An anonymous account of volunteering at CSA
As a young successful professional woman I had achieved all my major goals but something was still lacking in my life. I joined service groups at church and in the community. I volunteered to paint bedrooms at the homeless shelter, I served meals at the soup kitchen, I organized a supply drive for homeless veterans, but I never felt like I made a difference in anyone’s life.
Then one day I expressed these feelings to a lady at Catholic Services of Acadiana and she said all I needed to do was “put myself in God’s way”. I asked what she meant by that and she said, “just show up where there is need and be there without expectation, without intention, no plan to paint or serve food, just BE there, in God’s way.” I reflected for some time on her statement until what she meant finally crystallized for me and I went to St. Joseph Diner to eat lunch rather than serve lunch. I resolved to do this three times a week for a month – putting myself in God’s way.
On my second visit a young man named Antonio sat down next to me and smiled. He was bright-eyed and cheerful. He told me that he came here to eat every day and he took a bath and did his laundry at Stella Maris (a hygiene facility operated by Catholic Services of Acadiana). I couldn’t understand why this young man was homeless so I asked him, “Why are you homeless?” That’s when his story just started flowing out with a grace and eloquence that took me by surprise. Antonio told me he had been homeless since he was 15 when his mother died of cancer. She had worked two jobs to keep them housed but when she got sick she couldn’t work any longer and he felt responsible. That’s when Antonio began distributing drugs, “I moved drugs all over New Orleans and made good money,” he said with a touch of pride in his voice. “ But I am 19 now and I gotta switch it up.” I asked Antonio what he meant and he explained that the dealer had beaten him severely. It had happened several times in the past. “I hadn’t ever been scared till now, that’s why I came to Lafayette for a new start.”
I asked how he planned to accomplish this “new start” and was frankly, shocked when Antonio said “Don’t know. Haven’t a clue.” My orderly mind had difficulty comprehending his light-heartedness in the face of such uncertainty. I asked where he was staying and he told me he was living in the woods behind a fast food restaurant. When I asked why he wasn’t in the shelter Antonio said he was young and strong and he didn’t want to take a bed from older men with health problems. I wanted to help him but I couldn’t figure out how. I had been cautioned against giving money to the homeless – so I asked him, “How can I help you?” Antonio chuckled and said, “Well, you talked about a plan, so how does a homeless kid with no work experience and no education get himself situated?”
Over the course of the next month Antonio and I continued to meet in the Diner and formulated a plan. He would start at the fast food place he lived next to cleaning up the parking lot and around the building for free. He would talk to the manager and ask for a job just a couple of hours a week maybe mopping up at night. He would mop better than anyone had ever mopped that place before and he would do extra work to demonstrate his abilities and willingness to work hard. Antonio continued to meet me in the Diner where he told me of his progress.
It took two weeks for the manager to pay him minimum wage for 10 hours of work. That’s when I met him at the barber shop and paid for his hair cut. It took two more weeks before the manager asked if he wanted to learn how to cook. That’s when I met him at Wal-Mart and purchased his black pants, white shirts, and non-skid shoes. In a few more weeks he was up to 30 hours a week and he got his first real paycheck. When I found that he still had all his other little checks uncashed because he was afraid to walk around with money, I met Antonio at the bank to help him set up his checking account and develop a budget.
That was a year ago. He is now the night manager at the same fast food place making $10.00 an hour and living in his words, “legit”. As for me, I was struck by the irony that by giving up all my well planned volunteer opportunities and just showing up, I was able to use my planning skills to help Antonio change his life. I learned to let go of my illusion of control. I learned to bless and be blessed by giving up my expectations and putting myself in God’s way.
*names in these stories have been changed to ensure confidentiality