It was Community Service Day and I was volunteering at a shelter. Grabbing an apron and a pair of gloves, I found my way through the bustling kitchen into a dining hall packed with circular tables and occupied chairs. Homeless people with backpacks and scrubs conversed with each other, filling the air with chatter. I was initially stunned and confused by the sight until Ace*, a veteran volunteer, shoved an empty bin into my arms and instructed me to go around and clean tables.
I momentarily paused in reflection. It was 10am, I was a first year medical student wearing an apron and gloves, holding a bin covered with spilled coffee, staring into a crowd that made me feel guilty for every red light. I was busing for the homeless. As I walked around apprehensively, cruising into uncharted territories, I accepted the fact that I was entirely out of my comfort zone.
I started moving from table to table slowly, trying to smile as big as I could as I asked guests if they were done with their coffee and plates, if they wanted me to clean spilled sugar from the table. I received a variety of responses.
One was gracious. They offered to clean up themselves, placing their dishes in the bin or walking it over to the cleaning station, never forgetting to thank me.
Some of them would strike conversations, asking me about what I was doing there, what type of doctor I wanted to be, joking that they wanted to see me come back to take care of them, already asking me for medical advice. Some of them would tell me their stories, chapters of drug addiction, family loss, gang violence, incarceration, feelings of a bottomless pit they wanted to climb up but couldn’t, the voices, the lack of support, the asylum seekers.
One woman remarked that she never saw Muslims at this place and it was a nice surprise. She wished she could see more. Assalamualaikum, she told me. I am Christian but I know your faith. We are sisters, you and me. I was heart broken, but that story is for another time.
Another response I recieved was defensive. I was yelled at for trying to pick up a cigarette stub, an abandoned coffee mug, empty plates, and once an elderly woman scolded me for being rude for offering to clean spilled sugar. It was interesting to see these different responses. Initially I felt shocked and hurt and consequently withdrew myself, but I learned to not take it personally, replacing pride with compassion.
I wondered what life had taken out of them, to not trust. What I had done to contribute to that. How our social misconstructions on homelessness affected them.
The encounter I took home with me that day was Ace, the volunteer. He was comfortable and jovial in the hall, and was easily recognizable by the guests. He knew everyone. It didn’t take long for me to learn that he himself used to be homeless, living in the streets after incarceration. He would come to this shelter where they provided him food and laundry services in his time of need. What surprised me the most was his resilience, his ability to go through incarceration and homelessness and survive, then thrive, yet still feel a need to give back.
Ace didn’t run away from his past, he embraced it. He used everything he could to pay it forward. He gave me the biggest lesson I could have learned in humility: we are how we choose to define our experiences. We can let them anchor us down, or we can choose to build and stand on top of them.
There I was, at 12pm, a first year medical student wearing an apron and gloves, holding a bin filled with empty coffee mugs, plates, and packets of spilled sugar, staring into a crowd I would no longer fear at every red light. Having this experience I desired change, not what we grab from the bottom of cup holders sitting in the comfort of our cars, but what we can implement and believe in.
*Name has been changed for privacy.