During my recent visit to Seattle, I had the privilege of volunteering at ROOTS (Rising Out Of The Shadows) Young Adult Shelter. Its mission statement reads: ROOTS provides shelter and other essential services to homeless young adults. We build community, advocate for social justice, and foster dignity among low-income people.
ROOTS provides a safe place for up to forty-five young adults, ages eighteen to twenty-five, 365 nights a year. The night I volunteered, there wasn’t enough space to accommodate all who sought shelter. According to ROOTS’ website, this has become a more common occurrence. “These young people are spiraling out of the foster care system and onto the streets, fleeing abusive homes and failing to find work opportunities to survive in this tough economic climate.”
Those who weren’t lottoed in that night were given a plate of food, a blanket, a bus ticket, and a referral to another shelter if space was available. Of the guests in shelter, their resilience and unfulfilled potential were palpable. Some were students. Others were employed. But none had stable homes.
I helped two other volunteers prepare dinner. Though it was their second night at shelter, it was their first night on kitchen duty. We prepared a “feast” using leftovers, salad, fruit, baked goods, and four packages of egg noodles which we added to gorgonzola cheese sauce we scored from the refrigerator.
While we were preparing the meal, some folks carried in leftovers from a group gathering. Since we had plenty of food, we dated their donations and put them in the refrigerator, where they were sure to be a welcome discovery for the dinner crew the following night.
In addition to the above, several things struck me about my evening at ROOTS.
- The dedication of staff and volunteers.
- Preferred gender pronouns on staff and volunteers’ nametags.
- An on-site resource specialist.
- Donated clothing and books.
- A sign which said that you could not use on-site, but if you arrived with dirty needles, they could be disposed of safely.
- The smooth transition of the room as guests helped arrange mats and bins.
- Guest access to computers, laundry facilities, showers and lockers.
- The camaraderie between volunteers and guests.
- The politeness and appreciativeness of the guests.
- The opportunity for guests to earn locker privileges by volunteering in shelter.
- The serenity of the room and its forty-five guests after lights out.
Our opening meeting before guests arrived and our debriefing after lights out were impressive. I was moved by the compassion and commitment of the volunteers, several of whom were in the age group of the guests.
During our debriefing, we were given the opportunity to share concerns, warnings given and an evening highlight. No one had warnings or concerns, but we all had highlights. One volunteer, whom we learned in our opening meeting was there for the first time, was enthusiastic about her desire to return. Others were regulars, evident by nods of recognition as they shared highlights about familiar guests.
When it was my turn, I shared three highlights: being part of a team headed by my son Eric, the evening’s Program Coordinator; seeing the welcoming, safe, inclusive place I’d heard so much about; and having guests help in the kitchen and in the dish room.
I didn’t share one huge highlight though, afraid tears would stifle my words. Working with my kitchen companions, and peripherally with the other volunteers, was deeply moving. To witness their kindness, compassion, dedication and connectedness with the guests was an affirmation of the goodness in our world. I wanted to tell them that they’re making our world a better place. I wanted to say that being in their presence made my heart sing, but I knew I would choke on my words.
I was touched by the guests as well. Through my observations and brief interactions with some of them, I felt so much unfulfilled potential. Two poignant memories stand out. As I was preparing a burrito for a guest, another awaiting his dinner asked, “How’s your night going?” I told him it was going well and asked how his was. “Pretty good,” he said. “That’s what we always say. Pretty good,” he repeated, with a hint of a smile.
Later, Eric had just given me a quick introduction to the dish room and sterilizer when a guest arrived and donned an apron. Wordlessly he turned his back to me and held out his apron strings for me to tie. Eric asked if he wanted help with the dishes but the guest said no, so I went back into the kitchen to collect our serving dishes.
After adding them to the overflowing counter, I thanked our helper for tackling the mountain of dishes. He said he’d done “twenty times that many” and told me he used to work in a restaurant. When I asked where, he hesitated. I’d wondered then if, in my attempt at small talk, I’d overstepped my bounds. He allayed my fear seconds later when he said in a soft voice, “Colorado.”
What a tender moment to be gifted with his trust.
Thank you, ROOTS, for the important work you do. Thank you for providing a safe, welcoming and inclusive place and for being a stepping stone as you raise young adults out of the shadows.