As a part of the 300-level theology course curriculum at St. Thomas, students were required to complete 30 volunteer hours. Most of the young women in my class spent their hours snuggling babies in the campus daycare center. I had a baby of my own at home to snuggle, so I opted to use my hours where they might be better served. I knew about a house, actually three houses coupled together by warped hallways, just down Grand Avenue that needed help. Passing the mansions of Grand, you’d never know that this place was different, it looks just the same as the others. But inside live women who have nowhere else to turn. They’re desperate, hurt, and alone.
I put in my 30 hours at Women’s Advocates, a domestic abuse shelter for women and their kids, and then I put in another year of volunteer hours. My schedule became regular. I got to know the social workers and the kitchen staff. Two days a week from 1-4 I answered the phones. Emergency calls, placement calls from other shelters, homeless people needing beds, police officers; I answered them all. I had a script to follow. Very few of the calls went according to script. Women called from their closets. They called from pay phones so their significant others wouldn’t find out. Kids called on behalf of their mothers. Angry husbands called looking for their wives and kids. Those were the most difficult phone calls.
Most of the women came with only the clothes on their backs. They came to my desk to get diapers, baby wipes, shampoo and razors. I chatted with them about their kids and felt guilty that I had a home to return to after my shift. There was one woman I won’t forget. She had five kids and wasn’t much older than my 22 years. She came into the office one afternoon, yanking one of her small twins by the arm, requested a diaper, and bluntly stated “my boyfriend won’t let me use birth control.”
It was chaos. Sometimes it was life and death. It put everything into perspective for me. Compared to most middle-class white women who are almost 30, I’ve been through a lot. Compared to the women in that shelter, I haven’t been through shit. My life is roses and carousels.
Life is hard sometimes. The problem that you have right now feels bigger than any challenge any other human has ever had. Sometimes taking the time to put your problems into perspective can change your outlook. It might even help you realize that putting your energy into helping other people with their challenges can be a lot more rewarding than focusing on your own.