On Helping Others

I read an article from CNN on a Californian veterinarian who treats the pets of the homeless for free. I sent the article to my dad because we’d been talking about unconditional love on the drive home from dinner the other day, when we saw a homeless man and a dog crossing the street. The dog looked to his owner before crossing, during, and after. He didn’t stray more than a foot or two from the man. It was amazing to see the loyalty they had in one another.

Humans are social creatures by nature, and dogs are pack animals, so it makes sense to me that the two would stick together out on the streets. Dogs are, after all, man’s best friend.

Reading the article got me thinking about what I perceive other people need. I learned a lot about homelessness when volunteering in San Francisco, and my mom has taught me a lot through her involvement with Room at the Inn. If I were to pack a ziplock bag with things to give to someone living on the streets, I would pack a water bottle, granola bars or trail mix, socks, bandaids, sunscreen, and hand sanitizer or Lysol wipes. I’d pack that bag thinking of someone that functions like I would function: a mouth full of good teeth, conscious of my need for protein and carbs throughout the day, and always cold (hence the socks).

That’s not the reality of most homeless people. They don’t have access to good dental care. Some of them have never been to a dentist in their lives. If you don’t have good teeth, eating crunchy food is painful. And here I was, thinking that a granola bar or trail mix would be the best option for someone because of its fat to carbs to protein ratio.

Maybe bandaids and sunscreen would be helpful, but it’s barely even a dent into the medical care they actually need. As for socks? I hadn’t even thought about cotton versus wool.

Another thing I hadn’t taken into account is the need for companionship. I had seen people living on the streets with animals, most commonly dogs, but it never occurred to me to help them while helping their owners. Kwane Stewart, the veterinarian from California, saw and met this need when he set up a table at a soup kitchen after the 2008 economic recession. His mission is to keep people with their pets, rather than separate them and put the pet in a shelter.

For myself, something I need to work on when volunteering or doing pro bono work in the future is to ask “What do you need?” rather than assume. No matter how many social studies people run, no statistics can tell people what a stranger needs in that moment.

How do you go about helping others?

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