Here, we teach life…

Four simple words.  HERE, WE TEACH LIFE.  I get chills when I read this and I can still hear this coming out of my dad’s mouth after a teachable moment at his beloved Primadonna Restaurant.  Working with the public, there were many of these. Some we wished we could forget when humankind showed its ugliness and entitlement.  But for every one of these times, there were many we will forever remember, like the dinners that my dad filtered out of the alley to the homeless man who lived in his car, the countless fried zucchini appetizers that my dad sent out on the house to make the customers feel special regardless if this was their first trip or one of many, or the ways that my dad worked to help make the ‘had-been’ Steel City of McKees Rocks, PA a place that people could be once again be proud to call home through supporting the local churches, athletic teams and nonprofits.

These snippets of teachable life lessons made a big impact on me and others who witnessed them.  We got to see the power of what it is to give freely and without expectation.  We saw the joy in the eyes of both the giver and the receiver and quite frankly, we wanted to be a part of that joy.  At the time, I couldn’t comprehend how, but I just knew that giving gave off the kind of energy that I wanted to be a part of.

Fast forward several years and these teachable life moments have helped me to anchor a career in the nonprofit world where the organizations that I’m part of have this same lasting impact on the lives of others.  And now, the student has become the teacher as I’m not only an observer of these works, but now I’m a parent and I’m tasked with helping to shape the lives of two little girls who will be our next generation.

So, like many other parents, I’m constantly grappling with how that next generation should be shaped?  What expert advice do I need to adhere to?  How will my wisdom and experience help to turn these little kids into the adults that I hope they become?

If you are a parent, you know there is no right answer to this question.  But the best answer for me and my husband Joe is to teach our girls to be kind to others and to engage in activities that will help them stay in touch with humanity. I’m very lucky to have an organization right in my backyard that provides us with such opportunities.  St. Paul’s Community Development Corporation (SPCDC) is constantly engaging ways to help others.  Over the course of the next month or so, I hope to highlight firsthand some of the amazing things this organization does for others and how this work continues to shape me and my family.

The first of these highlights is the Emergency Men’s Shelter, one of SPCDC’s flagship programs.  Quite arguably one of the most infamous programs, SPCDC has been housing homeless men in the undercroft of the St. Paul’s Church since 1983.  The barrack-style quarters has housing for 40 individuals who come to us during all different types of hardship.  With no other requirement but to pass a drug test and be committed to wanting to change their lives for the better, we admit these folks and in the process offer intensive case management to help with their barriers to housing which sometimes are as simple as applying for public assistance programs.  The goal of the program is not for clients to be with us forever, but to provide a service that gives men “a hand up”, not a “hand out.” The ultimate goal is permanent housing.

As part of the model, volunteers graciously come and prepare a hot meal for the residents 365 days per year.  Joe and I are pleased to be part of this network.  Because of our busy schedules we don’t do this often enough, but when we do, we really enjoy it. We’ve had the pleasure of bringing several others to witness this experience.  Out of all the guests we’ve brought down over the years, none was more powerful than bringing our very own daughter Helena for the first time a couple of weeks ago.

Helena, age 3, is just old enough at this point to start realizing that the world doesn’t always revolve around her.  (Well, maybe not 100% of the time.  It is a work in progress for all).  When we asked her to be a part of the Shelter Crew for the night and explained to her what we’d be doing and why, she was intrigued.  “Why don’t the men have places to live?”  “Why do we need to cook for them?”

As we gave her the answers, she seemed to start to understand and she helped me put together the dessert for the meal…chocolate chip cookies.  She started to take pride in this and she proudly told Joe, “Daddy, I’m making cookies for the men at the Shelter.”

Taking her down to help serve was also an experience that I won’t forget.  The actual serving of the food went the same as always.  Now having done it so many times, it is down to a science.  But seeing it through Helena’s eyes was amazing.  It was awesome to experience her being able to give to others and it was also awesome to see the response of the residents.  Many of them were dads, grandparents, etc and the presence of young child seemed to lighten the air.  As excited as she was to help, Helena was very shy, and stayed back as we served the line of men. Finally, the line was done, the men were enjoying the food, and we were packing up to go. One man came up for seconds, and as we stepped forward to serve him more food, Helena jumped forward to help.  Joe and I looked at each other and stepped back and let her do her thing.  You could see the beaming smile from her face and that let us know that taking her that evening was absolutely the right decision.

I have no idea if this experience had the same effect on Helena as me seeing my dad engage in acts of social service, but I can only hope that these little snippets will help teach her the life lessons that our youngest generation needs.

For more information on how to volunteer at the Shelter, please contact our Shelter Coordinator Marlene Williams at mwilliams@stpaulscdcnj.org.

A heartfelt thank you goes out to Marylou, Todd, Natalie, April and Dizz Bushyager, Tom and Erin Palmer, Arnold and Barbara Kraus, David Perritano and Mr. Schlamm for supporting me and the SPCDC on this journey.  Your donation is very much appreciated.

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