The grandmotherly woman tugged gently on my arm, silently commanding me to stop walking for a moment.
“Oh, the women’s coats in the size you requested are over that way a little more, ma’am,” I said. “Would you like me to bring the rack closer to you?”
We were at St. Vincent de Paul’s second winter coat distribution, and I was just starting the process of helping Mrs. Williams* select a coat for her friend who was in need. It was the end of the day, and most of our clients and volunteers had already said their goodbyes and cleared out of the old warehouse where the distribution was held. I was pretty sure the dear lady had arrived only about a minute before the event was officially over, so it wouldn’t be a problem to move the rack for her… not to mention it could help speed up the process and maybe get everybody out the door a little sooner. After all, my toes were growing a little numb from spending the last few hours in the unheated, drafty old building. Although I had enjoyed the long morning of helping our neighbors, I was looking forward to a quiet Saturday afternoon at the VVC House. I thought through my to-do list, mentally adding that I should take a nap and do my laundry, especially since the knees of my coziest jeans were now filthy from kneeling on the dusty warehouse floor to photograph children in their new coats.
Mrs. William’s voice brought me back to the present. “Don’t worry about moving anything, honey. I’m fine walking. I just want us to stop a minute, because this is just beautiful.” She smiled and turned slowly in a circle, gazing upward the whole time. “Mmm. Look at it. Just beautiful.”
I nodded, thinking she was talking about the Christmas decorations that some volunteers had hung from the ceiling yesterday to make this warehouse, the old Young & Bertke building, a cheerier place to be. “Yeah, I think a few high schoolers came and helped put up the ornaments and things. They did a good job, didn’t they?”
“Well, yes, they did. But I wasn’t really talking about that. I meant the building itself.”
“Oh… Sorry. The building?”
“Yes, of course. Don’t you think it’s beautiful, honey?”
I wasn’t sure what to say. I almost wanted to laugh, the idea was so foreign. “Actually, I’d be guilty of saying it’s pretty horrible. The lighting in here is bad, everything is dusty, and I think it’s making me sneeze. I don’t know, the walls are gray and the paint is peeling. I feel kind of bad having people come in here, really.”
She shook her head as if she were sorry for me, then smiled. “Oh, no, don’t feel bad. You mean to tell me you’ve been in here taking pictures of kids this whole day and haven’t noticed the beauty of this place? You’re not looking hard enough. Look up. Look around. This place has power. This place has a story.”
She put her hand on my arm again and motioned for me to continue escorting her along our route to the rack of coats. With her free hand, though, she pointed out different architectural aspects she found beautiful.
“Look at that pipe up there. Someone wrote something on it, looks like probably back in 1948. Beautiful. Look at these bricks. See how the light is coming through the window right there? They don’t make buildings like this anymore. It’s beautiful, don’t you think?”
I grinned. “When you look at it that way, it sure is.”
“That’s why you have to look at things differently sometimes,” she said. “It’s called perspective. I can tell you have perspective, because you’re helping here. You see people that other folks might not see as valuable, but you see what makes them beautiful. Kind of like how I do with this building. We have to see them all as beautiful, see their story and see their potential. What’s your story?”
As we moved to picking out a new coat for her friend, I told her about how I was doing a year of service with St. Vincent de Paul.
She wanted to know how long I would be working there. “I’ll have to come visit you sometime before this August, then. After all, now that we’ve talked a while, I’ll always consider you one of my grandbabies. And you’ll remember me, I know. Just call me Grandmother. I’m so glad I met you today.”
And with that, Grandmother hugged me and took my arm again. As I helped her carry the coat to her car, she told me that what I was doing as a Vincentian Volunteer was beautiful, but all I could do was thank her for the beauty she had brought to my own life that day.
*Name has been changed.
Rachel Eldridge, originally from New Albany, IN, is spending a year with Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati, living in community with five other young adults and working full time with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Rachel splits her time putting her Communications degree to work with our Community Relations department and working directly with our neighbors in need in Social Services. Rachel’s thoughtfulness shines not only through this story, but also in her daily interactions with clients, staff, volunteers, and her VVC community members alike.
Rooted in St. Vincent de Paul’s mission and tradition, Vincentian Volunteers of Cincinnati is a faith-based, year-long, residential service program. The program provides young professionals in their twenties an opportunity to grow in faith, friendship and service by giving deeply of themselves to their neighbors in need.