People like us

Last week I signed up for my first United Way’s Day of Caring. Microsoft is a huge sponsor, with very high employee participation and a whole month focused on employee giving, so I was very much looking forward to it.

Although for latinos there’s something not right about caring for just “one day”, the concept is very impactful because of the scale. While I was in Ecuador, we did something similar during Christmas, which actually became one of the most important moments of the year for Ailé and me, but at 0.1% the volume of support we could do here.

After some discussion, my team chose to volunteer at the University District Youth Center, a youth shelter located in Seattle. The shelter has several programs, but it’s devoted only to the youth, and particularly the homeless youth. It’s the kind of people that you really wouldn’t want to give up. If there’s a group that can go through everything, and one that should not back away, it’s that one!

I showed up there in the morning, with work gloves as requested, and everyone started to put together the projects for the day: kitchen, back stairs, front yard, etc.

I volunteered for the bathroom – which ended up being one of the most, if not the biggest project of the day. I really didn’t know what the bathroom was used for. I just jumped in. Patrick was my partner, a Microsoft engineer specialized in Labs. He briefed me on the plan for the day: tearing the bathroom apart and rebuilding it. Heh. For someone who pilgrimages to Ikea, the idea of tearing things apart and rebuilding was daunting.

But it was one of the most rewarding experiences of the year for me!

Getting everything out of the bathroom was easy. With the right tools, I unbolted the heart out of that bathroom in just a few minutes. We had to paint and recaulk, but first we needed to derust and plaster. And before that we needed to clean. I figured I could use a face mask and some safety glasses, particularly for derusting the heater that looked out of a 1950’s movie. After derusting, I started removing the old caulk.

It’s not the first time that I volunteer “hands-on” but this time I really, REALLY didn’t know what the bathroom was used for, nor what the project actually was all about. Was the bathroom used by people with communicable diseases? Or maybe by people O/D’ing, puking all over the place? Or by drug addicts? Or maybe by people who got stabbed or shot? Had someone died in that bathroom? Or someone gone into labor there?

And then it hit me: the reason why our team chose this place is because it benefits people that you don’t want to give up. You don’t want them to back away. It’s people like me, or like you. People like us. And if we had to take showers for decades in moldy tubs where someone else peed, puked and pooed, we could take any project!

Decaulking a rotten tub is not a pleasant experience, using screwdrivers, razors and even your nails to take nasty stuff out. And my next project was to buffer the tub with a heavy duty cleaner/polisher that took all the goo and concentrated it in swirls of nastiness. And after that, caulking again. And then painting and splattering paint all over ourselves, and then power cleaning the floor, replacing the curtains, drilling new holes and bolting new stuff back.

When we realized, we were 2 hours overdue for our project. Most people had left, it was about 5 PM. As I was scrambling to find some materials, someone asked me if I knew what the bathroom was going to be used for. I said no. And then they explained that homeless youth would live in their cars, and park in the shelter to use the bathroom. They would take a shower, clean their clothes, get some food, and keep going. The bathroom was actually the only place with walls and ceiling that they had. It provided an essential service that allowed them to, for example, keep working. And something that most of us give for granted.

Just before we finish, a young couple shows up. They ask for food and someone gives them the leftover subs from our lunch. While they eat, they peek at the bathroom and comment how classy the new heater in all-black paint looks, and how clean and new everything looks. It’s all worthy then. They deserve a shiny tub, new caulking, fresh paint, a hot meal and an opportunity. I pat Patrick in the back while we wrap up – it was a good day!


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