76. Having Heart

76. Having Heart

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Find Your Inner Strength

Having Heart

Strength will grow from the heart, blossom as results, and wither in others’ hearts as seeds.

~Mikhael Dominico

When my husband of forty-two years died suddenly, I became one of those left-without-insurance widows. Bills began to stack up. It had been over twenty years since I had worked as a teacher and the thought of returning to the classroom scared me beyond words. What little income I made came from teaching gardening at the local community college, but there were often not enough students and the classes were frequently cancelled.

When a faculty member asked if I would be interested in teaching at a homeless men’s shelter and informed me that most of the population were felons, I was afraid. Then when I was informed that this would probably be the biggest challenge of my life, I just didn’t think I could do such a job.

Over the next few weeks, my financial situation got worse. On the brink of losing my house and my car, I decided to go back to work and conquer the fear one step at a time. At age seventy-seven, I wondered where I could get a job that would help me pay the bills. The first step would be to push through my fear and contact the college to see if that teaching position was still open. Following an interview, I was told, “You are exactly the kind of person we need for this job.”

I struggled with thoughts of what might happen. A bunch of “what ifs” filled my thoughts. What if I was attacked and raped? What if I was beat up? What if I was a failure in the classroom? But I knew I had to give it a try. I drove to the rundown section of town where the shelter was located. I pulled into the driveway and saw several men walking out from under a canopy of trees with only backpacks on their shoulders. Did they live in the woods? How did they survive? What would they think of me?

Slowly I walked towards the steps leading to a set of double doors. My heart pounded as the men walked behind me. Security was high. A guard stood behind locked doors and used a wand to detect any metal items when the men and I entered the premises. “Is this where I’m supposed to be?” I questioned myself. When I heard the doors slam shut behind me, I frightened myself to the point where I had to use the bathroom. Within seconds, a guard accompanied me to the restroom. I felt like a criminal who couldn’t be trusted to pee alone.

A recurring question kept me wondering. Do I work inside these restricted walls or do I allow fear to overcome me and forget about this job? The answer didn’t come immediately. I don’t know if it was curiosity, my need to work or my desire to teach, but I managed to get through the next three hours of classroom teaching, and I became increasingly overwhelmed by the courteous responses to the questions I asked.

“Does anyone know how to plant a tulip bulb?”

“Yes, ma’am,” came the answer from one man seated at the end of the table. “My gramma had a beautiful garden. I would like to plant a garden when I leave this place.” He smiled.

“What is a sustainable garden?” I asked.

A voice from the back of the room replied, “I know, ma’am. It’s when you grow your own food and feed the family.”

Over the next three weeks the men began to share their personal stories and I listened. Each one had been dealing with hard luck including job loss and divorce. Some had committed crimes. Several were incarcerated for DUIs. Unannounced sobriety and HIV tests were frequently given. A group of jobless veterans who had returned from Afghanistan and Pakistan were living in the shelter. With so many men without jobs and little hope for the future, I forgot about my fears. Here were people who didn’t have a home, a family, who had not seen their children for a long time. I began to share my stories with them. Soon, we formed a bond. As more men arrived, the old guard began to look out for me. “We got your back, Miss Anita,” I was told many times. “No one will harm you.”

When I shared a story about my dog getting sick and being put to sleep, I was surprised when Alan, a jobless scientist, rose from his chair and approached me with open arms. “You will be okay, Miss Anita.” He hugged me. “All of us will pray for you.” Terry, a retired veteran, handed me a wildflower he had picked from the woods. “We love you. You have heart,” he said.

When First Sergeant Glen heard about my need for money and food, he walked two miles to the nearest market one afternoon and, with his food stamps, bought me a loaf of bread, a tub of margarine, one dozen eggs and a raw cut-up chicken. “You don’t have to be hungry on my watch.” He smiled.

One day after class I found a crumpled $100 bill shoved into the first page of the teacher’s guidebook. “Who gave this to me?” I asked. My eyes welled with tears.

“Read the card,” came a voice from the back of the room.

I fumbled, hands shaking as I opened a folded paper napkin. It read:

“Nothing can touch the beauty of your soul.

Nothing can take away the love in your heart.

Nothing can stop the people who care about you.

From Your Family.”

I dried my tears. “All of you are my heart,” I told the men. “This is definitely where I’m supposed to be.”

Sometimes others can see your heart and who you really are inside. You only have to find the courage and believe that you can thrive with those whom you fear.

~Anita Stone

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