Thursday, April 19, 2007

Gratitude is a glass of water

Last night we held a dinner for client volunteers at the shelter where I work. Client volunteers are individuals who are using our facility and who volunteer while staying there. In the course of a year, using a base salary rate of $10/hour, our client volunteers provide the Drop-In with about $600,000 in service. A substantial amount of savings given that we fundraise 43% of our annual budget, or approximately $7 million.

The dinner was attended by over 60 people. The tables were covered with linen tablecloths and serviettes. China and silverware was at each place setting and the room was lit by the soft glow of candelight. A big difference from the chaotic and noisy dining room on the second floor of the building where dinner is served to over 800 people a sitting.

As I was greeting guests last night I was struck by the gratitude each person expressed as they walked into room. "Hey. This is nice!" "Haven't had a candelit dinner in years." "This is for me? Wow." "Cool." The comments were simple. Appreciative and reflective. Each guest felt part of a moment in time away from the rigors and fears of homelessness. The meal was a scrumptious buffet of salads, roasted chicken and potatoes or lasagne, a cheese plate with fruit, delectable delights and coffee.

Before all the guests had arrived, people entered the room and sat down. At one point, someone came up to me and asked, "Is it okay if I pour myself a glass of water?" "Of course," I replied. A few moments later someone else asked, "May I pour myself a cup of coffee?" "Help yourself," I replied.

After about the third or fourth person came up and asked if they could help themselves to water, I realized it was time to take action. I picked up a jug and walked around the tables offering people water. As I went, I reminded them that there was coffee they could help themsleves to.

This may not seem like a big issue to you, but to someone who is homeless, who must wait in line for just about everything, who must wake up when told, go to bed when told, cannot just pour themselves a glass of water at will or make a cup of coffee when they want because they don't have a kitchen of their own, being able to simply stand up and get a cup of coffee is a big thing.

What struck me even more, however, was the hesitancy with which people asked if it was okay to help themselves to something so simple as water. The night before we'd had a dinner for corporate volunteers, and no one asked if they could get water or coffee. They just did it.

For our client volunteers, conditioned to having to ask for the simplest things, having an entire evening dedicated to them was refreshing and sad all in one. It reminded them of all that they have lost. It reminded them of where they're at in their lives versus where they want to be or could be or should be... if only... And, as several people commented, "I'm not used to having so much to eat. My stomach has shrunk. Is there some way I can wrap up my leftovers and save them for later?"

There were a lot of emotions in the air last night, the most prevelant being -- gratitude.

There is so much in my life I take for granted. A cup of coffee I brew myself every morning. A piece of toast made when I want. A computer to work on when I need it. The house a temperature I decide because I have control of the thermostat.

For many of our client volunteers, they arrived at the dinner after putting in a day's work at a close to minimum wage job. The reasons why they are homeless are complex and varied. But the simple truth is true for all of them -- they are grateful for what the Drop-In provides them on a daily basis -- it may not be perfect but it sure beats being out in the cold. Last night, their gratitude was a tangible force. The thank-you's were heartfelt. Their smiles warm. Their laughter genuine.

As I listened to the people gathered in the room last night, there was no difference between their behaviour and the behaviour of the group the night before. They all knew what a fork and knife was and how to use them. They all put their serviettes on their laps. They chatted and laughed and told jokes with those at the table with them.

What was different was their attitude.

Last night, a glass of water made a difference. Last night, people saw their glass as half full and were grateful for each sip they took.

Next time you pick up a glass of water, think about what it means to be able to pour it at will.

You are blessed.

May we all have the blessing of asking for what we want today and recieving it.

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