I believe individuals helping others in ordinary personal ways can change the world. One volunteer can’t change the millions of American lives led in isolation or in social ghettos because of homelessness or chronic mental illness. But if each one of us leading a relatively connected, stable life chose one such individual who is not, to meet for one hour at a cafe’ every week, we’d make a difference. The goal isn’t to remodel somebody’s life, just to sit, listen, and talk. For someone who has no companions rooted in relatively secure, connected lives, the hours of calm, interested attention add up.
For me it started with Hiro. He and I have met weekly for coffee since July, 2007, when he was banned from a support group at an agency where I volunteered. On previous occasions the facilitator had told him that his bitter remarks often hurt group members, a vulnerable and needy bunch of people. The day he was finally banned, one was weeping about her daughter’s recently diagnosed schizophrenia, and Hiro blurted out, “Well, she sounds like a real loser.” It was the last straw.
Grimly collecting his things, Hiro prepared to leave. I was there, subbing for the agency director, and wondered why he attended a support group when support didn’t seem like what he wanted to give or receive, so I asked him. Hiro replied, “Everybody needs to face reality. And telling a hard truth supports ME.”
“Hmm-m,” I replied. “The rules here say not to be hard on people,” and I read one group rule aloud: Speak kindly and gently to others. “Why do you keep coming back to a place where you reject the rules and get in trouble?”
“I need to be someplace,” said Hiro.
I looked at him. Hiro is elderly and gaunt. Wisps of gray hair floated from under the edges of a Yankees cap hiding his eyes. He carried two huge, heavy bags, one slung over each frail shoulder. He wore a thick overcoat on this July day, big earphones attached to a radio in a fanny-pack, and a large homemade button on his chest that said NO LIES!
“Do you live alone, Hiro?” I asked. He nodded. “I have PTSD, social phobia, and panic disorder.” He stood there swathed in baggage, quietly looking back at me. Well, I thought to myself, I’m a volunteer, with a few hours to spare …
The following week, at the time when the support group usually convened, Hiro and I met at a cafe’. It was several weeks before he told me that when he was nine his family had been sent to an internment camp for Japanese-Americans during World War II. Not that this explains anything. People are such mysteries.
The simple, self-contained volunteer assignment of showing up every week to buy my chosen person coffee and chat for an hour is a joy for me and a real boost for my companion.
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