When I found out that one of the requirements for this class was to do community service in my new city, I immediately thought back to my days in Hebrew school when we often took trips to do community service work. In the Jewish faith there is a phrase “tikkun olam” which can be translated as “repairing the world”. So in Hebrew school, part of our learning and religious experience was to try to follow the values of tikkun olam by doing acts of kindness and community service such as planting trees and volunteering at a homeless shelter. Since having my Bat Mitzvah and becoming less heavily involved in my temple community, I haven’t done much volunteering and I have always regretted this. Especially following Hurricane Sandy and the destruction that hit my town, so many kind volunteers helped us get back on our feet and I longed for that satisfying feeling of helping those in need.
So as I began searching for places in London where I could volunteer, I tried to find a homeless shelter, as that was one of my favorite volunteering experiences from Hebrew school and unfortunately I have seen a fair amount of homeless people as I have walked the streets these past few months. However, I came to find that many organizations want volunteers to make a commitment of weeks or even months, and so finding a place where I could volunteer for one shift only was somewhat difficult. But then I came across Shelter From The Storm and everything fell into place. Shelter From The Storm is a free homeless shelter in London’s borough of Islington, and is funded purely by donations. Their mission statement says, “Our mission is to house and support the homeless in London whoever they are, wherever they come from. Our vision is of a society where charities like Shelter from the Storm are no longer necessary.” They work to achieve this goal through providing housing solutions for guests that become involved with the program as well as helping provide meals, employment, healthcare, and counseling. Each guest at the shelter is required to come back every night in time for dinner and check in with the volunteer staff to make sure they are marked present. Once they arrive for the night they must stay until the following morning and are provided with beds in gender separated dorms, toiletries, showers, laundry services, as well as dinner, breakfast, and even sandwiches and small salads from a local chain called Pret a Manger to take away for lunch. The guests and volunteers have a very respectful, friendly relationship and that’s what I think helps the model work so well.
I would have preferred most to do a dinnertime shift at the shelter, but they only had spots open for overnight shifts and so I stepped out of my comfort zone and accepted it. I arrived at 8:30pm and stayed awake until midnight helping give out the last few meals, cleaning up the kitchen, and watching the doors to make sure there weren’t too many guests going outside to smoke cigarettes. After we turned the lights out at midnight and the guests were in their dorms, it was decided that myself and the other two volunteers would take shifts being awake and I was given the last one (4:00am – 6:00am) and so I got a few hours to sleep inside the office. The rest of the night was relatively uneventful and in the morning the three of us helped set up breakfast and put out the lunches from Pret, and we also washed dishes from the night before. It may seem like I didn’t do much or that what I did was “easy” but for me it was a truly insightful experience that lit a fire in me that I had left burnt out for some time. Seeing the more experienced volunteers interacting with the guests and seeing the relationships they had formed was inspiring. Homelessness does not make a person less important than those who are privileged enough to have a roof over their heads and proper meals, healthcare, etc. Everyone deserves a chance to get back on their feet and find a new job and a new place to live. Everyone deserves a chance at a good life, and this is the message Shelter From The Storm tries to convey through their work.
The photo I chose to convey the message of volunteering is two hands reaching out to grab one another. When people are in need and are calling out for help, even if it’s not always directly, we have to take their hand and give them the help they need. Richard Slimbach says, “The first step in this journey is to venture outside our comfort zones and get involved directly and personally in the lives of others, especially those occupying the margins of society…to create respectful and mutually beneficial relationships.” Just like taking an overnight shift was me stepping out of my comfort zone, just volunteering in general is a step out of most people’s comfort zones. Unfortunately, there are some negative stereotypes associated with people who “occupy the margins of society” and people become afraid to help. But if we become involved and see that those people do not follow those stereotypes, we can begin to form bonds of respect and maybe even friendship, just like the volunteers and guests at SFTS have done. It’s through these bonds that we can help them make better lives for themselves by helping them get jobs and have a place to sleep at night, and they can help us by showing us the benefits of volunteering, and maybe teaching us a bit about ourselves and the word. All we have to do is reach out and grab the hands that are reaching out to us.
This connects to our definition of Global Community, because through volunteering we are “fighting for similar social values and basic rights” such as the right to shelter and the right to eat a decent meal. I think volunteering in London was very beneficial to me because it made me feel like I was more than just a passive global citizen just traveling in Europe, having fun and going to school. By volunteering, I became an active member of the community, trying to make a difference in my temporary home instead of just taking in the sights and taking photos that I can post on social media for my family and friends. It’s almost as though I’m leaving more of a mark on London than I would have if I didn’t do any volunteering. It’s a memory that I will keep with me and try to pass the importance and impact of volunteering onto other people who will study abroad in the future. This experience has also reignited those values of tikkun olam that I had left behind somewhere along the way when I was younger. I had forgotten how good a person could feel after helping others, and how even doing one small thing like a single shift a week can truly make a difference. I hope that I will stay inspired as I return home to the United States and I will try to find volunteer work that I can do in my hometown, or in New York City in general, this summer and when I return home from Quinnipiac for breaks. As a more active member of the Global Community, I can do my part in repairing the world.
(If you would like more information about Shelter From The Storm, you can visit their website http://www.sfts.org.uk)