As manager of a homeless center at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Pennsylvania, Stephanie wrote down on my Service Learning report as follows: “Tam was a wonderful help in our toy area and food pantry. She washed and dried the toys so the children that come to REACH with their families could play with them while I helped the parents find the resources they needed. Also, Tam assisted us in the food pantry by organizing the client cards, dusting and stocking shelves. Through all, Tam maintained a smile and a positive attitude.” I feel happy and re-reading the comment; however, inspired by one of Chị Hằng’s recent posts, I think it would be much happier if I share s the experience with our friends in Dot Chuoi Non.
For the first two weeks, I worked at the toy area, cleaning and organizing the toys and books for the children of the homeless families. The toy house looked like a real mess at first sight. I started cleaning the floor and making room for myself to clean the toys. When the floor looked very clean, I began to wash and then dry the toys, mostly cars for boys and some dollhouses for girls. I shifted to work at the bookshelves once the toys were finished.
When the toy house was ready for the children , I asked Stephanie to assign another task for me. I went to the food pantry area, first putting the family food cards in alphabetical order to help an old lady, and then opening food boxes and arranging the food items on respective sections of the pantry.
When Stephanie and her assistant got surprised to see my work result, I was cheerful that my efforts paid off, and I hoped the homeless would feel better when they came here to pick food for themselves.
Eighteen hours of helping at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church has offered many things for me to learn, namely interpersonal skill, organizational skill, and ideas about certain simple works that students can do to help address the various needs of homeless people.
In the first place, my interpersonal skill has improved since I began to meet various types of people on a biweekly basis, and come to realize how this community is much more complicated than the relationships that I develop in a normal academic setting. At the church, for example, the manager’s staff were very friendly towards volunteering students from Wilkes University like us; nevertheless, as they were involved in so many activities, we usually had to wait or even got ignored when asking for some extra information. An old lady could feel annoyed at us due to the discomfort she suffered in bad weather, but always gave us a bright smile when she felt better. A middle-aged man just kept whispering to me that I had “a sexy body and an attractive face”, which I would have taken for sexual harassment had I not known that he was affected by some kind of mental illness. Again, another old man often ran to my side while I was arranging the fruit boxes on the food pantry, telling me not to work so hard and that “I have to tell Obama about this”. In fact, during the first two days of working here I felt so scared and uncomfortable, but as time went by I gradually felt better and began to see the goodwill of the staff as well as the homeless people at St. Stephen’s. After all, I have become a more patient, tolerant and open-minded person; and I would therefore encourage my friends and my students to take part in activities like this to develop their understanding of others’ feelings and emotions.
Secondly, my organization skill developed while I was working at the toy house for the children. At first, I just simply picked up any cars within reach and cleaned them. A week later on, a friend suggested doing some overall organization, and when I followed his suggestion I felt much less overwhelmed by the big mess in this small area. Plus, as some people who were trying to take a nap right in front of the toy area, after working hard the previous night, I tried to be considerate and learned how to work in silence.
Last but not least, I find it very meaningful to see the statement of REACH, which says, “We believe that no one can make progress if their basic needs of food, clothing and shelter are unmet. We attempt to meet these needs with the following resources: food pantry, clothes closet and shelter.” In addition, this ministry also tries to provide the guidance and medium of communication, like telephone and television, to seek employment, and especially shows a great care for the academic and personal needs of the children in these unfortunate families.” In this spirit, I am now more aware of the various needs of homeless people, which would be taken into consideration when I teach a class. I also believe that my Vietnamese students can lend their helping hands to the social organizations at home or organize helping activities by themselves. In short, besides academic lessons, I would try to incorporate Service Learning into curriculum to help develop my students’ personalities.