November 30, 2006
A night at the homeless shelter
545 San Pedro Street is an address I will never forget.
It is the Union Rescue Mission downtown, inhabited by homeless individuals that reside in their designated corners on Skid Row. My school, Milken Community High School, offered a community service experience for 21 students, and I found myself at the Union Rescue Mission.
During my three-day trip, I had the occasion to sleep in the mission, take a tour, speak with the residents, and serve and prepare food. The Mission is a recovery center for drug and alcohol addicts, battered women and children. The facility utilizes the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous, which encourages people to develop a relationship with God. It teaches individuals to change their beliefs, attitudes and choices. My own beliefs and attitudes were also changed as a result of this experience.
As I searched the dining room holding my tray, I spotted an older African American woman and joined her. I was struck by how focused she was on eating every bite of her meal.
"Hi, I'm Jackie, how are you doing today?"
She told me about her day but was more interested in finding out about me. I told her about my school, my favorite classes and my hobbies. I realized how many opportunities I take for granted. As soon as I mentioned sports, her eyes lit up and she was filled with enthusiasm. She told me about her family, her life and how she had always enjoyed school. She told her stories about sports and how she had received a volleyball scholarship.
Sadly, she chose the wrong path and as a result, her life became unmanageable. She became consumed with drug addiction and self-destructive behaviors. She abandoned her 5-year-old daughter for fear that she would have the same horrible life. I was speechless. The silence grew uncomfortable as I nervously began rambling on about my computer classes to fill the void. I knew at the end of our visit that this woman would remain in my memory bank forever. I realized that each choice we make impacts our future and our relationships with others.
During mealtime we had the opportunity to connect with someone outside of ourselves, sharing our stories and listening to others. I never fully understood how important the concept of a meal was. I realized that mealtime offered much needed support to those who suffered. It had the power to create a connection between people who were polar opposites. It gave me the opportunity to step into the shoes of someone I never would have met.
The next morning, I spotted my new friend as I got ready to return to my usual lifestyle. Little did she know what a lasting impression she had made. My views on those less fortunate had been changed forever. My life-changing experience at the mission taught me that everyone is a diamond in the rough.
Jackie Greenspan graduated from Milken Community High School last year.
The this essay was written for the Service Learning awards given out by the Bureau of Jewish Education's Sulam Center for Jewish Service Learning (www.sulamcenter.org).
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 January issue is Dec. 15; Deadline for the February issue is Jan. 15. Send submissions to email@example.com.