Why I Volunteer

By Paula Heath,  Teen Feed Advocate

Behind the scenes of our family life, my mother was always volunteering – for the animal shelter, the American Cancer Society, the recycling center, or taking baskets of food to the lower income families on the island. With her as my lighthouse, I look back at my own volunteerism and see that it is surely inadequate. When I have volunteered, however, it has been in children’s hospitals or with teenage unwed mothers, or wards of the court. And I loved it.

There are a lot of volunteer opportunities that match my interests. For example, I have Parkinson’s disease, and there are numerous organizations devoted to it. But I wanted to stay with young people, to see meaning in the lives of others, rather than dwelling on my own future, and so I found Teen Feed and the group of homeless young people who pass through the doors.

One year in my own youth, when I was about 22, I was “homeless.” I had completed the transition – or so I thought – from needing my parents for guidance and financial assistance, to living and working independently. But I was a failure, at least in my own eyes, and lost my bearings. I gave up all friends and family connections to drive around the country with my two dogs. I cut off communications, looking back, probably because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t hold it together and be a grown up.

What was it like? Winter mornings in Denver, for example, when the sparkling, delicate frost patterns on the slanted window of the Mustang fastback could fascinate me for hours, I washed up in the cold water of the ladies room at the Texaco near the neighborhood where I parked overnight.

This period lasted a year or so, after which I pretty much returned to working-girl life, back in LA. So I have come to believe, personally, that there may be more than one kind of ‘’homelessness.”

Here is what I have learned at Teen Feed: Homeless youth live in shelters, cars, parks, group housing. They sofa surf, they sometimes see family members. Some may have jobs, although it is sometimes hard to keep them for very long. They are extroverts and introverts, and they are very creative and hope for outlets for their talents. There are conservative dressers, seeking wall-flower clothes at the shelters, thrift shops, and churches. And there are travelers, with piercings, tattoos, plugs, chains, personalized, handmade, layered outfits. And everything in between.

I volunteer with Teen Feed to get to know these young people, to help them if I can, with encouragement and by example, and to learn more about life through listening to their stories about the challenges they face every day. Finding commonalities in interests and in personal histories is deeply rewarding.