Homelessness

Because of my volunteering with homeless individuals, I immediately notice whether the situation there is better or worse than in Chicago each time I visit other cities. And if it is better, I wonder what these cities are doing better and what we could do in Chicago.

I think about this each time I visit Helsinki, but it was even more pronounced this time. I went to clinic escort on Saturday morning, and I had to go to the earliest shift because I was leaving the same day. It was the first time I ever ook the Red Line as early as 5-15 AM, and the first two cars were pretty much “sleeping cars” – I didn’t even try to get in and move to the third car right away. The next day, I read a letter of complaint from some North Side residents about the homeless encampment and how “they have too many defendants, like the Night Ministry…”

I understand people’s frustration, but I also know that, unfortunately, we do not have any solution in Chicago. It’s great, that the homeless problem in Helsinki is almost non-existent, and I wonder whether we will ever be close to that…

ODS Christmas Party

This year, the Night Ministry decided against the large Christmas party as we used to have in the Church – for the residents of all different programs. However, each program had its own party.

I can’t really tell whether I like it more or less this way (to be honest, I think the food was not of the best quality and variety in comparison with the previous years). But it was still fun, and my cookies were very much appreciated, although the residents kept asking when I will come to make Mom’s soup 🙂

At The Night Ministry

I mentioned this young mother from the shelter before. T. was the one who told me one night when I was about to leave: Ms. Henrietta, do you know that you need to be here every night? And I told her that I knew, and if I had seven lives, my one life would be in the shelter every night. 

And then there was another time when she was very harsh with her 3-year-old daughter, and I wanted to interfere but felt strongly that we were not close enough yet for me to interfere. The only suggestion I made was to help a little girl stop crying by putting damp clothes on her face. 

Later that evening, T. came over to me and asked when I would come next time and what we would cook. She wanted to try to make borshch, and I told her that we would need to make two soups because not everybody likes beets, and she said she was up to the challenge.

We walked to the volunteer coordinator and asked him what day I could come, and he said – November 2. I asked her: will you survive until November 2? and she nodded.

Out volunteer coordinator took a short vacation right before November 2, and on November 1, his flight got canceled. He messaged me in the morning that we would need to cancel and asked whether I could come Wednesday or Thursday. I had something on both days, and I told him I would come next week. 

That day was yesterday. I came in, put my backpack down, and asked the staff whether the produce was in the kitchen. He replied: I have bad news for you: one is that we have no cabbage. I started saying that they should have told me and I could pick it up and it should not be last-minute shopping, and well, we will make borshch another time, I just promised T… He continued: and another bad news is that T. is not here anymore.

It was not that I was shocked. I said: that’s really bad news, not like I am surprised, but… what happened? He replied: she was discharged for acting violently. 

I know that our program’s success rate is low if you judge not by the number of youth placed into jobs and got their housing, so for T., it might not work anyway. Still, I feel that I was so close to being able to help her, and I didn’t.

***

I came home very late and went to check for mail. I saw a Thanksgiving card from the Night Ministry in my mailbox – the one they send every year for all staff, donors, and volunteers. I took the card out and opened it quickly to read a message from the Vice President – I knew she would add a couple of her personal words as she always does. To my surprise, I read: Hettie, what a beautiful picture of you! Then, I turned the card the other way and saw that I was indeed featured on this year’s Thanksgiving card!  

An honor and a gift for me

Open Door Shelter

I was in the youth shelter on Tuesday. This time, the volunteer coordinator asked me whether I would do the “make your own pizza” activity with the youth.

I didn’t make my own pizza for twenty years, but I realized right away what a fun activity it could be. I quickly googled all the proportions which I already forgot and supplemented them with my pizza-making memories.

Everything went fabulous, and apparently, seven pizzas were not enough :).
It was very touching that the youth thanked me, though it was nothing about me this time around. And closer to the end of the activity one young woman told me: you should come here every day! I told her that I was very touched, and if I had seven lives, one of these lives would be devoted to coming to the shelter every night…

The Night Ministry: What Can We Do Better?

