One of the greatest lessons I ever learned was from my mentor and friend, Lisa Nigro, who founded the Inspiration Cafe in Chicago.
I had visited the Cafe while on a spring break campaign in college. A fire was lit in me as Lisa explained the concept: The restaurant is only open for breakfast. People who are homeless can request to be in the program. There is a limited number of spaces. If they are accepted, they eat breakfast here every morning (a nice and hearty breakfast prepared and served as if you were in a diner...complete with a short-order menu. The cook and the servers are all volunteers.). For guests to continue in the program, they have to be actively looking for a job and be actively working on their sobriety (if that is an issue). The cafe also offers GED classes and other classes that might be necessary in helping people move forward in their quest for a more stable life.
I was extremely excited that she agreed to hire me for a 6-week paid summer internship at the Cafe! I was so excited and eager to serve!
My first day, I immediately asked Lisa what she wanted me to do.
A very calm, "Sit down and eat breakfast with the guests."
So I did.
...but then I was ready to serve!
I approached Lisa very eagerly, once again, "I'm done! Now what would you like me to do?"
To which she replied, "Get to know the guests."
So I sat back down and talked to a few people, somewhat disappointed that she hadn't given me some great, meaningful assignment.
The next day, once again, I came in ready to get to work. Lisa once again replied, "Sit down, eat breakfast, and get to know the guests."
After a few days of me continuing to request things to do, she finally explained that my "job" for the first two weeks was to simply sit down and get to know the guests. She explained, "Though they are homeless, they are people and they have thoughts and opinions. Find out what they think about politics, who their favorite baseball team is, etc. Get to know the people."
I had only six weeks to be there and this lady is paying me to sit down and talk to people for the first two of them! It was ridiculous in my mind, but it was her money so I did what she said.
Fortunately for me, Lisa had already learned something that I didn't know: there is power in a two-way relationship.
As I built new friendships, I was given the opportunity to stand in line and eat at the Salvation Army, experiencing life from the recipient's point of view. I attended Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I learned about the 12-steps. I learned that Cooper was a poet and a great salesperson...he introduced me to Kahil Gibran, an author he enjoyed... and he taught me about having a positive outlook on life (Every morning, when asked how he was he would say, "Mighty fine, I woke up this morning!"). I had great talks with Lena and Tommy. Harry always looked out for me and Richard was a great friend--both were addicts in recovery who ran the cafe and amazed me with their ability to know when someone was running game.
Now that I am in a non-profit that accepts volunteers, I realize the importance of Lisa's words. I am so thankful that Lisa was steadfast in teaching me about valuing people.
In the non-profit world, volunteers want to come in and "do." But often what is more beneficial to them and to our neighbors is if they would simply come, get to know people, and build long-term relationships over time. Listen to people's hopes and dreams...and share their own hopes and dreams. Find out what someone needs, but also find out what they have to offer.
If you really want to be a blessing to someone, simply be a part of what is already going on. Get to know people. By getting to know people, you will know when someone wants to get in to college, but may not know where to start. You will know if someone is trying to pass their GED, but can't seem to pass their writing. You may come across someone who wants to open a bank account, but is scared to trust a bank and unsure how to write a check or balance their account. Through friendship, conversation may lead to discovering a genuine need someone has.
And on the flip side...
...you may also learn that when you have a need, you now have someone you can go to as well.