Wednesday, February 17, 2010

not sure what to do...

I've been teaching a creative writing class at the Senior Center. It's been a welcome break from the computer classes, there are no technical frustrations or unexplained error messages since we're doing this the old fashioned way, just pens and a journal. I adore my students, have really bonded with two of them, and then there were 2 others who I just couldn't connect with. On the first day of class one of the students just sat back and heckled me the whole time. I tried to include her heckles as suggestions but it became really difficult after a while, especially when she told me that what I'm teaching is witch craft. I have NO idea what gave her that impression but when she starting mumbling details about being burned at the stake I thought it better to ignore her heckles from that point on. At the end of class she informed me she would not be coming back because "I never once mentioned Shakespeare!" but she may pop in from time to time to observe. Just what I want.

Then there was another woman who did not speak for the entire hour and a half and and sat expressionless, staring straight at the wall, not making eye contact with anyone. I tried to draw her out but thought that was making her uncomfortable so from time to time I would focus on her while talking, hoping to make some sort of connection, but it just wasn't happening. About mid way through class she reached in her pocket and unwrapped a sandwich and just sat there taking small bite after small bite, staring off into space.

The following week the heckler did not return, (praise the Lord) but the woman who never spoke (I'll refer to her as "Rose") did. Before class started while I was getting set up and organized, Rose rattled off everything I had mentioned from the previous week, starting with the first exercise all the way down to the homework. I told her I was impressed because I didn't see her write anything down, in fact, she never even opened up her notebook. She told me she just remembers things, it was as simple as that. I asked if she would be up to participating more in today's class because she had a lot to offer. She seemed to be embarrassed by that remark, but smiled and said quietly, "I'll try."

Just before I was about to start class the Activities Director came in and said we have a new student starting, she's on her way in and her name is Betty. I FROZE because our next door neighbor's name is Betty, she's 93 years old and we have NEVER gotten along. (until the other day, but now that's another story entirely). Regardless, I was pleased to see it was not our neighbor Betty who waltzed into class and took her seat, next to Rose.

We started out with the New Yorker Caption Contest, everyone has to come up with a caption for the weekly cartoon, which I then submit on behalf of the students. We did some more picture captions from magazine cutouts as well as turning the pictures into News Headlines, then coming up with a short story about each one. These are just some exercises to spark imagination.

After that I asked the students when they went home, to find one of their favorite photos and study it, then write a story about what was happening in that photo. They could make the story fiction, or it could be an actual account of the events leading up to the snapping of the picture. It was their choice. Then, I asked that they bring in the photo so I could make copies of it, and include in their journal along with their story.

Rose's expression start to change, and she looked away from the class, again staring off into space. I asked if everything was ok and she nodded her head yes without making a sound.

Since this was Valentine's day weekend, I brought in some fun craft supplies and cards and asked if the class would like to make a Valentine card for someone special. Since many of the seniors are widowed, I stressed the point that this does not have to be a romantic card, it could be given to a grandchild, a friend who you've lost touch with, or even your next door neighbor. I passed out the cards and supplies and again noticed Rose turn away uncomfortably in her seat.

Then, I saw tears start to fall down her cheek.

Again, I asked if everything was ok.

She answered without lifting her head, "What if you don't have any friends?"

I told her that's ok, and asked if she had any family?

She said that no, they were all dead.

I felt my stomach start to churn.

Then I said, "You know what you can do? How about you write a letter to your mail carrier? You can leave it in your mailbox so when they deliver the mail, they have a nice surprise just for them! They probably never receive a Valentine card from anyone so how about we all do that and let them know how much we appreciate them and their hard work!" I felt pleased with this response because EVERYONE has a mail carrier so she at least would be able to participate in this exercise and feel good about spreading joy to our neglected carriers.

I was NOT prepared for what I heard next.

"I don't have a mail man...because...I don't have a home. I've been living on the streets for the last six months."

And that's when it took every single fiber of my being to not burst into tears right there on the spot.

Rose then went on to explain that her parents had died (her mother 10 years ago and her father, less than 2 years ago) and she was living in their house but ran out of money. She did everything she could to try to save the house but unfortunately, the bank won. She went to a shelter for a while and said she wouldn't wish that on her worst enemy. She said people were violent, angry and a lot of them just wanted drugs or alcohol. Rose wants a job. She broke down in tears and said that she used to have a nice home, and nice things and took care of them and now, has nothing. One of the students, who is hard of hearing said, "Can we please get on with class???"

I looked at her like, "Did you NOT just hear this woman's story?" and then realized she probably didn't because Rose was speaking barely above a whisper.

