A “Newbie” Volunteer’s First Thursday at Grace Place

[Grace Lutheran Church is privileged to host Montrose Grace Place, a safe, welcoming environment for vulnerable homeless youth of all sexualities and gender identities, providing nourishment, healthy relationships, and hope for the future. Read more about Montrose Grace Place on the Grace Place page. ]

In January 2010, I arrived in Houston to start a new job. I’ve moved around quite a lot over the years, so the idea of a new city, new job, and new friends has always been a fun adventure for me. For the first year, I was pretty focused on my job, although I did make sure to reconnect with Grace Lutheran, which I attended 15 years ago when I lived in Houston.

After developing some confidence in my job and feeling somewhat settled, it was time to investigate various volunteer opportunities. Volunteering has always been a big part of my life; it is very cathartic for me. Doing something productive that benefits others always relieved stress from my day-to-day life. Additionally, helping others, constantly reminds me how blessed and fortunate I have been in my life.

When I lived in Houston in the mid 90s, I became involved as a Youth Facilitator with a group called HATCH. At that time, HATCH was meeting at Grace Lutheran twice a week. It was the perfect fit for me; I felt that I would be able to offer myself as a role model for gay youth who were struggling with their sexuality. Boy was I surprised to find out that most of those kids were light-years ahead of me in terms of their self-acceptance! Some of them were even planning to take a same- sex date to their high school proms! Wow, a different generation, a different time…

Thus, when Pastor Lura began to explain what Montrose Grace was all about during Sunday worship service, I thought it would be very similar to my HATCH experience. So, after completing all of the required paperwork and passing a background check (I guess those bounced checks in college have finally been expunged from my record), I was ready for the full-day Direct Youth Volunteer training class. I thought “piece of cake, it will be a review of my HATCH training from 15 years ago.”

I arrived and met the other volunteers, a very diverse group. This didn’t surprise me at all, because Grace Lutheran is very welcoming and people of all shapes & sizes are openly and warmly embraced. The volunteers were handed a thick notebook, and as I began to flip through it and read the table of contents, I thought “dear Lord, what have I gotten myself into”? Some of the topical areas included crisis intervention, suicide prevention, substance abuse, conflict resolution and gang awareness! I was beginning to think that maybe I had gotten in a little over my head. The full-day session was incredibly interesting, informative (Barbara did an awesome job putting this all together), and somewhat exhausting, and I left the church that Saturday afternoon feeling enthused, but also a bit apprehensive.

I was told that it would likely be several weeks before I’d be rotated into the Thursday night lineup. Thus, I figured I had more than ample time to digest the training materials and reflect on how and why the information was necessary to be a successful volunteer. This anticipated preparation period was very short-lived; I was called two days later and was asked to fill in the next night for a volunteer who had called-off. Without hesitation, I said “sure thing”, figuring why not just jump in!

On that first Thursday evening, I arrived 10 minutes before the required reporting time of 5:30 PM because I had brought some clothes I hadn’t worn in awhile to donate to the Clothes Closet. The youth are able to “shop” each week in the Closet for items such as toiletries, underwear (hopefully new), socks, jeans, shirts and other various items. After placing my items in the appropriate areas, I joined the rest of the volunteers in the fellowship hall to begin the evening’s briefing session.

Pastor Lura, the Supervisor on-duty, ran through the evening’s plan, assigned each of us our specific roles, and reminded us to always be within eyesight of each other. The nerves began to set in! After the main church door was unlocked at 6:00, I watched with trepidation as the first youth began to file in. The first few through the door had a specific mission: get some food and something to drink! Others seemed to have more of a social need, and broke off into various groups to engage each other in animated conversation. Initially, I felt more like an observer than an actual participant in this event. I knew that I couldn’t just use my usual greeting and walk up to one of the youth, extend my hand & say “hi, I’m Greg, how was your day”?

During the initial social time before the dinner was served, I kept waiting for the really “rough” kids to arrive, or for some sort of trouble to erupt for which I would need to put my newly learned conflict resolution skills to work. This situation never materialized throughout the entire evening. What I did see was a group of youth, not so unlike the HATCH youth of 15 years earlier, who were struggling to make their way in life without the benefit of a supportive & loving family. I started to try and engage a few of the youth in polite conversation. It soon became readily apparent whether or not a particular youth was interested in speaking to a middle-aged stranger. The young man seated next to me during dinner was more interested in listening to his music than talking to me, but he did not ignore my attempts to engage him, nor was he the least bit rude.

In fact, most of the youth were very polite and genuinely thankful to have a welcoming place that provided them with hot meal and a comfortable place where they could feel safe for a few hours on a Thursday evening. As the night wore on and I began to get to know some of the youth, I was really amazed by how positive most of these kids were! Many of these youth spent the night before sleeping on the street, yet there they were, offering smiles and laughter to the volunteers and each other. I thought “wait a minute, where is the sadness, despair, and anger at the world that I had expected?” Don’t get me wrong, these kids were fully aware of the situation, and knew that they would be sent back out into the cold night air at 10:00, with the church doors immediately closed and locked behind them.

The final evening activity, the group discussion, involved a relatively small group of four young men. Most of the youth had departed immediately after the meal or after the chance to go shopping at the Clothes Closet. Pastor Lura initiated the discussion with a question that asked the youth to reflect on a recent decision they had made which perhaps was the inappropriate choice at the time. This question required them look back on recent life events and give some insight on how they had handled the situation.

Their responses gave the volunteers a glimpse into what was going on in their lives. The ensuing conversation was fascinating to listen to, especially when the young men were dialoguing directly with each other, providing advice & encouragement in a very respectful manner. Each of them spoke directly to Pastor’s question and it was obvious that they appreciated listeners who were truly interested and non-judgmental about what was going on in their lives.

The evening ended just before 10:00 PM without incident, when the volunteers said goodnight to these four young men. During the debriefing session that followed, the volunteer staff shared their observations on the evening.

As a first-time volunteer, I was asked to vocalize my thoughts, feelings, and emotions based on what I had experienced, so that I would not take home any negative emotions or distressing thoughts. I related that I was pleasantly surprised at how upbeat the evening had been and how very impressed I was by the thoughtful reflection and dialogue between the youth during the group discussion. I also felt compelled to mention that I had considered crossing a defined boundary by wanting to offer specific help to one of two of the youth. I was thinking that I could help “fix” their situation!

It is human nature for compassionate people to want to do this for others, however, I knew from training that this was strictly forbidden for a Direct Youth Worker at MGP! My role was merely to provide a caring and supportive environment, and not to provide specific help to any of the youth. Although this was very difficult for me to process, I understood and agreed with the policy. I drove home shortly after 11:00 PM, both exhausted an exhilarated; I knew I had found my new volunteer “home”.

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