46: A Sort of Shelter

46: A Sort of Shelter

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Volunteering & Giving Back

A Sort of Shelter

The challenge of history is to recover the past and introduce it to the present.

~David Thelen

I checked my e-mail again. Still no answer from the local women’s shelter I had contacted about making a book donation. I stared at the box of Stephen King novels on the floor. I had volunteered to be a World Book Night giver, and tonight was the night. I wondered if the shelter’s lack of response was due to the fact that the book I offered happened to be a horror novel. I didn’t think that should matter. A literary escape was a literary escape, after all. As it happened, this very story had been my own sort of shelter once upon a time.

It was a young volunteer at a Huntsville, Texas women’s shelter who had given me my first copy, years ago. My mother and I, homeless and terrified — she of her schizophrenia demons; me of her, and what would happen to us if she didn’t find some place for us to call home again soon — had stayed at several shelters over the previous couple of years. We had disappeared off the map; none of our family or friends knew where we were as we attempted to escape the illusory “them” my mother was so obsessed with. Of all the places we had stayed, the shelter in Huntsville was by far the most comfortable and homey.

This was our summer “on the run,” and I was fifteen.

Allie, a young twenty-something from the local college, volunteered at SAAFE House in Hunstville to gain experience and volunteer credits toward her college degree, but I also think she did it for the connection. She loved the women, broken and timid and strong as we were, and she always brought a sense of “everything’s going to be all right” with her when she was there. She was smart, warm and funny, and I took to her instantly.

“Have you read The Stand?” she asked me one sunny afternoon as we sat listening to the local college radio station. Allie let me hang out with her in the office while she did paperwork sometimes. There weren’t any other kids my age in the shelter at the time, and even though my stay was to be only a few short weeks, she treated me like a kid sister.

“Not yet. I want to. My boyfriend back in North Dakota said it was good.” A weighted response, but I tried not to let her see just how heavy. He had been my first love, and I’d had to say goodbye on a Burger King payphone, so “they” couldn’t trace the call. I hadn’t even been able to call my best friend. I’d had to rely on my confused and heartbroken boyfriend to do that for me. North Dakota represented all the love and hope and stability I had left behind.

Allie nodded knowingly. Always intuitive but never intrusive. That was Allie.

“You’ll love it. It’s long, but really good. There’s a lot in this.”

She handed me a fat, well-worn paperback. I held it in my hands like a sacred tome.

“Good books make real life more bearable,” she told me.

I laughed, knowing that was true, but not really understanding why.

“Even horror stories?” I said, holding up her gift.

Allie smiled, nodded again, and said, “Especially horror stories.”

I started reading it that very day, and by the time I was halfway through, Mom and I were back in the car, heading to who-knew-where. But I had my book — this brave tale about good standing against evil, about love and truth and loyalty. And I was just a girl reading a novel, like thousands of other high school girls. That book, and many others after, would carry me through some very dark nights. I wished my momentary friend and benefactor, Allie, a silent farewell and hoped she wouldn’t worry too much.

Suddenly inspired by my memories, I called our local Youth Services chapter that helps and houses homeless teens.

“Of course, we’d love the books!” said the chipper twenty-something on the phone. That young voice reminded me of Allie. I wondered what she did with her life, and if she still, after all these years, worked with women at the most vulnerable times of their lives.

I hung up and saw I had a Facebook message. A friend wondered if I had a few copies I could throw her way as she had a small group of “regulars” at her soup kitchen who would be thrilled to receive them. They had formed an informal book club. Her regulars didn’t have homes, but whenever they could get them, they read and shared books with each other. I understood. It is during our most desperate times, when we must struggle for the very basics of life — where we’ll sleep, how we’ll find shelter, when we’ll next eat — that we need stories, art and songs the most. Humans require a well-fed soul to inspire us to keep our bodies moving, to have the will to live.

I loaded up my box of paperbacks, tearful yet elated. I had found my recipients. I could share not just any story, but this story. Maybe it would make a difference. Maybe it could be for them what it had been for me — a sort of mental nightlight to keep away the shadows and silence the internal, fearful chatter.

Someone’s going to need this, I thought, as I drove to hand out touchstones to the homeless, beacons to the lost and courage to the scared. It was my way of telling people I didn’t even know, “you are not alone; you are not forgotten.”

~A. K. Francis

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