Last Tuesday, I participated in a focus group for the volunteers for the Night Ministry. Two days later, I was at the ODS making dinner for a suddenly shrunk population. I was chatting with the volunteer coordination and other staff members in the process, and it seemed like a continuation of Tuesday’s focus group.
One of the questions we were asked was the following: suppose the Night Ministry would have unlimited resources, how should they be allocated? What would you do first?

My response was that the staffing is the most critical part. It’s not much that volunteers can do without the support of the staff. I know what a difference it makes in the residents’ level of participation depending on who is covering the shift. The staff turnaround is high. In some cases, it might be good when the people who do not have genuine compassion and willingness to work with the youth leave. However, I think more efforts should be made to attract and retain the best people who can make a meaningful difference in the lives of the youth. It would be great if the program would be expanded and serve more young adults, but even with hypothetical unlimited money for salaries and training, the right people are not easy to find. During our conversation in the shelter, we recalled some periods when we had people on staff that should not be there in the first place. And we recalled some young individuals with a lot of potentials, which required a lot of attention from the staff.

We started to talk about the youth we met in the shelter, and it was a long list! We wondered whether everything turned out fine for them and whether they were able to stay on their jobs and not end up on the streets again.

That’s another thing I talked about during the focus group. I know that the youth who graduate from the program want to forget about that period of their lives. I remember one girl telling me: I am very thankful for the program, but I cant’ wait to get out of here!

That means that most of the time, former residents do not want to come back and let us know how they are doing. I think it would be great to have some social services that would allow us to follow up with the program graduates and help them with their everyday challenges. Even for a successful young adult, settling in their first apartment and figuring out the budget is not an easy task. The support should be flexible and should not stop abruptly after a person receives their apartment keys.

During the focus group, one of the volunteers mentioned that the training was great, but then when he went on the field for the first time, it was hard because he could not establish any contact for a while. I told him that nothing was wrong with him, that it’s all expected, and if anything, I believe the training should be adjusted to explain to the new volunteers that the transition is difficult. Later in the shelter, we talked about some volunteers who come with the firm belief that they are doing other people a huge favor and want to “share their wisdom” with even asking whether anybody is interested :).

So, why did ten people had to leave the program just the day before I came? Because they were involved in major misconduct (I do not want to share any details, even anonymously). And here is another question: yes, the rules are the rules, and it is essential that young adults who want to participate in the program follow the rules. And if they don’t, it means that they are not ready. But how can we help these young people to get ready to make changes in their lives? And is it even possible?

I do not know that, but I will be in the shelter again next week, and I hope that it will make at least a little bit of a difference in somebody’s life.

Back To ODS

On Tuesday, I was finally back to the Open Door Shelter – the first time since October. I could come in May, but we could not find the time between myself and their volunteer coordinator. We’ve rescheduled a couple of times, and finally, it happened!

I can’t even describe my feelings! It was not just “good,” it was perfect! We clicked with the residents right away, and they were not shy talking to me.

We made “Mom’s soup,” and almost magically, all things were in their right places, all the ingredients were purchased, and even the lid from the big pot was not missing! And we talked and talked, and made plans on what we will cook next time, and when we can go to the Art Institute together… I am starting to feel like a whole person 🙂

Back To The Open Door Shelter

On the same Thursday, another important thing happened – I went back to ODS (Open Door Shelter) for the first time since February. To me, it is the most important volunteering activity I am doing, the one where nobody can replace me. I mean, the plants in the prairie won’t care who will be fighting invasives, and the clients of the Family Planning Clinic need to be able to get to their appointments safely, no matter who is standing there in a pink vest, helping them to get through the hoard of antis. 

It is different with The Night Ministry. It took me a long time to find a way to make a difference in the lives of the youth in challenging circumstances. But now I know that I can. It’s OK to miss a week of working in the forest preserve. It’s different when you mi a week in the youth shelter. 

