Although the mission of Take Out Project is “building community through handmade ceramics,” the ceramics have taken a backseat and the community is driving the car. I think this is great. The potlucks are about good food and good company. The plates are just holding the food.
Last week Take Out Project teamed up with Street Chefs, a local food truck/catering business to cook and serve a meal to 10 residents of Chelsea House, a transitional house for homeless women in Tallahassee. We spent about three hours with these ladies, learning about their journeys and wishing them the best for the future. Street Chefs put together an amazing menu of Stuffed Chicken Breast, Smashed Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Spring Greens Salad, Roasted Veggies and for dessert, Crème Brulee.
So what did I learn from this experience? I learned that these women are grateful when they are able to eat fresh vegetables and meat because usually the food/meal donations consist of mostly non-perishable items such as pasta and canned goods. I was reminded what I already knew, homelessness can be caused by a single life event or a whole lifetime of circumstances that eventually lead to this place of temporary (hopefully) uncertainty. I was also reminded that sometimes those of us who have a roof over our heads can be pretty crappy.
One young woman shared her story with us and I can’t stop thinking about her, days later. I won’t recall her story here for privacy reasons but one thing she said really struck a chord with me and I want to share that with you. After a short lifetime of events that left her alone in a new city, this 18 year old told us through tears that a week earlier, she finally broke down and sat on a curb and sobbed. She had told us about some pretty heart-wrenching life events but what she said next almost brought me to my knees.
“I sat there on that curb and cried and people just kept walking by me and nobody even asked me if I was okay. It was like they didn’t even care.”
Shame on us. Shame on us Tallahassee. Shame on us world. She wasn’t asking for money or food. She just wanted someone to acknowledge her existence in the world and we totally let her down. Despite all the hurts that she talked about coming from friends, boyfriends and parents, she cried the hardest when she recalled her realization that the world just didn’t care about her. This made me sick to my stomach.
So, when I talk about Take Out Project building community, what do I mean? I mean renewing old friendships or getting to know someone you haven’t met before. I want you to feel connected to other human beings in your community, your neighborhood and your world. Homeless people exist in our community and although our goal on Friday night was to make a really special meal and serve it off of handmade dishes, you don’t have to go all out to connect with someone.
What do I expect you to do?
I expect you to know your surroundings. Did you know that Tallahassee has a number that you can call to get referrals for all kinds of social services? It’s 211 Big Bend (just dial 211). There is a trained hotline counselor available to give out phone numbers or referrals or give you further advice on where to turn. So, if you saw a teenage girl sitting on a curb, crying you could ask her if she’s okay and then offer to make a phone call for her. I have used this service and it was extremely helpful.
I expect you to treat people with respect. If you don’t want to give money to someone you don’t know, that’s okay. Buy someone a bottle of water when they are outside in the summer heat. Offer to buy someone a sandwich, and then ask him or her what kind of sandwich he or she would like. This is huge! I did this a couple of years ago and when I asked the man what he wanted to drink he looked at me as if he couldn’t believe I was letting him choose for himself. Give someone a little bit of dignity back by allowing them to have control over whether their tea is sweet or unsweet.
I expect you to make eye contact with people and hold doors open and smile at someone once in a while. And if you have a little money left over at the end of the month, call your local shelter and ask them if you can drop off some fresh produce and maybe a gift card so they can buy some meat.
I expect you to stop judging and assuming that you know why people are homeless. If you really want to know, go and volunteer at a shelter and let someone tell you his or her story. You might find that it’s not too far off from your own.