A Spring Break To Remember
© Copyright 2001 by Jaclyn Pietrafetta
After six hours of driving, we finally park along a dark deserted street, lined by the silhouettes of broken-down brick buildings. Quickly, I grab my bags and scramble out of the van with everyone else, as our host recognizes our arrival and cheerfully welcomes us inside the building in front of which we’ve parked.
“Hello, welcome to Beans & Bread Soup Kitchen. I’m Neal,” he says, shaking our hands one-by-one. “Before you get settled in, let me tell you a little bit about the place. “Over here is our dining area.” He points to an area of tables. “Beans & Bread isn’t like most soup kitchens in the area. It’s very much like a restaurant. We have tablecloths and vases with real flowers on the table,” he laughs. “We also give the people some choice in the menu and even serve the food like a restaurant does. Hospitality is key here at Beans & Bread. It gives the homeless people who come in here a sense of dignity, and that’s important to us. Any questions?”
I raise my hand. “How many homeless people do you serve per day?”
“We serve about 350 people every day. Having been a homeless person myself, I can tell you from experience that this is one of the better soup kitchens in the area. It’s volunteers like you who keep it up and running.”
For a moment, only the tapping of rain on the window, like hungry fingers tapping on a table, can be heard. “You’ll notice a set of stairs off the dining area.” He points. “Follow those up and that’s where you’ll be staying. It's nice meeting you all. I’m sure I’ll be seeing a lot of you throughout the week.”
“Thank you,” we reply. “Have a nice night.”
The following morning, we wake up at 7:00 a.m. for our service programs. I’m excited to be spending the entire afternoon playing with children at Ark Day Care, one of the centers in Baltimore operated solely for homeless children. Outside, a blueberry sky welcomes the day. A half-hour later we arrive at the daycare, which turns out to be in the basement of a church. The room is spacious and bright, but I cannot tell if it is from the light that shines through the windows or the smiles that are spread across the children’s faces. They’re like angels, flying around the room in balls of energy.
“Hello, my name is Ms. Desireé. I’m one of the providers here at Ark Day Care,” says a woman who walks up to me.
“Nice to meet you. My name is Jaclyn,” I reply, shaking her hand.
“And you came all the way from Saint Joseph’s College in Maine to be here? Wow! Well, thank you for being with us. Do you know anything about Ark Day Care?”
“Not a whole lot,” I admit.
“Well, the children who come here are from low-income or homeless families, so a lot of them are brought to and from the shelters every day. Because they arrive around 6:00 in the morning and stay until around 5:00 in the evening, it’s a long day for the children. We do feed them two meals a day, breakfast and lunch…”
As she spoke, children continued to scurry through the door, one-by-one, anxious to hang up their coats and run to the bathroom to wash up for breakfast.
“Today they are having scrambled eggs, oatmeal and blueberry muffins with jelly,” Ms. Desireé informs me.
“Ms. Desiree, may I please have some more oatmeal?” asks one child.
“Yes, you may, Michael.”
“Luis already ate all his jelly!”
“Luis, did I tell you to eat all your jelly? You’ll have nothing for your muffin now,” she scolds. “Tobias, your not getting your breakfast until you have your feet under the table and your hands in your lap.”
Suddenly the little boy named Luis burps out loud and breaks into laughter.
“Uh, Luis, that is not funny. What do you say?” says Ms. Desireé.
“Excuse me,” he says, still giggling.
Before long, the children finish their breakfast and excitedly run-walk over to the carpet for learning time. As I join them on the floor, I am welcomed by the hugs of three little girls.
“My name is Ikeeeeeeea,” says one little girl.
“Ikea? That’s a very pretty name.”
“My name is Hope,” says the other little girl.
“And, and my name is Charity,” stutters the third little girl, pushing Hope out of the way and jumping on my lap. Hope, not bothered by Charity’s abrupt behavior, stands by my side to stroke my hair. Ikea likes this idea, and runs to my other side and begins to braid my hair. They are so willing to give and receive love that I cannot refuse their attention.
“Children! Children, sit down!” yells Ms. Desireé, “It’s learning time.”
After an hour of reciting the alphabet, singing songs and attentively listening to a story, it’s playtime. Immediately, the girls run over to the dolls and the dress-up clothes, while the boys head for the trucks. One hour passes and, like clockwork, they swarm together over to the jungle gym situated in the center of the day care for the last half-hour of play.
They all have so much energy, so much life inside them. They are so full of love, and laughter and intelligence. The thought of them living day-by-day in homeless shelters breaks my heart.
