The seeds of my commitment to Freestyle Volunteering got planted when a member of my family was diagnosed with schizophrenia and decided, as do many people with this illness, that homelessness was a consummation devoutly to be wished. He remains untreated, refusing medications and psychiatric help, and now lives in a small apartment where he tries with heroic, futile independence to build a life.
The years since his diagnosis have been a crash course for the family in mental illness and homelessness. All of us became more aware of the individuals around us who are cut off from society by one or both of these conditions — often (and virtually always, in cases of chronic mental illness) through no fault of their own.
Now I actually see these people in my city's public spaces instead of walking past them as if they were invisible. Getting acquainted with a few has shown me that they're people like myself, ambulatory and articulate and otherwise capable of a social life. But nonprofits and public agencies (even if there were enough of them) can’t provide the kind of personal connection that will sustain a human being's sense of balance and integrity. People don't want to be names on a case manager’s client list. We want to be chosen.
So I choose one person to meet with for one hour of coffee and conversation at a cafe every week. The first person I started meeting for weekly coffee is Hiro, whom I met almost two years ago while volunteering at an advocacy agency for people with mental illness. Now I meet with five individuals weekly, and also have serendipitous irregular encounters, full of unexpected joys, with various people living in tent cities, or maybe they're just sitting on a bench in the sun.
I don't have specialized knowledge about the type of burden my companion is carrying or about available resources. My purpose isn't to try to solve anyone’s problems, let alone heal the human condition. It’s just to buy one person coffee and to sit and listen and talk for one hour a week. Viewed separately these meetings may seem trivial, but the hours of interested attention add up to a significant gift over time. (And what if millions of us gave an hour a week in this way?)
Of course, I'm prudent and schedule coffee meetings during the day only, in public places. I trust my instincts, avoiding people who transmit even the faintest vibe of menace. But I don't let irrational fears run my life. In a country where it seems I'm at least as likely to be harmed by a family member, friend, or workplace colleague as by a complete stranger, it makes no sense to me to shut down the possibility of forming a mutually rewarding bond with someone needing a little companionship.
I like the simple, self-contained commitment of showing up every week to buy a person coffee and chat for an hour. I don't have to round up like-minded folks in numbers big enough to dent “the system.” I don't have to work on mission statements or lobby legislators or compare calendars with 20 other volunteers or attend meetings or (yuk!) phone-bank. (Of course, people willing to start and sustain public-spirited organizations keep on building the better world we badly need, and I volunteer in a few.)
But I'm the kind of woman who would always choose running for exercise over swimming laps, and the simplicity of choosing one person with whom to spend one weekly hour reminds me why that's the case. Going swimming is such a complicated way to stay fit! Why make myself drive to the pool, squeeze into a swimsuit, take a shower, force my hair under a rubber cap, clip my nose shut, brace myself for chilly water, and endure the chlorine stink, when to go running I only needed to grab my Adidas and head into the fresh air?
This story also appears at "Freestyle Volunteer Stories." Freestyle Volunteers give weekly personal time to individuals who share our public spaces yet are socially isolated by homelessness or mental illness.