On a pre-hurricane rain-soaked morning, I volunteered at the Haven, Charlottesville’s day-shelter for homeless and low-income men and women. I almost didn’t go–I was nervous for my first time working the Welcome Desk, a job that requires memory of where things are, which I’m bad at even on a good day, and general knowledge of how the systems of the Haven work, which I’m still grasping. To add to this general fear, I was sick, coming down with what everyone else has had in this pre-fall season. And it was only my second time volunteering, which meant I wasn’t a regular presence, and might not be missed. But if I didn’t go, I wouldn’t be back for at least another week, and I’m trying my very best to be consistent. So, freezing cold and soaking wet, I went in for a 2 hour shift.
I coughed my way through; I asked questions and found razors and shaving cream and towels and washcloths; I dialed phone numbers and handed out laundry detergent. I don’t think I actually did anything correctly, or even helpfully. But what surprised me was the easy environment in which I existed. I expected to feel shamed for not knowing things; after all, I’m the volunteer, right? The guests knew exactly where things would be; they teased me kindly about my lack of knowledge. I developed a cough a few minutes in, and they asked how I was and told me to make sure I stayed dry.
Here’s the thing: I am just dipping my toes into these waters which so many have swum before me, speaking about concepts and truths I’m learning that so many can articulate with much more clarity. So many go before me for whom this is not a 2 hour per week commitment, but rather years of work, a vocation, a life’s work, or even a reality. What I’m doing here isn’t offering answers or new discoveries; rather, I’m processing the reality I’m learning, showing you my own journey of baby steps.
So, what surprised me? This: in all honesty, I don’t think anything I actually did felt like volunteering, or even like helping. Requests for different items or phone use were minimal; everyone knows the systems in place, and seems to respect them well. In reality, most of my time was spent listening, meeting, talking to people.
I am a newcomer to this community, and each person who passes the welcome desk notices. They stop, they introduce themselves: staff, volunteers, guests. They ask me my name, if I go to UVa, what I study, what I like to do. And they share their stories, too. It’s a precious thing, community, and I’m amazed at how easily they extend their hands and open their arms to me, a nobody, a student who’s only there two hours a week and will graduate within eight months. But they do, and I am so grateful. I don’t know what more I will learn, what else the year has in store with me, but I’m beginning with what everything must grow out of: community.