By Rebekah Hanish
Sweat rolled down the sides of my temples. It soaked through my shirt and even my jean shorts. I could barely breathe for the humidity – each attempt clogging my lungs with moisture instead of air. New Orleans in July.
Just two years after Katrina, the city was still in desperate need of assistance, and we were helping with a festival – Feeding the 5,000 – a play on Jesus’ division of fishes and loaves. Instead we had grocery bags full of spaghetti and tuna.
Thousands of the city’s homeless gathered in the park, rifling through the Salvation Army truck that was donating clothes and standing in line to receive their prayers and groceries.
I was in charge of handing out the bags of food from the trucks to the people that had received their tickets at the prayer tent. I got in trouble several times for giving bags to the people who had refused the prayers. So I stood at the exit and handed out bags where my supervisor couldn’t see me.
After several hours, the rain came. Not a normal kind of rain. The kind that’s so thick you can’t see more than a few feet in front of you. The kind that is so heavy and fierce it soaks your clothes in seconds and pricks your skin. The 5,000 trickled out, and my co-volunteers tore down the tents and loaded the trucks.
A small, wrinkled man approached me where I stood next to the food trucks, hurriedly shoving the bags inside. He mumbled something to me that I couldn’t understand. Thinking he said “sacks” I tried to hand him a grocery bag. Confused, he shook his head.
I held up the grocery bag again.
I looked at his feet, flopping in tennis shoes that were too big and filled with water. I realized he wanted socks, and I told him to hold on while I ran to the Salvation Army clothing truck.
The truck was pulling out just as I arrived. No amount of waving stopped the driver, and I asked my supervisor if anyone had any socks left over. His short “no” sent me back to the man, withered and shivering in the rain. I looked down at my feet, hoping I could give the man my own socks, even if they were wet. But my flip-flops offered nothing.
I quietly apologized to him. He nodded slowly and turned to leave. I opened a grocery bag and showed him the contents, enough non-perishable items for over a week.
You can take as many as you want. They’re all left over.
The light in his eyes flickered and grew large as he reached for the bag but quickly disappeared before he could grasp it. He pulled his hand back, trembling, and pointed to his bike and shook his head. He wouldn’t be able to carry it home.
He walked slowly back to his bike and rode away in the rain.
The grief of my own extravagance overwhelmed me. Being met with need, real need, and not being able to give anything to appease it. Of all the clothes in my closet. Of all the food in my refrigerator… How much I have… and how little he asked for. And I still couldn’t give him anything.
It was this experience in my life, along with several other similar ones, that inspired me to be prepared to give. I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with giving money to the homeless. So a good alternative is to prepare care packages to keep in the trunk of your car – blankets, old clothes, bottles of water, basic hygiene products and non-perishable foods. You never know when you’re going to come across someone in need. This way, you have a whole host of items you can give to people depending upon what they may need.
It’s an awful feeling to know that you have so much to give but not a way to make it happen. Our initiative will definitely change someone’s day and could change a life.