This time I just smiled gratefully and said thank you. On the other occasions I had sought public assistance, I had always felt compelled to explain my fall from grace. The fall being, namely, from their side of the desk to the one I now found myself on. And so I would say, I have a master's degree! I used to refer OTHER people to Metropolitan Ministries myself!
I would get one of two reactions: a sympathetic but detached murmuring of sympathy, or a blank look of the sort that said, "I would sympathize with you but I'm a single parent and between my student loan garnishments and feeding my children, it is all I can do to make my check stretch and keep our heads out of the water ourselves."
I know both reactions because I've given them to clients myself. I have also given money out of my own pocket, rides to the store and my baby's hand-me-downs.
Ten years ago I was an idealistic, poor but happy and hardworking single mom who was there for all my clients out in the field and twice as much as I picked my infant son up from the babysitter at the end of a long day.
While I had been pregnant, I had advocated for poor pregnant women during the day and balanced heavy trays at night at an Italian bistro in Tampa's Hyde Park. One day at my day job, my water broke and I was immediately taken to the hospital by ambulance to deliver my baby. I was back at both jobs within 10 days, handing my son over to the care of a gift from God, a grandmotherly woman who quickly became a surrogate mother to us both.
We didn't have much, but what we had we shared, and food always appeared on the table and the lights stayed on. My son, though he spent long hours at the babysitter's while I worked, was safe and warm and loved in both places, and attached to my hip every waking moment otherwise. We had all we needed.
But when the economy tanked my job went with it, followed not long after by our brand-new home. Our little choo-choo train broke down. That's when I went from one side of the desk to the other.
But today, I was touched and humbled by the effort Metropolitan Ministries made to treat recipients of aid with respect and dignity. Volunteers swarmed the tent, offering smiles, cookies, candy and juice.
A huge, gaily decorated tree towered near the secure children's area filled with toys, snacks, activities and supervision. There was a makeshift chapel where one could sit for a moment of peace and clarity, or perhaps be shared in prayer with a volunteer.
I was guided to my "personal shopper" to help select the allotted food. He smiled warmly, shook my hand and looked me in the eye. I felt significant, valued. He proudly introduced us to his preteen daughter Abby, who displayed lovely manners and a boundless enthusiasm to dig in and help out. I didn't feel compelled to explain my situation, because I knew it was understood. This was one human, of many humans, reaching out to give another a hand up, because he was standing on firmer ground.
So I just said thank you and Merry Christmas as I looked him in the eye and shook his hand again. We had fallen on hard times, and we were gratefully accepting help from this caring village.
I'll get back to work, I thought, back to the business of using my skills, education and experience to help others who need a hand up and perhaps some guidance.
And so when I went to pick up my Christmas assistance from Metropolitan Ministries I didn't feel the need to justify and explain how I have come so "low" in life. I just accepted these helping hands as I shored up my strength. I would keep sending out resumes, and one of these days soon something is going to come through for me. I will be back on the other side of the desk, crammed in a broom closet or cubicle of whatever underfunded and overworked agency that hires me.
I will be the smile that reassures a struggling single mom who for the first time is seeking help putting food on the table.
Amy Rogers, who lives in Tampa, works for a nonprofit organization that focuses on maternal health care.