The story below is an excerpt from my upcoming book “Finding My Smile”. Profits from the sale of my books directly support the Smile Out Loud Foundation.
Linda wanted to finish college before we got married, but I wasn’t willing to wait six years. We compromised on four. While Linda worked on her degree, I finished my bachelor’s and began working at a homeless shelter in Omaha.
The Siena/Francis House treated and assisted people living on the streets. Most were on some sort of substance or were mentally ill, which meant that my work was to counsel people on a variety of levels. In my little office in the basement of the old Jewish Funeral Home, I’d meet with people in all sorts of challenging places in their lives. Everyone was on the streets, many were abusing substances. I had never counseled addicts right off the street before, nor women. On the learning curve of a first professional job, I needed to be creative. A coffin was still stored in one of the old mortuary freezers. I’d use it as a resource for illustrating my point.
“If you keep using,” I’d say, walking out from behind my desk. “You will end up in one of these. Believe me. I’ve been there.”
“That’s not funny,” they’d say. But they’d understand my point.
Some people, though, didn’t want to be helped. They just wanted to be heard. There was one afternoon when a man came down into my office to see me. He had a gun on him and was high as a kite. I sat, terrified, in my chair for seven hours and talked to the man, all the while staring down the barrel of the gun. Finally, one of my coworkers realized that I was missing, and hadn’t been seen or heard from in several hours. He came down into my office to check on me.
“What’s going on down here?” He asked.
I looked him fervently in the eyes. “Oh, Jim here is telling me his life’s story. He’s got a gun with him.”
Immediately, my coworker realized what to do. “Jim, why are you holding a gun on David? He’s willing to listen without you using your gun. Why don’t you let me have that?”
We discovered that the gun wasn’t loaded, but the situation really scared me. From then on, someone from the main building kept tabs on me every hour.
The people at Siena/Francis House were very good people. One woman, Sister Stephanie, taught me how to really love the poor and to trust God. There was one night in particular that I just couldn’t disbelieve in God’s plan. It was a very cold night. The shelter had been in the habit of giving away blankets on nights such as that one to make sure that even those who couldn’t stay on the shelter’s premises could stay warm. Sadly, we had run very low on blankets because we had given away so many. Sister Stephanie came in from outside and urgently requested a blanket.
“There’s a guy out there. He needs a blanket!”
One of the guys who managed the supplies just looked at her as though she were crazy. “We can’t give away any more blankets. We don’t even have enough to cover the beds we have!”
“You don’t understand,” she pleaded. “This guy needs the blanket. If we give one away, ten more will come. I promise.”
They went back and forth over the blanket for quite some time. Ultimately Sister Stephanie won. No more than an hour had passed before there was a knock at the door. Several women from a local church came in towing fifty quilts of the finest quality. They wanted to donate the blankets to Siena/Francis House to support our work. Sister Stephanie graciously took the blankets and looked at her arguing partner.
“See. God always provides.”
I loved my work at the Siena/Francis House, and I learned a lot. But as time went on I received a job offer from Richard Young Hospital to help develop a counseling program for youths. I had always wanted to work with teens and children, and this seemed to be my chance. I couldn’t say no. So I said goodbye to all of my coworkers and mentors, hoping that we would always be friends. They had helped me maintain my smile, and I was forever in their debt.
You can support the Smile Out Loud Foundation and scholarships for dyslexic youth by purchasing my books here.