By Khyla Burrows, Community HealthCorps® Member, Salud Family Health Centers
A great advantage of serving as a Community HealthCorps® Member at Salud Family Health Centers in Colorado is the opportunity to engage in many different types of service projects. As a team we have been involved in a large variety of events with a wide range of populations, locations and goals. Earlier this month, we participated in an eye-opening and powerful community event called Project Homeless Connect in Fort Collins, Colorado. This event took place early on a Friday morning at a recreation center and was advertised to all people currently experiencing homelessness in the Fort Collins area, with the goal being to connect people to community resources that may assist them with different types of needs. The event coordinator told us that today the people experiencing homelessness would be our teachers while we were the students, as they had much they could teach us.
Each volunteer at the event was paired with a person experiencing homelessness to guide them through the event and ensure each available resource could be visited. I was paired up with Tony*, a man with an ever-present smile who turned out to be as inspirational as the event itself. I described the setup of the event to Tony to see what services he might be interested in; these ranged from a mobile medical clinic to a haircutting station to housing and job assistance. Tony knew right away that he didn’t need a medical or dental appointment and that he wanted to look through the donated clothing and shoes for articles that would be more appropriate for the upcoming summer months. As we walked around the booths, which provide assistance such as information on obtaining a cell phone, HIV/AIDS screening and legal services, Tony told me about his life and how he had come to be homeless. With great pride and some sadness in his voice, he reflected about his time in the U.S Army, being outed as being gay and being discharged. This adverse situation left him unable to easily receive veteran benefits and was left ostracized from a community and organization he had once felt so passionate about.
We then visited a veteran’s booths, which offered helpful services to all veterans, but only with proof of discharge. Upon visiting the booth, it became apparent that Tony was missing several key papers necessary to take advantage of the services provided at the event due to his current living situation. Remarkably, as we realized that Tony would be unlikely to produce these papers, he remained in good spirits and determined to explore other services that may be able to assist him.
Of the many stations at the event, the most memorable was the photo portrait station. Efforts for serving the homeless population are typically centered on providing fundamental necessities such as housing assistance, food and clothing. While the event supplied tremendous opportunity to gain better access to these amenities, it was commendable to see something offered that is so simple, yet significant as an opportunity to take photos. After watching a large family take a family portrait, Tony got eleven pictures of himself to remember the event and share with his friends. Tony was incredibly excited about the pictures and thoroughly appreciated the thoughtfulness of the organization to have the station available.
After we had visited each station I asked Tony to complete a short survey about the event with the purpose of determining whether any service should be added to the lineup in future years. Tony, being as gracious of a man as he is, politely obliged and gave me meaningful feedback on what services he appreciated the most. The last question was, “What was the best part of the event?” To which he answered without hesitation, “You. You made my day by being here with me.” I was moved by his candid response and easily responded that he was the best part of my day too. Just as the coordinator had predicted at the beginning of the day, Tony had become my teacher and I, the student. I am forever grateful for the opportunity to spend time Tony as he had taught me so much about resilience and maintaining a positive outlook on life.
*Name changed to protect individual’s privacy.