This week is the last for our Education Associate from the Jesuit Volunteer Corps program, Tom Nailor. He shares some final thoughts and says goodbye here in part one of a two-part blog.
… You’ve never
done something so simple, so obvious,
not because you’re too young or too dumb,
not because you’re jealous or even mean
or incapable of crying in
the presence of another man, no,
just because you don’t know what work is.
The above excerpt from Philip Levine’s famous poem “What Work Is” seems to encapsulate, for me, something of what I’ve learned this year working at Ready, Willing & Able.
Over my time here, I have found that many people’s reactions to my job is astonishment and praise—they cannot imagine that my first job has been working at a men’s transitional housing shelter with men who have experienced homelessness, joblessness, issues of substance abuse and addiction, and any number of other challenging experiences in their lives. It continues to be something of a surprise to me as well — a surprise that I have been given such a privilege (frustrating though it has been, at times). To work with the “men in blue” at Ready, Willing & Able has not only been a wonderful joy but it has also shown me truthfully what work is. Work is, as I was told earlier this year, love made visible.
While working my way through the challenges of my senior year of high school, chief among them the college application process, I was blessed with a mentor named Mr. Simonelli. Mr. Simonelli was a gruff older man who taught my Morality course. He chewed Nicorette gum, wore the Nicotine Patch, and still found time to sneak out of the classroom to enjoy a few puffs on his tobacco pipe. Mr. Simonelli helped me to craft my college essay about teamwork, and he invited me to enjoy a formative moment in my life, though I did not know it at the time: he invited me to do service work with him. More specifically, he invited me to collect used clothing and prepare food to carry, crammed into a van, into New York City, to distribute to groups of homeless people there around midnight on a frigid February evening.
Adding to our charity, we would be making an effort to share time with the people we met, to offer our assistance and to listen to their stories. During the trip, at various times, Mr. Simonelli emphasized a few things: the importance of donating dress clothing, so that people would have attire for job interviews, but more importantly attire that made them feel good. He emphasized the difficult realization that just because you offer something does not mean someone has to accept, but that the important thing was that we offered all that we could. He joined in when I was brought to laughter by one of the men letting me know that the hot soup I was ladling out was “slammin”, and commiserated when I was brought to tears by the stories we heard. It is strange that this trip centered so much around food and clothing, around a large van, around simply sharing space with another as a form of solidarity, and how those images would replay in my time here at RWA.
The description was similar to many of the others, in the way that the language used to describe many social services is similar, but it still sounded like an amazing project. And yet, it sounded like something I would struggle with—I doubt anyone who knows me would describe me as the manliest of men. I had never experienced homelessness. I had never worked with adults in an education setting. I had never done maintenance and clean-up work, outside of short-term service projects. Hell, I had never even been on job search! Not only was I inexperienced for the work I would be doing, but how on earth would I connect with the men at all? What would we talk about? Would they want to listen to me, or would they want me listening to them? All of these thoughts raced through my mind, and yet something drew me to put it down on my list. And, lo and behold, I had my interview, and was asked to join the amazing team that works with the “men in blue”. Soon I would be packing and leaving as a Jesuit Volunteer for Philadelphia and for Ready, Willing & Able, where I would soon learn what work is.