The middle-aged, balding man was sitting in my office just staring at me with his mouth wide open and a tear trickling down his cheek.
His response to my words was so unexpected that I wasn’t sure what to say next.
The man was a federal bureaucrat who had been told to learn more about my nonprofit, which participates in one of his agency’s programs. I’d been asked to describe the typical person the my organization serves on a daily basis.
I couldn’t answer the question. We don’t have a typical client. We serve recently unemployed individuals who never expected to find themselves asking for financial assistance and apologize for doing so. We serve underemployed people who walk to their jobs on the night shift because they have no form of transportation but their own feet. We serve chronically homeless people who struggle with mental illness, families who have just arrived in America looking for a better life and individuals who don’t have the skills, knowledge or support to improve their circumstances.
Since I couldn’t describe a typical client, I instead shared the stories of a few of the individuals who have walked through our doors.
I talked about the woman who lives in a van with her five children because there is no family shelter in our town. She didn’t want to send her teenage sons to the men’s shelter while she stays with the younger children at the shelter for women and children, so she chose to live in van. With five children. She came to our office looking for a place to do laundry and to get personal hygiene items.
I told him about the family that can’t afford to pay the water bill and has no running water in their apartment. The mom has learned to tap into the main water line in the building’s basement for absolutely necessary amounts of water. When he questioned this, I told him they aren’t alone. Families in our community that do without electricity and water just to keep a roof, and not just a van, over their heads.
I told him about the woman who holds two minimum wage jobs and still can’t afford basic necessities for her family.
And that’s when he started crying and apologizing.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry I never knew.”
When I could finally respond, I asked why he was apologizing.
“Because I wasn’t paying attention,” he said. “My wife and I write checks to local charities, but we always thought that was enough. I’ve never really seen the people you are describing.”
Ironically, he was the second person that day he had said the same thing to me.
Because of that, he opened my eyes much wider than I had opened his.
My house might be in a middle class neighborhood, but I spend many weekday hours in a community of poverty. Because of that, I see the world through a very different lens than people who don’t work, or live, there.
I forget that poverty isn’t an issue about which many people give much thought. When they do, some write a check and think they’ve done their duty. Others believe that poverty is something that happens in other countries, and they participate in mission trips to serve people in other nations who are in desperate need. Some people point fingers blaming the poor for their situation, choose to look the other way or don’t understand the impact poverty has on each and every one of us, even when we don’t experience the lack of resources ourselves.
Because of my job, I never get to forget about or ignore poverty, but I don’t have to live in it. Too many of our neighbors do.
And yet they are unseen by many.
I am fortunate that I not only see them, I get to know them, their stories and their potential.
I only wish others could see it too.