When Volunteering Gets Real

3 min read

A homeless woman yelled at me today.

Through my company, 10 of my co-workers and I volunteered to help out with Project Homeless Connect’s (PHC) annual event. PHC helps to “connect” the homeless population with the essential services they need: everything from dental care and eyeglasses to haircuts to helping people get low-cost bank accounts. You know, the things that help people feel more included in modern American society.

The event was held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (where Phish had played for three days earlier this month)  with stations set up for various services including employment.

The event was held at the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium (where Phish played for three days earlier this month) with stations set up for various services including employment.

My company was staffed in the cafe where a mock restaurant was created to give people with the experience of dining out. There were hosts, expediters, servers and bussers. I like interacting with people and moving around, so I volunteered to be a server. As I’ve learned through previous experiences working with the homeless population, most people are generally pleasant. They really appreciate being treated like a human being and not ignored as often happens on the streets. I had an amusing encounter with an older woman who only spoke Mandarin. All I know how to say in Mandarin is “hi,” “thank you” and “black” (as in “black person”).

[One of my college roommates is Taiwanese-American. One afternoon she was on the phone with her mom, speaking in Mandarin, describing her three roommates. I heard my name “Keisha” and then something else. I asked her, “Did you just tell your mom that I’m black?” She smiled at me sheepishly and said “Yeah, how did you know?” I answered slyly, “I always know when people are talking about black people – in any language!” Call it BSP: Black Sensory Perception.]
Erm...how do you imitate Brussels Sprouts? | photo cr: Barbara L. Hanson, flickr.com

Erm…how do you imitate Brussels Sprouts? | photo cr: Barbara L. Hanson, flickr.com

There were three pre-packaged lunch choices: chicken, turkey or veggie. When I asked the Mandarin-speaking woman for her order, she stared at me blankly and said “No English.” Uh oh. Undeterred, I pantomimed a chicken flapping it’s wings and clucked, “bok, bok!” That got a laugh from the others seated at the table. I then mimed a turkey sticking out it’s neck. More laughter. I didn’t know how the hell I was going to mime a vegetable. Stand still like a carrot, with leaves growing out my head? Lay on a plate like broccoli? I decided to just find a volunteer who spoke Mandarin. [Incidentally, if you want to see real ethnic and racial diversity in San Francisco? Look at the homeless population: Asian, black, white, Latino, immigrants, gay, in wheelchairs, old, young, couples, singles, siblings – everyone.]

There were several Asian volunteers there, none with my company though. I didn’t want to be that idiot that goes around asking any and every Asian person if they speak Chinese. Thankfully, I have a lot of Asian friends, friends who like to play “what kind of Asian is that?” and I’ve learned a lot from them. I scanned the volunteers for someone who looked like they might be the right candidate and hit jackpot on the first try! Thank you, D!  Or rather “xie xie.” I learned (and quickly forgot) how to say “chicken” in Mandarin. I also learned how to say “turkey” in Spanish, thanks to one of our Spanish-speaking customers who kindly answered my “¿Como se dice…?”

——

A guest beckoned me over to her table for help.

“Mumblemumblemuble?” she said.
“I’m sorry, could you say that again?” I asked her.
“Tryyyyyyy!”
“Ok, it’s okay. I am trying to understand what you need. How can I help?”
“It’s NOT okay! TryyyYYYYY!”
At a loss, but with a smile I asked again, “One more time?”
“I.need.a.TRYYYYY! Tryyyy!!!!” She grabbed the tray in front of her neighbor and banged it on the table.
“Oh a traaaaaaaay, ok, we’ll get you a tray.” I realized that she had a Southern twang, which ordinarily I have a good ear for understanding having lived in the South for some years, but the context threw me.

When I returned with her tray she said slowly to me with disgust, “Do you KNOW. how STUPID. you have to be. to make me repeat myself FOUR TIMES?!”

I told her I was sorry and was glad I could help her out.

“WHAT IS YOUR NYYYYY-ME?!” She asked me this as though she were going to report me to someone.

She’d become increasingly more agitated and I admit, I was a little anxious, not knowing if her anger and frustration would resort in me getting smacked in the face. I told her to enjoy her tray, smiled and walked away. I refused to return to that table until she left, concerned that there was something about me in particular that might set her off.

I was pretty shaken by the incident, which surprised me. It’s not like I haven’t had people yell at me before. I can throw down with the best of ’em during rush hour traffic in Los Angeles where it’s common for people to cut you off and give YOU the finger for honking at them. I guess, I wasn’t expecting it. The majority of our other customers were amiable and mostly kept to themselves, some even cracking jokes (“I’ll have the filet mignon, please). I also felt I had to maintain a professional demeanor, so I couldn’t be gettin’ all crunk on people.

The scene didn’t go unnoticed as several of the other volunteers looked at me with sympathy (and were probably grateful it wasn’t them!) and assured me that everything was okay. The task leader had a chat with the agitated woman and checked on me to make sure I wasn’t in mental tatters . Other than being a little shaken, I kept it moving. No need to let that oddity throw me off. Besides, I couldn’t take it personally. I’m no doctor, though I do love the hell out of some psychology, but the woman probably has a mental illness of some kind. That’s not the behavior of a mentally stable person. I just wished I knew how best to settle her.

That incident aside, I’m glad I participated.  I’m so inspired by this organization, the hardworking employees that power it, the professionals who donate their services and the volunteers that donate their time. Even San Francisco’s Mayor Lee was there. I spent about three hours on my feet, serving and greeting people. It’s not much; I didn’t change lives. I got to meet some of San Francisco’s residents that often go unnoticed. I hope today’s event helped make some of their lives even just a bit better.

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