When an experience truly changes you, it does so slowly, in snapshots.
A little over a week ago, I took a 20-hour road trip with a group of fellow Mizzou students to the mountain city of Denver. Countless miles and a significant consumption of Girl Scout cookies later, we found ourselves on the streets of downtown Denver. As part of Mizzou Alternative Spring Break, we had committed our week to helping serve Denver Rescue Mission. I went into this trip with little knowledge of homelessness in Denver and many false ideas. I left honored and humbled to be a small part of a large Mission that is transforming a community from the inside out.
It’s impossible to sum up or simplify our work with the Mission, so I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to show you snapshots. These are the lessons that taught me the most, after all.
Lessons from Gary
Denver Rescue Mission isn’t about bandaids. A major lesson I learned is when a person is homeless, so often their hardships cannot be magically fixed by food, money or even a home. True healing has to start much deeper. One of the programs I was most inspired by at the Mission is the New Life Program. Men and women accepted into the program spend the next couple of years changing their lives through work therapy, counseling and spiritual development.
My team had the pleasure of working with several program candidates at the Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter. By the end of the week, one candidate in particular felt like family. Short and stout, Gary has a boisterous laugh that can fill a room. As we prepared meals for hundreds of homeless, having Gary in the kitchen with us felt like having a big brother nearby. He was always around with a ready smile and a helping hand, and couldn’t go more than a few minutes without cracking a joke. Gary was the spirit of the kitchen, he was the hairnet police, he was a friend.When talking to Gary about food or just life, I never would have guessed he had spent part of his own life homeless. Gary’s perseverance and determination to right his life was a light in a dark place, and will continue to be.
Lessons from a 7-year-old
More than 60 percent of homeless in Metro Denver are families with children. I hear a statistic like that and feel a little punched in the gut. To say my perception of homelessness was turned on it’s head after a week with the Mission would be an understatement. When I thought of the homeless, I pictured the Lawrence Street Shelter – men lined up for food and a bed.
What I didn’t picture was a blond 7-year-old with a missing front tooth. Oliver was wearing a Thomas the Train Engine T-shirt the first day I met him. My team volunteered at a reading and writing club held at The Crossing, a long-term shelter for families and program participants. Oliver was practically exploding with joy, because his birthday was in March, and that was the day when all March birthdays were celebrated. He got his very own birthday cake and three presents, all of which were sports related. Throughout the week, I helped Oliver with math and reading. He re-taught me my multiplication tables. Grammar worksheets, however, were another story. I never really understood the phrase “pulling teeth” until I tried to get this kid to do grammar worksheets. The problem? Oliver didn’t grow up reading. He didn’t grow up with a stable educational environment, that is until his mother moved to The Crossing.
“Homelessness in America is a cycle” is a phrase I heard throughout the week. I get that now. After all, if you grow up worrying every night about where you’ll sleep or what you’ll eat, your future seems limited to the pavement that is your home. When thinking about all the children who face that insecurity in Denver alone, it was easy to feel overwhelmed in disheartened. Even when working with a program as far-reaching as the Mission, I knew my hands would always be too small to catch all the pain I want to heal. Yet, Oliver was a ray of hope to me. He loved, loved learning math, and I know he will get there with reading. He’s a fighter and a joyful one at that. On days I was feeling most discouraged, Oliver taught me to believe that cycles can be broken.
Lessons from Denver
On our first full day, someone told us Denver is one of the sunniest cities in America. That’s why 30 degrees there felt wayyy different than 30 degrees in Missouri. That’s why we could go sledding in short sleeves. Fittingly, if I had to limit our trip to one word, I would use “bright.” Be it a smile when serving dinner, playing endless games of make-believe with kids or hiding thousands of Easter eggs – my group learned how to be a light to those we served. And as with any form of service, I know I took away much more than I gave. My work with the Mission illuminated so many misconceptions I held about homelessness. More so, it illustrated the impact a small group of Missourians could have on a city as large as the mountains surrounding it. The lessons learned in Denver will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to carry them back with me to Columbia. Homelessness is an issue across the world, including in my college town. If my group can come back with just a semblance of the empowerment the people we served gave us, I have no doubt we can change Columbia. I have no doubt we can change the world.