If you would have told me a year ago that I would be friends with a homeless man, I would tell you that you were crazy. No 18 year old girl thinks she will ever become friends with someone who spends their nights sleeping outside in a small shelter he built himself. But for me, my senior year was completely changed by one incredible man that taught me so many things about passing judgement, talent, and being a genuinely good person.
At the beginning of my senior year, I was trying to figure out how I would spend my 75 service hours I had to complete for National Honor Society. I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference instead of a few random charity projects here and there. A teacher at my school had a connection with a place called the Listening House, a day and evening shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness. There, anyone is welcome to come and get a cup of coffee, play cards, watch a movie, or seek guidance for the troubles in their life. The mission of the Listening House is to just lend an ear when someone needs it instead of preaching and trying to fix their problems. I decided to give it a shot. The first couple times going there were rough, a lot of the regulars don’t like seeing an unfamiliar face around. However, as I began to visit almost every Sunday, I learned names and even developed relationships with some people.
Ricardo was one of those people I built a strong relationship with. He learned that I spoke Spanish (poorly, but that was more than most volunteers) and decided that every Sunday I would practice speaking with him. He told me stories about growing up in Chihuahua, Mexico. He told me about the jobs he’s had and the places he’s lived. He loves running and would tell me how far he ran the week before and his times. I looked forward to hanging out with Ricardo and wouldn’t stop talking about him when I got home.
When you see homeless people sleeping on park benches or asking for money on freeway exits, your first instinct is to pass judgement. “They’re lazy, they’re addicts, they could easily find a job if they wanted, etc.” Even if you don’t admit to thinking these things, you at least have purposely avoided eye contact with them. I’m not saying that’s bad because we’re all only human. Trust me, I’ve done that plenty of times. But hanging out at the Listening House and especially with Ricardo has taught me so much about being open minded. I have learned so many life lessons from the people there and couldn’t have asked for a better experience.
Update: I started this post a while back but wasn’t sure exactly how I wanted to finish it. This past week, Ricardo won first place in the Minnesota State Fair for his crop art. Article here. In addition to being a really great guy, he’s also an incredible artist. Usually during our conversations he would be working on some project, whether it be boxes made out of toothpicks or bracelets from plastic bags. I happen to be a proud owner of one of those plastic bag bracelets. I know it’s so easy to look at the people on the side of the road and make assumptions, but if I’ve learned anything from this experience it’s that we have no idea the talents and incredible things others have to bring to the table until we actually hear their stories.