I told Rose that we would continue our conversation after class and went onto something lighter.

Inside the folder of crafty things, I had a bunch of animal pictures so I spread them out and had the students write a poem about an animal of their choice.

Rose chose a photograph of a cat.

She scribbled down some words while tears streamed down her cheek. Again, my stomach was churning, this time audibly and I felt like I was going to throw up or crap my pants right there in my seat. I begged God to make it stop, make it go away until I was back at home. And then I thought about Rose not having a home. And it got worse. I took some sips of my Diet Pepsi and started to breathe deeply. Rose said, "I used to drink Diet Cokes all the time." I made a mental note to buy Diet Coke and bring them to her next class.

The students finished their poems, which were read aloud in class. Rose's poem finally brought my tears to the surface, the ones I was trying so hard to fight back. I told her it was from the Pepsi, it makes my eyes water but I could tell she knew better.

As we started packing up our things, Rose was still holding the picture of the cat, her poem's inspiration, and was just staring at it. I asked if she liked that cat in the photo. She said that yes she did - he was very sweet. I told her, "Then you keep it." She looked up at me in surprise and said, "No! It's yours!" I said that I have plenty of pictures of cats and I would like her to have it, especially since it inspired her to write such a beautiful poem. You would have thought I just handed her $10,000. She thanked me at least 3 times and carefully folded up the picture and placed it into her pocket.

When class ended, I went upstairs to see "C" the Activities Director and broke down. She said she had no idea that Rose was homeless but then she said it all started to make sense based on her comings and goings. Rose had been coming to the center for about 6 months but never told anyone her situation, until now. She said they brought in a guidance counselor a few weeks ago but Rose was not very receptive and told her she didn't need any help. C and I decided to stay in close contact and she asked if I could find out more information in next week's class. I told her I would do whatever I could to help. When I left her office, there was Rose standing by the elevators. I was hoping that she didn't hear our conversation because I didn't want her to lose my trust. I asked her if she would like to grab lunch (the lunch at the center is soooo cheap and good too) but she declined. We talked for a bit and I realized that Rose is very proud and does not want pity or a hand out from anyone. She is a perfectionist and wants to work. She is not afraid of hard work and when she tried to go through "the system" she said finding work is not even an option when you don't have a home. She said in order to get any sort of help from the state, she needs to prove she is mentally incapable which she is not. She said she always "falls through the cracks" because she does not want a hand out, she wants a job. She went on to tell me the things that she is capable of doing and the places she has tried to find work since living on the streets but it's impossible for people to see beyond the physical. No one takes the time to see her as a hard working older human being. This is where it really hit me, hard. I guess most people want to assume that those who live their lives on the streets, ask for it. They are drug addicts, they are "crazy people", not people like you or me. No, that would be too hard to swallow. But here is a woman, an older woman, who is mentally stable, who should be searching for places warm and sunny to retire, instead of trying to find hard work.

It just doesn't make sense.

So, what do you do?

I will see Rose at class again on Friday. She pretty much hangs out at the Senior Center every day from 10am to 7pm but after that, no one knows where she goes. When I go to bed at night, in my warm bed, swaddled up in my several hundred thread count sheets I can't stop thinking about where Rose might be.

And that, breaks my heart.

Praying for strength for Friday. And any suggestions anyone may have.


lizziebelle said...

oh lolo...xo. you are probably the first person to listen to her in so long. that is an amazing start. i feel that between you and the resources at the center an answer will present itself. you are too good. thinking of you and "rose".xoxoxo

Smileygirl said...

thank you love. I wasn't sure if i should post or not but as Friday approaches, I'm becoming more nervous. I just don't know what to do. I'm wondering if she could even get a job at an animal shelter and stay there overnight??? So many ideas have been running through my head. Thank you for your support. xoxo

Anonymous said...

You have already made her world much better by giving her something to look forward to and for providing a way for her to express her feelings. I think since she is so proud and resistant to receiving help that you might have to trick her into being a help to someone else. I don't have any concrete suggestions at the moment, but I'll be thinking about some. There HAS to be someone in Seattle who lives alone and would like to have Rose help her do daily chores for no real pay, but for room and board. Be careful with your BIG BIG heart--but you are doing something really wonderful.


Smileygirl said...

YKW, you just made me cry.

Anonymous said...

Sorry--maybe my swine shoes are too tight.

Smileygirl said...


Clippy Mat said...

Wow. What to do?
Rose is a dilemma. Well so far you've done a lot just by listening to her and showing you care.
I wish you luck on Friday and hope that something positive will happen for her. It might take a miracle, and a little while, but she has to come to the idea that she can help herself. Empowerment. that's the best way.
Keep us posted.

