When I first walked through the doors of my new job, I was excited and nervous. I had just been hired at Nashville Rescue Mission, one of the largest missions in the country. At the time, my knowledge about homelessness was limited. Sometimes I’d come upon someone in need, read the cardboard sign they held, and walk right past. Other times I’d feel guilty, and give them some money or pick up a cup of coffee and a sandwich for them. That was all I knew to do. That’s all most of us know.
For the next two years, I had the privilege of working on the marketing team there, for an organization that offered emergency services to the homeless, along with recovery programs for those who sought healing from addiction, pain, financial disaster, and other debilitating issues. Each night, approximately 800 men, women, and children sought shelter in our buildings. It was within those four walls that I met the most compassionate, hardworking, and selfless individuals I’ve ever known. They taught me how to truly love others and drastically changed my perspective on addiction and recovery. In addition, they educated me on some of the most effective ways to help those in need. Here are five of those simple, yet powerful actions:
Give a smile
Part of my job included speaking with our homeless guests and sharing their stories with the community. Over and over again, men and women would tell me the same thing: “I felt invisible.” Hundreds of people walked by them each and every day, with only maybe a handful stopping to say hello or even give a smile. Don’t ignore someone in need. Smile, nod, or offer a “good morning!” Even if you can’t help in any other way, let them know they aren’t invisible. They aren’t alone. There is hope.
It’s easy to say “I don’t have cash, sorry!” as you continue walking. But when this isn’t true, and you know that there’s $5 in your wallet, and that you could probably not buy a latte today and instead give it to someone who needs it way more, do it. Sometimes it’s a struggle to offer money. But when you feel led to do so, you should take the opportunity. Alternatively, you could make a donation to your local shelter or reputable national organizations such as Catholic Charities or The National Coalition for the Homeless.
Deliver care packages
If you don’t feel comfortable handing cash to an individual on the street, that’s okay. There are many other items that can make a big difference. Create care packages and keep them in your car. Purchase practical items like water bottles, sanitizing wipes, granola bars, feminine hygiene products, and toothbrushes/toothpaste. In the winter, include hand or toe warmers and in the summer, an extra water bottle or two. These items may seem so simple to you, but they have the power to drastically change a homeless individual’s day. You can also include a printout of local resources, like a list of shelters and safe sleeping accommodations. When you drive by someone in need, safely pull over and give them a care package. Or gather some friends, load up some backpacks, and make an afternoon of distributing these items at a shelter or downtown area.
You’re in your 20s. You might be balancing school and work and living with a budget that’s already stretched incredibly thin. When you don’t have money to give, give your time. It’s invaluable. Volunteer to serve a meal at your local soup kitchen or shelter. If you love kids, offer to work with the children and help with their homework. Don’t wait until it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas to sign up though. Take time throughout the rest of the year, when volunteer numbers decrease, and ask where and when help is most needed.
Whether you’re spring cleaning or making a “throw away” pile to create space for new clothes after Christmas, remember that your extra shoes and clothes can be re-used by those in need. Bring them to a local shelter, Goodwill, or Salvation Army. If you want to keep it local, check out www.greatnonprofits.org to find an organization near you. Wardrobe donations are especially needed in the winter months — so be sure to give your boots and coats a new home!
Next time you see someone in need, or feel a tug at your heart to get involved, don’t ignore it. Chances are, you’ve been blessed with a little extra that you can share.
Originally published on January 19, 2017