City of Broken Dreams

On April 9th, 2012, a group of 20 people [including yours truly] left Melfort at 6 AM and drove all day to Calgary. The trip was long and uneventful and I slept through at least half of it on account of getting about two hours of sleep the night before. Brock got his mullet braided, Dayne and I sent pick-up lines back and forth between the two vans using walkie-talkies, Joy slept for six hours, and Katlyn and I listened to Lean On Me too many times. Nothing out of the ordinary.

When we finally got to the Calgary airport 10 hours later,we had three hours to kill before our flight so we spent that time eating food and getting to know our Swift Current teammates whom we met at the airport. Fortunately no one was arrested when we went through customs [though a couple of us did get the pat-down] and we boarded our flight without too much hassle.

I love flying. I love looking down and seeing city lights, I love knowing that I’m higher than the clouds, I love being miles above the earth. But my favorite part is the descent. That sudden feeling of weightlessness you get when the plane makes its initial drop, seeing the ground come closer and closer to you… I’ve truly experienced few things better. I’m not a first time flyer by any means, but it still gets me. Every time. I love it. I would love to be a pilot when I graduate but I’m worried that I would decide to do stupid stuff like nosedives and flying backwards and scare the hell out of my passengers. I would probably get my license revoked after the first 12 hours. But anyway! I’m getting off track!

After a three hour flight, we landed at LAX where we hopped into our very attractive rental vans [two suburbans, a sedona, and a yaris! i know! living the life!] and drove ourselves to Oasis, the youth center where we were staying. It was around 11 by the time we were finally allowed to go to bed and we were all exhausted so sleep was more or less instantaneous. We were to be awake and ready to go by 6:30 the next morning so we were planning to awaken at 6, but someone set her alarm for 6 without taking into account the time change so we were all rudely awoken at 5am that morning. But of course none of us realized that we were an hour early until everyone was ready to go. It was a short night but thankfully that didn’t happen again.

So on Tuesday morning, exhausted and bleary-eyed, we stumbled into our attractive rental vans and drove three blocks to the First Presbyterian Church of Hollywood, which is a beautiful building that’s old by American standards and young by everyone else’s standards. There we ate breakfast and were divided into our different work teams. The Melfort group was split into three work teams and the Swift Current group was split into two. The teenagers on my team were Dayne, Brock, Rachel, and myself. I prayed that Brock and I wouldn’t kill each other and thankfully we didn’t, that would have been awkward.

After breakfast we went our separate ways to the places DOOR was sending us. My team and one of the Swift Current teams worked at MEND Poverty, and impressive facility designed to give the homeless and needy the services and respect they needed and deserved. Although we only worked in the food bank portion of it, there was also a soup kitchen, general store, thrift store [but set up so beautifully that it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a mall], dental clinic, vision center, daycare, and general health clinic. Every aspect of it is designed to make people feel dignified and respected [MEND stands for Meet Each Need with Dignity], and it was an honour to be able to work there.

After we finished there at 3, we went back to FPCH where we ate supper and I discovered a piano. After supper Katlyn and I sat down at the piano and sang Lean On Me about three times because it had gotten stuck in our heads the previous day. After we were all piano’d out the group discussion conveniently started.

That evening our group discussion featured two speakers who had recently been homeless and were only just getting back on their feet. They talked about the choices they had made and the directions they had taken that had caused them to find themselves in this situation and how they coped with it. It was very interesting to hear about their mindsets when they were homeless as opposed to their mindsets before they were homeless, and it opened my eyes to how downright human homeless people are. It was a good way to start off the week, a good point of view to put ourselves in.

We then went back to Oasis where we once again fell into an exhausted sleep and this time were not awakened until 6. On Wednesday morning we headed to FPCH for breakfast, played Duck Duck Goose, and then once again went our separate ways. This time my team was working alone, and, since the mission where we were volunteering was only five blocks from the church, we were able to walk on the most gorgeous day of the week. We arrived at a youth drop-in center called My Friend’s Place and were put to work sorting donated clothes onto racks. Since three of us were under 18 we weren’t allowed to work with the youth themselves, but we were quite content where we were. When the staff lady opened the doors to the closet for us, I think most of us felt a tiny bit dismayed at the sight we saw: a small room populated by clothing racks and garbage bags. Garbage bags piled almost to the ceiling, garbage bags EVERYWHERE. Full of donated clothes. The woman showing us said, almost apologetically, that they were short-staffed at the moment and so didn’t have a chance to go through the clothes that were donated. They didn’t expect us to get through nearly all of it since we were only to be there for three hours, but any difference we could make would be so appreciated.