Little Miss Diva said...

I am in tears after reading your story about Rose. I don't have any ideas but your kindness towards her has made a huge difference. Please keep us posted on her situation. You and Rose will be in my thoughts. HUGS!

Dan said...

I just came across your thread. I think you have done a lot already. You've added another person to our prayer list, and to many others. I don't think by the sound of it she will let you pay for her way. I think you need to trust in GOD and trust that she will be safe in GODS hands. Seeing that she won't accept a handout, why not see if your cafeteria had a gift card system. Buy a month or two of lunches on that card and have a contest in class of course fixing it so she wins. Just a thought. I'd be happy to give some money towards a gift card of some sorts.

J-Mom said...

Oh man... I'll tell you a quick true story. This isn't to be taken as advice, just a story to think about. When I was in 8th grade, my dad started working with a man whose life just didn't turn out like one would want it to. He was mentally stable, a very good man, very smart, spoke 5 languages fluently, the list goes on and on. And yet, as life sometimes would have it, he was on the verge of bankruptcy (may have even filed - I can't remember the details) and was about to lose his apartment b/c he couldn't afford to live on his own anymore and his roommate was moving out. So, my dad had him temporarily move in with us. At the time, this was a stranger and I was in 8th grade (aka 13/14 years old). As you can imagine, many people criticized and judged and disapproved, but my dad saw the goodness in this man and basically saved his life. No - not basically. He saved his life. I'm 30 years old now, and this man is still very much a part of our family. To me, he's like my older brother or an uncle and he's like a brother to my father. The only "suggestion" I may have is follow your gut. I think our gut is God talking to us and we often don't listen.

I know we don't know each other and are just internet friends, but you exhibit such a kind heart and spirit and I'm proud to call you my interent friend. :)

With whatever happens, you have already made a difference in this woman's life and showed her a glimpse of love that I know she hasn't seen in a very long time. And after all, we all seek love and you've given it to her.


ChiTown Girl said...

Oh, sweetheart, this left me with tears streaming down my face. I have no real suggestions yet. I'll ponder it a little longer. I like the suggestions that have already been left. And, I'll echo what the others have said. You've already made a HUGE difference in Rose's life, just by listening to her, and treating her with such kindness and compassion.

Anonymous said...

This is such a long shot--but it would be a MIRACLE for sure. Does your new friend and neighbor Betty need someone to help her out?

MB said...

Laura, one of the best places I know that trains people for work (with respect and compassion) is Goodwill. I can give you a phone number tomorrow, if you want it.

Does the senior center offer any classes that Rose might want to teach?

I would think that there would be some kind of local senior residence that would have a place for her...the city of Seattle might have some suggestions, or a local church. Thinking...

You have such a sweet and tender heart. Remember that your listening and being kind is what opened her up - that's so important. She confided in you, and you were able to give her more than the "professional," because she felt your love and respect! Just be yourself. You are a gift. XOXO

karen gerstenberger said...

OK, have a good laugh at my expense: MB was using my computer, had signed into google, and my comment was left here in her name.
(I never said I was a genius.) So what MB said, I really said. You can call me tomorrow for Goodwill's number if you want it! XOXO

Catherine M. said...

Laura, what a beautiful, kind thing you are doing. You have brightened Rose's life so much by just being a friend and listening to her. Might I suggest baking her some cookies or bringing her a few beautiful apples that were "given to you" that you couldn't finish? I am proud to call you an internet and Facebook friend :)

Smileygirl said...

These are helpful suggestions. I'm thinking of also getting her a bus pass too. And I have a bag of food for her but again, since she doesn't like handouts I like the idea about the apples saying I have too many and couldn't finish them. I'll do that with my bag of food.

Our neighbor Betty has a daughter that comes almost daily so I don't think that would work. I'll bring some phone numbers with me as well (maybe I should get her a calling card too?) and see if she would be interested in contacting Goodwill. She told me that she did stay at a church for a while but then was asked to move along. She has a strong speech impediment and I think people might perceive her as being not so smart, I even hate saying that but I think that's part of the impression people may get from her.

Not that I would do this but of course the thought crossed my mind about her coming here but in today's world it's too much of a risk especially since I don't know the people she associates with. I would not want to put my family at risk.

Thank you again for taking the time to read this. It was a long post but needed to come out. Hopefully I'll be able to hold it together tomorrow and answers will present themselves as we go along.

Thank you for opening your hearts and sharing your thoughts.

Layne said...

I will admit that I am usually one of those people with very little sympathy to the homeless. I drive right by in my heated/ air conditioned car without as much as a second glance but you really have opened my eyes and heart. You are doing a good thing and "Rose" has a little sunshine in her life thanks to you.

Sarah said...

I'm writing this with tears falling on my keyboard. All I can offer are prayers for your strength and that your heart will continue to remain open through all of this. You inspire me to be a better person.

(((hugs to you))) (((hugs for Rose)))

KBL 2 ORD 2 SAN 2 LUV said...

Wow, you are in a spot, aren’t you? If I know you at all, you’ve had thoughts of setting her up in one of your spare bedrooms, driving around town with her on job interviews, and sharing dinner with her every night at your family’s table. She’d be besties with Wrigs and Chumz and all would be right with the world.

But, you cannot do that, for all the reasons you yourself mentioned. It is a cruel world and it would be difficult to validate that decision should something happen to your own family. You just don’t know her that well, unfortunately. So, I’m relieved you’re not converting a bedroom for her.

Like Karen, I was going to say Goodwill or Salvation Army. It will take some legwork on your part just getting interviews and options lined up. She is obviously within all her mental capacities so I don’t know if Nordies is a job you’d try placing her with, possibly stocking or supplies? It is an easy connection for you and wouldn’t require as much legwork as the other options. Once she gets gainful employment she will begin to feel empowered again.

Also, not all shelters are as awful as Rose has experienced. I cook & serve dinner at a shelter here one Saturday a month. It is called Rachel’s House and it is for women & children only. Part of their objective is to get their residents mobile and self-sufficient. They have daily programs to help them with that objective. I would research something similar in the Seattle area. Rachel’s House is run by the Catholic Church (big money) so I’d suggest contacting your local Catholic church to see if they can recommend a place.

Your heart and soul are in the right place, a testament to your humanity. It would be a better Earth if every one of us took on just one “Rose” and tried our best, just as you are. You’ll both be in my prayers tomorrow.

By the way, was her cat picture of Chumley Wumley? I do love me some Chumz sista.

Kate said...

I can identify with you on this being hard. You are such a kind and generous person, I can see it would be hard not to say "come home with me!" and "I'll find you a job", etc., etc. I think it says a lot about you that she was so willing to share what she did with you in such a short amount of time.

I think the suggestions made below are good ones...thinking of you tomorrow...hopefully things go well.


Anonymous said...

Years ago when I was the Meals on Wheels Director for the seniors in the city I was living in, I'll never forget the woman who called me to tell me she was hungry and didn't have any food, no home, and no one in her life. I can hear that voice clear as day now, over 10 years later.

Laura, pray and ask God to reveal ways you can serve Rose. Maybe take her out, chat with her, knit her something (you love to knit, right?). But you have to make sure you allow her to retain her dignity because that's important for anyone, especially seniors. God is faithful, loving, and I believe He will show you ways you can serve Rose and maybe get her out of her situation. I also think He'll use this situation to bring more meaning in your life, not that it doesn't have any. But I've found serving those who are suffering reaps more rewards for the server in the end.

Lovely post, Laura. Your best one yet.


Anonymous said...

I love this blog, never know what to expect. Thank you for sharing the story. Good luck today and let us know the outcome.

Tracey Axnick said...

This is very special and beautiful. I think God put this woman in your path for a reason.... AND he will show you how/when/where to help. The mere fact that you have listened to her story and shown kindness/friendship to her (when most have not) is already HUGE.
My advice, just pray and keep your heart open about it... follow the "God prompts" about what to do next.

You are a sweet, precious soul... this post really touched me.

Anonymous said...

You are such an amazing little person...there aren't too many people that can teach a creative writing class, but then to teach a variety of people at a community center? Wow...
Rose's story made me sad. I'd be wanting to give her all sorts of stuff too, but if she's too proud to take anything, that would be tough.
I do think she found someone to make a Valentine's Card for next gave her yourself, a new friend. Maybe little by little she'll let you do things for her.
What kind of work can she do..not sure if you mentioned her age...could she do house cleanings or maybe weed gardens, walk dogs or things like that?
I get alot of calls at my work (City Hall) with people asking where the food shelf, shelters, senior centers...things like that, and we started a list of contacts, maybe your Chamber of Commerce or City Hall has a list of resources that would be useful? Many times churches offer free meals and services too.
Good luck my friend!

Anne Good said...

I was just catching up on your site and this post broke my heart. There's got to be some sort of program to help her out... Try calling churches in the area, even the local police may know of programs that are not well advertised. I'm keeping you both in my thoughts and prayers.