red candle

One of the members of On Our Own brought me a candle.

He usually rushes in at 5:15, a regular with whom I worked on job applications. He was applying and filling out a tedious 14 page job application to be a seafood clerk. We usually completed 4 pages before he lost focus or told me a story or his ride came.

This particularly warm Thursday, everyone was sleeping as an old western came on TV. I smiled as the man heroically saved the woman from plunging 500 feet to her death in the rapids on television. The program ended and Makia talked about her adventures, in Spanish so we could practice fluency. I waited patiently to be a resource if anyone needed it, but this evening everyone just needed a place to sleep for a bit.

At 5:30, the door opened and my friend came in looking frazzled. He said he had rushed to be here and wanted to work more on his application. He then pulled two candles out of his backpack to give to us as thanks for helping him. I was touched he had remembered the time, because he had promised he would try hard to stick to his appointments, and that he had thought to bring us little trinkets. He insisted we keep the candles and sheepishly moved his eyes back to the computer screen.

That candle burns in my apartment this week to remind me how fortunate I am to be warm and inside my apartment. Keep the hope alive :)

When I walked in, I was greeted by the sweet smell of spaghetti wafting from the kitchen.  Each member emerged from the kitchen with a steaming plate of noodles; some getting two bowls of pasta for their family seated on the couch.  The sound of Judge Mathus comingles with members’ discussions of hair color, working and baseball. Makia and I spend much of our time enjoying the welcoming environment with the members.

One of the members rushed in from work and asked us to help him apply for a job on the computer. He got a bit frustrated as we dictated the long list of directions on how to reset his password, and I began to see how hard it was to apply for jobs online.  He got confused when “” did not take him to his e-mail and became impatient as the computer took a long time to load. After thirty minutes, his ride came to take him home, and all we had done was reset his password and open the application. The application was almost as unforgiving as the process! The original website redirected you to an external website where you had to once again create a username and password. None of the work could be saved, so I reassured him that we would continue next week. He shook our hands and apologized for being so frazzled. He told us his boss had taken him out for drinks and he shouldn’t have drank. We nodded forgivingly and promised we would see him later.

Makia and I ended our volunteering quietly with a Friends episode; a hilarious episode where Rachel finds out she is pregnant and wants to tell the father. One member piped up that he has a guy friend who just found out that his girl is pregnant and they have an appointment at the Charlottesville Free Clinic (the Pregnancy Center of Central Virginia offers free and confidential services to all members of the Charlottesville/ UVA community).

The members of On Our Own sat on the steps sunbathing and cheerfully discussing current events in the unusually warm weather that Thursday. After greeting them and signing in, we giggled our way upstairs to complete the assigned organization task.

The weather makes everyone cheery, and the windows of On Our Own let in lots of natural light. We enjoyed ourselves inventorying the oddest holiday and craft supplies on a legal pad. “3 Jumbo pencils without erasers, 4 small pinecones…” The task was fairly simple and we finished quickly as a team.


Afterwards, we sat outside On Our Own and talked to the man with the purple nail polish about violence in Charlottesville, but the mood was less somber in the sunlight. He discussed the 30 hours of raw footage he had of homeless men for a documentary expose and we discussed how he should go about cutting and creating his “docu-drama”. The faces at On Our Own were new faces from the week before, and I enjoyed the easy conversation. We tentatively arranged to meet some people next week, but it really seems to depend on the weather. Weatherman, weatherman: what will you forecast for next Thursday?

I have to admit, I stared at a blank word document for thirty minutes before beginning the slow clacking of the keys. Volunteering at On Our Own for the first time was an incredibly eye opening experience and I am not sure where to begin.

First, I have a cooking lesson look forward to! Makia, the super sweet second year whom I volunteer with, admitted to a member at the program that we had never learned how to cook. He proudly told us that he had a culinary background and urged us to cook with him next Thursday when he made dinner for himself. He excitedly shook our hands and we had a date….I hope!

On August 17th, a homeless man was beaten half to death in Charlottesville and remains in the hospital for severe injuries. A very vocal man in the program recounted this and the tale of how he was slammed onto the ground and had five teeth knocked out. In the light of all the incidents occurring around Charlottesville, he cautioned me to be careful at night and that he was so grateful to have moved out of his tent. As he told me about his plans to make a documentary on the life of homeless people, he bit his purple painted nails. He candidly told us he was recovering from addiction and the program leader reminded us that they accepted homeless men and women in any stage of their recoveries. For those of you who like numbers, the 2006 United States Conference of Mayors “Hunger and Homelessness Survey” reports that approximately 26% of the homeless population is dealing with issues of substance abuse.

That number seemed quite large when various members began to jump in and tell us their stories of addiction. One man sitting in the corner caught my attention by not jumping in with his story. He asked my major and then smiled widely when I said I was an English major. He told me that he had always wanted to get his GED, but didn’t know how to read. With 99% of the population defined as literate, how had this man only been taught the basics? He shyly told me he hid a baby book at his place of residence and would love it if I would read with him since I was an English major. I smiled and fiddled with the small ring on my finger.

Each vignette I have told has an unsatisfying conclusion. You, like me, might wonder if the man will show up to teach me how to fry chicken, if the man with the purple painted nails will bring his raw documentary footage for me to look over because he thought I had an “open mind,” or even if the man in army fatigue will bring his book for us to read. I guess, my dear readers, we will find out next week! In the meantime, keep those who live in tents or on the streets in your warmest thoughts as it gets cold. On Our Own offers food and shelter during the day, but it is up to these men and women to secure a job to keep them off the streets during the evenings.

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