Hang On To Hope

By Ron Ciancutti

Earlier this year my church put together a benefit dinner for 300 underprivileged folks. We set up a large catering tent and laid in some tables and chairs, a few kerosene heaters, and a well-stocked buffet line. After everyone was served, those of us “working” the event were served as well, and we sat down to converse with some of the guests.

One gentleman was struggling, despite the help of a walker. “That’s from my diabetes,” he explained. “So far today I’ve pumped a lot of liquid out of myself, which of course indicates heart failure.” I asked if there was anything he could do about it. “Well, son,” he said, “simply put—I’m dying. Not much you can do to change that.” I asked if he had recently seen a doctor. “Young man, I’m in my seventies. I never had a wife or children. I worked as little as possible, drank more than I should have, and pretty much took life in stride every day. I’ve done everything I need to do and seen everything I need to see. Paying the piper and dying right now are about all I have left to do.” His crystal-blue eyes shone as he smiled at me. “Yes,” he said, “I’ve seen the doctor, and he has seen me. Please pass the salt.”

A Warm Nap
I walked over to the dessert table to collect the cakes and pies that had been cut and were ready to serve. As I began to distribute the sweets, I practically tripped over another gentleman who had chosen to stretch out on the floor next to one of the heaters. Indeed, the air outside the tent was rather bitter. I apologized for not seeing him there. He asked if the heaters would be on all night, and I informed him that after dinner the whole tent and facility would be dismantled. He shook his head, then nodded understandingly. “If you don’t mind, I’m gonna get a little more rest. I’ll probably be walking around tonight to keep warm, so resting now would really help.” With a lump in my throat, I offered him a piece of cake, which he gladly accepted and set next to his pack as he lay down. “Ah, now I’ll even have breakfast when I wake up,” he said, rolling over on his side.

Forgotten Gold
I emerged from the tent and went to my truck. Boy, it WAS getting cold. In the rear compartment were a few old blankets that I put on the aluminum bleachers when attending my son’s rugby games. I rolled up each one tightly and bound them with bungee cords. I had two hooded sweatshirts in the truck too, as well as three or four stocking caps. I returned to the tent and began to distribute the items where I saw the needs were most apparent. Each person was grateful and almost embarrassingly gracious; these items, which were practically forgotten in my truck, were like pure gold to the folks in need.

One lady immediately put on a sweatshirt I gave her and pulled the hood strings tight around her face. “It will be nice to have warm ears,” she smiled. “Thank you.” She explained that she had been living with her widowed mother, who was recently put in a nursing home. Her mother had employed the “reverse mortgage” financial option a long time ago, and now that she was going to stay in a nursing home, this daughter—her only child—would soon have nowhere to live. “The house is in my mother’s name, and the reverse was a blessing to us for a long time, but now there’s little or no equity left in the house. I can’t afford to turn up the heat, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to stay. I hope till the end of winter.”

My wife, children, and grandchildren were also at the dinner, pouring coffee, taking empty plates off the tables, and distributing desserts. I watched one of my sons remove his coat and give it to a man dressed in nothing more than several layers of flannel shirts. Even though it was an older coat and God knows my son had several at home. I was proud of him, yet regretful that in the past we hadn’t done more of the same. Oh, sure, we gave to many charities and contributed to several missions, but that direct contact, that “one-on-one view of it all” left a different and strong impression.

Abandonment Of Hope
The one thing all three of those people had in common was a lack of an agenda, a direction, a plan, a future, and yes, any means of hope.

Now, please understand, I am not debating the choices those people made earlier in life, which could have softened the blow when desperate moments kicked in. Clearly, people who choose to spend their youth without developing or improving themselves lay the groundwork for a difficult and challenging future existence. But what if the folks I’ve described weren’t brought up in an environment that taught them the value of a good job, a solid reputation, a savings account, or a plan for success? What if the generation or generations that raised them knew no better themselves? Very often that is the case.

Yes, there are those who lost jobs, endured fracturing divorces, and had their worlds cave in, but there were also folks who fell apart due to a relentlessly cruel world.

An Escape From Judgment
As the evening wore on, I met other people who had stories that were absolutely heart-wrenching. One man lost his young son to cancer, his wife committed suicide out of grief, and he simply lost the will to carry on. He had tried to go back to work but couldn’t keep his thoughts straight, so he left the job out of respect for his firm.  He chose the life of the homeless as a sort of “escape,” since there was no one judging him in that environment and no one to tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself and “get back in the game.” Quite simply, he didn’t think he could. I asked him how long ago all of this had happened, and he paused, reflected, and then answered that he really didn’t remember. He laughed out of embarrassment, but then looked at me seriously and shook his head. “I really, uh … can’t remember.”

I also learned that very often the underprivileged are quite religious, which stands to reason. They have the time and the need to speak with God, and I imagine that many of them pray almost continually. They often quote scripture and do so quite accurately. One fellow was adamant that I remember Mark 16:1-7, which describes what Jesus says as he emerges from the tomb, “But go, tell His disciples and Peter.”

The man kept following me, saying over and over, “Why do you think He called out Peter over the other disciples? Well, it’s because Peter had betrayed him before, and he wanted him to know there was STILL room for him, still forgiveness for those who come to the Lord. That’s the lesson for all of us!” Clearly, he leaned on this thin strand of a hopeful message to get through his day. I saw it as a desperate cry for help, like the sounds of a man who knows he should have planned better, listened to those who warned him, but only recently received the message and was now trying to recover lost time and “repent” for his errors.

Have A Heart
It’s difficult to imagine how someone can go from having a home one day to being out on the street the next. Many homeless people start with jobs and stable residences, but then social and economic factors intervene, causing a rapid change in their situations.

The two significant factors driving homelessness are poverty and the lack of affordable housing. In 2004, 37 million people, or 12.7 percent of the American population, were living in poverty, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Many of them live paycheck to paycheck, with no savings. The loss of a job, an illness, or some other catastrophic event can quickly lead to missed rent or mortgage payments and ultimately to eviction or foreclosure. Often, those who are homeless have additional conditions, such as physical- or mental-health issues or substance addiction; these issues make resolving homelessness an even greater challenge.

But for my family and me on that day, it was the acknowledgment that maybe with a blanket, a jacket, a hot meal, or a peaceful nap, given with a friendly smile, a listening ear, and an open heart, those in real need could feel good for a few hours.

Ron Ciancutti has worked in the parks and recreation industry since he was 16 years old, covering everything from maintenance, operations, engineering, surveying, park management, design, planning, recreation, and finance. He holds a B.S. in Business from Bowling Green State University and an M.B.A. from Baldwin Wallace University. He has held his current position as Director of Procurement since 1990. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at ron@northstarpubs.com.