We turned up our sleeves and set to work… and got everything sorted through in two hours. After all the clothing was hanging up and the garbage bags were thrown out, we set to ourselves the task of sorting the jeans. Until then, donated jeans had been thrown in boxes marked with sizes to make them easier to rummage through, and it looked messy and horribly disorganized. We moved a desk into the corner where the jeans were thrown and set to work. We folded sizes 9-14 and set them neatly on top of the desk, and then folded the other sizes more neatly in the original boxes and slid those under the desk. By the time we left an hour later, the corner was cleared and the whole place looked better. The staff thanked us profusely as we left.

We walked back to the church for lunch, which we had packed for ourselves that morning. We ate a picnic lunch outside because it was nearly 25 degrees outside and it would have been a shame to hide inside. After we were finished eating we left in our attractive rental van [we got the Sedona] and drove ourselves to Homeboy Industries for a tour.

Homeboy Industries is an organization dedicated to helping the recently incarcerated and ex-gang members get back on their feet. They get help with finding jobs and becoming respectable members of the community. This organization offers services like tattoo removal [for removing gang tattoos from the face, neck, and forearms] because no employer wants to hire a guy who has a tattoo that might get him killed. They also offer high school courses because many of the people who walk through the doors of Homeboy either dropped out or were pulled out of high school before they could finish. Because we were minors we weren’t able to volunteer there so we got the official tour instead, along with another Melfort group and one of the Swift groups.

After we were done there we went to the Chinese Market [Homeboy is very conveniently located on the edge of Chinatown] and shopped and shopped and shopped. One shop had a small bin full of used CDs, and they were being sold for a dollar. It was mostly Kenny G and classical but I chanced upon Sherwood’s debut album Sing, But Keep Going. I had looked in music stores everywhere and had never been able to find a copy of this album so naturally I bought it, pleased as punch. I also bought a pair of chopsticks but since I can’t use chopsticks the proper way, I wear them. In my hair. I feel quite classy and Asian when I do this.

We arrived back at DOOR for supper but were instead surprised by a meeting in the courtyard. Here, each person from Canada received one dollar. Eduardo, our program coordinator, explained that with this dollar we were to go out on in our work teams and find sustenance for the evening. We could either spend one dollar per person or pool the money within our teams so that we had 7 dollars as a group. We were allowed to get more money through means such as working, begging, or finding money on the street, weren’t allowed to use our own spending money. Whatever food we got in the two hours we had would be all that we were allowed to eat for the evening.

My team set out onto Hollywood Boulevard and debated what to do with our $7. We eventually decided to go to a grocery store and buy bread and meat for sandwiches, but as we were trying to find a store or a market we were struck by the poverty around us. We called a huddle and talked about it, and realized that we would wake up the next morning and be able to eat breakfast, and later lunch, but many of the people around us would not. So after a unanimous vote we decided to pool our money and give it away. After that, we resorted to begging. Before leaving, we had been told that if we begged we had to explain why we were begging. However, we rarely had the chance to explain. As soon as we started talking to most people, they flat-out said no and walked away. Only a couple of people actually stopped to listen to what we had to say, and they didn’t have any change to spare. In short, we didn’t get anything. It was somewhat disheartening but no one regretted the decision we had made. We continued walking Hollywood Boulevard for the rest of our two hours and met and talked to the homeless. Everyone has a story to tell, and these people seldom get a chance to tell theirs. So we listened to their stories and learned about their lives and who they were and how they ended up where they were. The experience of just being there, just talking to these people is one I wouldn’t trade for all the food in the world. We went to bed physically hungry that night, but spiritually and emotionally we were filled to the brim.

On Thursday morning as we were loading into our vans to head to DOOR, I cranked my head on the top of the van and nearly gave myself a concussion. I could hardly think straight all morning and honestly don’t remember much of what happened before 11. Because of my injury I didn’t eat anything for breakfast, and the fact that I didn’t eat anything the previous night  may have contributed to my light-headedness. But I digress.

