Last month I sustained a rather nasty back injury. It could be worse (it could always be worse!) but suffice it to say, I haven’t been very mobile since the beginning of June; it’s been frustrating at best and debilitating at worst.

One side effect of this injury is that I have needed to use a cane from time to time. Not all the time, but often enough that it’s been bedazzled with stickers by a pair of friendly boys I was babysitting for. “This will make it work better!” they pronounced, and for a while after using it, I actually felt the difference.

For them, decorating my cane was a way of saying “it will get better.” They really believed that this simple act could improve the situation and they were so earnest about it, I actually willed the cane to work better. I like to think I walked out of their house a little straighter, but who knows; at least I have some inspirational stickers to look at when times get especially rough.

While I try to keep a positive face on when I’m in public, many people in my close social circles have had to endure a poor attitude on my part when they offer to help. Most of the time, I feel completely frustrated by my condition. People have been super friendly and seem to really want to go the extra mile when I’m using my cane (after they do the double take of watching a 25 year old use a cane.) A coworker offered to get me groceries and I’ve heard “I just want to pick you up and carry you!” from more than a few concerned folks.

While their sentiments are well-intentioned, I generally wave away their offers to help and hobble resolutely on, not because I don’t need the help but because I don’t want to need it. I want to be normal again. I want to feel 25 and not 85. I want to do simple things like feed myself with food that I bought at the store myself, wear clothes I washed myself, sleep in a bed I made myself. I hate having to wait for a time when it will happen again; I already feel like it’s been so long since I’ve been able to do anything by myself, just for me.

My injury has really opened my eyes to the experiences of those we serve at Chicago Cares. I’m always willing to jump in and serve and do so with a smile on my face because I used to think a good attitude made everything better, but now being on the receiving end of offers of help has given me a critical eye. I’ve started to think more about the situations that many of our clients must find themselves in, I’m more aware that many of them never expected to find themselves at a shelter, a food pantry or trying to rebuild their lives after serving time in prison.

I’ve begun to ask myself, who are these people and why are they here? How do they feel about receiving help from strangers? Do they appreciate my peppiness or do they find it annoying? I know for me, being trapped in a body that feels so elderly is the last thing I thought I’d be doing this summer, and it hurts to have to ask for help (I knew it was time to go home one day when I had to ask a coworker to re-tie my shoe.)

There are no rules I can give here, no steps to volunteering success I have up my sleeve, no perfect words of wisdom that can alleviate tense situations. I will say that going in to every volunteer experience with an open mind and simply being aware and present to the fact that the person you’re serving may have never expected to be on the other side of the table, is one of the best things you can do. You don’t even have to ask them how things got that way or why they’re there, they may not want to tell you, anyway. What I can tell you is that treating every person you meet with dignity and understanding will sustain them far beyond the meal you serve or the hour that you spend at your project.

Today’s post is by Human Service Coordinator, Amy DeLorenzo.

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