Pairs Well With…”Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins
“There is no us. There is no them. There is just a we.” – J. Lee
What would you do if you lost everything? Could you handle it? Would it break you? Maybe you didn’t have a lot to begin with, but tomorrow you wake up and find yourself homeless, living on the streets with nothing more than shreds of dignity – if you’re even that lucky.
Life has an interesting way of unfolding. Everything can turn on just one twist of unforeseen fate, and change the trajectory of life. For whatever reason, some of us dig out, others of us can’t. And more often than not, we look at someone living on the street with pitiful glances, if we even acknowledge their presence at all, without regard to how they fell into their circumstance. As if they chose to be there. Maybe yes, maybe no, but what remains constant is that they are still there and, like us, they are human too.
February 2015, my first trip to Rio, was my first real glimpse into such an eye-opening and deep level of poverty. It both rocked and unnerved me. I hadn’t seen anything like it, and maybe that’s because for so long, I tried not to. Entire families camped out looking for food, or any other handout to help them get by. I would offer up my leftovers in an attempt to keep hearts beating and stomachs full for at least one more night.
I reflected on Rio as I headed into my first volunteer shift at Kuala Lumpur‘s Pit Stop Cafe, a community cafe working to find solutions to urban hunger and poverty by marshaling volunteers and repurposing food. They are truly a one of a kind model. (America, take note.)
The owner, Joyce, shares a story similar to mine: Woman gets fed up with Corporate America. Woman quits her job. Woman works to find something more meaningful and fulfilling. Through her change of course, Joyce founded Pit Stop Cafe, which costs $6-8k monthly to operate and offers warm meals daily to 200-260 urban working poor or homeless people.
Earlier in the week, in a presentation to my Remote Year group, Joyce shared learnings around her community work, what it means to be in need and how the less fortunate are viewed. What she shared was interesting, and in some cases, jaw-dropping:
THE CITY OF KUALA LUMPUR CHOOSES NOT TO ACKNOWLEDGE (or report) ANY HOMELESS POPULATION. Turning a blind eye much? When you don’t report issues, you don’t have to acknowledge them. And because you don’t acknowledge them, they aren’t “real” – and the government doesn’t have to spend dollars on “non-existent” economic issues. Typical case of ignorance is bliss.
(I was curious to learn more about this issue and stumbled upon an interesting article which accuses the city of rounding up homeless people and dumping them (yes, dumping them) outside city limits. W.O.W. I’m not sure what is worse, throwing money at a problem or throwing people away.)
MAKE SURE YOUR IMPACT IS, IN FACT, IMPACTFUL. While we have the best of intentions, we don’t always know what someone needs – unless we ask. When was the last time you asked someone on the street what they needed, or better yet, what they wanted? Most people approach the homeless as a one-size fits all, “you’ll take what you’re given” type mentality. How helpful is having a size ten pair of shoes for a size seven foot? Or a goose down jacket in Kuala Lumpur when it’s above 80 degrees the majority of the year. At Pit Stop Cafe, diners are asked what meal they want from the options available. By asking someone what they want, you allow them to feel as though they are in control and have a choice. It’s how we build people up again.
THOSE IN NEED ARE OFTEN LOOKING FOR A HAND UP, NOT A HAND OUT. The majority of our lives are spent trying to be better and do better. To do so doesn’t always come easy, and it isn’t always a solo effort. Many people don’t enjoy asking for help when they need it, especially when it’s someone they don’t know, but when you’re playing the survival game, it can become necessary. Help where you can, and allow someone else to rise up.
DON’T ALLOW ANYONE TO BECOME INVISIBLE. By acknowledging a person’s presence, you make them visible. Everyone wants to be seen. Just because someone is down on their luck doesn’t mean they should be counted out. Each person has a story. Take the time to hear it.
HOMELESSNESS IS NOT A PITY PARTY. But it is about respect and treating a human being as a fellow human being.
Before my volunteer shift, Joyce was gracious enough to spend some time talking to me one-on-one about her career moves, new business, and worldly opinions. I loved hearing about the vision and foundation on which Pit Stop Cafe was founded:
“When you look, or when you think about something called a pit stop,…a pit stop is a place for you to refuel. To refill yourself. To change your tires. And we wanted something like that but in the human context for people to uplift or upgrade themselves. You couple that with our tagline, “Love all. Feed all”…Love is not just that between a husband and wife or whatever. It’s an encompassing thing. Compassion is part of the love thing as well. So when you show compassion, you show love. And that’s what we wanted.
But feed all…people think you just feed the stomach. You do not just feed the stomach. You feed your heart. You feed your soul. You feed your mind. You can fill your stomach all you want and, in some ways, I think that is what is wrong with the world sometimes. All you are thinking about is feeding your wallet, feeding your stomach….Where’s your heart? Where’s your soul? How do you feed your heart? How do you feed your soul?
How do you make yourself happy?”
I kept thinking about Joyce’s words throughout my shift and felt internally conflicted about the impact I thought I was making. By the end of the shift, I decided to try a new approach: joining one of the gentlemen that I served just a bit earlier. I asked if he minded that I join him. After exchanging names and proper greetings, we dove into a more personalized conversation: our backgrounds, how we each got to be at Pit Stop Cafe that day, and past and present professions. We shared a common bond over the love of reading and discussed our favorite books. I couldn’t tell you the exact reason I approached the man, other than he had a kind smile and great spirit. I suppose I wanted him to know that he is important and worth talking to, not that he needed my validation by any means. Maybe I felt at that moment that he needed to be seen.
Upon leaving Pit Stop, I felt an intense wave of emotion and quickly stepped outside. I don’t know that it was this particular volunteer shift that triggered me so much as it was realizing how engulfed I am my goals and needs to see anyone else’s. I took my moment and let the tears slowly stream down my face, while I took a few deep breaths. How selfish of me to be crying when these people have more challenging circumstances than I do. I circled around the idea that if we’re all operating independently, no changes will be implemented and no impact will be made to better the world.
Why do we let things get so bad in the first place?
As you ponder, I leave you with this: next time it’s too cold in the house or the food isn’t cooked to your perfection, or there’s not enough hot water for a shower, remember the person out on the streets. Check your privilege, and remember, there is someone out there who is asking for nothing more from you than to be noticed.
Click here to listen to the full interview with Joyce Lee, owner of Pit Stop Cafe.