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A Homeless Woman Changed My Life

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A year ago, I volunteered to help with a project for women cancer survivors. I have participated in several events over the years that were geared to help restore or uplift the spirits of cancer survivors through pampering, empowerment, or patient advocacy. Diving in heart-first, I was excited to volunteer to help stamp out the stigma of cancer. At this event, I met women from diverse backgrounds on various stages of their journey with their cancer diagnosis. Some of the women had recently completed their treatments and some of them were a few years down the road. Some were well known in the community and supported by family and friends. A few were still in treatment but only one was homeless.

Enter Wanda.

Wanda was in a battle for life with no place to call her own. She was referred by her oncologists who knew about the special event. When Wanda entered my makeshift dressing room, she was a bit nervous as she gave me a once-over and checked out the surroundings packed with designer clothes and jewelry on loan to me from personal friends from around the country. As I introduced myself, I promised her we were going to have a fantastic time as I pulled my “stylist” title out of the box for her makeover and photo session. I told her about my grandfather who was the motivation for me volunteering that day.

Wanda countered my icebreaker conversation with words of her own as she told me how she wanted to look. “Not shy, this one,” I thought to myself with a smile. After our intro, Wanda tried on clothes while preparing for her photo shoot. During that time together, we talked about each others’ lives. Wanda did not hold back her thoughts and gave me quite a few old-school zingers about her observations about life from a street perspective. Her words were honesty on steroids. She shared her thoughts about “people wanting to help others when their own lives are messed up.” Hearing her priceless commentary had me roaring with laughter and deep in thought.

Wanda talked about her cancer diagnosis and her chemo treatments that seemed endless. She did not hold back about the physical and mental pain. She expressed her gratefulness to the Madison Church of Christ congregation that befriended her and took her under their wing. The more I inquired about how she was taking care of herself, the more she shared about her life and background. “Cancer was the last thing on my mind,” she said softly at one point. She had seen many trials before cancer, I was told. But those trials produced one of the most courageous women I have ever met.

When she was photographed, her inner strength and the beauty that I saw firsthand filled the camera lens. Wanda was radiant and proud. My tears flowed uncontrollably as the photographer kept telling her how stunning she was as he was encouraging her to give him her best smile for the camera. By the end of the shoot, Wanda was ready to sign with the Ford Modeling agency!

As we were calling the day a wrap, I introduced Wanda to my friend, Daphne, who was volunteering also. I told Wanda that Daphne was a dentist. With all the frankness that only Wanda can deliver, she pulled off her well-coiffed wig that was used in her beauty transformation and said, “A dentist! How come you did not introduce her to me first? I really need to visit her!” With a jerk of a wig, Wanda gave me a dose of reality. Wanda told us, in her own way, what her real needs were!

A homeless woman taught me to make sure “my good works” met the needs of those I am trying to serve. Giving a winter coat to a man who lives in the desert is an exercise in futility. A homeless woman showed me that true compassion and a willingness to listen to those who need to be heard should be at the heart of volunteering. A homeless woman had me reevaluating whether my volunteer hours were making any difference. A homeless woman had me questioning if my “good deeds” were actually meeting real needs. It might be a city flooded or hit by a tornado or a cancer patient who has no place to lay her head: in the end, we all need each other. Listening to Wanda, I learned the importance of knowing the true need of those whom I am trying to serve. Wanda taught me to listen for the real answer when I ask, “How can I help?”

I stayed in touch with Wanda and her church members. They became her adopted family and friends. They all have endless stories about the goodness of Wanda. She is well. They say she has an apartment of her own and is finishing school. Everyone who knows her tells me exactly the same thing, “Wanda changed my life!” Wanda changed my life too. Because of Wanda, I have learned that nothing in life is without purpose or meaning, even an encounter with a homeless person.

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About Genma Holmes