Helping homeless tugs at heart strings

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Valentine's Day weekend was full of mixed emotions for me, but it had little to do with romance or roses.

I was part of a group of Walla Walla University students who went to Portland for four days to help the city's homeless population and to volunteer at several shelters in the area. While I was happy and excited to assist those less fortunate than myself, I saw more sadness and despair in a few days than I usually do in several months.

Ultimately, however, the trip was an incredible eye-opening experience and a reminder of the small things we can do to help the impoverished and downtrodden individuals who live among us.

Along with our school chaplain and a number of other university staff, our group of 30 spent the weekend working with the employees at the Portland Rescue Mission, a network of shelters and halfway houses throughout the city that meets the needs of the homeless and provides them with vocational training and a place to integrate back into society.

We sorted through piles of donated clothes at the organization's warehouse, painted dozens of rooms, swept sidewalks, and woke up at 4:45 a.m. to serve breakfast and hand out blankets downtown. A flat tire and bags full of blankets that split open a mile away from the shelter did not make our weekend any easier, but they were minor struggles when compared to what we encountered.

This was not my first time working with homeless people - during my undergrad years in California I often took trips to San Francisco and Berkeley to hand out lunch - but I had never been so immersed in their world as I was last weekend.

We spent time underneath bridges where several semipermanent communities had been established, trying to convince a disheveled wide-eyed man, who sincerely believed that the city judges and FBI were trying to sue him, that all we wanted to do was to give him lunch and a blanket.

We met a man who told us he had lost everything after becoming involved in what he later discovered was a pyramid scheme and another who explained that the death of his daughter drove him to alcoholism and eventually homelessness.

I was shocked by the number of men and women, of all ages and from all ethnicities, who were living on the streets and the weekend shattered most people's preconceived image of a homeless person - the drunk, gray-bearded, unintelligible Vietnam vet, carrying a bottle of whiskey in a brown, paper bag.

Yet despite the sorrow, and the pain we encountered, there were moments of joy and laughter in some of the city's roughest neighborhoods.

I met a man who grew up only an hour from where I lived in California, and we talked about sports and how much we missed the San Francisco Bay Area.

During our time at the women's shelter in one of the more residential districts of Portland, where we painted a kitchen and several bedrooms, we met a young girl whose mother was in the process of getting back on her feet. She was excited to show us her new baby sister and tell us the story of when she fell off the playground equipment outside.

Another man who was playing chess at one of the shelters, and who seemed to be able to defeat almost any person who wanted to play him, humbly claimed he couldn't play chess, he just "moved the pieces around a little bit."

It was amazing how much people opened up when we looked them in the eyes, shook their hands and talked to them like they were real human beings, an experience denied to them by most people they meet.

There were times I felt my actions were insignificant and too small to make a real difference. Yet, one of the greatest lessons I learned during my time working with the homeless in Portland was the impact of each decision and of the smallest action, like painting a small bathroom ceiling, giving a pair of gloves or simply a smile to those who feel they do not deserve one.

Martin Surridge is a Walla Walla University student and U-B freelancer.

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