For many, birthdays are one of the best days of a person’s year. You receive phone calls, text messages, emails and in-person visits from friends and family bestowing well wishes. It is a day that often gets celebrated with a party or dinner in your honor. You are given gifts of all kinds. Essentially, it is all about YOU (me/I). So then naturally, a group of us from NYC, Philly and DC decided to meet in Philadelphia to celebrate our friend Arpi’s birthday. Grand visions of big parties and trips to Vegas or Atlantic City were suggested. However, ultimately, we told her we would do anything she wanted to as it was her birthday and it was going to be a day all about her.
Arpi’s response: let’s make sandwiches and feed the homeless! We were totally floored!
Suddenly, those so called “grand” visions of partying in Atlantic City fell to the way side and greater excitement surged around this idea. We all started throwing out ideas and finally decided we would make brown bag lunches with sandwiches, fruit, cheese crackers, and bottled water. Our close friend and CF Intern Bela, who also volunteers with an organization called Be the Change in DC that provides sleeping bags and bottled water to the homeless, offered to provide special “mini-hygiene” kits of hand sanitizer, toothbrushes and toothpaste to our goodie bags. Another close friend (and guide for the day) Pankaj reached out to some local organizations to find out what areas in the streets of Philadelphia would be the best place to make such an offering. It is truly amazing to have such “noble friends…”
Fashioning her new birthday tag, a HelpOthers based “Smile” T-Shirt, we made 33 brown bag lunches Saturday morning with Arpi (she turned 33 that day, hence that specific number of lunches). After loading up the car, we made a quick stop at a temple to pray, be thankful for all that we have and to make an offering to God to bless the food and our intentions.
Our offering was definitely received, because the very first person Arpi and I came across was an individual named Bruce. He was just sitting on a bench with a torn backpack, multiple plastic bags and some of his things neatly laid out on the bench. Bruce was remarkable. He had a warm smile, inviting attitude and ended up giving us more than we could have ever given him. We learned he had been homeless for 5 years and had been born and raised in Philly. He gave us a short history lesson on Philly and the various heads of state that had come through the city.
When asked how he manages to keep going in spite of tough times, he responded with a smile and said “Hope.” Homeless for 5 years and this man had an abundance of hope! Bruce then when on to speak about how tough times just fall on folks in the most unexpected ways referring to the devastation caused by the earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown in Japan. He tried to dispel stereotype notions of homeless people being drunks or drug addicts – though some are, most are not. Some of the folks he has met are homeless due to disagreements in the home with a spouse – some of the men he knew work during the day to support their children and sleep on the streets at night as they are not welcome at home. Bruce explained that many homeless people choose to not sleep in shelters because of health and security concerns associated with these spaces. In an effort to avoid possible lice and bed bugs from the cots as well as having their things stolen, they opt to sleep on the streets instead. In the shelters Bruce has visited, storage costs $30/month. If more funding were available, there definitely exists a need to improve the services that are provided by well intentioned social service agencies. Though we wanted to spend more time with Bruce, we had more bags to distribute and more people to possibly connect with and so we took a quick picture of him and the birthday girl and moved on.
As Arpi and I approached another park, 3 homeless individuals sitting on benches with brown bags in their hands exclaimed to Arpi, “Hey, you’re the birthday girl right? Thank you so much for the bags. It is so incredible that on your birthday you are the one that is giving gifts.” We “secretly smiled as we knew that we were the ones really receiving the gifts through this opportunity to connect to so many kind people. As we looked around this part of the park, we saw more brown bag lunches everywhere – it seemed that our friends Bela, Shail and Pankaj had made their impact in this area already!
At the end of the park, we came upon a refreshing water fall, where residents of all backgrounds were enjoying the cool spray. We introduced ourselves to a young man named Jarred who had been homeless for years and was selling a special newspaper called “One Step Away.” This newspaper is unique because the reporting staff and editorial board are made up almost entirely of homeless people. In fact, one of their homeless writers just received an international journalism award. Jarred told us about how he has been homeless through most of his 20’s. After giving him a lunch bag, we asked him if he wouldn’t mind introducing us to some of his friends who would be open to our offering.
Shail, Arpi’s husband, and Pankaj met a fellow by the name of Carlos, who was wearing a t-shirt that said “We don’t do fear” which made us think how much we actually let fear drive our decisions. Perhaps we were being sent messages from the universe. Carlos was so grateful for the goodies in his bag and ate the apple right away claiming it was delicious. More importantly, he said that without the assistance of people like us, he wouldn’t know where to go or what to do. He expressed sincere gratitude to those all over who provide food and assistance to people like him.
We met many more individuals including another really nice man who was lying out on the grass with a young woman who turned out to be his wife. Close by was another man who turned out to be this guy’s best friend. They were very happy to accept our lunch bags, share their journey’s with us as they told us about their search for employment. They were thankful for resources that exist such as job centers, food banks and folks like us who care. In fact, he told us that right before we arrived, someone else had tagged him and a bunch of homeless folks in the area with fleece blankets! Today the stars were certainly aligned. Though they were touched by the food and hygiene kit, what they seemed to be moved by most was the note/letter we included with each brown bag lunch on behalf of Arpi:
My Dear Brothers & Sisters –
Today is my 33rd birthday. Though 33 is not really a monumental age, each year one becomes wiser and is able to gain clarity on what is truly important in this life. Family, noble friends and spiritual progress are at the top of the list of what is important, but the manner in which we define those terms starts to change and is re-defined as we shift from within. I can’t explain why we each ended up in our varying positions in this life but I do know that regardless of circumstance, we are all part of a single family and the divine resides inside each of us. I am you and you are me. Thus, today is not just my birthday but yours as well. Let’s celebrate this birthday together and share a meal. Happy Birthday to You!
Your Sister Arpi Shah
What an incredible few hours. We stopped by a grocery store on the way home to grab some lunch items and I remembered the smile deck card I received earlier that morning from Shail – it was the “Joker” asking me to “step it up.” Then I recalled our conversation with Bruce who said his birthday was just last month. So I bought some cupcakes and we set off to find him again. Thankfully he was in the same spot and so we sang him happy birthday, tagged him with a cupcake and an additional one to pay forward! The funniest part was he asked where the other 2 cupcakes went since the container held 4 – then he smiled and said, “Let me guess – Arpi had her birthday cake .” I was so happy he remembered our names. We asked him what he was up to and he shared how he was doing some “spring cleaning”. Because his plastic bags were breaking at the seams, he needed to reduce the stuff he carried with him. Bela noticed he was carrying newspapers and asked why he needed those. Bruce responded, some of them have really great articles and so I like to go back and reread them. Bela was humbled and thought how we take for granted our computers and being able to bookmark, email or print such articles at our convenience whereas Bruce had to decide between carrying the article vs. an article of clothing or food. As we said our good-byes, we tagged Bruce yet again with some strong sturdy bags we had in the car.
Philadelphia is also known as The City of Brotherly Love – it sure felt like that today. Thank you Bruce, Jarred, Carlos and so many others, you filled our hearts with brotherly love this past Saturday.
Arpi, Shail, Pankaj, Bela and Amit