By Alexis McDonald, DI Christmas WishList Volunteer
“…If there is no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” – Mother Theresa
Before I moved to Vancouver, each Christmas my sister and I would make our way downtown the shelter where my mother worked to interview clients for The Christmas Wishlist. The Wishlist is an annual project that shares the stories of those living at the shelter in the hopes of connecting them with a personalized gift made possible by the generosity of more fortunate Calgarians. Our job was to interview the clients so that their stories and wishes could be posted to the website.
The first time I volunteered, I was unsure of what to expect.
L and I gathered in the volunteer office with a handful of other interviewers. We were given a sheet with a list of questions.Name? Birthdate? How long have you been homeless? What are the reasons you are on the street? What are the biggest stresses of being homeless? What are your interests? What gives you hope? What would lift your spirits? What would you like for Christmas?
I was unsure of how some clients would react to some of the questions and worried that I wouldn’t be able to connect with the interviewees. But before I had the chance to change my mind about volunteering, I was handed a stack of forms and given a place at a table.
A long line of clients waited at the door as staff guided the first in line to an available volunteer. My first interview was with Donna*, a blonde woman in her forties. She smiled tentatively as she sat down. I could see the harshness of the street on her beautiful face.
She spoke of the relationship that ended five years ago. She’d been left her with nothing. She spoke about her 18 year old daughter. Her angel. How she didn’t like her coming down to the Drop In. Its too dangerous for her there, so instead, they arrange for times to meet. Her daughter will call and leave a message at the day office. Sometimes Donna doesn’t get them. It hurts that she cant be there for the girl whose name she has tattooed across her shoulders. A permanent reminder of the gift she is in her life.
What gave Donna hope? The dream that someday she would be able to have her daughter over anytime in a place all of her own.
A young man sat down next. Born a year after me – but we were both Gemini. The light is missing from his eyes. He’d lost contact with his family. Made some poor decisions. “What would lift your spirits this christmas?” I asked him. “A gift from somebody…anybody.” was his reply.
More men sit down. One with a black eye and a quiet smile who wanted nothing more than to see his kids that Christmas. They were in New Brunswick. Its was a long way home.
The wishes were simple. Boots, overalls, a back pack – if possible a new one that didn’t have holes.
An older gentleman pulled up a chair. I asked his birthdate. 1955. He looked nearly 70. His face weathered and cracked by the years slipping by. He was attacked 12 years ago and made legally blind. He made his living driving machines. He cant have a licence anymore. He was thankful everyday for the eye doctor who gives him hope pro bono.
I asked what would lift his spirits. His voice cracked and tears welled up in his eyes. He spoke so softly I had to lean in to hear him, “peace on earth and goodwill amongst men”. He shruged as he conceded to the fact that that wasn’t about to happen anytime soon.
He marked down an am/fm radio. The music, he told me, helped take him away from this place.
As he got up to leave, before I knew what I was doing, I stood up too. Not normally one to embrace strangers, I surprised myself and asked if I could give him a hug.
Years later, I can still picture him, speechless as his hand went to his heart and he nodded a silent yes as tears began to run down his cheeks.
If there is no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.
As we stood in an embrace in the midst of the chaos of the shelter, we belonged to each other. I held him and hoped that maybe he felt some of the peace and goodwill he so desired.
I think of that man often. About all the people I met at the shelter in the years after.
That first night of volunteering, I was afraid I wouldn’t connect with those who are living a life I’m so far removed from. I was, I think, feeling guilty for all that I had – scared that the clients would think of me as some spoiled kid who couldn’t possibly relate to their struggles and situation.
I learned that night, that when we are in our hearts, the things that separate us just melt away. There is no us and them. There is no spoiled girl or homeless guy.
For as the older gentleman and I embraced, I knew our hopes, our dreams, our deepest Christmas’ wishes were the same.
Please visit http://calgarywishlist.ca/ and please make someone Christmas Merry by sponsoring a wish.