When you picture the people who live in a shelter, this is probably not the sweet little face that comes to mind. The Dorothy Day House of Hospitality is the only shelter in Memphis that accepts families. Most shelters only take women with female children or they accept single men. If a single mom and her 16 year old lose their home, it will be nearly impossible for them to find a shelter that will keep their family intact. If a young couple and their infant fall on hard times, they will have to split up to find shelter. At a time when family is everything, many families are torn in different directions just so they have roofs over their heads.
I have to admit that I was oblivious to the scale of the problem. I suppose I expected Sister Maureen to tell me that it’s only a handful of families in the Memphis area who need an emergency shelter. I asked about the demand for housing and how many families they turn away. “Eight” she said. Eight?! I was astounded. “Eight families a month?!” I asked. She looked at me intently. “Eight families per week.”
If judging only from the unassuming exterior, you would have no idea what goes on in this amazing place. You can tell the house has an old soul. It has all the character of a midtown house, with dark wooden columns in the living room, a beautiful, well-worn staircase leading upstairs and carefully placed trim from many years ago. The families and visitors gravitate to a modest sized room in the front of the house, where the mismatched chairs and couches form an inviting circle. But ultimately, it’s the families that lend the true character to the house. My friend Trish really described it best. “It just feels so warm and homey!”
Before my visit I worried about how the families would react to a stranger in their home. They were already on hard times and feeling exposed. Three families live in the house together and I’m sure that they long for privacy and their own space. Would they really want me intruding on their Sunday evening?
I wanted to do something fun with the kids so I went for something we did around the holidays when I was younger. I recruited Courtney Ratts, Lauren Perry and Trish Kalbas-Schmidt to decorate cookies with the kids! We brought sugar cookies, sprinkles, frosting, and candy. Courtney gifted homemade gingerbread cookies even though she couldn’t come that night. When we got there we learned that the kids had talked about gingerbread men at school and they were thrilled to see the real thing. We ran out of those first! We had about six kids decorating cookies and about nine of us covered in frosting.
These kids are amazing! They are polite, creative, curious and enthusiastic. They warmed up to us right away and I was amazed how easily they shared with one another. “Hey can I use your blue frosting?” was always met with “Sure!” Our biggest error of the evening was cookie inventory control. In other words, I think some kids wolfed down five or six cookies before we realized it!
One of the girls meticulously counted the cookies. I asked her how many there were and she said, “Let me double check” and she counted again. “68!” she told me. Her cookies were beautifully decorated. I guess she’ll either be an artist or an accountant.
Now that they’d decorated more than six dozen cookies (and eaten a dozen more), Lauren clearly stole the show when she brought out her magic bag of children’s books. You can tell Lauren loves kids. Her teacher side came out and she read each story with so much enthusiasm that the kids crowded around her. She even had a special voice for each character. Whether she knew it or not, even the adults stopped to listen.
We originally thought that we were just coming to spend time with the kids and bring a little fun into the house. I realized two things. This house is already happy. It’s nothing like how you imagine a shelter. It truly feels like you’re visiting someone in their home. The kids are the life of the house and it spreads to everyone else. And only later did I realize that while we came for the kids, the parents got something too. It must be exhausting to worry about everything all the time, while still being strong for your children even when you’re scared and sad and tired. I hope that just for a few minutes they were able to sit down, take a deep breath, and watch as their kids laughed and played.
After cookie decorating and storytelling, everyone gathered in the front room for prayer. Whether you’re religious or not, you’ll feel welcome. The group says a few simple prayers and then asks if anyone would like to say something that they’re thankful for. The kids jumped in right away. I was touched by their thoughtful answers as they said thanks for many of the things that we take for granted everyday. “A roof over our heads” one child said. “My family” said another. And the list goes on. Warm clothes. Volunteers (that made me smile). God’s grace. Cookies! And second chances. Pause. Second chances. I heard an eight year old girl thank God for second chances. It makes you wonder how much she’s seen in her young life and what the future holds for her.
As we were packing up to leave, one of the little girls looked up and me hopefully and asked if we would be coming back tomorrow. I told her that we couldn’t. She pouted so instantly that the effect was comical. I laughed and cringed at the same time. I told her that we couldn’t come tomorrow but that we wanted to come back and see her again soon. She looked at the table full of cookies and nodded.
I’d say our cookie mission was a success in more ways than one: the kids had fun and the parents got a small break as well. As the three of us walked out the back door and filed down the steps, I think we all felt a little sad about leaving and a little more grateful for our families and our homes. We went with the intent of giving, but we left with much more than we gave.
How to Help
Volunteer! There are so many ways to give your time at the Dorothy Day House. You can plan an event like we did. You can bring or make dinner for the families. Anything you would need in your own home is needed – yard work, cleaning, maintenance, etc. Call (901) 725-2714 or visit their volunteer page for more information.
- Give something small from their list of needs like toilet paper, gift cards to Kroger, and trash bags.
- Give something BIG from their wish list. For example, their narrow driveway is becoming increasingly hazardous because of a large tree. Do you know of a tree removal company who might donate their services?
- Make a monetary donation. Every little bit helps!
Contact the wonderful Sister Maureen firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved!