Reflecting On a Night of Service at PHFS – and a Very Powerful Experience.

In February, BBPDX put out a call to action for our members to volunteer at the Portland Homeless Family Solutions winter shelter. The response was immediate and significant – filling one-seventh of all the shifts for the entire winter shelter season. Kristen Cooper of Blackbird Benefits was one of those individuals who answered the call to action. Her reflections on the experience follow.

Cooking is my love language. I know it’s a silly reference – but it’s just so accurate! Since I was as young as I can remember, my greatest joy has been cooking and sharing food with others, so when BBPDX put out the call to action supporting Portland Homeless Family Solutions by providing dinner to the residents of the winter shelter, it felt like a special opportunity to do just that.

Blackbird is a small agency, so we reached out to our community of friends and fellow business owners, and quickly gathered a team of 12, many of whom didn’t know about PHFS, or the winter shelter that was blocks from where they worked.

We knew we were preparing and serving dinner for about 60 people – half of them children age 5 or under – and being the robo-host (trademark pending) that I am, I fretted a bit about what to cook. In past experiences, I’ve cooked for people living on the street with very specific dietary needs and we had to keep things very simple.

We weren’t sure what dietary issues might factor into this situation, and wanted to make something that both parents and kids would enjoy. So, we settled on a cozy chicken stew and got busy in my kitchen. (In hindsight, it would have been great to have considered the logistics of transporting six huge, boiling hot pots of soup in the back of my vehicle, but hey, ya live and ya learn!)

We got to the shelter to set up dinner before the families returned from the day, then spent some time with Brandi learning more about the work of PFHS. Hearing the stats on the number of homeless children in PDX, over 4,000! was staggering. We followed that with a brief tour and entered the space where 22 families are sharing very close quarters – cots just two feet apart (many with stuffed animals) – without any personal privacy.

That hit me hard and I was instantly choking back tears.

I thought about how I feel after a crazy challenging day. How I look forward to being in my space to decompress. Can you imagine not having that? Can you imagine sleeping peacefully two feet from a complete stranger? With your children doing the same…

I think about that part a lot. What it must be like for the parents here, putting their children to bed, comforting them, and trying to convince them that everything will be ok. Then trying to do the same thing for themselves.

We moved through dinner service, smiling our friendly smiles, and hoping to maybe slightly brighten someone’s day. But it was impossible not to be so keenly aware of our privilege in the moment – being in the position to volunteer vs. being on the receiving end. We were keenly aware of our intrusion (even if benevolent) – of being smack in the middle of someone’s life when they are in such a vulnerable place.

We also recognized our time there was fleeting – we were there for a night, doing our good deed with all our good intentions, but we’d be back to our lives in a matter of hours – and we knew they knew it.

It was humbling.

Throughout the evening, some people engaged in friendly conversation with us, while others kept to themselves – and there were a few that needed to eschew the offering entirely, which I intuited as perhaps a way to maintain a sense of self in the face of peers – completely understandable. I honestly don’t know how I would handle being in that situation. Some families had dinner and went back out and sat in their car, just to have some private space together before coming back in for bedtime.

There are faces from that evening I will never forget. Mothers and fathers who smiled tired smiles. Others that were just plain tired. Little kids that were so resilient… A very kind father with his sweet daughter especially left a mark, and I think of them often.

We all left that evening with an intense level of gratitude, and some heavy hearts. Our little volunteer group spent the next few hours conversing about the dynamics of that human interaction: about socioeconomics, housing, gentrification, cycles of poverty, social justice/injustice, humanity, dignity and empathy.

At the end of it all, it was a beautiful and powerful experience to be a part of, and our goal is for Blackbird to develop ongoing volunteer opportunities at the PHFS day centers – so that we are not a fleeting presence for just one night.

With gratitude,

Kristen Cooper, Blackbird Benefits Collective