Thursday was the best day, despite my injury. It’s the day that stands out to me the most, the day that I’ll remember even after I’ve forgotten the others. This is the day that we went to Skid Row. In case you’ve never heard of Skid Row, let me drop some knowledge on you. It’s a neighborhood in downtown LA that’s about 11.4 km2 (or 4.31 mi2 for all you people still on the Imperial system). According to the 2000 census, it has a population of 17,740 and it estimated to have grown by 5,000 since that time. 51.7% of the population is below the poverty line. There are people everywhere, on the sidewalks, on the streets… everywhere. It is the most heartbreaking thing I have ever seen.

My team, along with another team from Melfort, was working at the soup kitchen in the Union Rescue Mission. For the first hour we worked in the back, cleaning things and preparing lunch. Around 11:30 a few of us trickled to the front to serve lunch and greet people. My friend Josh and I served salads, so we were able to greet everyone who came through the line. As people came through, it was heartbreaking to see their poverty. Josh and I tried to say hello to each person who passed us. Many of them returned the greeting with a friendly. Obviously there wasn’t any chance to really talk with anyone since the line had to keep moving, but these brief moments were worth it.

After lunch was over and everything had been cleaned up, we went back to the kitchen to prepare for supper and breakfast the next day. Dayne, Josh, April, and I were put on egg-cracking duty, and together we cracked nearly 2000 eggs. We filled six five-gallon pails with eggs and I’ve got to admit, it put me off of eggs for a while. I did get really fast at cracking them though [5 eggs in 3 seconds, no big deal] and it was fun to work with others.

After we were done with the eggs, our work there was done for the afternoon. We headed back to FPCH for our last supper and our last group session with DOOR. This session was a recap of what we had talked about the previous two nights, and before we left we did one thing: washed each other’s feet. This was a great way to sum up what the entire week had been about for us; we were there to serve and bless others, but they ended up blessing us.

As this was going on, I found myself sitting next to Brock. Out of nowhere he turned to me and said, “We should have a talk tonight.”

“What about?”

“Just stuff.”

So that night after we got back to Oasis, we sat down in the rec room and started telling each other how our weeks were going. He brought up the issue of modesty and how hard it is to keep your thoughts pure when you’re being bombarded by Hollywood and everything it stands for. We started talking about modesty at home, not just at Hollywood, and how hard it is to find and how hard it is for girls to maintain a shred of modesty when society is telling them to lookdressact a certain way. As we talked, people started coming into the room and joining the discussion. When we finally ended it an hour and a half later, our one-on-one chat had grown into almost a Bible study of sorts with 20 people. As I lay in bed that night I reflected on how neat it was that this had happened on a Thursday night, which is the night we usually have Bible study on when I’m at home. It was a wonderful way to end the busiest day of the week so far.

It was a dismal and rainy Friday morning when we drove off to FPCH for our last time there. DOOR normally runs Monday-Thursday, but this week it was Tuesday-Thursday because Monday was Easter Monday. Because of this, they didn’t have any work for us to do on Friday. We went to the church to eat breakfast and fill out eval forms and help clean up the building, none of us sure what the day would bring. As we were preparing to head back to Oasis, the trip leader stopped us and said he wanted to get our opinions on something. For everyone, the best part of the week had been interacting with the homeless and getting to know them, so Greg proposed that for the majority of Friday we walk around Hollywood Boulevard in our work teams and talk to people. We were all excited by this prospect and agreed to it immediately.

At 10 that morning we headed to Hollywood Boulevard and started talking to people. We met a guy looking for a sparring partner [and evidently found one in Dayne, though we left before anything could get underway], walked about a quarter of the way down the boulevard… and then it started raining.

Buckets of rain. Pools of rain. Rain that flooded the streets in an hour, cold rain that penetrated clothing like a knife. So we ducked into McDonald’s to wait out the worst of the storm and while we were there we met even more people. It seems that everyone has a story to tell, no matter how unlikely they seem. Being in McDonald’s for that hour was one of the best parts of the day, for me.

For lunch my team went to a taco stand on Vine. It was still raining cats and dogs when we got there, and as we were standing in line a homeless man asked Kevin, our team leader, if he could buy his umbrella for a dollar. Kevin looked down at his umbrella and said “A dollar? I just paid seven for it… here, take it.” And he pushed the umbrella into this man’s hands.

