Volunteer Journal #58 – The Midnight Mission

I lived in a loft above Skid Row when I first moved to LA. I always say it was a green loft because the building housed an electric company before me; the heater didn’t work so it was very energy efficient, and I was so poor I couldn’t buy anything new. But I was comfortable compared to my homeless neighbors who I watched mill about on the street below… One night the temperature dropped to freezing, a rare occurrence in LA, and I saw paramedics pull a frozen homeless man from a phone booth.  They peeled his fingers off the phone one by one. I still wonder about him – what was his name, how did he end up there, and if I had seen him before his demise would I have helped. I wonder whom he had called or wanted to call and what he wanted to say.

I also think of the woman who, every morning, would pull on a uniform and get ready for work in and around her 4x5 tent. More than one person got ready for work in a hovel on that street – the reality of being one of the working poor in America.

Living in a half way decent place, in a bad location, and struggling for grocery money I did not even consider going 2000+ miles back to the place of my birth for Thanksgiving.  Instead, I decided to volunteer at the Midnight Mission, which was only one block down the street. I thought this was a particularly good idea because I was so close to being in the serving line myself - best to scope out things ahead of time. I asked a friend to join me, because I was too intimidated to go alone. Their response…

“No, I don’t think so. I mean, they might want to talk to me. I don’t know what to say. That could be awkward.  It ‘s just going to be sad and dirty. Let’s not.”

I was cowed and nervous so I didn’t volunteer, which made me start thinking… How many people don’t volunteer because they’re scared or have the wrong impression like my friend? What if I volunteered and wrote about it to show people what its really like?

And thus TheGoodMuse was born.

Ironically, 57 volunteer adventures later I still hadn’t returned to Skid Row to help out.  Maybe it was all a little too real or raw.  Whatever the reason I was happy when the Reader’s Digest article published and I got a personal invite to volunteer from Mai Lee, Community Relations Manager, at the Midnight Mission.

The Midnight Mission’s goal is to offer a bridge to self-sufficiency for homeless people through counseling, education, training and job placement. They also offer all the necessities of life to the homeless of Skid Row: food, shelter, clothing, personal hygiene and medical care. They do all this and much more without a dime of funding from the federal government. And although the title “Mission” would imply religious affiliation there is absolutely no sermonizing for services.

The Mission itself is an intimidating new structure of glass and steel.  Mai Lee met me in the lobby.  Tiny, energetic and smiling she said, “I don’t do an orientation for anybody.  I make it as easy to volunteer as possible.  Let’s put you to work.” She gave me a “I Love The Midnight Mission” apron as a gift and then threw me into the industrial sized kitchen to work. (P.S. Mai Lee – I’m a stress baker and I did not have an apron!  Do you know how many shirts I’ve stained? I love it. Thank you.)

I started wrapping silverware for the hundreds we would serve at lunch. Then I was put on the serving line. My job was scooping asparagus. Very glamorous. I worked alongside a wonderful drag queen named Chris who joked with the people coming down the line. Chris lived in one of the many rat-infested apartments that dot Skid Row and when she recognized a friend or acquaintance she would cackle, “Girl, get over here and get some salad! You be needing it!” At the end of lunch she told me she might come back once a week in the afternoon to volunteer because it gave her something to do.  I had moved from the serving line to chopping Romaine hearts when I was stolen from the kitchen and moved to the education section of the complex.

In a pristine classroom I was introduced to the teacher “G Money” who was prepping a room full of adults for their GED tests.  Everybody was bent low over workbooks, which looked like… math books… Eeeekkkk Math Workbooks!  I wanted to climb the wall and hang from the ceiling hissing like a vampire who’s seen a cross.  Unpleasant.  Math is so unpleasant and if anything I needed to take a workbook, sit at a desk, and have someone teach me.  As it turned out I think I helped a number of students to wrong answers.  I can’t remember the last time I’ve had to do long equations or multiply/divide fractions. I have a calculator on my phone, which I kept busting out as the students whispered, “That’s cheating!”  “I know,” I would say, “I’m just checking the answer.”  Nope not checking the answer, getting the answer, but why argue over semantics.

It’s fortunate that I met William.  Hunched over a small storybook on one side of the room William, 40 something, was working on reading comprehension. William became my focus, which spared the math students. I sat down next to him and said, “Hey what are we working on?”  He had just read a short story and now was struggling to answer the corresponding study questions. “Cool,” I said, “read it to me.” He started to read and immediately the problem became clear.  As a new reader Will read the words so slowly that they no longer made sense in a phrase. I applied a little acting.  After he read a line I would say, “Okay, how would you say that?” He would repeat the line back to me at a normal speed.  If another character showed up in the story I took their dialogue and showed him how the sentence would sound in real life.  From afar I’m sure we looked like we were goofing off, but William started to plow through the questions. I can’t tell you how great it felt watching William speed up and start enjoying the story.  It was one of my greatest volunteer moments - no doubt.

I’ve been poor and lived at poverty level a couple of times in my life. It’s almost impossible to dig yourself out without help.  And it’s almost impossible to find help that’s not condescending or doesn’t require some kind of soul trade. The Midnight Mission offers schooling, temporary housing, counseling and medical services, a library, a barbershop, but most importantly it treats people with dignity.