Tidying up and Giving Back
When the New Year rolls in, our minds become flooded with ideas for change. How can this year be better than last year? How can I improve my health, my mood, my career, my financial situation? What do I need to seek out, and what do I need to let go of?
“New year, new me” is a belief we hold so tightly to. This year, I chose to loosen my grip. Historically, I’ve found it challenging to see it as a new beginning when New Year’s Day arrives in the dead of winter. All of the trees are bare as their fallen leaves ferment in the ground. We’re all still digesting our holiday pies and swallowing motivation in the form of vitamin D supplements. Winter is slow moving, and I find myself resistant to the pressure of starting anew. After all, spring doesn’t come when the clock strikes midnight — it’s a process.
Despite my intentions of easing myself into the New Year, I was outsmarted by the addition of “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” to the Netflix catalogue. I’m a doer by nature, I love a good challenge, and I just couldn’t help myself. I amended my initial no-resolution resolution to include ripping apart my entire apartment and carefully considering my feelings toward every single item I own. The goal was to have my tidying process completed by the end of January.
I had recently started working on Window of Clarity and had made an agreement to seek out a volunteering program that could work with my schedule. As I went through my small mountain of belongings, I pondered the possibilities of different organizations I could give my time to, but nothing struck the right chord until I carefully folded (and thanked) a fuzzy, white blanket and placed it next to my fourteen year-old JanSport backpack in the “donate” pile.
It was that moment I knew exactly how I wanted to start 2019, and it began with encouraging everyone I know to channel their inner Marie Kondo and bring me their unwanted items. I wanted to begin a homeless outreach project.
When I first moved to Portland in 2017, I was struck by the vast beauty of the cascading hills covered in trees, the eclectic collection of artisan businesses, and the utter enormity of the city’s homeless population. It was February and I had just learned how to scrape ice off a windshield. I had come from a coastal desert climate where I rarely needed anything other than an unlined denim jacket, so I myself was unprepared for the chilly gray that is so familiar to Portlanders. I was lucky to have a car, an apartment, a part time job, and a corny 1970’s floral loveseat…but that is truly all I had. I slept on the floor for a month and performed glorified garbage picking to outfit myself for the thawing winter weather. It was easy to embrace the struggle and to resist the urge to feel sorry for myself…because my situation paled in comparison to the individuals I saw lined up under every bridge, outside every grocery store, and nestled in the covered doorways of every popular shopping district. I could turn the heat on. I could afford that $5 blanket at the thrift store. I was fine.
This issue meant a lot to me, so I did my best to offer up dollar bills and snacks when I could. Now that I have settled in to my new city, found a good job, and purchased a mattress, it was time to do more.
After nearly 2 weeks of my car being RDF’s mobile donation bin, the time had come to invite the black bags full of clothing into my little apartment. As I sorted and organized and watched my furniture begin to disappear beneath the piles of winter coats, I had several “holy cow, what have I gotten myself into” moments before coming up with a solid, tangible idea that I felt would make a difference. I snaked my hand to the bottom of one of the piles and pulled out my high school backpack and used it to make my first care kit.
One winter jacket, one blanket, a beanie, a pair of warm socks, gloves, a couple of cans of food, bandages, maxi pads, and a few granola bars. I left the pack open to remind me to add a sandwich to it the next day and repeated this process until I ran out of backpacks.
On my next day off, I had a plan to get as much done as humanly possible. The weekend had arrived and I was committed to making deliveries as soon as the packs were finished. I ran around the city, gathering food items, stacks of generic Tupperware, and as many blankets and backpacks as I could find. While walking out of Goodwill, a man asked me if I could spare any change. I clumsily shifted my arms full of fleece onto my hip and pulled a few bucks out of my purse.
“Thank you so much, ma’am, thank you so much,” he said, with a soft sense of surprise in his voice.
“I just bought all of these backpacks, could you use something like that?” I asked him, nodding toward the pile in my arms.
“Really? I can have one of those?” he asked with a shy smile, “I really like that brown one”.
“It’s yours, then. What’s your name?”
He stood up a little straighter and made eye contact with me for the first time during our exchange. I could tell by his eyes that he couldn’t have been older than 35, but his big genuine smile looked like that of someone three times his age.
“I’m Matthew,” he said.
“Hi Matthew, I’m Emily.” I shifted my load once again and offered my hand. As I shook his hand I asked,
“Is there anything else you need, Matthew? I can come find you tomorrow”.
