People think they’re going to change the world when they come here, but you can’t. All you can do is make connections with our guests and be there for them. – Carl Cook, co-founder of the Metanoia Project
These words hit me hard. It’s not that I was volunteering with the homeless advocacy and resource organization to single-handedly end poverty and homelessness, but I did hope I could radically change the lives of at least a few people living in dire situations. To succeed, I quickly realized, I had to rethink my definition of radical change.
For some, it’s sleeping indoors on a bitterly cold evening. For others, it’s talking with a legal expert about how to deal with an outstanding warrant. Still others consider a hot meal or a pampering foot massage worth staying for. There are also guests at the shelter whose definition of home is different than yours and mine. For reasons both complex and personal, some people choose to live transiently, resistant to shelters and moving frequently from one place to another over a pattern of years. Their needs from volunteers are minimal: a heavy blanket, a bus pass, a hair cut or a chance to socialize before heading on to their next destination.
Along with food, clothing and shelter, the Metanoia Project, which is housed at St. Malachi School in Cleveland, offers a variety of services on weekends to meet the needs of a diverse group.
If there’s anything I’ve learned after spending about three months volunteering with Metanoia, it’s that everyone’s situation is unique. One person may be struggling to find employment, while another is counting down the months until she becomes eligible for Social Security. Some guests find it difficult to keep up with their medications; others fight a daily battle against addiction or mental illness.
Depending upon the evening, guests come to Metanoia to access podiatric services, legal advice, computer resources, housing information or mentoring. All services are offered on a volunteer basis. One of the most powerful missions I’ve seen at Metanoia is the washing and massaging of feet by a woman and her grandson. Just about any gift you can bring to share with their guests is welcome.
A mentoring program on Saturday evenings is how I became involved with Metanoia. In this laid-back atmosphere, guests can discuss issues relating to health, housing, family and so on. The mentor provides specific guidance or recommends a trusted resource. In many cases, the mentor’s most important role is being a good listener.
On a recent Saturday evening, I met a man I’ll call Steve (not his real name). After years in the professional world, Steve landed a felony conviction and eventually found himself jobless and homeless. Steve hasn’t given up. In fact, on this evening, he told me about an idea he had to employ ex-felons. Like the model created at Edwin’s Restaurant in Shaker Square, this program would give ex-felons training, employment and motivation to succeed.
Steve’s idea was inspiring, and I told him about someone I know who mentors entrepreneurs. His eyes lit up. I emailed him the information, and he quickly made an appointment to meet with the business mentor. I didn’t worry when he canceled the appointment; he hadn’t really had enough time to do all of the research necessary. I emailed him a few times before his next appointment, offering to meet him there if he wanted encouragement. I heard nothing. A few hours after his scheduled appointment, I received an email from the business mentor. Even though he had confirmed the meeting earlier in the week, Steve was a no-show.
Of course, it wasn’t my fault, but I felt that I had let down everyone: Steve, my business-mentor colleague, even other volunteers at Metanoia. Then Carl Cook’s words filled my head, and they finally made sense. Although I had the best intentions, my enthusiasm for helping Steve with his startup overshadowed my naiveté about the barriers and obstacles he faced. After living on the streets or going from one shelter to another for years, after going long stretches without employment, after straining relationships with friends and family, can I really expect an individual to pull it all together in a couple of weeks?
My biggest accomplishment — however small it seemed to me — was caring about Steve and his vision for a new business. He probably isn’t ready to take that giant step forward (in fact, he told another mentor afterward that he felt a lot of pressure and thus chose to blow off the appointment), but maybe I planted a seed of encouragement that someone else will water some day.
My experience with Steve has only strengthened my desire to be a part of Metanoia. The more you hang out at St. Malachi, the more the guests become familiar with you and look forward to seeing you. The feeling is reciprocal. I learn so much every time I talk to a guest of Metanoia.
The shelter program ends during the warm months; however, opportunities exist to take part in the summer session, which includes gardening and a healthy juicing program. I’ve offered to start a journaling program for guests, and I’m looking forward to seeing what comes of it. It may not be changing the world, but it’s definitely changed me.