Three weeks of really poor planning on my part culminated this past Sunday at The Bridge, a homeless shelter in St. Louis. Only three weeks earlier, Kevin, Becky, Jim, and I gave out 20 backpacks in front of The Bridge, and we thought we could handle anything. Kevin had brought some of our old coats along with the backpacks, and they were gone in the blink of an eye. Cold people, without homes, without warm clothing in the winter chill of St. Louis, needed coats. I figured we were doing so well with the backpacks, we should have a winter-clothing drive and come back and give them out. Silly me.
Friends and coworkers—and even some total strangers—all said they had coats for us. So I waited. After a couple of weeks of waiting, I had very few coats, jackets or sweaters. What was I thinking?!? Kurt Warner was a pro at this! Maybe I should have called him, because I certainly wasn’t having much luck!
Then it happened. One friend at a time came forward. One brought three large garbage bags of clothes. Another said, “I finally got my husband to empty out two closets of coats he hasn’t worn in years!” A neighbor had some great sweaters and leather jackets—some with the price tags still on them! Before I knew it, we had about 80 pieces of warm clothing in various shapes and sizes. It dawned on me that giving these out from the back seat of my car as we had the backpacks might be challenging.
I contacted The Bridge to ask whether we could set up tables in their parking lot to distribute the clothes. I was surprised when they said, “no.” Little did I know that they aren’t allowed to give anything out in the parking lot of the church where they are located. We weren’t even supposed to give out our backpacks where we did. And although they were happy to help us with tables and organization, it would have to be on Sunday instead of the Saturday we had planned. I always figure it is better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission, and now we had asked permission and were told we couldn’t do what we planned, where we planned it, or even when we planned it!
I took a deep breath and reached past the contrarian in me, the one who would have just done what we wanted and done it our way. I realized that this wasn’t about me, so I agreed to every condition. That was a good move! Handing out coats on the sidewalk or in their parking lot with a table would have been impossible. We were so in over our heads!
When we arrived, the security guard and three of the homeless quests helped us bring in our bags, suitcases, and plastic tubs overflowing with clothes. Three tables were set up for us. For their help, we promised first choice of the merchandise to the three men who helped us carry things in. Promises in hand, they sat down and waited for us to finish sorting and setting up.
In the meantime, we also handed out treats. We had also brought boxes of candy canes and fresh chocolate chip cookies that Kevin had made that morning. There were more children than we expected (still too many), and they were eager to get at the cookies and happy to be out of the cold. I made sure they got the first batches of cookies and their smiles warmed us all.
After everyone had gotten lunch, John—the security guard with a heart of gold, a great laugh, and a no-nonsense attitude—called people up to choose one item. I helped them try on coats, and some were embarrassed that it was hard to try a coat on over the layers of clothes they already wore. I told them to pretend they were at Macy’s and that I was just a salesperson helping them. That got smiles and laughs and even a couple of hugs. Some, looking so good and feeling so warm in their coats, squared their shoulders and lifted their chins. They seemed to say, “I’m down, but I am not out!”
We asked if we could take pictures to help spread our message. They all said yes, and some felt so good in their new clothes that they asked us to take their pictures before we could even ask.
One man, Paul, had arrived early and had his eye on a blue down vest. He loved that vest, and he knew if he could get it over his other layers, he would be so warm. But a man just ahead of him got it first. Paul was crushed. Nothing else was as good as that blue vest. He walked away sad and dejected. I felt terrible.
Fifteen minutes later, Paul came running back up as we were readying to leave. He was smiling from ear to ear and wearing the blue vest! “The guy who took it didn’t want it after all and gave it to me! I wanted this vest so bad and he gave it to me!” We were happy for him, too.
All told, it took us about two hours. It flew by! Some guests shared a quick story about their journeys to homelessness. Some shared a few tears. Many shared hugs. And all shared their appreciation and gratitude. Everyone was treated with respect; everyone was a guest.
We gave out clothes to help warm people who live on the streets and sleep on shelter cots or concrete beds. I wonder whether they realized that the four of us handing out clothes had received much more than we gave.
I was in awe of the humor, strength, and resilience I saw in so many of the people we met. I was also overwhelmed at their generosity of spirit and kindness toward one another. For a day that started off with everything going wrong, it was hard to imagine how it could have ended better.