One of the aspects I enjoy most about the Village is when volunteers share with me a moment they have experienced with a community member. Most often, these moments have impacted the volunteer and presented a rare opportunity to be present with someone and to see life through that person’s lens. Sometimes these moments are shared with enthusiasm and excitement, when a volunteer expresses how cool the experience was for both parties. And sometimes, the moments are shared because they are heavy and incomprehensible and the volunteer just needs to say it out loud and talk it through.
Like the moment between the volunteer, the young woman and the shoes.
When items are donated to the Village that seem to be of a higher value than most other donations, things that are new, currently in fashion or potentially have a dollar value, we put those items “for sale” and the currency is either money or volunteer hours. For example, if a pair of sneakers is donated and we feel the resale value might be $50, we will post the cost of the item for that amount of money or five volunteer hours.
Philosophically, we try to make items accessible to folks, rather than inaccessible when finances are tight. But on this particular shift, as the volunteer explained, they took these expensive sneakers from the window and gave them to a young woman whose feet, after all the rain we’ve had lately, were soaked. And wet feet can potentially become bigger health concerns for community members who live precariously and walk a great deal to pass the hours.
As the volunteer explained, this young woman was looking for good, dry shoes, but the Village had none of a suitable size. The volunteer remembered and hoped that it was OK to give them away, that we had a pair in the “for sale” window that looked as though they might be work. As luck would have it, they were perfect for this woman’s feet and the volunteer gladly offered to bag up the wet shoes, so that she could wear these dry ones out of the store.
As the volunteer explained, she stood and waited, while the young woman looked over the shoes. Eventually the woman spoke, her words different than when she first arrived; quiet, thoughtful and yet with little expression. “Do you know how many men I would have to do to be able to afford a pair of these shoes?” The pain and shock was still evident in the volunteer’s face as they repeated the words, even though a few days had already passed since the young woman’s visit to the Village. And here it was now, that one heavy sentence, that real and painful glimpse into someone else’s life and through their own lens – spoken out loud. Shame has such power in darkness. Until we have the courage to say life out loud.
Our chat lasted quite a while that afternoon, sitting together in the then closed and quiet Village. It was a deeply moving and honest talk about the exchanges people – women and men alike – have to make to access basic needs like shelter, money and drugs when navigating addiction. About how sometimes the only possession a person truly owns is their body, and that body can be a form of currency. We talked about how morality can get in the way of seeing who a person is and respecting that perhaps trauma, exploitation, mental illness or addiction has been a part of their story. Part of many of our stories, I suspect, to which one must ask, “Who are we to judge the strategies of another?” And we talked about the importance of being present with someone, in their moment or on their path, unconditionally.
If you have donated shoes to the Village recently, please know that you may have provided an opportunity for two people to connect in a moment. You may have provided a dialogue of kindness and dignity, with no expectation of an exchange of any kind of currency. And you most certainly have brought the story of a community member, one who lives each day on the streets of this town and has for many years, to an arena where we can walk stronger, together.
Take good care of each other, friends.
Andrea Charest operates It Takes A Village in Listowel.