This time, it was more than six months, the months when life was more challenging than ever. When our volunteer coordinator reached out to me, he acknowledged that “morale is low,” and I knew very well what it meant. I asked whether there is any youth in the shelter at the moment, who knows me, and he said – all are new. I was prepared for the worst, and as a part of this preparation, I decided to cook baked salmon with mashed potatoes:).

At 5 PM, I left the office and walked to the Blue Line station – I didn’t take CTA since February. I got out on Division and looked around like I did four years ago, getting confused for a moment in which direction I should go. 

I passed the Polish Cathedral and rang a familiar doorbell. And answered the buzzer: That’s Henrietta! – Who? – Henrietta! 

And then it all felt unbelievingly normal: a counselor coming to greet me at the door, explaining to somebody: That’s Ms. Henrietta, she came to cook with us. In the kitchen, I saw a pizza which looked straight from the oven, and I thought: oh, well, familiar story, and who is going to make dinner with me! But even before I started unpacking, I saw the movement and heard: Ms. Henrietta! You probably don’t remember me, I am… – Maribella! – Yes! 

Not only she, everybody else was so surprisingly alert and ready for a conversation, and so-so-so alive. Girls are always more suspicious than boys, but this time, girls would come up to me and talk. 

I announced that dinner is ready. Often, I need to call several times, but this time, Maybel was already wiping the table, and everybody lined up with the plates. I served the food, and nobody went to the corner with their plate; everybody headed to the table and made a social distance. And they were waiting for me to sit. I was so not expecting it on the first day that I didn’t even realize it right away. It took me nine months the first time around. That is when I came as a volunteer for the first time and had these naive ideas that my love and understanding is enough. Now that I think about it, maybe they are enough. Maybe back then, I simply didn’t have enough love and understanding.

So we sat and talked. We talked about going to the Art Institute as a group, and about the possible Architectural tour, and everybody thanked me for a meal – multiple times. 

Our volunteer coordinator, who joined us for dinner, told me that he knew that I would be the first to come back and that he didn’t doubt.

I don’t know what else to say. These two and a half hours were built of dozens of precious moments. Like when one of the girls turned to me after she tasted salmon and said: it’s so good! And I said: thank you! I am so glad you like it! And then another girl said about me: looks how happy she is! 

I made a promise to myself that I am only doing one volunteering a week until we are done with the book, but I will be coming to ODS every other week. Because we need each other

Online Activities

There have been a lot of online activities recently, so many that sometimes I have to choose which one to attend – almost like in the previous life. 

Yoga. After I started to take yoga classes with my old teacher, I found out that LifeStart – the fitness franchise we have in our office building – is streaming a lot of free classes including yoga with my second-favorite instructor, and they are all free. I signed up for the first one on Wednesday, and it was great. Now I signed for one more on Friday:). I will still keep the semi-private class with my old teacher on Mondays, and this way, my life will be yoga-complete!

ArtsWFMT Classical radio station always had a lot to offer, but now they started something new – Maestro’s Choice. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, WFMT and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra have partnered to launch a new six-program broadcast series. Riccardo Muti, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, has curated the programs. It runs every Tuesday from 8 PM to 10 PM. Last Tuesday, the first piece performed was Shostakovich Second Cello Concerto, Ricardo Muti conducting, Yo-Yo-Ma – cello solo. It was amazing, and the sound is so good – you feel like you are at the Orchestra Hall! I was doing some work and listening to music – something I used to do in the past, but haven’t done for a very long time!

Also, the Siskel Center started to stream some of their programs. I bought tickets for two movies so far. They are good for several days, so I might end up watching them, no matter how busy I am at work. 

Volunteering. Our volunteer coordinator in the Open Door Shelter reached out to the volunteers asking whether we will be interested in doing some online activities with the kids. I answered – YES! We are still in the process of planning, but meanwhile, I listened to the press conference with the Night Ministry representatives about the work they are doing right now, how the services were modified, what the challenges are, and how we can help. 

Professional Development. Surprisingly, professional online activities were less interesting than others, but I finally figured out zoom, purchased a professional subscription, and scheduled the April meetup of Chicago PUG online. Good for me 🙂