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Volunteer: ‘Their eyes shone brighter’

By Carlos Briceno
January 25th, 2008
The Florida Catholic (www.thefloridacatholic.org)

CLEARWATER, FL (The Florida Catholic) - I went to Pinellas Hope, the homeless project coordinated by Catholic Charities, on a recent evening to help serve supper and see what it was all about.

The food was not there when I arrived and residents were waiting as the sun went down. The site is a neat campground with well-trimmed trees and evenly spaced tents below them. There is no trash anywhere. Two large tents, the kind you would rent for a party, provide an eating and gathering area. A handful of trailers are offices, food service, supplies and mobile bathing facilities. It is quiet, like a waiting room, and has no sense of permanency.

As I wrote my name on the volunteer log, a handwritten sign taped to the table caught my eye: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”

Food that evening was brought by the Boley Centers for Behavioral Healthcare of St. Petersburg, and some employees came to help serve. We warmed rolls and set up, the busywork of service to those one doesn’t know.

Chris Ledwell, a volunteer at Pinellas Hope, was busy getting the dining service set. He was upbeat and positive in directing other volunteers and seemed to be the leader of the operation, so we all took note of who was “the boss” and directed questions to him.

Soon it was time for prayer. I joined the circle, holding hands with a disheveled man in layers of old clothes and a tall, stylish-looking woman wearing a leather jacket.

A hearty meal

Chris sent in the diners 10 at a time. “First-timers!” he hollered, then counted as each person came through to receive salad, then lasagna, then dressing, rolls and a cookie — a good, hot meal for each person.

Most looked tired in some way and the assortment of residents went way beyond stereotypes. There was the curly-haired gal who was very hungry and came back four times; the guy with the Gator hat who is really an LSU fan; a man who looks like my friend’s grandfather; the professionally dressed women who could have spent the whole day in the cubicle next to you — and you never would have guessed that they are all homeless.

They greeted us or thanked us, but were reserved. I wondered how long they have struggled and where they will go next.

“Second-timers!” Chris called out. We had enough food for seconds and even thirds. The lasagna was hot, fresh and popular. The men, who had labored all day, were hungry. Now that everyone had a plate of food, they asked for a little more and we gladly provided it. Their eyes shone brighter.

As we finished up, I learned how Chris came to be a full-time volunteer. He is a resident of Pinellas Hope, looking to get back on his feet. Rather than sit around and wait for something to happen, he pitched in to help, wanting to give back. First it was food service. Then he was given keys to this or that. Soon he became the go-to guy. He has become something of a leader through his service at the shelter, assisting others.

“You know, we’re all just a paycheck or two away from the streets,” he paused, taking a moment to give nonverbal instructions to a deaf volunteer/resident. “Most folks here are fighting their own demons and just hoping to make it.”

I think he will.

Changing ideas

My visit to Pinellas Hope did not give me a sense of having “done my part” for the homeless and those in need, but it changed some ideas I had about who is homeless and who serves them.

Although many folks take time out to give or volunteer around the holidays, there are people who answer the call every day to feed the hungry and help the less fortunate, and we need to support them in their ministry.

Hunger and homelessness won’t end with the holiday season. We can come for an hour or a day to help out and build an extra layer of community support. After all, many of the residents themselves are doing just that.

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