Seeing the good in people

A number of years ago, I wrote a feature story on some of the financial challenges that a small Northern Virginia homeless shelter and food bank faced staying open. I got to thinking about the shelter recently and two people I met when I visited. The exchange between the two spoke volumes about them . . . and (hopefully) human nature.

. . . . .

The delivery driver stood quietly by the shelter office door, rocking back-and-forth from one foot to another. His head tilted slightly downward to the ground, he stared at a dark stain in the carpet.

“Give me a second,” the shelter director told the man as she flipped through a slew of envelopes lined up in her desk drawer. “There’s fresh coffee on the counter if you want some.”

The delivery driver shook his head no, but said nothing. He rechecked his clipboard for the tenth time and flipped through his papers. He looked uncomfortable, watching the woman search for the check that she said she had wrote, but he was on strict orders from his boss to come back with the payment.

The woman rifled through the shelter’s bills looking for the payment. She had previously highlighted each bill’s due date — several were now overdue and arranged them in order in the drawer. The small rural homeless shelter received some state funding, but relied heavily on local community and religious organizations to stay afloat. The closing of the small, nearby Army base and recent layoffs by several small firms had hit the community hard and the shelter had started to fall behind on some of its bills. The director though remained confident that things would turn around in a few months.

The shelter cared for anybody who needed help: single mothers nursing infants, laborers out of a job, and recovering alcoholics looking for another chance to put their lives back together. The woman played any number of roles. She served as a mother, psychologist, preacher, guardian angel, job counselor, friend for the poor and down on their luck. If needed, she also had a reputation of playing drill sergeant for anyone who needed a stiff kick or push from behind. Through it all, she had a strict rule that she refused to turn anyone away. “We’re having a tough first quarter, but I know I put that check back for you,” she told the delivery driver.

After a short wait, the director was able to find the check in the outgoing mail and apologized profusely for putting the driver behind his schedule. The driver smiled and took the check and prepared to get back on the road. “You know if it was up to me, it wouldn’t be a problem,” he said.

Before turning to leave to get back to his truck, the driver reached into his back pocket and pulled out a frayed leather wallet. He pulled out three $20 bills and stuck them in the woman’s hands. “This is for the shelter, you need it more than I do,” he told her. “When I was out of a job five years ago and struggling, I came close to losing everything, but you kept us going. You helped us when no one else would. Hopefully, this helps you now.”

The two embraced and once the driver was gone, the shelter director collapsed into her chair. “I’m frustrated, but I can’t give up, not when people like that care about our future.”

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