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Monday, September 18, 2017

"Little Things" Can Make a Big Difference.

Living a "single serving life."

"Everywhere I travel, tiny life. Single-serving sugar, single-serving cream, single pat of butter. The microwave Cordon Bleu hobby kit. Shampoo-conditioner combos, sample-packaged mouthwash, tiny bars of soap. The people I meet on each flight? They're single-serving friends." - Fight Club, 1999

I travel about 170 days each year. I live a single serving life on the road. From the tiny packets of salt and pepper served with a "hobby kit" meal on a plane to the little bottles of shampoos and conditioners in each hotel I call home for a night or two. And if I don't use these single service amenities, I take them with me.


It's natural to simply assume I'm cheap. Well, I prefer the term frugal. But when I take most of these things home it's with a clear understanding I will never use the items I've stowed in my luggage.

What's better than collecting all of these free, small personal hygiene products from the hotels I frequent? Giving them away to someone who might need it more than I. Someone who wishes they could spend a night in a room like the one that body wash came from. I carry home my bounty, I put it in a box, and when the box is full I take it to a homeless or domestic violence shelter. I did that today.

On the Flagstaff Shelter Services "Get Involved" webpage, they have a listing for "Shelter Program Needs" and ask for Hygiene supplies:  toothpaste, toothbrushes, dental floss, razors, deodorant, lotion, lip balm, shampoo, soap, etc.

I delivered this (and more) to them today. It shook me. It has shaken me each of the many times I've made donations or volunteered at this and similar organizations. My day, my night is unlike that faced by my homeless neighbors. The night they face terrifies me.

As I drove towards the shelter today, I saw something I've seen before. It always makes me uneasy.

It was just after 3:00 pm. The shelter opens at 4:00. For many blocks I counted people walking to the shelter. Four couples, three single men, one man helping, but not "pushing" a woman with one leg in a wheelchair. This is a "ritual" each day as the clients who aren't allowed to stay in the facility return for a meal and roof over their heads for the night. It's September 18th. The Weather Channel forecasts temperature in the low 40s tonight. Not a good night to be sleeping outside.

As I approached, there were two police SUVs strategically parked on either side of the shelter about a block apart. I was cautious as I approached the vehicle. I slowed. I stopped. I slowly waved to get an officer's attention. I was probably safe. I'm white and over 50. Geez, it hurt to say that out loud, the over 50 part. The officer was standing in the open door of his vehicle pinching his shoulder radio to talk to the other officer in the distant SUV. As I waved for the third time, the officer looked at me with boredom or acceptance or relief and waved me through. It appeared as though they were done with whatever the issue was. Both vehicles were gone by the time I parked.

Before I parked I passed by the shelter and did a U-turn. There were dozens of people in the shade on both sides of the street. It's Arizona. The sun is merciless and cruel. 

I parked near the front of the anonymous building and made my way up the driveway to an open door adorned with caution tape. It looked like it was recently broken or damaged. I've never entered this way before. I usually go around back and enter through their "processing" entrance. This wasn't really an appropriate entrance for me. I didn't know the door was only open for ventilation. I just walked in an open door before I realized where it led. I stepped into the "bedroom barracks."

I walked through rows of bunkbeds with personal items on them, clothing mostly, but some with a toy, or a totem on something that created ownership, that branded the space. I was embarrassed to have invaded their space. I felt awkward. I had just stumbled into the bedroom of scores of strangers. That's not cool.

I entered an open, common area and saw a few clients who apparently didn't have to clear the facility during the day. I assumed that they provided services or assisted in running the facility or had special needs.

A man told me Chuck was the guy I should speak to. I greeted Chuck and explained that I would like to make a donation of "a somewhat large quantity of hotel toiletries." He replied "That is great. People love those small bottles. They're easy to travel with." (I call them "pocket portable.") When Chuck commented "Our clients love the small items," a elderly woman grinned ear to ear and nodded vigorously as she pushed her walker across the room.

Her enthusiastic smile motivated me to write this blog, and to start my next box of "single serving" donations.

Chuck and I walked to my car. I offered to carry the larger box and asked Chuck to grab the five or six additional bags of toiletries that didn't fit in the box. We came back through the bunkbeds. He wrote me a receipt and walked me to the door.  I shared with him that I collect these items as I travel and I think of who I'm bringing them home for.

I shared I have great compassion for people experiencing homelessness because I was briefly one of them. It was terrifying. I know what it's like to sleep in bed of my pickup truck, parked in the forest, eager to get up and go to a job interview. I pretended I was just camping. I almost fooled me. I know what it's like to shave and wash up in a Burger King bathroom before going to a nearby job interview. Luckily for me, I got that job. But it wasn't easy for the next few years as my ex and I worked our way through college with two young children.

I support Food Banks because I needed their support to feed my family at one point during college. We supplemented our groceries with government cheese and oats and the generous donations of others for a while. My children and I have used medical aid programs. I've collected unemployment checks and used food stamps.

The food stamps were so embarrassing. You know how your ignorant uncle ridicules foreign currency as "Monopoly money" because it's not all the same size and not green? Yeah, I tore my coupons from my monthly book and I used that "funny money" to buy milk and eggs for my kids. I tried to shop late at night so no one knew I needed help to feed my family.

All of my life I have had family and friends who have needed support from government programs. I guess we're socialists. Either that or we believe in helping those in need. Some say these programs are abused by lazy criminals. Fraud? A little, but that fraud is a tiny fraction compared to the millions of people the programs help. Most people do not want to go through the stress and indignity of completing the applications, interviews and reports required to get these benefits. You are "required" to prove you deserve help. That stings. It is humiliating. Most people only use these programs for a limited time. Then they are paying back into the programs for the next person who needs the services.

All I did was collect soap, shampoo and shaving cream then deliver it to a shelter for people who may need to clean up in a fast food restaurant bathroom before an interview, like me. It may help someone in a small way.

I'll keep collecting those "single service" items and passing them along. It's the least I can do.

There are other ways you can help

Please consider supporting those with less by choosing a nonprofit, charity or social change organization of your choice.

Cash is always valued but you can make an impact with a non-cash contribution as well. Alice and I discuss non-cash giving concepts in our "House of Philanthropy."

4 Non-cash ways to give.

Transaction - Buy something from them. It's the same as donating cash.

Volunteer - Just show up. Carry your bucket of water.

Service - If you have a skill, talent, or service provide it.

Goods - Give something that can be sold or would otherwise be purchased by the organization. Expense savings often equal cash donations.

Is there something you could do today that might help?


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