Giving, and Gaining More: 6 Things Homeless People Taught Me

All 2013, one of my best friends and I have been trying to find ways to give back to the community, especially homeless people.  Time flew by like it always does, (and always gets faster every year… sigh) and before we knew it, we realized that it was the last week of December and we hadn’t done as much as we wanted to that year (well ok, I guess we did go to the AIDS Walk, but that was a one time event). 

After hearing about an inspiring story of an NFL football player making hundreds of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with his wife to give out to the homeless, our last Sunday of the year, my friend and I decided that we couldn’t wait any longer to participate in some very much overdue plans of helping people.

This operation to feed the homeless started out with minimal planning or expectations. We went to Food4less after deciding that we could probably find the cheapest foods there in LA, we each pitched in 25 dollars to start and got enough food for 66 sandwiches (6 loaves of bread, 2 jars of peanut butter and 2 jars of jam) and about 20 plain rolls (we thought we might run into a lot of people who have peanut allergies – we didn’t). We also got cases of water and 2 bags of Hershey’s Kisses chocolate (we wanted to add a little personal touch – a dessert!).

When we got back to my friend’s place in Los Angeles, we rolled up our sleeves and just started making these sandwiches. After a few less-than-hearty peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that didn’t look too good, we finally got a good feel for a “good sandwich” and we ended up making 65 to distribute (and 1 we tasted to make sure it tasted good).  Making the sandwiches and wrapping them took about 2 hours. (And I will tell you, I am like an EXPERT at making peanut butter and sandwiches now!) We also had additional 20 plain rolls to hand out too, so we were prepared for about 80 people or so.

Then we carried everything  we made and packed them in the car, then we started to just drive towards Skid Row not knowing exactly where to get started. For those who are not familiar with Skid Row, it is an area near Downtown Los Angeles where there are streets after streets of homeless people. Unfortunately, there is a community of them. There are some “better off” homeless people with tents and others with just boxes and sheets. Either way, it is heart breaking.

With our cases of water and sandwiches and Hershey’s Kisses in our hands, we nervously started driving towards one of the most infamous roads in Los Angeles. We didn’t know what to expect. We didn’t know if people would like what we made, nor if this would be enough. We didn’t know if we would get out of the car, or stay in and drive around. We ended up doing both.

When we got to the Row, we saw half of what we expected, and the other half what we hadn’t expected. We saw people sleeping on the streets, others gladly taking the food and water, and some who seemed drunk and others who seemed to be on drugs – which we had expected. What we hadn’t expected were running into a 7 year old child and her family living on the street, people who refused to take the food, and others who seemed even angry or offended that we offered. We just accepted and acknowledged  the range of unexpected scenes and reactions, and we were able to hand out all the food we brought after about an hour and a half or two.

A few weeks later, with what we had learned from the prior trip around Skid Row, we tried again with about 70 more sandwiches. This time we were able to recruit another friend! We went directly to Skid Row this time, but this time in the heart of it, not  just near it. Our comfort and familiarity level of the area had already grown. Instead of handing out water, sandwiches, and chocolate out separately and frantically, we got brown paper bags and organized them in boxes for easier distribution. Instead of just handing out the food, we wrote on every single one of the brown paper bags a nice, hand written note, saying little messages like “Please enjoy this! Hope you have a great day!” or “Happy Saturday! J” Although it was just peanut butter and jelly sandwich, I wanted them to know that each individual that I was helping mattered to me and that they were special.

We saw more of what we expected – people who were hungry, people who were happy to see us. There were also things that we hadn’t expected, nor seen yet– a homeless person with a pet snake and a mouse he was about to feed him with, another lady defecating on the street, homeless people about to shoot up something with a syringe right before our eyes; we saw homeless people who were dealing drugs, those who were singing, and some that well, looked happy and sober.

Every time we encountered something or a situation unexpected, I learned something new. And what I gained from this experience was much more valuable than a few dollars and hours I spent making and handing out the food.

Things that I learned and gained by having the opportunity to help the less privileged:

  1. Practicing non-judgment: Sure, was it alarming when we saw people reaching out for the peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the same hand that had been used to hold a syringe? Yes. Did I go out there to judge and discriminate who “deserves” food and who didn’t? Absolutely not. But initially, when I saw this, I can’t deny that the thought went through my head for a split second – should I be handing out food to these people who are doing shady things on the street? But quickly, I reminded myself that I was not there to practice judgment, but to accept everyone and just help them because they were hungry. This helped me practice non-judgment. Who knows what I would be tempted to do if I were in their position? I am not saying by all means that I agree with their choices in life or support them. But what it did teach me was that I had no right to judge them because I had never, well, have been them. This idea really helped me in my everyday life – why are we sometimes so quick to judge people when we are not them? We never have and will never have the same set of experiences that they had gone through? At the end of the day, we have the right to choose the level of engagement with people who do not have the same values, beliefs and life choices as us; but if they are human, and they need food, I am more than willing to offer who ever a sandwich and water because I don’t get to judge who “deserves” and should be “denied” the right to eat a meal when they are hungry.
  2. Focusing on positive intentions: And this exact realization helped me strengthen my intention for being there. My intention was not to play God and decide who gets food from me or not. My intention was to help those who are not as privileged as me and to be grateful for them for giving me an opportunity to practice this positive intention. Often times, we get into things for the right reasons and we lose the focus of our good intentions and fall into a negative mindset. Have you ever gone out to celebrate something, and you let something rather minor bring you down and let it “ruin your night”? Have you ever had a date night with your significant other to have a good time, then found yourselves arguing? Have you ever tried to hang out with a friend, and got annoyed when he or she was a few minutes late? When we focus on our positive intentions conscientiously, we allow ourselves to enjoy the luxury of our good thoughts and magnify the results of our good intentions more, allowing us to appreciate always the better half of any situation.
  3. Become more aware of spending money on unnecessary things: Before I go to Skid Row, or soon after, I have a hard time going out and spending money on drinks at bars, restaurants, nails, or things that I can technically skip. When I am at a bar, and spending 50 dollars on a round of drinks, now I think about the fact that that could have fed almost 100 people who have not eaten that day. That helps me recognize and differentiate the “wants” and the “needs” in life.
  4. Become more grateful for everything… I mean EVERYTHING! When is the last time that I looked up at my roof, and thought, thank god it is there so when it rains or snows, I have a place to be safe. Or when is the last time I was brushing my teeth and thought, I am so lucky that I have this sink and this clean water to brush my teeth with every night. When is the last time I was thankful that on that “dreaded” Monday, you felt so blessed to have a job? When is the last time that I was glad that I have a bed and blankets to sleep comfortably in? Because I should be grateful for all these things, every single day that I have them! Being around the less privileged opened my eyes for what I REALLY have. If you are reading this somewhere, in a place with a roof, and a computer or a cell phone, and you are not hungry, then you, like me, already have gazillion things to be thankful for compared to some people out there. But often times, we often focus on the negatives over all these great things to be thankful for, because it is easy, because it is thoughtless, and because we are so lucky that we don’t really have more serious things to worry about. Next time my phone dies and waiting for an “important text from my friend” or  “so annoyed that there is nowhere to plug my phone in,” I will try to be grateful that I am so used to having so many people to connect with our phones and that I usually have readily available access to power and electricity (and have a phone that could die at all!). Or next time that we irritated waiting at a bar or a restaurant for drinks or food, let’s remind ourselves that there are people who have not eaten that day at all, and those who may never have a chance to eat or have a drink at a nice place, like we were about to.
  5. Become more modest and happy: Surprisingly, there were people who honestly seemed happier than some people I see every day at work, or at bars, or at parties. They did not have a job, they did not have a fancy drink in their hands, or lots to eat. They didn’t have a car, or a house, or even a family. But some of them, to my pleasant surprise, seemed to still stay happy and seemed to enjoy the positives in the given moment. I had a good laugh with the guy who had the snake pet and the mouse that he was about to feed his snake with (his snake scared the shit out of me and he thought it was hilarious). It honestly made my day when someone told me that they thought our peanut butter sandwich was so delicious that they asked for another one with a big smile. Another homeless lady told me that I had a great smile and her compliment was so genuine it warmed my heart! Some people, even when they monetarily don’t have much, still have the attitude to find happiness and connect with people with laughter and positive energy. If they can smile and laugh at least a few times a day, or say a compliment to a stranger to brighten someone’s day, or truly show gratitude, what stops us from smiling, trying to brighten another person’s day and feeling gratitude every minute of our lives with all that we have?
  6. Become braver to infect people with positivity and the intention to help the less privileged:  My goal in writing about my experience is not to boast about the very minor thing I did for those in need for a few hours a few times. Honestly, compared to what some amazing people do on a daily basis or at a larger scale, what I did is extremely minimal that it is laughable as far as helping people. But if by writing about this and sharing my experience, and I can impact even one other person to spend one Saturday or Sunday afternoon to do something to help someone in need, then that itself more than fulfills my purpose of sharing my story. Because whoever that NFL player and his wife were, because they shared their story with the public, I was able to get that very subtle but meaningful boost of courage and the motivation to do something that I felt was difficult to translate from just a fleeting thought to action.

Do something to make your heart beam with care and love, and help a stranger or 100. And share your story because this world needs more positivity and more people to help those in need; and it can start with you.

At the end, you will realize what I learned – no matter how much you feel like you helped, you walk away gaining more than you ever gave.  And I am already excited to go back in a few weeks to continue learning more… 🙂

 

– YC

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