He tugged on the leg of his gray flannel pants and told me he had been saving up for something warmer. I remembered that an attorney at RDF, who is about the same size and stature as Matthew, had donated a nice pair of jeans. As soon as I got home, I found them and put them in a grocery bag along with a few other winter items and wrote his name across the front and back. While all of my packs were assembled with love and intention, my interaction with Matthew filled me with an enormous sense of gratitude and purpose. It took all that love and intention to a level that I am unable to properly describe. The work I did after shaking his hand meant more to me than any of the work I had done leading up to it.
That evening, three friends came over to help me put together the rest of the packs. Garett and Christine took turns making PB&J sandwiches while my boyfriend, Sean, and his bandmate, Andrew, sorted out the rest of the donations. I alternated between scooping rice and beans into plastic containers and double-checking that all of the packs were as perfect as possible. It was so gratifying to share this process with my loved ones. Not only because of the tremendous help they were to the cause at hand, but because of the way lending a hand opens the heart. Some of the most vulnerable conversations I have had with those three friends happened that night, surrounded by winter coats and sticky jam jars.
The morning of delivery day, I was out of bed before the sun came up. I made a pot of coffee and bounced my knee, counted my backpacks, and took deep breaths to ensure that I was indeed breathing. One of the friends who had helped the night before offered to come pick up a few packs to distribute around his neighborhood after he took a hike with his girlfriend, Simone. Once Simone caught wind of my project, she insisted on cancelling the hike in order to help out instead. We made the decision to pack all 39 backpacks and all 4 humans into her hatchback and hit the town together.
My initial priority was finding Matthew. I asked Simone to hang onto his bag in the front seat to make sure it was reserved especially for him. We drove around the Lloyd Center area where I had met Matthew the day before, but we were unable to find him. We did, however, give out our first two packs on our search. It had rained the night before, and one of the gentlemen we met was wearing nothing but a soaked t-shirt and pajama pants. Seeing his enormous smile in the rear-view mirror was the morning motivation we all needed at the beginning of a very long and emotional day.
As we drove around, we struggled to decide whom to approach. We kept reminding each other that the people we were helping are people, and all people have different preferences on how to engage. Some people were elated by the packs of food and clothing, some people threw curses at us for offering charity. Some people wanted to talk after accepting a pack, some people wanted us to walk away as quickly as possible. These are people, and that is the whole point of this project. To recognize and engage with people. It was interesting to resist the judgments that are so engrained in us. When we first went downtown, I was sitting in the back seat with my window down. We were driving slowly near the train station when I noticed a man shout-singing to himself. He seemed to be very much in his own world, and was, quite frankly, someone I would have avoided if I had been alone. I asked Andrew to slow down and interrupted his sea-shanty style song to offer him a care pack. He stopped singing, stumbled over, thanked me politely as he accepted the pack, and resumed his boisterous song as he continued down the sidewalk. He was just a person. A person I may have judged harshly in another situation.
Just down the road, I saw a very young woman sitting with her back against a building. She didn’t have anything with her aside from the clothes on her back. When I approached her with a pack, she looked at me with huge, lucid eyes and said:
“Really? I can have this? All of it?”
“Yes, it’s yours.” She was a person. A person whose innocent blue eyes I never would have noticed in another situation.
As we drove north and weaved through streets and parks, we took turns getting out of the car to give backpacks out. There were plenty of people who turned us down, mostly in heavily populated homeless communities. Some people were reluctant to speak with us, their eyes shifting to other homeless individuals before they chose whether to take it. As a privileged person, I am so far removed from their situation that I hadn’t considered power dynamics in their community. There was a lot of posturing, a lot of caution and skepticism. I became more and more sensitive to the moments between the offer and the exchange. The last thing I wanted to do was put anyone at risk of being targeted, bullied, or robbed. It was very sobering, very eye-opening, to have the realization that the help I wanted so badly to give could result in harm. This was not something I was willing to risk, so we did our best from that point on to deliver only to people who were alone or in groups of 5 people or less, and people actively asking for help. We did, unfortunately, offer a pack to one person who was not homeless. He let out a chuckle, looked down at his worn-in attire, then up at the McDonald’s sign he was leaning against. Luckily, he seemed more amused than offended by our gesture.
The interaction that had the biggest impact on me happened in NE Portland. On one side of the road, there was a group of people screaming at each other as a high-rise apartment dweller mocked them from above. On the other side of the street was a tiny woman, sitting on a rickety walker tucked into a covered doorway, wringing her seemingly arthritic hands in attempt to stay warm. I asked Andrew to stop, slid myself onto the curb and asked:
“Hi, is there anything you need?”