It did not hit me how dangerous and horrible a condition these children live in until we toured the Baltimore Rescue Mission that night. A steep dark metal staircase leads us into a cold hallway that eventually opens up to the shelter, which reeks so strong of urine that I cannot help but gag. On the walls, white paint chips slowly fall onto the wooden floors, where a cockroach scurries to hide.
“You must be here for the tour. Follow me,” says an elderly man who seems to have appeared out of nowhere. “Because we are a faith-operated service, our church is the most important room in the building.” He leads us into a room with wooden benches facing a small stage. On either side, large fans are chained to the floors. No windows — only a dim light falls from the ceiling. “Not a single man, woman or child can shower or eat until they have memorized and recited a verse from the Bible.” He continues. “This large room over here is where the men sleep…” We follow him into a room, where hundreds of bunk beds are tightly packed side-by-side, and are covered with hard blue mats and unsanitary plastic pillowcases.
Upstairs is where the women and children sleep. Unlike the men, the women and children have real mattresses with sheets on their beds. In the center of the room is a small table with a few toys for the children. At the end of the room is another smaller chapel. On the opposite side of the room, in the women’s bathroom, a washer and dryer stand side-by-side with a sign above it reading: “Anybody who is caught using the washer or dryer will be suspended for thirty days.” Imagine being kicked back out onto the streets for washing your own clothes!
A cold wind blows over Baltimore. It is now 6:00 p.m., and we are heading toward the heart of the city to do Care-A-Van, which travels the city to serve food to the homeless. On the way to our destination, we pass a lot of gorgeous mansions, which normally might awe me. Tonight, they make me feel sick to my stomach.
Already a long line of homeless people waits patiently for their dinner of bologna sandwiches and hot cocoa to arrive. I cannot help but laugh when they begin clapping and cheering at our arrival. At least they are a light-hearted bunch.
“What is this – the L.L. Bean gang? You’re all wearing L.L. Bean coats,” notes one homeless man, who we later find out is named Gary. “Where you all from? “ he asks.
“Maine,” we say.
“Maine? What are you doing all the way down here?”
“We’re on our spring break,” I say.
“You gave up your spring break for this?”
“Gave up?” I think. I hadn’t given up anything. In fact, I was already receiving more out of this trip than I have ever given in my entire life.
We also meet Suzy that night. The first thing anybody would notice about her is that she has Down Syndrome. She is probably in her thirties, but her baby-blue eyes and child-like face give her the appearance of a five-year old girl. Her long red winter coat is bigger than she is and her matching red hat is tied tightly around her ears.
“I got this coat and hat at one of the shelters,” says Susie proudly.
After talking with Susie for a while, we find out that she’s homeless because no relatives are around to take care of her. She has four brothers who live in California, while her ill mother remains in a hospital in Baltimore. “I visit her every day,” says Suzie. “I'll visit my brothers in California someday,” Susie smiles reassuringly. “May I have another bologna sandwich, please?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, Suzy. We already ran out of sandwiches,” I say.
“That's okay,” she smiles. “I’ll just eat at one of the shelters later on.”
“No, no, no,” says Gary, listening intently to our conversation. He pulls out a fresh package of bologna and gives it to Suzy. “I was saving that, but you can have it,” he says.
“Thank you,” says Suzy.
I had a really hard time falling asleep that night. I kept thinking about all the children at Ark Day Care, about my own six-year-old sister, Shannon, back at home, and how torn apart I’d be if my baby sister was forced to live in those conditions. I thought about Suzy and Gary and all the other people I met at Care-A-Van tonight.
It made me think about how thankful I am for what I have and who I have in my life. That’s why I wanted to go on this trip – to be reminded of that, to be reminded that being fortunate and being happy is not about needing every materialistic thing out of life. It’s about unconditional love. It’s about knowing that no matter how difficult our lives seem to be, we always have people who love and care for us, whether they’re family and friends or total strangers. That’s half the beauty of humanity.
I see that now. I see that in Neal and his everyday selflessness in helping others. I see that in the twinkling eyes of every child at Ark Day Care who is as willing to give love as to receive it. I see that in Gary and Suzy and all the others at Care-A-Van who crave simple human contact and depend on little more.
It reminds me of something a woman, Margaret Mead, once said: “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I'm not so sure we changed the world, but in many ways, we did change ourselves, which is essentially, as I learned this past week, what we all have to do in order to change the world anyway.
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