by Nikki Russell, Recovery Coach
July 25, 2023
"Be the change you wish to see in the world" -Mahatma Gandhi
I can remember many times walking past a person experiencing homelessness. The thoughts that came to mind brought feelings of shame. Something inside me wanted to give to them, but I was taught they were dangerous, morally defective, and fully capable of making money if they wanted to. As time passed, I stopped looking at "them" but could never shake the feeling that something was amiss with my actions or lack thereof. The poverty around me made me wonder what kind of person I am to pass community members experiencing homelessness. Yet, I was going home, deciding which show to watch, Seinfeld or Friends.
I came to understand many years later that all those people I sidestepped were a reflection of something deep inside of me that I did not want to see. I was so busy creating a life with external things I could not know the truth. I experienced a different poverty but no less profound. I became skilled at living in a world of illusion; my mind had created a story that I desperately wanted to believe, and I ignored the reality that was staring me right in the face. So I decided to stop ignoring "those" people and began looking them in the eyes as I passed by...they smiled. I started saying hi, and they obliged. Then one day, I sat down next to him; he had a name and a story similar to mine. A traumatic childhood, loss, and grief had rendered him emotionally paralyzed, and his past haunted him. I saw me in him, but a more courageous man than I, for he was willing to show his pain and beg for help.
That day I learned what service work is, serving compassion as a way to find my way to a home I have never known. For years I had asked, is it better to give a man a fish or teach him how to fish so he will eat for a lifetime? I dug in my pocket, pulled out all the money I had crinkled up, and gave it to him as a gesture of gratitude for the lesson I learned. As I walked away, he yelled, "God bless you, mam." and I knew for the first time what the fullness of life was; I had no money, but I had everything I needed; I had dignity, respect, and love gifts that only can be received after giving them away. He needed money, and I needed truth. I learned that some people do not know how to fish or that mental health or addiction prevents a person from fishing, but that does not mean they do not offer something precious.
Service work is a life principle put into action. I have found that I do not have the benefit of not serving, for I am aiding my recovery or feeding my addiction. I have met many new friends through the years, and I continue to feel the sweetness of charity as long as I am willing to look the truth in the eye and open up my heart to the pain that dwells in the hearts of those without a home. Now, many live in neighborhoods with roofs over their heads but live in poverty, just as I was. Sometimes a person experiencing homelessness has an abundance unknown to those who think riches are materialistic and success is a comfortable couch to watch Friends. I have learned differently.
Today I serve on the CARE committee and dedicate my whole heart to helping those experiencing homelessness. I work as a Peer Support Specialist helping a different kind of poverty. It certainly takes much more than a smile and a buck to solve the world's problems. However, if you want to change the world, you must first start within; you never know where that path might take you.