6a00d8341ca3bb53ef00e54f4b1f458833-800wiTo those who’ve read my blog before, you are probably thinking that this will be a post about wheels turning on asphalt,  a long run at twilight, or a swim while the steam rises up from Barton Spring.  All those things are amazing ways I like to say hello to the Austin morning, however I have found a new way to begin my Tuesday and Thursday mornings and it has given my soul much more than I could ever give back.  It is something I found excuses to put off and sleep in for a long time but this past Tuesday, when my cell phone alarm went off at 4:30 am, I got right up, pulled on my jeans and baseball cap, and started up the car.

Each Tuesday and Thursday in downtown Austin the doors of the First United Methodist Family Life Center are opened to serve a hot breakfast and give community to many of the areas homeless.  It may seem like something simple- hot biscuits, two sausage patties, a scoop of scrambled eggs, and some white gravy- but it is so far from that.

A 2007 study estimated Austin’s homeless population at 5,200 and it has only grown since then.  These are someone’s brothers and sister, uncles and aunts, sons and daughters not just people who sleep in cars and on sidewalks or hold sign at intersections asking for help.  For a number of reasons these people have ended up in a situation where they must not only live on the streets but be looked down on by a majority of society.  I believe that many people don’t realize how close they are to being homeless.  Even if you are financially secure, homelessness doesn’t always come about because of a missed payment or lost job. A large medical bill from an unforeseen accident, an abusive, unhealthy situation, or even a life tragedy which can pain one’s mental stability can put someone out on the street.

I went last Tuesday for my first volunteering hours because every time I see it in the church bulletin as the last Tuesday of the month, I tell myself to go.  I did not realize until I got there that the breakfast happens two times per week with various groups volunteering as well as individuals. After my initial trip, I decided I wanted to go again as much as possible and returned on Thursday.

Food prep begins at 5am with the food line opening up at 6am cafeteria style.  The guest enter around 5:45 as we are still preparing the food.  Some go straight to the coffee, some grab their tables, and others have their jobs.  One man rushes in to the kitchen to quickly take out the trash and put new bags in the cans for us while we work.  He makes sure that we have everything we need before he returns the the eating area to get his ticket.   The men and women receive various colored tickets and line up according to their color when called.  As they are waiting for us to begin with the welcoming blessing, a few men take turns on the piano- a nice Motley Crew and a bit of Chicago were the songs of Thursday.  When we have the hot food prepared and are at our stations, the prayer is said and the first ticket color is called.  The whole serving time takes only about 40 minutes and the guest are welcome to come back for seconds when everyone has been served.  Aside from the breakfast line, there is orange juice, milk, coffee, and various other foods like cereal and sweets.

I had the privilege both of my days to be the biscuit girl.  It makes me smile right now to think about how much fun I have at this position.   I enjoy it so much because I get to greet every person that comes through the line with a smile and get to chat with them briefly.  There is such a variety of guest who come through the line and I know each one has a different story, but if I can get them to smile and really know that someone wants their morning to start off positive, it means a lot to me.  The whole time I am laughing and talking to them as the come through the line not because I am a volunteer there to get the food out but because I am truly having such a great time.  Some of the people come through the line with their eyes down and a look of dignity lost which breaks my heart.   These people deserve dignity and pride and society doesn’t always give it to them.  They are beautiful people no different from the person sitting nest to you at the coffee shop or asking you for directions on campus.   I always try to engage them and make them know that they are just as important as anyone else in the building. I get a lot of smiles and it made me feel so special that a number of them recognized me on Thursday.

There is such a variety of people.  A good number of them are getting breakfast before they go off to work.  They make a paycheck but not enough to give them what we consider the basics of life.  There is a man who’s shirt and pants would make him look overly dressed in my office certainly and more like someone who could work at the capital.  He takes pride in his appearance to a level that I can honestly say escapes me some days.  There are others with hard hats who work construction and others who work places I could never guess but bring a little Tupperware dish to portion out some of their breakfast for lunch.  I wonder how many of their coworkers know their situation.  There are a few women who are pregnant and I make sure they get extra big biscuits and know they can come back for seconds.

I wish I could tell the stories of all these people.  It is such a good experience for me to go and help out the little I can.  In the blue eyes I see my aunts and uncles, in the smiles I see my cousins, in their hands, I can find my grandfathers.  These are not just homeless people and to label them as simply that is to deny their uniqueness and every person’s worth.

During the food service, there are also members who stand in line to get food for others.  One homeless woman came through line six times on Thursday getting plates for those who are unable to stand in line for various reasons.  After joking with her, I finally asked her when she was going to get her own plate and she said that she doesn’t eat breakfast, just comes to help out.

After the food is all gone, there are rarely any left overs (if there are, the volunteers are welcome to eat them), the cleanup begins.  A number of the men and women have specific duties.  Two or three sweep the floors, a few fold up all the chairs and tables, and others quickly ask what else needs to be done.  Thursday I cleaned up my area and rushed to the floor to make sure those left knew there was coffee and a few bites to be had.  I sat by a man at the piano while his fingers consumed the keys and his eyes were closed by the melody.  I talked to a man about the filming of a new movie downtown.  We talked about movies for a while and I really enjoyed it.  Later one of the head volunteers came up to me and said that it was a pleasure to watch me serving and interacting.  He said that he never saw me without a smile and that I was laughing most of the time when he’d peak over  at the line.  He told me that it was really apparent that I was having fun and truly cared about the people and how much that meant to the guests.  That made water come to my eyes because I really did enjoy myself and hoped that each guest knew felt that I cared about them honestly.

Aside from breakfast, the guests can come get basics like toothbrushes, combs, soap, shampoo/conditioner, and basic needs from a closet of donated items.  There is also a hair cutting table set up and help with buss passes and identification cards.

If you live in the Austin area, think about coming out at least one time to meet these amazing people and give them a small bit of your time.  The Foundation for the Homeless website had more information on how you can help.  If you have any questions, please let me know.

I am planning on returning next week and as much as I am able.  I have not seen any pets with these men and women (they wouldn’t be able to bring them in) but the connection of the homeless and their pets has always been something that has touched me deeply.  I use to have bags of dog food and treats I’d give out to people if I’d see them around.  I plan to do this again and keep it in my car.  I’d like to ask some of the guest about this also.  I’ve always thought about starting a program for the homeless’s pets as far as vet checkups and food goes because the relationship between an animal and their owner has nothing to do with a backyard or a flea collar.  That will be another post for another time however.

~Ride blessed, be blessed, give blessings.