Thursday, March 13, 2008

The gift of laughter is meant to be shared

Yesterday, we had to close our building for the day due to some maintenance work that could only be performed with all air ducts, vents and ventilation shut down.

At 8:00 in the morning, we started moving clients out of the building to the park across the street. The majority of the approximately 600 clients who would use our services during the day, dispersed. However, about 100 remained behind, including three elderly clients who are relatively immobile. When lunch was served, clients returned, enjoyed the barbeque and dispersed again.

The day was expected to be sunny and warm. But, this is Alberta. Weathermen do not have a direct conduit to the weather -- and the weather can be capricious. Instead of warm temps, we were treated to slightly above freezing with a stiff, cold wind.

Staff brought blankets, mitts, hats and jackets out for clients. We had coffee and a snack, and a barbeque lunch ready at noon -- but still it was cold.

For staff, the reality of standing out in the cold for hours on end was taxing. For the clients, it was simply par for the course.

I don't often find working at the shelter depressing, but, yesterday, one staff member and I talked about how sad it is to see so many people succumb to the chilling reality of, 'this is my life'.

There is something unnerving about the cold. It digs deep into your bones. Zaps you of energy, of will, of a sense of purpose. Like a barnacle stuck to a whale, the cold clings to your skin, sucking you dry.

Yesterday, I watched clients build little fortresses of blankets on the grass, burrow into sleeping bags, snuggle into a mound of bodies to keep the chill away. The colours were drab. Grays and dingy blues and blacks. Unshaven faces. Silents footsteps shuffling in line.

For our three elderly clients, the day was particularly daunting. At one point, we put them into a van and a staff member drove them over to a sister agency to ask if they could remain there for the day. The answer was, No. The three clients have dementia. They require some attention during the day to ensure they use washroom facilities, etc. The other agency was not prepared to give them shelter and so, they were returned to our building and provision was made for them to spend the day in the computer lab which is adjacent to the main building and not affected by the maintenance yesterday.

It was a day of sadness, a day of rude awakening (how can a shelter refuse to help three elderly people without some pangs of conscience?). It was also a day of laughter and good times, of sharing and caring, of people helping out and doing what was right.

At one point, I was walking around the park with a big green plastic bag picking up garbage, one client saw me with my bag and yelled over, "Hey! Now you're a bag lady!" I laughed. Others around him laughed, except for one woman who became quite incensed by his comment.

"How rude," she muttered. "He shouldn't talk to you like that."

"I thought it was rather funny," I replied.

"Well you're wrong." she insisted. "It was rude."

I walked away with a cheerful, "He made me laugh on a cold day. I think that's great!"

Throughout the day clients picked up garbage, ensured the park was left as pristine as we could get it after serving 1,000 hamburgers for lunch. Thankfully, a group of volunteers came in from an oil company downtown and helped us serve up the burgers. Clients were appreciative of the aroma of burgers grilling, of potato chips and pop, of having a chance to kick back on the grass and enjoy something so simple as a barbecue in the park.

It may have been a cold, windy day, but for those accustomed to enduring the elements, it was a day filled with the opportunity to connect, to feel a sense of 'normalcy', to let the depression of homelessness lift for just awhile.

For me, it was a day to count my blessings, to remember that laughter is a gift best shared and that attitude is all in our perspective. And when it was over, I climbed into my car, turned on the heater and the music and drove home to loving arms, wagging tails and the security and warmth of my home.

The question is: What are you blessings today? Are you willing to share your laughter?

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