I don’t usually like cities at all. They feel cramped to me and the very thought of having to listen to the blaring of car horns right outside my home just gives me a headache. I’m more of a country girl. Even so, when my all girl youth group decided to do volunteer work in Salt Lake City during summer a few years ago, I decided I could stand it for a few days; if it meant doing something helpful.
One of the service projects we did while in town was visiting the local family shelter. We drove up to the building, a bunch of young white girls from the well-off middle class. I remember clutching the keychain pepper spray my dad had given me, as we drove by groups of gray, tiered, homeless men and women. I was a little scared as I had never had a good encounter with homeless people before. The adult in charge of our group, a mom of some of the girls in our class, drove the car behind a large cement building into a parking lot surrounded by a large iron fence. That fence stays with me even now. It intimidated me with its sharp points and the thought that it needed to be that big to keep out the neighborhood.
We all piled out of the cars and grabbed bags full of shampoo and other necessary goods that members of our church had donated. We walked in a huddle toward the building. There was an open garage full of boxes and bags, and a man sorting through them. As we set down the items we held our leader talked to the man. He let us in a back door. I have always felt nervous in new places but this was worse. I had a vague feeling that the poor must dislike us for being well fed with clean skin and clothes without holes in them.
We came to the front desk where a brown haired woman in comfortable baggy clothes greeted us warmly and inquired if we were here for the tour. We replied that we were and as well we had brought cookies for the children to decorate. The happy lady took us down a long hallway off to the left brightly decorated by colorful hand prints in reds, blues and yellows. People who had given money for the building and the construction workers that had built it had left their print leaving it a bright and rainbow building on the inside while outside was gray with high fences as if keeping this haven safe from the outside world. The building was built as a circular doughnut shape so we followed the long hallway the length of the structure. As we walked the lady told us about the programs the families in the shelter go through to get them back on their feet. There were work programs in place and apartments available for them when their turn in the shelter was up. Only families were allowed in this shelter and then they were giving a time period of four months to stay. If they stuck to the work and took all the parenting classes then they were allowed to move up.
We were shown a small room about the size of a public bathroom at Wal-Mart. The lady informed us that this room would hold a family of seven. As I looked into the empty room with its white washed walls, so much like a prison I had seen on the Discovery channel. I was saddened. My family would never have fit in that room, the six of us with our numerous cats and dogs. As we walked through the hall we caught a glimpse of the occupied rooms. The rooms were stuffed with all the worldly possessions of these poor tenants. As some children ran down the hallway shouting and whopping I saw rooms piled high with toys, food and cooking utensils. We were informed that further along the circular hallway were fridges with padlocks on them for the use of the tenants to use without the fear of thievery. As we walked along I wondered what could be in the middle of such a massive circle or if there were rooms shaped like pie to the center of the building.
We walked further down the round hall and saw the small book case that worked as a library. As we neared the room that was to act as our cookie activity room we saw through a window that in the middle of the circle that the hallway and rooms made there was a garden. There were two big trees that shaded the area from the hot summer sun. It had trees and playground equipment all on a small patio with grass around the edges. Some people were reading out there as they sat on the grass that framed the patio. We passed the window and walked toward our room. As we walked by the large communal restrooms a small black girl opened the door.
“Wow lots of people!” She shouted and slammed the door shut.
We could hear her talking excitedly behind the door. We all giggled a bit as we went to the room that we were to set up for the children. We brought the cookies and frosting out and saw children sneakily looking in the windows. After we had set up the cookies on the tables with the sprinkles and frosting within reach we let the kids in. Although they were shy at first a few calls of free cookies over the speaker system brought them in hoards. The mothers of the children were happy to see us and have the children be entertained by such a large group of willing girls. They were women of varying years and experience but almost all had the hard task of raising small children without a home or income. Some brought with them babies in strollers that almost seemed to be a variation on the typical homeless shopping cart. Their husbands were off working and they seemed glad for someone to talk to.
And the kids. They came in all sizes, colors, and ages. There was one group of really exited children. They were so excited to have somebody to talk to and loved the cookies. There also was a little boy of no particular color or age who sat under the table the whole time. One of the mothers told us that he always did that and not to bother him. After a while we persuaded him to take the cookie and he ate in silence. Another boy talked to one us older girls about love. He might have been nine or ten and admitted to her that he found girls confusing. She just gravely informed him that girls were indeed crazy and he should steer clear of their kind for a few years yet. He seemed satisfied by this advice.
Out of all of the children there were two kids in particular that caught my attention. They were a boy and girl probably younger than eight though I’m no good with telling age. The girl had a pile of hair that looked like a yarn ball after a cat has been at it. The boy just seemed depressed and kept looking out the window listlessly and saying that his dad was around somewhere. I watched them out of the corner of my eye as I helped another boy drown his cookie in sprinkles. They started talking to each other as they were decorating their cookies. I overheard them arguing.
“I don’t have a dad,” the little girl said.
“Well I don’t have a mom and my little brother died,” he retorted.
“That’s rough,” said the girl conceding defeat. “It would be bad if I didn’t have mom.”
I felt so bad hearing them compare these wounds like kids in my neighborhood might compare skinned knees. I remember winning just such an argument with my best friend because I had broken my arm and had to have it broken again for it to set and she had only badly sprained a foot. The tone of voice between these kids was so similar. The pain. The pride. But even a broken arm seemed small in comparison to what they discussed. These two children must have just been trying to make sense out of their lives in what small way they could. After eating his cookie the boy wandered off in his sad, angry way, still saying that his dad must be around somewhere.
Later in the visit the little girl came crying to our leader because some boys had thrown her cookie in the dirt. As she covered a new cookie in frosting our leader pulled out a small portable hair brush from her purse and tried to brush her hair. I had long red hair down past my hips at that time and could see that our leader was going about detangling all wrong. When I asked if I could help, she gladly handed me the brush. I got to work. Her hair had been bothering me ever since I first glimpsed her. I love my hair and the thought of having to live with it in mats just made me upset. Our group waited while we brushed out her hair and after I got it decent I braided it for her and gave her one of the hair bows I had holding up my pigtails. I thought of all the hair brushes and hair bows I owned and thought it was the least I could do. She confessed that her family did not own a brush so our leader gave her the one she had brought as well as a mirror. When we left she was looking at herself happily and holding her cookie.
As we left the building we saw kids jumping rope going about their lives as children do, as if they didn’t live in a shelter with small cramped rooms and only public restrooms. When we walked out of the shelter into the summer haze the small groups of raged homeless people I had been scared of waved at us happily and thanked us for coming. I was impressed with the strange cheerfulness they kept up even through the ups and downs of life on the street. I didn’t feel scared of them anymore. These people at least were just normal people living through hard times. I realized that part of my dislike of the city was the presence of these people who lived by different rules then me. I felt at that time that I could grow to like the more urban side of human existence.
Later that week I saw the little girl on a bus. She was still wearing the hair bow I gave her as she rode the bus alone. As I grow older I will never forget that little girl with her long blond hair held up by the bow I had given her. It hadn’t even been redone that morning, it was partially coming loose. Didn’t she even have someone to fix it for her? I never did find out why her hair was partially undone, or why she rode the bus alone. I felt that she had must be a fighter, living harder than I had ever had to.
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