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Give the gift of conversation 

A caring, human connection over a hot meal restores dignity and hope to neighbors who are sorely in need

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In a world dominated by Facebook, YouTube, and iPhone apps, it is not surprising we have lost our sense of person-to-person contact. Instead of catching up with an old friend over a hot cup of coffee, we can jump onto Facebook and pull up their profile page. With just a few clicks of a mouse, we are informed of their weekend vacation, who they’re dating, and a status update of what they had for lunch. It seems our lives are getting busier and busier, and technology is helping us get there faster and faster. We have forgotten what it’s like to sit down and talk with an old friend or loved one for hours on end, because something else is calling for our attention.

At the Maxine Lewis Memorial Shelter, donations come in almost daily. Many times on my walk to the front door, I pass mounds of clothing dropped off by anonymous donors throughout the afternoon. The donations from local families and businesses are wonderful and greatly appreciated, but an even rarer occurrence is when someone donates time to volunteer. The donations of clothing, food, and toys help meet many needs, but most donors never see the people their clothes are going to, and the homeless clients never see the faces of those who have made donations.

One of my favorite quotations from Mother Teresa is, “Being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, forgotten by everybody, I think that is a much greater hunger, a much greater poverty than the person who has nothing to eat.” From my experience of working at the shelter, I’ve noticed that a warm smile or an uplifting word can offer more hope than a full stomach or a pair of used socks. Need often runs much deeper than a full supply of food and warm clothing. The problem of homelessness isn’t always a lack of money and resources, but often a lack of hope. Deep down, we are longing for someone to notice us and love us for who we are, rather than overlooking us for what we’ve done. I believe we are all here on Earth for a purpose. It doesn’t matter how many bad decisions we’ve made, where we’ve been, or what misfortunes we’ve encountered: We are all human and have a right to be loved.

I’ve seen many social groups come in on weekends to cook and serve dinner. A few weeks ago, I observed a group prepare plates of food for themselves and then spread out along the tables to talk and share their lives with the homeless clients. Sometimes, I think that is the best thing we can do for another person. Our attentive hearts and nonjudgmental conversations over a hot meal are all it takes to help restore someone’s self-worth and dignity. When someone else sees something in us, soon enough we’ll start to see it in ourselves. By volunteering at the shelter, you’re not just feeding someone’s stomach; you’re also feeding their spirit. I like working at the shelter because the opportunities to love people and impact lives are endless!

Volunteering at the shelter may seem intimidating at first, but you don’t need to have special skills or meet a list of qualifications to serve a meal and have a conversation with someone. There are no contracts to sign or lifelong commitments to make. The only thing it will require is your time and a willing heart.

At first glance, the shelter doesn’t look like much. The paint is chipping on the outside and the front door doesn’t open as easily as it used to. But what may look like an eyesore to some is a home. The people inside are what makes the shelter a gem in San Luis Obispo. The next time you have a free evening, stop by to see what I mean. At the end of the day, the homeless clients will not remember whose socks they are wearing, but the person who took the time to love and encourage them.

Heather Hiramatsu is a shelter worker for Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo and is majoring in child development at Cal Poly. Send comments via the opinion editor at [email protected].

Readers Poll

How do you feel about the availability of mental health services in SLO County? 

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