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Try something new to help others -- and maybe yourself

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Anna-Marie Wyant
  • 920th Rescue Wing
Last year, Kent, a coworker from my civilian job, received a Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce award for his community service. He had been visiting the homeless in downtown Tampa for more than a year, bringing them coffee and homemade pancakes every Wednesday morning. I congratulated him on his award and told him I admired him for his work, after which he thanked me and invited me to meet him downtown to help feed the homeless the next Wednesday morning. At the time, I wasn't sure whether to accept his invite.

To be perfectly honest, I had been somewhat judgmental of the homeless in Tampa. I'd seen them at busy intersections holding up signs begging for money, and I never even rolled down my window; I did my best to avoid eye contact, usually turning my head in the opposite direction, thinking hurry up light, turn green! In the back of my mind, I was thinking they were going to buy booze or drugs if I gave them money. Part of me also thought they might be con artists who didn't really need the money, or maybe they were bad people who made bad decisions, and ending up on the street was their fault. It wasn't my problem. I owed them nothing.

Yet, when Kent asked, I thought it would be hypocritical of me to decline. I like to think of myself as a somewhat charitable person, as I try to volunteer for and donate to various nonprofit organizations. I'm by no means the poster child for philanthropy, but I do what I can. This was something I could do. Besides, maybe there would be someone there who really needed help. I decided to try something new to help others. I agreed to meet Kent in downtown Tampa at 7:30 a.m. that Wednesday morning. He said he would bring the usual pancakes and coffee, and I said I would bring some orange juice.

As I was driving downtown that Wednesday morning, I was a bit nervous. What if the homeless were violent? Would they appreciate the orange juice, or would they harass me for money? Despite my hesitations, I remembered Kent had been doing this for more than a year, every single Wednesday. Kent is a smart guy; he wouldn't knowingly let people take advantage of him. He also has a good heart. Something made him keep coming back. I'd soon find out what.

When I arrived at the meeting point, a somewhat busy sidewalk corner near a tall, vacant office building, my fears subsided. Kent was already out of his car, dishing out the fluffy pancakes onto Styrofoam plates, drizzling them with syrup, and handing each plate with a fork and napkin to the nearest homeless man in need. Next to Kent was another homeless man pouring cups of coffee and handing them to the others.

When I stepped out of my car, Kent immediately greeted me and introduced me to the guys. There were approximately 10 homeless men gathered around him. I offered orange juice, which most of them gladly accepted. One offered to help me pour, and another handed the juice-filled cups to whomever wanted one. This was a stark contrast to my mental image of Tampa's homeless. They didn't ask for anything, but rather graciously accepted anything offered. They were polite to me, Kent and one another, and they seemed to glow with content as they ate their pancakes and drank their juice and coffee.

These men didn't appear to be the drug-addicted, alcoholic con artists I had imagined. These were fellow human beings who were truly in need. These men had names. They had stories. And yes, maybe some of them had made poor decisions in the past that led to their unfortunate state, but who hasn't made poor decisions before? Some of them were disabled physically, others mentally. Some were Vietnam War veterans. All appreciated the warm meal, but more than that, I think they appreciated feeling like real people.

As most people walk past these men on the sidewalk, they avoid eye contact at all cost, walk past as quickly as possible, and refuse to give them the time of day. I had been doing the same thing, except in my car. Day after day, being ignored as though you don't exist, plus being constantly hungry and having no place to call home, is unimaginable to me and most other people I know. Meeting people who live with this plight on a daily basis completely changed my mind.

Since that first visit, I have gone downtown to help feed the homeless nearly every Wednesday. Kent retired recently, but he still visits often, and the legacy lives on. He recruited a handful of do-gooders who still show up almost every week and offer food, toiletries, blankets, clothes, and other basic, useful items. Like me, they were hesitant at first, but they took a chance, tried something new and helped those in need.

Over the past year, the group of homeless we've visited has grown and varies from week to week. There have been a few homeless women, and sadly even homeless families. Sometimes more than two dozen people show up, others times there's only half a dozen. I've gotten to know some of them personally. I know Erwin served in the Army National Guard in the 1970s. I know John wears a size 13 shoe. I know Red has type 2 diabetes. I know Randy likes his coffee with cream and sugar. I know each of them truly appreciates our Wednesday morning visits, and I know I look forward to Wednesday mornings now as well.

There are a couple lessons I've learned since my first experience with the homeless in Tampa. I learned to set aside preconceptions (which can be complete misconceptions) and try something new once in a while. I realized how mistaken I was about the homeless, but I would have never known had I not accepted Kent's invitation to meet them that first Wednesday morning. I've attended fancy fundraising banquets, I've blindly written checks to different charities, and I thought that was pretty good. I didn't know I could have a more significant impact until I tried something different.

Also, helping others face-to-face has helped me. I feel good about helping the people who truly need help. I see the smiles on their faces when I bring warm hats on a cold day, chilled bottles of water on a hot day or ponchos on a rainy day. I see the genuine appreciation in their eyes when I hand them something as simple as a bottle of hand sanitizer or a pack of peanut butter crackers. Also, it makes me appreciate all the things I had previously taken for granted, like a house, a job and a loving family.

We all have preconceptions about things we've never experienced and people we've never met; sometimes they're correct, sometimes they're not. Don't be afraid to take a chance; you may be surprised.
Service members tend to be pretty busy people. As a Reservist, juggling family, a civilian job and Reserve duties isn't always easy, and those three aspects of life usually take up a great bulk of time. It can be stressful, and adding more to your already hefty to-do list might seem like the last thing you want to do. However, stepping outside the 'bubble' of everyday life and dedicating even a small amount of time to another person or cause can greatly benefit you and others. Try something new -- you might be glad you did.