It’s a crisp late afternoon in early December. Remaining daylight is has given way to the onset of night-time but not before a bright orange slit of a gorgeous winter sunset blazes across Edmonton’s winter sky. A subtle reminder that Summer, at some point, will return to warm the frigid air.
The city streets are bustling with purposeful drivers as the work day has ended and you, a first time Santa YEG volunteer, have just parked your car outside of Santa YEG’s headquarters. You turn off the ignition, sigh a deep breath and approach the front door with some trepidation and nervousness as you’re not sure just quite what to expect.
To your wonderment, as you step inside, you immediately feel warmth. Over the loud sounds of people who have gathered to prepare food you can hear Christmas music, laughter and the delightful wafting of baking cookies; a memory that quickly takes you back to your own childhood.
Everyone is smiling and welcoming and before long you find yourself donning sanitary gloves in a makeshift assembly line as the sandwich making machine has commenced. Only moments ago an outsider, you’re now part of the delivering compassion family, almost as if you’d been together for years.
Although you had only signed up to prepare food, as you watch the meals being loaded into vehicles for delivery to shelters you feel the urge to join. This is where it really gets interesting.
You’re assigned to one of four caravans with each caravan assigned a specific Edmonton shelter to deliver to. As you arrive at your dedicated shelter behind two other vehicles who make up your caravan you begin to observe a part of Edmonton you’re not accustomed to seeing.
You see throngs of homeless people awaiting entry into the shelter. You see shopping carts with heaping piles of worn clothing, bottles & cans, and other valuable trinkets. You see people with visible physical disabilities. You see old people and young people with ragged clothing and garbage bags flung over their shoulders.
You observe all of this in mere seconds and very quickly you’re overtaken by an all too familiar sense; fear. In that moment you realize you’re about to leave the safety and security of your vehicle and enter this alternate universe that is so foreign to you and far less understood.
What will happen to me? Will I be harmed? I wonder if someone has a knife? What about needles? These are all legitimate questions as your mind is being guided by fear built upon stereotypes that have infiltrated your subconscious through the years.
But perhaps your car is symbolism for a greater fear? Maybe, just maybe, leaving your car means you can never go back. You can’t unsee the seen. You can’t pretend any longer that so many people in our city live in poverty or worse. You cannot, any longer, turn a blind eye to those in need.
You then see an experienced Santa YEG volunteer emerge from their vehicle lifting the hatch to retrieve a medium-sized box filled with 100 hot turkey sandwiches. You breath that same deep sigh you experienced only 90 minutes ago as you reach for your car door handle and nervously give it a pull. One foot hits the pavement, then the other. As the door closes behind you, you realize there’s no turning back.
You quickly join the other volunteers who are approaching the crowds of homeless people with boxes of meals as though they had just arrived at a family gathering with treats and goodies for loved ones. At this point, you’re just observing, taking it all in.
The blurry crowd of people is now replaced by distinct faces and personalities. As the volunteers hand out food to people you start to hear the recipients say things like “Can I get a sandwich for my girlfriend?” “God bless you.” “Merry Christmas” “You people are so kind.” and “Thank you.”
“I was put in the group that went to the Hope Mission. I arrived at the Mission by myself to meet the rest of my group – I must say I was a little nervous about what I was going to experience, and to be honest, my safety. When I arrived, my group had already started giving out the sandwiches, cookies and apple slices to the huge line of people waiting outside of the Mission. Once I started helping with the handing out, my worries and apprehensions went away – the simple humanity of the experience took over. I was touched by the quiet dignity of the people. No one was pushy or greedy, there was just sincere gratitude and concern for others” – Santa YEG Volunteer Lisa Mullen-LaBossiere
You see volunteers and homeless people hugging, laughing, sharing stories, and connecting.
And then it hits you.
That overwhelming feeling of fear that almost prevented you from leaving your car has been replaced……………by LOVE. You are filled, almost overflowing, with love, compassion and gratitude.
As your first delivering compassion experience comes to an end you can’t help but pause for a moment in your vehicle taking it all in. You think about overcoming fear, you think about the exchange of kindness between complete strangers from all walks of life, and you feel a single tear fighting its way to freedom as it slowly trickles down your cheek.
This not a tear of sadness however. This is a tear that only the depths of gratitude can summon. For you are grateful for your life, grateful for the experience, and grateful in the belief that people are inherently good and that we are all equals, no matter how unequal we can first seem, along this journey of life that can lead us down so many paths.
That is what delivering compassion is all about. Our community of compassion deliverers continues to grow because of experiences like these! We’d love to have you join us too.
Merry Christmas everyone!
Jeff Tetz for Santa YEG