Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Get found...

Years ago, a bitch decided to step out of my comfort zone and volunteer at a local women's shelter. I was a member of a women's group that facilitated community projects, including life skills and women's health classes at a local shelter.

I will never forget my first class…walking into the shelter full of fear and assumptions only to find a home, however temporary, full of noise and families. What began as an experiment quickly grew into my passion. The women are teen mothers, many had been thrown out of their homes and too many had been abused physically and mentally. Although my life had been radically different, I saw myself in these women…the need, the hope and the fear of a life just beginning.

I had never witnessed feminism in action in my community, working through me and yet still empowering me, until I began working at the shelter. Theory was replaced by reality, rose-colored glasses got new lenses and bullshit was hosed down to reveal the world as it is for many of my sisters. The struggle was made clear to me…my own and my fellow sisters…and we were united through our oppression.

It was and remains one of the most profound experiences of my life and I was determined to share it by any means necessary.

So, I worked up a partnership with one of the local St. Louis financial shops. Women would volunteer through my classes by teaching financial management and basic budgeting. Most of the residents had never managed their own finances and I saw this as a great opportunity for them. But I also knew that this was an opportunity for the women who would teach the classes as well.

I showed up on a random Tuesday, excited and eager to get started. Things broke out as usual…the children went with the designated sitters and the mothers went to class. The woman teaching was brilliant. I had met Tracey before…she was from the county, very successful and a mother of three. She seemed stunned by the personal stories casually related in class.

"My momma had me at 15 and I had my baby at 14, so nobody ever told me about checking accounts or stuff like that. No one I know has one."

"If my man takes my baby's social security number to get the gas turned on what is I to do? Say something? Yeah, right…and get the back of his hand."

Tracey faltered and I almost stepped in, but she recovered nicely.

After class, I joined her to play with the kids and we gathered them up to read a quick story.

As we left, Tracey turned to me with tears in her eyes.

"There are so many families here? How many…how many shelters are there like this?" she asked.

A bitch replied, "I don’t know, but the waiting list for this shelter has 300 women on it."

She shook her head and exited the building.

A bitch honestly didn't expect to see her again, but she came back…and kept coming back. The women warmed to her and she to them, so her class quickly became one of the most popular.

As the term came to an end, she took me aside.

"Thank you."

"For what?" I asked, genuinely surprised. "Shit, thank you for helping us out so much."

"No. No, you don't understand what these classes have meant to me. I was scared. I'm ashamed to say it, but I was scared to these women. I've learned a lot…so much. So, thank you and I'll see you next year."

Theory had been applied through the simple act of my sisters in the struggle teaching and learning from each other. I was inspired, empowered and fired up because Tracey was and I could see that the women she taught were too.

When people ask me why I became a feminist I tell them feminism found me.

Step outside your comfort zone and apply some of that theory.

Get active and get found.

8 comments:

Cecilia Jamasmie said...

Speaking of getting active, I'd like to invite you and your readers to learn what happened in Vancouver, Canada. Over a number of decades, women seemingly vanished without trace. It wasn't until long after their disappearance that the public, the media or the police took serious notice. Now, as the alleged killer finally faces trial, a city wonders how we could have let this happen so quietly.

Here's the full story:
69 Women
http://www.orato.com/node/502

Saskia said...

Thank you. If more people -- especially policymakers -- experienced what you and Tracey did, I think we'd have a whole different set of priorities in this country. I feel honored to have been a small part of similar programs in my community.

Unfortunately, I know too many people who use volunteer experiences as a way to actually solidify stereotypes and their own smug self-congratulatory attitudes, rather than to challenge assumptions. Grrrr.

People who decide to step outside their comfort zones in volunteer opportunities need to be very, very honest with themselves about why they're doing it.

Maya's Granny said...

My experience has always been that the people I think I am there to help end up helping me in unexpected ways and making me richer. If I can give them something that balances what they give me, I have done what I set out to do.

Maureen O'Danu said...

Preach it, ABB. This crazy Irish chick has been living her walk for over a year now at the homeless drop in center. I'm getting ready to launch a socks and underwear drive (and bras...gawd, yes, especially big women's bras). I'll let you know when I start.

thatfarmgirl said...

Bravo. Would love to hear more about how you set this up as I'm in the midst of some project retooling with my volunteer work.

EverydaySuperGoddess said...

That is a fantastic story.

I was just telling someone the other day that I think the most important thing we all can do to make the world a better place is to get out there and interact with people. So many people write a check to a charity, drop a toy in the Santa Anonymous box, and call it service.

I have received so much from the volunteer work I have done. And this post makes me want to do more.

Welld one, ABB.

chasmyn said...

Beautiful. This moved me to tears.

Anonymous said...

I am humbled.

Yes, it is easy for those who have always had enough to volunteer with the wrong attitude, but sometimes life hits you upside your head and you learn to see past the differences.

NancyP