This is a guest post from Zinith Barbee, one of our regular volunteers. If you’re interested in writing a guest post for us, please email Jasmin here. Thanks!
I arrived at Love Wins and found a teenager in my seat. To guests experiencing homelessness, Love Wins is a refuge. To me, a man with a disability, it’s an achievement to be here. Now this kid took my spot.
With infrequent volunteers for the Information Desk where I donate my time, its chair became just another seat available to anyone in the Community Engagement Center. To someone unfamiliar with me, I’m just another “guest” wanting a chair. I accommodated myself with other furniture donated to the ministry: A nearby church bench. Then, I converted a music stand into a makeshift desk and learned this young person’s name. It was Linda.
Sometimes, I handle telephone calls for the staff, and so I’m entrusted with a cordless telephone. It’s available to guests too. For some, it’s their only telephone connection to other people. One time, a guest borrowed the cordless telephone and didn’t return it. He expected a call from a prospective employer and wanted to make sure no one tied up the line to prevent it. I had to be somewhat authoritative to retrieve the telephone. Responsibility empowered me.
I felt that way about my seat. And had backup.
“You’re not supposed to be there,” another volunteer admonished Linda. He pointed to an overlooked sign that read: “Volunteers only beyond this point please.” Duct tape stretched across the floor marked that “point,” demarcating the alcove where I’m stationed.
Some years back I was in the ICU after brain surgery for the tumor that disabled me. Among questions nurses daily asked (that fellow patients scarily couldn’t answer), two were: “Do you know who you are?” and “Do you know where you are?”
Visceral replies then didn’t answer existential questions later. Disabled in an abled, employed population, I eventually felt displaced. Like a teenager wrestling with their identity when approaching adulthood, I struggled with finding myself all over again in early retirement.
I walk to Love Wins. From my house, the CEC is steeply uphill all the way. However, what’s hardest is passing a front yard with a white picket fence. The vertical slats and spaces between them present a moving white/black pattern that’s like a rapidly blinking light when I pass, and this makes me dizzy. Another yard like that nauseates me, so I take a side street before reaching it. Looking away from fences doesn’t help. My peripheral vision is problematic, and street traffic makes me dizzy, too. Some walks are gauntlets.
I’ve worked hard to get where I am.
Volunteerism feels like rehabilitation. With symptomatic memory loss, I often barely remember messages I tell callers I’ll deliver. I learned to immediately write myself notes before forgetting. I developed other enabling stratagems. In other words, initially coming to Love Wins has been all about me.
“Do you want your seat back?” Linda had asked, another visceral question requiring an existential answer.
The Operations Manager blogged about personal challenges when building relationships and community at Love Wins. “There’s no rubric for our work,” she posted, “our boundaries are self-made….”
Some of our guests experiencing homelessness are criminalized with trespassing charges for where they sleep. I’ve remarked to staff, “They probably get a lot of people in this city telling them to move on. I don’t feel right coming here telling them the same thing.”
Linda’s counselor called. Linda would get picked up and taken to a women’s shelter when the CEC closed. Deposited here, delivered there, like a package, I imagined Linda feeling depersonalized and displaced. I’d go home when my day ended.
Linda and I, teenager and retiree, hadn’t conversed much but communicated enough, I supposed, when she gave me a friendly wave goodbye as she left.
“Do you want your seat back?”
It was a different day, with a different guest echoing Linda’s question, but by then I’d devised a rubric for myself.
“No,” I answered. “It’s your seat. My chair is at home. Seats here are for you.”
Author Bio: Zinith is better known to neighbors as the retired hydrogeologist who volunteers in a neighborhood school where he talks to children about rocks. He attends Raleigh Mennonite Church.