The man could hardly believe it and thanked him profusely. Another gentleman who was seated at one of the tables looked at him and said “That is God, right there. That’s God.” The first man kind of waved him off as he walked away with his new umbrella, but the second man sat there still, watching the man as he walked away, certain is his knowledge that God had delivered that umbrella to him.

Intrigued by this man and his words, we sat down to eat our lunch with him. We found out that his name was Étienne and that he was a preacher. He started preaching for us and we were all a little shocked by the vast amount of Scripture he had memorized and his incredible story-telling abilities. We talked with him for close to an hour before we finally had to leave, and I don’t think any of us will soon forget him.

For supper that evening all of the Melfort teams met up at In-N-Out Burger, a popular fast-food chain in the southwestern United States. We chose this place to eat because of their discreet Christianity: the original founders of the chain had been devout Christians, and so on their drink cups, burger wrappers, and fries boxes they wrote Bible verse references. After we had had our fill we headed back to Oasis to help with their Friday night youth group.

On Friday nights, Oasis is transformed into a youth drop-in center where young adults can drop by and enjoy a safe atmosphere. All 33 of us volunteered there that night, and we were each assigned to different stations. There was a dance floor, a chat room, a games room, a video games room, and a soda bar. For the first hour and a half I was on general supervision, which meant that I walked through the building and made sure there wasn’t anything fishy going on. I tried dancing for about three minutes but then a strobe light came on and I passed out, so I said goodbye to dancing for the rest of the evening. After an hour and a half, everyone regrouped to the dance floor [where the strobe lights and club music were turned off] for Recharge: a half hour break in the evening where people had to settle down and listen to a message about God’s love. A lot of the kids were really into it and it was neat to see the way they responded to what was being said. After Recharge broke up, I started my shift with Erika at the soda bar. We served sodas and snacks to anyone who wanted them and talked to a lot of people. The evening ended at 11, after which we cleaned up and promptly hit the hay.

Saturday was our free day. We had the option of either going to Disneyland or shopping. All of the Swift Current people went to Disneyland except for one, and so did 8 of our Melfort people. The rest of us went down to Santa Monica and spent the day shopping. We split into groups to shop so no one would get separated. In my group was Joy, a girl from Melfort, and Shaggy, the Swift Current boy. Shaggy and I soon found out that if shopping was a sport, Joy would have won the Olympics. She dragged us through store after store, but we both discovered that the other liked music, so as she ran back and forth like a whirlwind we engrossed ourselves in a conversation about musicalities. After we were done shopping, we all went down to the pier and waded in the ocean and rode the rollercoaster that was conveniently located on the pier and drank vanilla coke. After that we drove to an outlet mall and I did more shopping with Shaggy and Joy, the latter convincing me to try on and buy two shirts.

And honestly, the whole thing felt wrong. Especially at the beginning of the day. The four days preceding Saturday had been dedicated to serving others. Those days weren’t about us, they were about them. And then Saturday came and suddenly it was an entire 180 degree switch: all of a sudden we were doing things for ourselves, not for others. The first hour of shopping was the worst, because all I could think was why am i so selfish how am i so blessed why didn’t i give all of this money away what about everyone else. As the day progressed, though, I realized that it’s not bad to indulge ourselves sometimes. It’s great to serve others, but we also need me-time. That Saturday was our me-time, and I realized that is was somewhat of a welcome break after the hard work of the week.

On Saturday night I hardly slept. I didn’t go to bed until 2 am and got up an hour later to pack and drive to LAX, where our flight left at 7am. I’m trying to think of a phrase, a sentence, even a paragraph that accurately sums up everything that happened over the week but I’m coming up blank. This post took over a week to write because every time I sat down at the keyboard there was another memory, another experience I needed to share. Nobody but me will ever know exactly what I experienced this week because there’s too much for me to tell were I given all the time in the world.

Suffice it to say, then, that it was one of the most life-changing experiences I’ve ever encountered and it’s not something I”m soon to forget. I’m going back to LA one day. How can I not?

ciao,

mariel

[currently listening: it just takes one//addison road]

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One response to “City of Broken Dreams

  1. Pingback: Day 10 – and when we speak life, life happens! | nihilism is not practical.

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