First Impressions

by: Barbara Wheeler, AmeriCorps Assistant Coordinator

AmeriCorps Member, Gillian Douple shares some of her first impressions as she begins her year of service, reflecting on one of her many AmeriCorps responsibilities at Franciscan Outreach Association in Chicago.

* Names were changed to protect the privacy of the individuals

“When I found out I would be a full time AmeriCorps Member at a soup kitchen this year, I experienced a panorama of emotions. Excitement, nervousness, expectations of cooking—all kinds of things. When I thought about it, though, I did not expect to be doing the guests’ laundry, though my soup kitchen complex also offers one of the only—if not the only—free drop-off laundry services in the city.

Doing a person’s laundry is, ultimately, a humbling experience. There is an intimacy in cleaning a person’s dirty clothes and the information I can gather from doing the laundry itself. I know that Charles’s wife is a tiny lady with a sassy dressing taste; I know when Mike has been on a drinking binge by the level of disgustingness in his laundry; I know just how many pairs of jeans Roberto has. I know not to inhale when doing the laundry, and I know that Karen is sneaking in her friend’s laundry into her suitcase. Today, I washed Lawrence’s sheets, which were so thin that they were transparent—and now I know for a fact that he has bedbugs as well. There are even times when I can speak to a person who barely knows me and still know what type of underwear they prefer.

Doing laundry has also helped me remember the guests’ names and stories. There is something to folding a person’s clothes that helps them stick in one’s mind. Doing the laundry is a moment of trust, also: these guests are handing over the few articles of clothing that they have, expecting to receive it back intact, expecting their possessions to be returned unscathed.

One of the first few times I was on laundry duty, Julia came back in for laundry pick-up and to drop off another bag. “Oh, Julia!” I said, already writing her name down on the laundry drop-off sheet. “See, I remember your name now,” I added conversationally, mostly to myself—it is hard to remember the names of the hundred or so people we serve each day.

“At least someone does,” said Julia, and I gave her the laundry pick-up ticket. “It is nice to be remembered,” I said, and Julia nodded. In my mind, I could picture the high-waisted khaki pants she’d had washed the last time, the long-sleeved shirt she would wear over that, despite the heat. Julia does not own shorts, and, in the oppressive Chicago heat, this is a conversation piece.

When I first committed to serving in a soup kitchen for a year, I did not expect that laundry duty would figure so largely into my service, both literally and psychologically. It is humbling to see the guests in this moment of vulnerability, and it is humbling to perform such an intimate act of service. I think myself blessed to be able to connect with the guests on this level; I think it is a blessing to be able to connect so deeply with the act of serving itself.”

If you are a CVN AmeriCorps Member with a story to share, please send it to [email protected]. We’d love to hear from you!

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