I was visiting the Ocean Park Community Center (OPCC), a stepping-stone shelter in Santa Monica that gives homeless women a chance to get back on their feet through training, support and guidance.
A group of us had come with our local Pacific Palisades Chabad rabbi, Elli Baitelman, and Rabbi Mendel Cohen of the Chabad Mobile Kitchen, an organization that provides meals, love, compassion, toys and whatever might be needed to the needy, homeless, elderly Holocaust survivors and anyone else who needs a helping hand. They have a catering truck, and they call it "sharing the warmth."
We joined the trip to the shelter so that we could serve the homeless women a hot, home-cooked meal and maybe a conversation and friendly smile. When we arrived at the OPCC, we were impressed with the clean, new facility and walked upstairs to meet the ladies.
We started serving, and, at first, we were happy simply to be providing them with hot food. When everyone had filled their plates, the volunteers sat down at the tables and began to strike up conversations with the women. I felt uncomfortable at first, but was stirred on by my little brother, who was very open to the idea and quite a hit as the youngest -- and, OK, maybe cutest -- member of our contingent.
I took a seat to the right of a tall woman with an edgy personality who was both intellectual and polite. Her eyes reflected a sad wisdom as if she had seen too much pain. When I asked her what had brought her to this place in her life, it seemed as if nobody had ever really bothered to ask her this sort of question for a long time, since she was so eager to chat. She answered that she had been in college but dropped out because her husband wanted to spend more time with her and for her to raise a family. She told me that he had verbally and physically abused her for years until she conjured up the courage to leave him.
She had no money for college and no job opportunities, so she found herself out on the streets, a person with a hunger for an education but who was thrust into the wrong circumstances.
"That's why I always tell young girls like you to stay in school and work hard," she advised. "An education is always the most important thing."
To my left was an African American woman with an expressive smile and an easygoing manner. I asked her to tell me about herself, and she seemed so joyful just because somebody was curious. She informed me that she has a master's degree and used to work at a mental health hospital as a nurse! I was shocked because I always believed the stereotype that homeless people were mentally unstable and therefore couldn't get a job.
These women completely proved me wrong. This inspiringly graceful woman with eloquent speech was let go merely because the hospital downsized and was forced to fire over half of the workers. Later in the discussion, she emphasized how glad she was to be able to meet all of us and tell her story, because she didn't want us to believe the falsity that all homeless people are mentally ill or lazy.
At the table next to me sat a woman who was knitting a beautiful sweater and quietly humming a pleasant tune. Across from her sat two ladies engaged in deep conversation about how the system of foster care could change for the better.
The OPCC shelter is made up of perceptive and insightful people who, in most cases, simply fell into the wrong situation and found themselves lost in a sometimes-merciless world. Well, we were there not just to dish up a good meal, but to offer our compassion and treat these people as friends. To see how much our coming to visit meant to them was a real treat and a gratifying experience for me, as well for the other volunteers. It warmed me every time one of them thanked us for coming or told us how good it felt to talk to average citizens as average citizens.
This experience totally changed my point of view, because these people were not who I expected them to be. I expected them to be uneducated, uncaring and unkempt, when in reality they are smart, empathetic and just like you and me.
They are mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. Next time I see these people on the streets, I'll look at them instead of through them. They taught me to be grateful for everything that I have, and that it can all change before there's time to appreciate it.
Ariel Cohen is a ninth-grader at The Archer School for Girls.
Tribe, a page by and for teens, appears the first issue of every month in The Jewish Journal. Ninth- to 12th-graders are invited to submit first-person columns, feature articles or news stories of up to 800 words. Deadline for the July issue is June 15; deadline for the August issue is July 15. Send submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org.