I Am Blessed

Posted: July 13, 2015 in Uncategorized

For most people, leaving work is the part of the day that they look forward to the most, but for me, arriving at work is one of the best parts of the day. Trust me, I always enjoy ending another day at work, where I am surrounded by an incredible group of men, a dedicated group of volunteers, and a hardworking, compassionate staff, for it means another successful day of all of us working together for the common good has occurred. The completion of a work day also means I am moments away from seeing the two loves of my life, my daughters. So, while the end of the work day is welcomed, the beginning of the work day is welcomed for different, albeit special, reasons, as well.

As I drove down the street that leads to the St. John Center for Homeless Men, I saw a number of “our guys” making their way either to the shelter or heading around the corner to a place that serves coffee. I have never been in a parade or part of a motorcade, but I think that they would never compare with the smiles, waves, and greetings I receive from our guys when I pass by on my way to work. They are very observant, so, they know the cars that we drive and look for us in the morning when we are due to arrive at work. The guys are genuinely happy to see us, and the feeling is more than mutual.

When I parked my car yesterday, I saw some of our guys walking toward the shelter and congregating on the sidewalk leading to our front doors, and when I opened my car door, I was serenaded with the song, “I’ve Got That Joy, Joy, Joy Down in My Heart”, by one of the men.  He was a familiar face and sang the song with great gusto, and his smile was almost as big as the morning sun that bathed us in warmth and light on a chilly morning.  As soon I saw him and another familiar face along side of him and heard this hymn from my childhood, all of the anxiety and worry that had accompanied me to work that morning gave way to this simple pleasure.  I stood listening to him finish the song, applauded, and thanked him for starting my morning off on such a positive note, and we chatted for a bit.  He and his friend are frequent quests at the shelter, and we have gotten to know one another over these morning pleasantries and brief conversations.  After we shared some small talk, the friend who stood next to the man who was singing said to me, “I love how you are always smiling and happy.  Sometimes, I am having a bad day, but when I see your smiling face, and you talk to me, it always makes me feel better.  You’re alright.”

Obviously, I am not always happy and do not always smile, but when I am at work, I make it a conscious effort to be at my best and to give them my best, for they deserve only the best from everyone and the best of everything, as they are usually regarded as the worst elements of society and deal with the worst of circumstances.  I always am so humbled when any of the men thank me, because so often, due to limited resources, I am not able to give them what they need the most-housing, employment, money, etc.  Also, with as much as they give to me, I feel indebted to them.

When this man commented on how something as seemingly insignificant as a smile and chit-chat brightened his day, for some reason, I was overcome with emotion, and I choked back bittersweet tears and replied, “Thank you so much, and I hope you know that you all are the reason I smile when I am here.”  The man who serenaded me said, “Baby, we love you, and we pray for you.  God bless you.”  By this time, big, grateful tears clouded my eyes, which were hidden behind my sunglasses, and I could only manage to say, “I love you all, too, and God bless you all.”  To that, the singer replied, “Oh, I am so blessed already.”  When I said how much I loved to hear that and then inquired why he felt so blessed, he smiled even more and responded, “Every day that I wake up is a blessing; it is as simple as that.”  As I walked away from them to head inside of the shelter, their words went with me and have been on my mind ever since then, and now they have found their way here.

I find it completely mind-blowing that someone who does not have all the trappings of what we consider successful or all of the basic necessities of life could stand outside on a gorgeous morning feeling so blessed, when most people, myself included, would not use that word to describe him and could not imagine using it to describe ourselves if we found ourselves in his well-worn and tattered shoes.  As I have mentioned in previous posts that reference the men at the day shelter, several of them have replied, “I am blessed” when I have asked them how they are, and every single time I hear this genuine response, it touches me deeply.  It also has led me to start thinking about how I view being blessed in my own life.

Too often, I wait for the ideal situation, the right person, and/or the achievement of perfection in one or more areas of my life to feel blessed or happy, and I overlook the blessings already present in my life.  The gift that these men offer me every day, if only I choose to accept it, is that each day really is a blessing in and of itself, and there’s always reason to be happy, no matter how you feel, no matter who is or is not in your life, no matter what you do or do not have, and so forth.  So, today, I started noticing the blessings in my life, instead of focusing on the challenges and imperfections, and I gained a new-found gratitude for everything from my two happy, healthy, and extraordinary daughters to the cool breeze that swept through my home.  Even the smallest of blessings can make the biggest of differences, just ask our guys, and the next time someone asks you how you are, I hope you will think of our guys and answer, “I am blessed.”  At this very moment, I’ve got that joy, joy, joy down in my heart, and I am blessed indeed.

That’s another story . . .   – Kristi Jo Jedlicki, SJC Program Director

My name is Donna McGee and I am a registered nurse who works in software development for health care systems. I live with my husband Joe, children Josh and Carol, and our two dogs Petunia and Lou. I decided my first blog should be about why I actually volunteer at St. John’s. I’m 50 years old and never volunteered regularly anywhere before. I was laid off last summer and thought volunteering would help me take my mind off of myself and also help me to structure my time while I was off. I checked out several other non-profit groups and somehow found my way to St. John’s. My husband and I met when I was an Army nurse and he was a medic so I really wanted to be able to give my time to an organization that served Veterans.

What I like about volunteering at St. John’s:

  • After a quick orientation (about 30 minutes – more if you need it), you’re off to work
  • I am back to work and have a family so I do have a busy life. I am able to sign up for 2-3 hour shifts which are very manageable
  • I did not have to commit to a regular volunteer schedule (although this option is available). I can just fill in as needed so again, I don’t have to commit far in advance.
  • I NEVER feel like I’ve wasted my time when I volunteer. Only as many volunteers are scheduled as are needed, so everyone is put to good use.
  • Anyone can do it! I like to serve coffee or work the shower room because I like to move around and be busy. But if you’re not physically able to do that, you can answer phones or sign the guests in as they arrive.
  • It doesn’t take much to make someone happy! I always try to greet the guys with a smile and a hello. One of the nicest things one of the guys said to me a few weeks ago when I greeted him was “You’re just like a breath of fresh air!”

An Unlikely Hero

Posted: June 8, 2015 in Uncategorized

There is poetry as soon as we realize that we possess nothing.”~John Cage

A year ago, I launched my first blog. Various people have said I am “brave” for writing this blog, which always gives me pause, as I am anything but brave. I hide in plain sight when I write, and the computer screen is my modern day shield. I am not brave, but I am so very fortunate to tell you about a writer who truly is brave and deserves all the respect and admiration in the world.

One of my favorite aspects of my job at the St. John Center for Homeless Men is when I take an hour to do “floor duty”. This can include such tasks as doing laundry, sorting mail, straightening up around the shelter, and, most importantly, interacting with the men who are there. It is a chance to answer their questions, listen to their concerns, assess their needs, offer a word of support or advice, and simply be present for them. One afternoon, I noticed an older gentleman, Ernest, happily and busily writing in a notebook, and when I passed by him, I stopped to inquire about his writing. I had no idea I was about to meet someone I now regard as one of my personal heroes.

Ernest put aside his writing when I greeted him, and he gave me a huge smile and an earful about his work. He explained that he was putting the finishing touches on two poems he planned to recite the following evening at a showcase for people who are homeless. Ernest was excited and nervous, as this was the first time he would be reading his work in public. I commented that reciting one’s own poetry is more than just sharing words, as it is exposing your heart and soul to the world and being vulnerable, and I told Ernest how much I admired him for his courage to share himself with others. He smiled and said, “You’re a writer, aren’t you? It takes one to know one.” I told him that while I enjoy writing that I do not consider myself a writer, especially after what transpired next. We ended our conversation with me wishing him luck and asking him to let me know how his recitation went.

As soon as I arrived at work yesterday, my hero greeted me warmly and proudly told me how nervous he was to read the two poems, but he did it and looked forward to doing it again this fall. Ernest told me that while he did not win the $50 prize, he did “receive some claps, which felt really good”.  I told him that sharing his poems made him a winner and congratulated him, and he asked if I would critique his work sometime. I was honored that he would share his collection of poems with me, and later that day, I found a black binder on the chair in my office. Inside of this non-descript binder, there was a collection of the most hauntingly beautiful poems spanning a twenty year period. Each poem was carefully placed in a plastic protector inside the binder, and some were well worn and stained. He had made sure to tell me that the papers were not dirty, but they appeared smudged, as he had saved them from a fire. In addition to bearing the stains of smoke and ash, I suspect that they were stained with many tears long since dried, yet still present.  After reading his poems, I know that saving those poems from the fire was more than saving his work; Ernest saved himself.

