Giving 5 and Getting a Lesson
Volunteering stint at WDET Radio offered a reminder that we really don't know others' struggles.
The woman I spotted bicycling along Ford Road last week was clearly down on her luck. She rode while clutching a white plastic garbage bag which appeared to contain her belongings. The clothes she wore had seen better days: two pairs of pants, a dark pair visible through the large holes in her jeans, and a too-big white sweatshirt.
She pedaled fast and a casual observer might have mistaken her for a suburban mom, with her blonde pony tail and white hoodie. The woman wheeled her bike onto the Valero lot a few minutes after I pulled in to get gas. She went to the trash bins and began rooting for returnable cans. Just an hour earlier, I'd received a WDET T-shirt for doing some volunteer work at the radio station. I asked if she wanted it.
"No," she said, her eyes narrowing slightly. Then she added, in a matter-of-fact tone, "What I really need is a pair of pants."
I remembered the bag of spare clothes in the back seat, which included a fairly new pair of jeans. I offered them, but she looked embarrassed.
"No thanks," she said. "Don't forget to put your gas cap back on."
She lifted herself back onto the bike and pedaled away. I experienced a mix of emotions — sorrow for making her uncomfortable and admiration that she was, in her own way, taking care of herself.
I've just come from participating in the Patch-AOL Give 5 day — one of Patch's core principles is community service; employees are asked to dedicate at least five days each year to helping others. (AOL pays us for those days, with the notion of encouraging us to do more.) A commitment to community service is also why Patch provides readers a way to announce charitable events and causes and call out for volunteers.
When my editor, Teresa Mask, asked last week for a Give 5 suggestion that would benefit multiple metro Detroit Patches, I immediately thought of WDET Radio.
For one, I like the emphasis on in-depth storytelling fostered by such shows as This American Life, The Moth and The Story. I like that the talk shows, such as Talk of the Nation, dig into serious issues without a lot of name calling or shouting and hosts talk to sources who represent a wide political spectrum.
I like public broadcasting, both radio and TV, for providing accessible programming to people of all incomes. In my childhood home, Mr. Rogers was a staple, as was Sesame Street. And I always recall with a smile how my mom specifically had us kids watch a show featuring the birth of a calf, a scene she used to explain the facts of life in a fairly straightforward way.
Several of my fellow Patch editors agreed to participate — with the caveat that breaking news could trump volunteering.
As it was, illness felled one volunteer and news duties reduced our volunteer numbers to myself and Novi Patch editor Rebecca Jaskot.
Our mission: help volunteer coordinator Lea Thomas and two interns, Brandon Woods and Jessica Sader, inventory and box up clothing emblazoned with out-of-date WDET logos. Rather than let the clothes molder in a storeroom, the station would donate it all to Matrix Human Services, a Detroit-based 105-year-old social services organization. Matrix programs provide help for education, employment, housing, training, literacy as well as a wellness program specifically for the elderly.
Thomas said the clothing would outfit homeless or extremely poor people with something they could wear to training, job interviews or work.
One of my friends, hearing about this project, expressed doubt. "That doesn't exactly sound like interview clothes," sniffed my friend, a professional woman with a closet full of dry-clean-only jackets, skirts, pants and pretty blouses. But half my family works in factories. I know a decent pair of jeans and a clean T-shirt, even with a logo, is acceptable for some job interviews.
Rebecca, Lea, Brandon, Jessica and I boxed up a lot of clothes, mostly wind breakers, sweatshirts and T shirts, with a box or two of baseball caps.
Two people from Maxtrix, Ray Templin, interactive media and marketing specialist, and Sonya Hedrick seemed a bit overwhelmed when they saw the stacks of boxes, 39 in all, which barely fit into the vehicles they brought to haul it away.
We all felt pretty good about the work and everyone was smiling as we left the building. On the drive home, I pulled off I-94 to make a phone call and ended up, as I often do, lost — unable to find the route back an I-94 entrance and in a Detroit neighborhood of century-old residences. Some were shabby, a few looked dangerous and a surprising number were bright with fresh paint, neatly trimmed lawns, flowers and with an occasional porch swing visible. The nicer homes would have fit perfectly into a Cherry Hill Village neighborhood.
I thought of how little we know of the people inside, of their triumphs and struggles. When I saw the woman on the bike later in Canton, I recalled a conversation last fall with Canton Community Foundation executive director Joan Noricks. She said in our own township, many families are still struggling to put food on the table, despite outward appearances, from a home and car to the clothes they wear, that everything is just fine.