Sunday, November 4, 2012

On Volunteering: Lessons from the Ladies’ Room

Sometime towards the end of last week, I decided that instead of sitting in my safe, electrically-supplied apartment reading the news about Hurricane Sandy and visiting with friends, I should go out and actually help people who were affected by the storm. But volunteering brings up some very strange and conflicting emotions, mostly of the procrastinating/avoidance variety: how would I figure out where to go in Brooklyn? (Google, Jennifer.) What if they don’t need my services? (They do.) What if they need me for 8 hours only but I can only stay for 4? (You won’t know until you go.) I was about to go on Saturday when I read on Facebook that the Park Slope Armory was turning people away. Guiltily, I thought, “Oh, good. Now I won’t have to feel so bad about going to that party I was planning to go to instead.”

But I did make plans with a friend to get up at 7.30am Sunday, an almost Sisyphean task for me. The alarm went off, and as I lay there, I considered several reasons why I couldn’t go. I was exhausted and had recently gotten over being sick; I couldn’t possibly have a relapse and miss more work. There were undoubtedly many other volunteers who could help. Maybe my friend would cancel.

Well, she didn’t, and I felt equally discouraged and grateful for our holding each other accountable. We arrived at the Park Slope Armory around 8.30am, and there weren’t so many volunteers after-all. Just after arriving, I realized they really do need help. There are a few hundred people staying there, mostly elderly and mentally disabled who had been displaced from their homes in the Rockaways. I wondered who the volunteer leaders were—are they part of an organization? Had they been there all week? Turns out they were just like me, members of the community who wanted to help out and came to volunteer shifts whenever they could.  I began to feel really good that I had gotten out of bed.

During a short orientation, we were told about several tasks, including handing out the donation items, working with groups of residents in their rows of beds, cleaning the bathrooms and helping people use the toilet (to which I thought, Please, anything but that), and organizing supplies for the space.  When we went to get our assignments, I wondered if they would type-cast. Would they see me and think, She’ll be great for serving breakfast? Or walking the residents around the track for some exercise?

If type-casting were the case, then whatever it was in my appearance led the task assigner to take one look at me and say: “Bathrooms.” No! Anything but that! But I was there to help as I was needed, so what was I going to say? Sorry, I really would prefer handing out sweatpants? So I smiled, said something mean to myself about the girls behind me who looked pleased that they didn’t get bathroom duty, and walked over to the ladies’ room.

It was pretty clean. The volunteers who had been there before me showed me that we clean the toilets, and all surfaces that people touch, as soon as they finish using a stall. I was shown where the extra supplies were: adult diapers, trash bags, plastic gloves. This wasn’t going to be so bad, after-all.

Women started coming into the restroom, some in wheelchairs, some not. They hadn’t had showers since Monday, and we had been told that some of them may want to clean off with baby wipes in a stall. They were all friendly and greeted us warmly. We started chatting about various things. And slowly I began to notice that every woman who went to the sink to wash her hands would take some time to look at herself in the mirror, brush her hair, freshen up. One older resident, decked out in donated sweatpants, took out a red lipstick and put it on. After brushing her hair for awhile, she turned to the volunteers and asked, “How do I look?” Lovely! (It really was a great lipstick color.)  One volunteer complimented a resident’s hat. The resident looked delighted and replied, “Oh, thank you! I love this hat-- I got it in Jamaica, where I grew up.” This led to a conversation about the islands and the resident singing a song from her home country.

Then came a woman named Susan*. Susan had some mental disabilities, and was escorted to the ladies’ room by a young man. She told me she didn’t really need to go to the bathroom, but that all she wanted was a manicure. "My nails are in really bad shape," she said. "Do you have a nail file?” (We didn’t.) Then she said, “You know, I’d really just like to wash my hair. It’s been days.” I noticed some new hand towels, and small bottles of shampoo. Susan had very short hair, so I asked her if she’d like my help washing her hair. “Yes, please!” she said. I walked her over to a sink, covered her with one towel and began to wash her hair as she bent over the sink.  As I was giving her a little head massage, I realized that this woman probably hadn’t been touched in a very long time. I know that when I get my hair cut, the hair-washing part is my favorite. When we were done and Susan lifted herself back up, she looked like she was in a state of bliss. She thanked me and the other volunteer helping her, and then said, “That was just wonderful. You know, I really could use some lipstick. Do you have any lipstick?” (No, it seemed that beauty products took a back seat to supplies like toilet paper and water.)

Women continued to come in and out of the bathroom. Some had wet themselves, others needed assistance on the toilet, while others were volunteers waiting to bring residents back to their beds. And every single woman who came into that bathroom spent a few moments in front of the mirror, fixing herself up. Regardless of the fact that they hadn’t showered in days, were wearing other peoples’ clothes, were living in a cold strange place, they still sought to be beautiful, to look good for the world (or at least for their own image). One older woman came in and started to sing “I’ll Take Manhattan” with one of the volunteers, exclaiming,  “No one ever dances and sings along with me! This is wonderful!”

We laughed, we talked make-up and body lotion, we sang a little. And I thought, this isn’t that much different than the ladies’ rooms at the Met Opera, or anywhere else, for that matter. It’s a safe space where women bond, discuss life, apply their lipstick and fix their hair, occasionally compliment each others' clothes. It’s a place where we all feel safe to share a tiny piece of our shared femininity, whatever that little kernel is in many of us to strive to feel good about ourselves, no matter what position we are in. Shelter or opera, hospital or gala event, most of us women will still take a moment to look in the mirror, fix our hair and make-up, maybe even exchange a smile and a compliment with another woman. And as we leave that bathroom to whatever lives we have outside of it, we can hopefully feel comforted in knowing that we’re not alone.   

Later in the day, while buying more sweatpants for the residents, I bought some lipsticks and gave one to Susan. (I loved her first response before thanking me: What color did you get?) As I left the Armory, I whispered to the incoming women volunteers, "Ask to be stationed in the ladies' rooms. It's the most fun place in the building."

(If you're looking for a place to volunteer, the Armory will need people Sunday night, and most likely during the workweek during normal business hours. If you'd like to donate materials, the shelters are in need of large and extra-large sweatpants and underwear. And maybe some lipsticks and nailpolish...)