Friday, March 10, 2006


Starting about a month ago, I have been volunteering with a Spanish organization called Solidarios. It organizes volunteers to work with lots of different marginalized groups, like the elderly, homeless, immigrants, etc. I am working with a program where I go, one night week, with a group of five other volunteers, around Madrid talking to various homeless people. We bring sandwiches and coffee, but the main point is to talk to them. We go at night, when it is cold and people probably are most in need of visitors, and the idea is to give people who are usually ignored an opportunity to have a normal conversation with friendly people, hopefully mitigating some of the isolation and marginalization usually suffered by homeless people.

This has been a really productive experience for me. Aside from the fact that I like to be able to contribute something to society when I can, it is a great way for me to practice my conversational skills. My group (all Spaniards) is good about explaining stuff that I didn't understand, and they also answer my gajillion questions about grammar, culture, Solidarios, Madrid, or whatever.

It is so interesting just to talk to the homeless people, too. One woman that we visit every time looks and acts just like your average grandmother, except that she lives on a set of concrete steps behind an apartment building. She hit her eye with a corner of one of the boxes in which she keeps her few possessions, and she has had a bruise for a couple of weeks. Thanks to Spain's universal healthcare, though, she has been to see a doctor about it a couple of times, and she has drops to put in her eye until it gets better. Another of our regulars lives on a park bench, where he runs in place for a good part of the night just to keep warm. We visit one older woman in a homeless shelter. They usually limit the amount of time you can stay there, but she is so sick they are letting her stay indefinitely. The last two times we have visited her she has slept (sitting up) basically the whole time we were there, rousing only to ensure we are all seated near her, and to kiss us goodbye.

Some of the people we encounter we don't really know; they just gather at one overnight shelter, and we talk to them for a bit. Last time we went out, we gave some hot chocolate to a man who could barely walk (much less hold the cup without spilling its contents) because he was so intoxicated. At the same time, we were approached by another man only slightly more sober, who went off on some spiel about women which I am pretty sure would have offended me had I been able to understand all of it. In that area there is also a group of young men from Cameroon who live in a sort of old storage area in a park. Many of them speak only French, picking up Spanish on the street. The other volunteers told me that those men spent two years trying to get to Spain from Cameroon, which is pretty far away. They walked from one city to another, stopping to work for a bit. After all that, they live in a park here, unable to get any kind of steady work without immigration papers. I can't imagine the life they had before, that they would rather take their chances in Spain.

The person who most intrigues me also lives in that area. He has a mattress under a large bridge - his "palace." He is from India, and his English is better than my Spanish. His Spanish is pretty good too. He has recently gotten a job as a guard, I think, though I don't know exactly what it is he does. His only friend is another woman who lives under the bridge, who spends most of the night dancing energetically to Michael Jackson music on her walkman. He seems quite educated and relatively healthy. What stands out to me, though, is his attitude. He is constantly optimistic. If I were living under a bridge, I think I would be bitter, especially if I spoke three languages and were qualified to hold any number of jobs. He's not, though. I don't know whether to be saddened at his predicament or inspired by his approach to it. I suppose questioning the stereotypes is what this experience is supposed to make me do.


At 8:55 PM, Blogger Amanda Dugan said...

I am so impressed with your service, Kendra :) Although I am sure no matter what you would be bitter living under a bridge I think it is awesome that you are doing service work. I miss you ;) Too bad I can't come to Spain for my Spring Break (unlike others I do not have family affiliated with Delta or a grandpa with loads of frequent flyer miles, although I am presenting at a conference in San Antonio, going to the lakehouse, and visiting Charleston instead. But none of those have you!)

At 9:11 AM, Anonymous Aunt June said...

Kendra--I hadn't read your Blog for a while and was really impressed as I caught up tonight! Thank you so much for sharing photos and experiences. Your efforts in helping the homeless could even be used right here in Chico. Take care. Love, Aunt June

At 1:17 AM, Anonymous Dad said...

I like your thinking, Kendra. Keep it up.


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