Wednesday, August 26, 2009

In Memory of Senator Edward M. Kennedy

"The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die."
      ... Senator Ted Kennedy, 1980

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Volunteer Magic Power

It was a Monday night at the Gateway Center, following a fortnight of growing overflow of woman and children. The numbers soared like a jet leaving Dobbins. Mats on the floor are rule of the day. More than 90 women and children on the mats, on the floor. We are now seeing scores of new women and their children come through the doors seeking services, employment, housing, escape from abusers, and new starts. They share two things in common: they are all homeless and they are all seeking a path out of homelessness. For most, hope has dimmed; almost vanished.

There are not limitless resources in the community and the overflow of women and children has become part of daily life at the Gateway Center. The national economic meltdown has contributed significantly to the growing numbers. Evictions are common place. New stresses ultimately fracture families. The persons that come to the Gateway Center are the first to feel the impact of the nation's financial crisis, and sadly, will be the last the experience its recovery. These are tenuous days! These are stretched days, and not only for the Gateway Center but for many nonprofits in our community.

But, in the midst of the community crisis and tsunami of humanity that comes through the gates every day, there was a glimmer of normalcy and subtle ray of hope on this Monday night. It was a bit like seeing magic. Four volunteers arrived with their bags of magic tricks -- books, art supplies, flashcards, worksheets ... and large smiles and open hearts. They had spent the day working at their school. They all had experienced a long, long day already. They all had family responsibilities waiting for them. But, for a moment 25 school-age children experienced normalcy in the midst of the chaos that accompanies homelessness.

The volunteers did their magic. The children gathered around tables. Volunteers called the children by their own name. Artwork emerged. Flashcard drills in math and English popped like Orville Redenbacher's Gourmet Popping Corn in a microwave! Children from first grade through tenth grade were laughing, smiling, working, cooperating, and sharing. For a moment, these were not homeless children, they were simply children. Children having fun. Children experiencing the personal impact that comes when experiencing the feeling of value and having worth.

How did it happen, this transformation? It was volunteer magic power! It was the result of someone caring to share their most valuable of possessions ... time, energy, and self. It was caring hearts reaching into fractured hearts and bringing wholeness and healing. What a different world we would have if everyday we experienced just a fraction of the magic of that Monday night. It truly was a holy moment! Some called it a Monday night. I called it Magicday night!

Thank you Kathy, Wendy, Karen, and Beth! You make magic! You have volunteer magic power!I am grateful. The children are grateful. The Gateway Center is grateful. Hey, friends, come make some magic at the Gateway Center, like these four magicians!

Saturday, August 15, 2009

We Called Her Miss Barbara

It was a different century (even a different millennium) when I first met her. My life was upside down and she would help to right it. We shared a surname (she got it by marriage, I got it be adoption), but we shared so much more ... right from the start. She loved my boys. I called her, "Miss Barbara." It was a humid, hot July day in 1990 when our life-paths first crossed. I was interviewing for a job with an Atlanta nonprofit. She worked in the office ... she was the "office." Finances, telephone triage, complaint handler, volunteer coordinator, correspondence, supplies, first-aid, Tylenol hander-outer, donation recording and receipting, mail handler, payroll, secretary for the Board, and all. You get the picture. I laugh when I hear people today, in the workplace, talking about what they will "do and not do." Miss Barbara did it all, and usually with a smile. Although I never had to wonder where she stood on a situation or her thoughts regarding a matter. She was crystal clear! She was honest! She embodied integrity! She spoke her mind and let me know what she thought! She believed in the mission of helping others. She taught me to drink from her well of mission, caring philosophy. Would that more people in this world drank from her well!

As the years sped past roles changed, but the heart of the work and commitment to the work never did. Miss Barbara would say, "You can't change the past, but maybe you can learn from it." Miss Barbara was candid, plain-spoken, and had an uncanny way of being able to see way down the road and speak the future, in the present. I chuckle when I remember one day when I heard someone say that she shouldn't be so quick to share her opinion. I wondered, "Why not?" She's right on. But, then, she was right about so many things. How can a person be "that right?" I suspect that it was her centering that made her "right" so often. She was right when she said ...
1. People matter.
2. Everything we do should be to help others.
3. If you don't care, get out! No room for laziness here!
4. Use donations and resources wisely. Someone sacrificed to make that donation.
5. Honesty and integrity are at the core, center of every moment or every day.
6. Make everyday count. We are not promised tomorrow.
7. Know that you may be hurt, but do what is right anyway.
8. Hold tightly to your faith. It is an anchor in the storm.
9. Don't get too big for your britches!

We called her Miss Barbara! (She was married and had a loving family, but we still called her Miss Barbara.) We loved her. We trusted her. We knew where we stood with her. We knew that she could swing a mean stick, but she always used it for our good. That, too, we knew unequivocally! And, she always had a twinkle in eye. She always had the necessary band-aids for life. She was a constant in the midst of change. Yes, life changes took us in various directions. Changing addresses. Changing times. But, in a world that often resembled a bowl of spaghetti, I could always find that single strand that led me back to Miss Barbara. She never changed! She was always present. And, she is present still.

While death this week stilled her earthly voice, she still speaks loudly and clearly. Her voice is heard from the heart. Listen, listen! She says, "When I'm right, I'm right. You do what's right, young man!" Well, the "young man" is "young no longer." (Actually, he wasn't even young when she called him, "Young man!"). But, Miss Barbara is still right! I will miss her birthday cards, Christmas cards, caring spirit, good heart, voice of honesty, work til the job is done attitude, wise counsel, speak her mind, call it straight disposition, and forthright gumption!