His writing was achingly raw, honest, and real, and I immediately began to cry as I read poem after poem. Each one was unique, and there were recurrent themes of feeling sad and alone, welcoming death to escape the pain, clinging to hope, mourning friends who abandon you, wanting to be loved, and spirituality. I shed tears for this dear man whose writing revealed the depths of his pain and vulnerability, and I also selfishly shed tears for myself, as I related to him on so many levels. I discovered that two seemingly opposite people shared a similar broken heart and wounded spirit, and it was a poignant reminder that people’s possessions, clothing, outer beauty, etc. are nothing more than window dressing to cover the essence of one’s being. The difference between this kindred spirit and me is that he has faced most of his heartaches and crises on his own without any shelter, literally and figuratively. Ernest has very little, yet he gives his all just to survive day in and day out, year after year. If you have suffered from depression, addiction, mental illness, or any other personal struggle, you know that surviving even just one day can feel like surviving a lifetime. Yet, in the midst of his painful journey, he still has a smile on his face and hope in his heart.  He gingerly offers his poems, almost as a peace offering to his soul and an apology to the world for his past transgressions and perceived failings, in exchange for “some claps” and peace of mind.

As I type this, the tears begin to fall again, because I am in awe of him and treasure his words.  I missed seeing him today at work, but I was happy to be able to enjoy his poetry for another day before I need to return them to him.  I have no doubt that my hero and I have more words to write, and I hope that one day I can be as brave as he is.

That’s another story . . .   – Kristi Jo Jedlicki, SJC Program Director

The Laundry Room

Posted: May 18, 2015 in Uncategorized

At the St. John Center for Homeless Men, there are countless moments of immense joy and heartbreaking sorrow experienced by the nearly 200 men who walk through our doors each day. Some of these men come and go without me making a connection with them. Some men and I have an instant connection and get to know each other rather well, while other connections are formed very slowly over time. It is the latter relationships that end up meaning the most to me, for they tend to be made with some of the most vulnerable souls. This is the story of one such soul, Andrew.

I don’t recall when I first encountered Andrew, but I will never forget him. Andrew is a formidable presence, as he stands over six feet tall and has a striking appearance, yet he is very quiet and shy and prefers to sit by himself in the day shelter. He rarely interacts with the other gentlemen, staff, or volunteers, as he enjoys a cup of coffee and sits silently, sometimes watching television and sometimes staring off into the distance at nothing in particular. He is a calming presence in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the day shelter. The only thing I knew about Andrew, beyond basic demographic information, was that he camps out rather than staying at one of the emergency overnight shelters. Whenever I would greet him, he would give me a slight nod to indicate that he had heard me, but then, he would quickly look away, avoiding any further contact with me. Recently, though, that all changed.

Not long ago, as I folded towels and wash cloths in the day shelter’s laundry room, I was pleasantly surprised to look up to see Andrew standing in the doorway. I was even more surprised when he asked me if I knew where he could buy some dry pet shampoo. His inquiry caught me off-guard, but I assumed that he had a cat or a dog, like some of the other gentlemen who find it easier to connect with an animal than people. We talked about a nearby pet supply store that carried his sought after item, and he thanked me and walked away. Over the course of the next few weeks, whenever I was in the laundry room, Andrew began to appear in the doorway, and in his lovely southern lilt, he began to share more details about himself. I first learned that the pet shampoo was for him, not an animal, as he needed a dry shampoo to take care of his basic hygiene needs at his camp.
As luck would have it, several bottles of dry shampoo had been donated to the day shelter, so, I was able to fill his meager request. His gratitude for this small item was humbling. Last week, he shared something that was even more humbling.
During one of our laundry room conversations, Andrew talked about the possibility of returning to his hometown, which is several hours south of Louisville. He explained that he left there over a decade ago and went on to say that his parents lived abroad and worked for the government, hinting at the mental illness he manages as best he can. It was then that he mentioned his camp, and I asked if his camp was near St. John, as our gentlemen camp in areas all over the city. I was stunned when Andrew told me the exact location of his camp. This may not seem like a significant self-disclosure, but many of the gentlemen who camp keep their location private. They do so for a number of reasons, one being that they have learned not to trust others, as their privacy and safety have been threatened by both wanted and unwanted visitors to their campsite. It was in that moment that I realized that Andrew finally trusted me.

As soon as he told me where he camps, I commented that I knew exactly where it was and that I would not tell anyone else the location of his campsite. I then thanked him for trusting me with this information. Andrew lingered in the doorway for a moment before saying, “Thank you for letting me trust you”, and he then returned to his seat at a nearby table. While I do not know what it is like to be homeless, I do know what it is like to have trusted someone only to have been betrayed, so, to have earned the trust of Andrew is a precious gift, one I do not take lightly at all. It takes a great deal of courage to trust again after being hurt, and I think that Andrew is among the bravest people I know for a myriad of reasons.

That’s another story. . .

Kristi Jo Jedlicki, Program Director

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The Key to Life

Posted: May 4, 2015 in Uncategorized

I am often asked how I could possibly love my job working at a day shelter for men who are homeless as much as I do, and if you have read some of my previous blog posts, then you already know that there is much hope, joy, and love to be found among “our guys” on a daily basis, along with the heartaches and sorrows.  One day last spring was a day of contrasts, as it began with one of the case managers and me having to meet with a man who was in the process of losing his housing and ended with me being privy to one of the most joyful moments one of our guys experiences-the moment they get their own place to live.

After a difficult morning, I was more than ready for my hour-long shift doing floor duty, as I just wanted to lose myself in conversation and laughter with the guys, while doing the daily tasks of laundry, straightening up, posting the mail, etc.  It is out of those informal moments that relationships are built, stories are told, secrets are shared, and lives are changed, and those moments mean the most to me.  What happened toward the end of my shift salvaged the rough day and caused happy tears to be shed and shared.

As I stood at near the front desk, an older gentleman was paged to the guest telephone.  I was sorting the mail when I heard him gasp, and I worried that he had received some bad news.  As soon as he hung up the telephone, my worries melted, as he had a smile that lit up his entire face and eyes filled with tears of joy, and he turned to me and exclaimed with wonderment and excitement, “I got my key!”  Translation: His case manager had called to inform him that the apartment that he had been approved for had passed inspection, and he could pick up the key to move into his new home.  It was a life changing moment.

When he shared his wonderful news with me, I returned his smile and happy tears, and we hugged one another.  I congratulated him, and I fought back even more tears, as he said, “I am so happy.  I never have to sleep in a shelter again.  I have a home of my own again.”  For our guys, having a home means more than having their name on a lease.  It means the freedom to come and go as they please, to eat what they want when they want, to spend as much time in the shower as they so choose, to not have to schlep all of their belongings on their back from place to place, to wake up and go to sleep when they want to, and many other things that most of us take for granted.  It also means the security of being able to lock their door and to control who enters their home.  With this new-found freedom comes new-found responsibilities, such as following the rules set forth by both the landlord and the permanent supportive housing program, paying a portion of the rent, maintaining a clean and safe environment, and being a good neighbor, but with the support of the case managers, they stand a better chance of surviving and thriving once again.  Watching the transformation from homelessness to housing is nothing short of miraculous.

As this gentleman made his way back to his seat, he shared the good news with some of the other men, and it was touching to see him receive sincere congratulations, hugs, high fives, and slaps on the back from his peers.  To be able to witness how one telephone call changed one person’s life in an instant is one of the many great honors and privileges of my work at the St. John Center for Homeless Men, and it brings me to tears, even now, as I recall that special moment that changed his life and affected mine.  Home sweet home indeed!

That’s another story . . .

Kristi Jo Jedlicki, Program Director

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A Cup of Coffee

Posted: December 29, 2014 in Uncategorized

I love working in the coffee room because often times there are a few minutes when the guys share a little with me about what’s going on with them. While serving coffee the other day, “Joe” was back for his third cup. He said “I just started drinking coffee 40 days ago. Ms. Jeanne (Sr. Jeanne, SJC Social Services Coordinator) told me I should go have a cup of coffee and quit drinking the booze. I’ve been sober 40 days today.” I said “Joe that is amazing! I’m sure Sr. Jeanne is really proud of you!” He said “She does everything in the world for me. I’m drinking lots of coffee and eating lots of candy bars, but I’m not drinking.”

I hope Sr. Jeanne knows how she’s changing lives every day.

Donna McGee, SJC Volunteer

The Welcome Meeting

Posted: November 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

On Sunday my family attended the Welcome Meeting at St. Frances of Rome to kick off the beginning of a new year of religious education for our children. As we sat at our table, there was a sign that said “Welcome Parents” and there was a set of rosary beads surrounding the sign.

Earlier in the morning, I had spent some time signing in guests at St. John’s Homeless Center for men. My thoughts went back to those men. Many of those men come in with plastic rosary beads around their necks – I’m sure they’ve received these as gifts. I know many of these men are not Catholic but they still wear those rosary beads. Last week when I was signing the guys in, one came in very upset – he’d had all of his belongings stolen the night before including his bible. Many of these men have to worry about their safety on a daily basis as they try to just survive while being homeless.

My favorite thing to do at St. John’s is to serve coffee. I can’t tell you how many of these men offer thank you, God bless you, and have a blessed day. The last two years I’ve worked on Thanksgiving morning. On that day especially, I cannot believe the joy in these men. I think if I were in their shoes I would be angry and miserable. But they are grateful. So many are interested in me and what I’m doing for the day with my family and thank me for spending part of my day with them.

For me our yearly Welcome Meeting helps to renew our commitment to our children to encourage them to grow in their faith. My experience as a volunteer never fails to help me grown in mine.

– Donna, SJC volunteer