Inside the family emergency shelter, I see a woman with six children vying for her attention, trying to explain something to another woman, who is was balancing a baby on her hip and has two children wrapped around her legs.
I gingerly press the call button on the door and smile apologetically. Looking up, the first woman buzzes me in. Seeing the logo on my sweatshirt, she smiles and says, “Oh! HandsOn. Go right into the cafeteria. There’s also a Game Night tonight.” She then turns toward the mother who was attempting to keep her toddlers from escaping down a hallway. Their relief was audible.
I walk into the cafeteria, and I’m greeted by a man in a blue volunteer leader shirt getting boxes of games out of a closet. “Are you here for game night?” he says with a smile. In between answering questions from kids who knew him by name, he helps the volunteers settle in.
“Steve, are we playing tag tonight?” a group of kids asks as they round the corner and immediately beeline to our volunteer leader. Steve answers, “I forgot my coat, and it’s kind of cold, so we’ll play it by ear.”
Hearing this as a yes, the children’s eyes light up. They eagerly help him finish setting out bins of toys, beads, coloring supplies and games on the tables.
Soon, the room is buzzing with energy from kids of all ages. The floor is quickly carpeted with beads and crayons. A little boy around 8 or 9 comes over to me. Looking up, he says, “Miss. do you know this is a shelter?” My heart plummeted into my stomach. I slowly reply, “Yes, I do”. Without missing a beat, he grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the toys, saying, “Let’s go play”.
With only four of us there to volunteer, I couldn’t stay with my young playmate the entire night. He would find me when a game ended, or the bracelet was finished, and grab my hand, pulling me away to go play. A jacketless Steve took a group out to play tag, and squeals of excitement and laughter floated inside as he ducked under playground equipment and dutifully followed rules that were clearly made up so that he always remained “it.”
As the night drew to a close, we began cleaning up the dining hall in preparation for a snack. Tonight’s snack was special, a cake for one of the kid’s birthdays. Instead of running off when the cake made its grand entrance, the kids all hugged us goodbye and quizzed us on when we were coming back. One little girl asked if we could come back tomorrow. Steve told her he wished he could come back every day.
As we were leaving, my new friend came over and wrapped me in a hug. Looking up earnestly, he says, “Miss. This was the best day ever. Thank you for coming to play with me.”
As volunteers, we hope that our time is a gift to the shelter, parents and children we serve, but this young man gave me something much bigger — an appreciation for the beauty and resilience of humanity and a reminder that joy and personal connections are as important as food, clothing and shelter.
HandsOn Northeast Ohio works with nonprofits to identify and assist with critical needs. Projects occur monthly, weekly or bi-monthly, along with one-time service opportunities. With HandsOn, most projects are on the evenings or weekends.
Visit handsonneo.org/volunteer to learn more about volunteering with HandsOn, like the monthly game nights at a family emergency shelter. After attending a one-time volunteer orientation, you’ll have access to view all available projects with more than 50 agencies.