We called her Miss Barbara, but those of us that knew her at called her so much more, not the least of which was "friend." You live in our hearts, Miss Barbara. The world is better place because of you. We are better people because you cared. We called her simply "Miss Barbara" ... but her name meant so much more, and always will! Until we see you again, Miss Barbara, we say, "Father, in thy gracious keeping, leave we now thy servant sleeping." Amen.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009


Its been a long day filled with drama and the unexpected. After finally getting home, my wife asked if I would take her car and fill the gas tank. It was on empty. I headed out toward the the gas station thinking, "I hope I don't run out of petro!" Well, I made it. I swiped my card and began fueling. After finishing the "honey do," I started the engine and turned up the Alabama CD that roared through the speakers (roaring even in the absence of surround sound!).
As I pulled out onto the highway, I noticed a building across the street that was empty. I drove on a bit, I saw another, and then another. I passed a few signs that read, "For Lease" or "For Sale" or "Ready to Occupy." Everywhere I looked (or so it seemed), I was faced with an overwhelming presence of empty.

And then, staring at me in silence, was the largest empty of all. For more than a fifteen years (after previously being empty for several years) the building I looked into had teemed with life, voices, shouts of hope, and exclamations of promise. It has resonnated with new beginnings and new starts. Grounded in the fertile soil of grace, renewal, and regerration it had been a place where the carpenter's tools had hewn new life out of what to many seemed to be the scrap lumber heap of life. But, on this night it was empty. The lamppost was dark. No flame flickered. I stood in silence, unmoving -- as the silence stared back at me, swallowing me, engulfing me, consuming me. I quickly closed my eyes, shook my head in disbelief, and re-opened my startled eyes. Still I saw empty ... empty ... empty.

I could no longer stand. I had to sit on the curb. My legs lost their usefulness. I sat. With eyes closed. I began to see faces. The faces of homeless men, women, and children. They, too, knew the sunami of empty. The saw empty when they looked in a mirror. They knew empty in their stomachs. They knew empty in their pockets. They felt empty in the depths of their being. They were often met with empty stares or glares from those they passed. Like the building they were swallowed in empty.

I got into my car asking "why" and "how could it be? I started the engine and pulled onto an empty road, looking at empty in my rearview mirror and listening to empty on the car radio. Then it came to me, empty is matter of choice! Empty is the net outcome of specific decisions. It doesn't matter whether its the car's fuel tank, a building, or a person -- empty is the natural result of choices that ignore consequences.

You are given a field to play on. It remains empty if you are not willing to play on it. You are given a resource to nurture and cherish, it becomes empty if the resources are not replenished. You enter a relationship with smiles and promise. It becomes empty when you no longer smile and promises are broken. You are given a mission, an opportunity and you stumble on empty because you loose focus. You are given the opportunity to explore, but you are lost in a cavernous, cave of empty because you lost your light. Question -- are you running on empty? If so, you soon won't be running. You will be like the building I saw -- stark, silent, lifeless, empty.
God, help me to stay filled that I might never be empty. Allow me to look into another's eyes and fill the empty with hope and promise. Allow me to walk streets smoothered in empty and leave behind the fullness of grace and goodness; the promise of new beginnings and new starts. Allow my voice to fill the empty spaces in the hearts of others with refreshing, renewing, resonnating lyrics of joy, encouragement, and praise. May the sound of the shofar fill the empty spaces in the lives of homeless men, women, and children (and the empty spaces in the lives of those blessed with homes, too!).

May the Gateway Center be a refueling station for those running on empty. May the Gateway Center be a place where people can say, "Fill'er up!" May the Gateway Center be a place where the lights are on ... and when we drive away, looking back we see new starts, new beginnings, new lives ... never, ever, never empty!

Monday, August 10, 2009

Power of Collaboration

When I was a child there was a rhymn that my 4th Grade teacher taught our class. It went something like, "If we all pull together, together, together ... if we all pull together, how happy we'll be!" This afternoon was a pull together kind of day. A sister agency faced an operational crisis late this afternoon. Twenty-five men in a supportive housing situation were suddenly faced with being homeless. What to do? Shelters are full. What to do? Three colleagues said, "We won't let each other or the community down." We decided to "live united." The result was interesting. Strangers suddenly became friends. Client needs outweighted agency boundaries. Collaboration, old fashioned sharing, and a lack of selfishness ruled the day. The value of 25 men became the focus and they won. But, not only those 25 men, but the community won. There was no rancor. There was no shouting. There was no "look what we've got and what you don't have." There was only one clear, sustaining goal ... keep those 25 men from becoming homeless! They won. While the actions of this community caring and good didn't make the news or will not be reported in local papers, it really was news that makes a difference. As the sun set over downtown Atlanta and the little Gateway Center bus rolled along Auburn Avenue and Peachtree Street, you could hear -- if you listened very closely -- the heartvoices singing, "If we all pull togehter, together, together ... If we all pull together, how happy we'll be!"

Gateway Center Focus

The focus of the Gateway Center is ending homelessness. Every day as people come and go ... or come and stay ... the question is the same. How can we help you end homelessness in your life? There are many responses in words, stares, looks, facial expressions, and gestures. But, we keep going back to the core question ... how can we help you end your homelessness? The purpose of the Gateway Center is not to help an individual be "comfortable" in their homelessness, but rather to help them breakout of homelessness and enter into a life of self-sufficiency and independent living that is filled with meaning.