Why Volunteer


I had finished my Thursday volunteering stint at Urban Ministries and was tidying up when Brittany came back.  “David, would you mind taking one more person?  She says she’s sick.”

I said I’d be happy to.  I wasn’t in a hurry.

“She’s a new client,” she said.

The woman who came back didn’t look like a lot of our clients.  She was nicely dressed, wore some costume jewelry, three or four rings on her fingers.  She was medium height and thin, held her arms up against her and walked slowly, as if crippled by arthritis.  It took a while for the two of us to get down the hallway and sit at the desk.  She still held her arms against her.

“I’m so cold,” she said.

“It is cold in here,” I said.  Several people had complained of it that day.  I always wore a heavy sweater when I worked there, was wearing one then.  The place was a little drafty.

“I’m cold in North Carolina.  I never was in New York.”  That was a remark you didn’t hear every day.  “In New York it’s either hot or cold.  Here it’s 80 in the middle of the day and freezing when the sun goes down.  You don’t know how to dress.”

The weather has been especially that way this fall, a number of days where there was a wide variation in temperature.

“I need a coat,” she said.  “I’ve come here to get a coat.”

My heart sank when she said that.  Everybody, but everybody, wanted a coat those days.  Some guys from the shelter had been coming by every day looking for a coat.  They were hard to come by.

“We do have coats,” I said.  “We don’t have a lot.”

“I have a taxi waiting,” she said.  “I just need to get a coat.”

“I’m not sure that’s a good idea,” I said.  “This may take a while.  I have to fill out some forms, since you’re a new client.  It might be better to let the taxi go.”

“I can’t let go my taxi.  I just got to get this coat.”

“I’ll work as fast as I can.”

It still wasn’t going to be fast.

She reminded me of my grandmother when I was a child, the way she was cold and holding herself, the way her hands seemed arthritic.  I was startled when I checked her ID I to see that she was only in her fifties.

She checked her watch.  “I might miss Meals on Wheels,” she said.

Good grief.

She didn’t qualify for food from the pantry at her age.  I asked if there were children in her household, but she lived alone.  There was only one other way she’d qualify for food.

“Are you disabled?” I said.

“I am.”

“Do you have proof?”

Miraculously, she did.  She pulled out a form from the Social Security Administration saying she got disability payments.

We would have given her a pass anyway, since this was her first visit.

The whole time she sat beside me, she talked constantly, softly, just above a whisper.  A fair number of people who come to Urban Ministries—this woman met the profile—just need someone to talk to.  So I tried to listen, I understood the importance of that, but was also conscious of her cab out there, and her Meals on Wheels appointment, and all these forms.  “Uh huh,” I’d say.  “I see.”  She was mostly talking to herself.  Not making a lot of sense.

“Okay,” I said at last.  “We’re ready.”

We got to the clothing closet and there were no other clients.  Two volunteers were still working, cleaning up.  Usually a client begins with underwear; each is eligible for one new pair, and some socks.  But this woman had a one track mind.

“She’s looking for a coat,” I said.

“What we have is here,” one of the volunteers said.

I looked on the rack.  There seemed to be just four or five.

This whole thing was hopeless.

I turned and spoke quietly to the woman who sorted through the underwear.  “I’m not sure this woman’s all there,” I said quietly.  “She really only wants a coat.  But she might take some underwear, if you offer it to her.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

I turned back, and the woman holding a hanger draped by a camel’s hair coat.  It looked pretty close to new.

The woman volunteer stepped over and took the hanger.  “Should I put this in a bag for you?” she said.

“You’ve been so cold,” I said.  “Why don’t you put it on?”

“Yes,” the volunteer said.  “You could put it on.”

The woman took the coat off the hanger, and tried it on.  It was full length, so it covered most of her body.  It seemed to be a good fit.  She pulled it together at the collar, stood there for a long moment.

“Oh,” she said.  “Oh.”  At first I thought something was wrong.  “I’m warm,” she said.  “I feel warm.”  Her face started to tremble, and she fumbled with her eyeglasses.  Tears poured from her eyes.  “I knew I’d find something if I went out and looked for it,” she said.  “God is good.  God is so good.”

“God is good,” the volunteer said.  She put her arms around the woman and held her as she sobbed.  “And we have some wool socks here.  You can keep your feet warm too.”

By the time I left the woman was in the food pantry with a shopping cart.  She might as well have been standing in the Kroger.  She was talking to Angela, the head of the food operation, who listened patiently.  The taxi was still sitting outside.  I assume Meals on Wheels was long gone.  But the woman still wore her coat.