I always felt the disconnection between the word “virtuous” and the actualization of “being virtuous”. What is a better way to exercise the theoretical concepts that I learned at St. John’s College in Santa Fe than devoting my time and energy into helping the city's local homeless community? My summer internship at St. Elizabeth’s Men’s Shelter certainly completed this task. St. E’s provides both emergency shelter and housing programs to the homeless community in Santa Fe. St. E’s provides various housing programs that are targeted at different needs, e.g. Casa Familia is an emergency shelter for families. The Men’s Shelter that I spent my summer at is an emergency shelter that provides a living space for homeless men. During their stay, the case manager helps them with saving up enough money and finding housing that is suitable for them. To me St. E’s Men Shelter is more than an emergency living space, it creates a home for the homeless community.
I began the internship with very little idea of what to expect. Maria, the program manager at St. E’s, had put great effort into making my summer internship as well-rounded as possible, so that I could have a full picture of how a non-profit organization functions daily and what kind of work St. E’s is doing. Making the living space a home for the men who are staying at St. E’s fits the description of my major job duties at St. E’s. My daily responsibility consisted of preparing meals for the guests who stay at the shelter, doing laundry, decorating the place, organizing and cleaning. Basically, my job was very much like one’s experience of doing chores at home, and that is what the staff at St. E’s are dedicated to doing - creating a home and community for the guests. Though it might sound like boring work it never was and I never felt like it was. My co-workers were some of the kindest people I have ever met in my life. When we were preparing meals in the kitchen, we were constantly having conversation that was extremely Johnnie-like. They made deep and sincere connections with me, and I also witnessed how much they truly care about the guests at the shelter. The staff treats the guests with utmost care. They remember every guest’s food preference and modify the meals accordingly. Jake, one of the shift supervisors, was dedicated to making the shelter more home like. He came to ask me what would make the shelter look more like a home. After I gave my answer, where I suggested we should have more flowers at the place, he brought back flowers from a local grocery store the very next day.
After 3 pm we checked in the guests who came back to the shelter after a long day of work, and we took in new guests if there was space available at the shelter. During take in, we needed to check our guests’ personal belongings and make sure that they were not carrying any prohibited items, such as alcohol and weapons. One day, I was checking one of our guests’ backpack, and I saw in his backpack he was carrying Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy. He also told me he is interested in reading Euclid’s Elements. We discussed calculus and limits, and I was so touched by his passion for math. This event made me believe firmly that homeless people are people like you and me, not more or less. One of the former guests at St. E’s has been coming into the shelter to help with preparing meals for over ten years, which says so much about St. E’s as a community and family. I have encountered and interacted with a lot of guests in St. E’s, and through having conversation with the guests, I also learned that a lot of homeless people experience mental illness, such as PTSD and substance abuse.
I cannot express enough how much I loved the true connection that I made with the guests and staff at the shelter; I loved how I got to interact with the homeless community that I knew very little about but gradually I got to know more. I have a more complete understanding of the homeless community now compared to when I first began my internship at St. E’s. Alienating the homeless and projecting prejudice onto the community is never going to be the solution. On the contrary, love and kindness is what the community needs.
Besides my daily duties, Maria asked me to complete St. E’s long overdue volunteer manual. Hence I got the opportunity to exercise skills that I had not thought about at the beginning of my journey at St. E’s, for example, Photoshop and editing. This project deepened my understanding of how non-profit organizations like St. E’s function daily. Without the tremendous help from the volunteers, St. E’s would not have been around for so long. It is all about connecting with the community, no matter whether it is with the homeless community or the local Santa Fe community. St. E’s brings everyone together and creates a beautiful space for everyone.
Every Wednesday, the staff at St. E’s got together and discussed various subjects at the meeting. Throughout every staff meeting, I got to know more how a non-profit organization like St. E’s functions on the daily basis. The management of St. E’s not only needs to create and constantly maintain a home, but also faces difficulties and challenges every day, such as operating under reduced funding from the federal government, remaining a safe space for the guests, and many more dilemmas.
Frankly, the connection between me and the people, both staff and guests at St. E’s, resembles my learning experience at St. John’s. It is all about connecting with the people. Let’s not forget that books are people too. At St. E’s, you listen to different people’s experiences and their stories, you understand and sympathize with one’s suffering; I engaged and enjoyed the interaction between the guests at the shelter no less than any conversation that I have had at St. John’s. My internship has not only provided me great information about the non-profit sector, but also opened my eyes about the severe situation of people who suffer mental illness. I finished my internship with gratitude, because the homeless community has taught me so much about being virtuous, connecting the action and the theoretical concepts, and finally how humanity is truly a spectrum.
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