She looked up at me. Softly and without pause, she answered,
“Baby, anything you got.” I walked over to her and lowered myself onto my knees, opening the bag for her, in case she wanted to use her blanket or eat some of her food. As I went to stand up, she reached out her hands and closed them around mine. She looked straight into my eyes and repeated “thank you, thank you, thank you…” her voice shaking more with each breath. I only spoke with her for a moment. Just a moment, but I will never forget her eyes, the stories inside of them, and the way they stared into me as if they hadn’t seen another pair of eyes in a lifetime. I will never forget how her hands felt wrapped around mine, how she didn’t want to let go, and how easy it was to believe that no one had held her hand in years. I could offer no sentiments other than “I see you, I care, I hope this helps you today.” She sat there, across from a dozen shouting voices, around the corner from a busy freeway overpass, and, as I walked away, I could hear nothing but the shaky “thank you, thank you, thank you”. I got back into the back seat, swallowed my heart back into my chest, and we drove away.
After six hours of searching, sorting, and engaging, the four of us realized we hadn’t eaten anything all day. It almost felt wrong to order a plate of hot food when everyone I had interacted with that day was hungry. Simone gave me a knowing look and reminded me that you can’t give from an empty bucket and that feeling guilty for taking care of my own needs is silly at best. When we got back into the car, we realized that we only had a couple of packs left. Sean reminded me of the woman we see regularly outside of our neighborhood grocery store, so we held onto one for her and went to find Matthew. I wasn’t confident that we would find him, I thought we had waited too long. But when we pulled up to the thrift store, I saw him lighting a cigarette behind his hand-drawn sign, sitting on a plastic bucket on the corner. I noticed he had upgraded his thin flannel pants to a pair of sturdy jeans. I quickly ran out of the car,
“Matthew, is that you?” He recognized me immediately and told me how surprised he was that I came to find him. “I see you got some new pants! Could you still use another pair?”
He was happy to accept the bag. I shook his hand and told him how happy I was that I was able to find him. I let him know that there were several more items in the bag that I had hoped would could be useful, shook his hand, and walked away. When I was halfway to the car, quiet Matthew raised his voice to say,
“Thank you. You’ve mended my faith in humanity.”
As much as Matthew’s comment touched me, I also could have laughed in that moment. Is that seriously all it takes to heal a man’s broken faith in human compassion and kindness? Just some effort, a few weeks of my focus shifted from my comfort to someone else’s? Well… yes, I suppose that is all it takes.
In The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, the author breaks down a year’s worth of resolutions, month by month. Her overarching goal is to be happier in her day to day life, not through extreme change, adventure, or upheaval, but through small, gradual shifts in her focus. She writes about “spending out” as an important factor to her personal happiness—giving, without any expectation of return. Not only with money, but with time, effort, and kindness as well. One of my favorite quotes from her book reads:
“One of the best ways to be happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”
From what I can tell, both from my own experience organizing the homeless outreach project and from interactions with the people this project was designed to assist, Rubin’s quote could not be truer. Happiness was the reward of this work, regardless of what angle you view it from.
That night when I turned out my lights, my mind was a slideshow of images of every person we had handed a pack to that day. Every look of wide-eyed surprise, every smile I had caught in the rear-view mirror, every pair of hands I had seen immediately exploring the contents of their pack. I pictured them opening their containers of red beans and rice, pulling their hats down over their ears and trying on their jackets. My sleepy eyes welled up with tears, and I fell asleep smiling.
Did I tidy up by the end of January? Absolutely not. It’s taken quite some time to figure out where to take the excess donations, and the “Tidying Up” list taped to my refrigerator has been largely ignored…but, I’ll get to it. The point of New Year’s resolutions is to be better than you were before. I’m not neater, healthier, more frugal, more stylish, or more organized than I was in 2018. However, the way I chose to experience the first month of 2019, truly and undoubtedly, made me better
Written by Emily DuBois
Emily is our Director of First Impressions. She is genuine and warmhearted and has a wonderful way of making every person who contacts our office feel at ease. With experience in both fast-paced retail and small, locally-owned restaurants, Emily brings with her an impressive combination of solid work ethic and an amazing ability to connect with people. Emily will tell you that her role at RDF is to make sure that every person she interacts with is treated like the good person they are. She wants our clients to know that their mistakes do not define them and Emily helps our clients to see this simply through the way she engages with them.