They just needed a spark of gratitude in their lives, a sign that someone out there cared. And even though they go through such negative things on a daily basis, the split second where someone looks them in the eye and says “Hello, how are you” with a genuine smile would outshine the rest of the negativity because for a split second, they were the only ones that mattered, and they were somebody to someone.
From now on, I will be forever grateful for the life that I have. Despite the “bad days” that I’ve had and will have, I’ve still been blessed with so many things that I’m so incredibly undeserving of. I have a warm bed to sleep in every night. I have food to eat everyday. I have a stable roof over my head. And if, God forbid, anything were to happen, I’ll always have someone to turn to for support. After my night on Skid Row, and hearing so many stories that happen everyday in that area, none of the “bad” things that occasionally happen to me suddenly don’t matter anymore because it could be worse, and I’m so lucky that even on the worst days, things pick up and I move on.
I am so grateful for this experience, and I’m so happy that I followed through with it. This Thanksgiving, I’ll have so much more to be thankful for, things that I’ll be thankful for 365 days a year.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. Life is beautiful, and so are you.