I recall the day my DNA changed to include a 24th pair of chromosomes, purple blood. There I sat with several other new hires as we listened closely to the VP of Finance. It was a company we all marveled the chance to become a part, FedEx. He looked us in the eye and said, “at FedEx, we don’t care what your background, ethnicity or beliefs, as long as you bleed purple is what we care about. That is what unites all of us here at FedEx”. We were the latest round of finance analyst recruits and little did I know I would embark upon what would become a 15 year journey.
Fifteen years later, I could hear the echo from the past as I stood at the doorway about to enter the Pipkin Building in Memphis, TN on this past Friday, September 17, 2011. That is when it hit me right in the gut. I struggled to keep myself in tact as the tears swelled in the pits of my eyes. Chills ran over me as I began to scan the landscape and absorbed what was about to take place. It was at this moment I gave thanks to my creator and was reminded how grateful and fortunate I have been. On the other side of the wall was a sea of purple representing more than 600 volunteers ready to go to work.
Watching the morning news, seeing the monthly job reports and listening to the dismal sound bites among media talking heads on television and radio really did not give this epidemic any justice. To see firsthand hundreds of homeless citizens right in our backyard waiting to be escorted to receive assistance with getting connected to a host of resources was mind boggling.
Project Homeless Connect TM (PHC) was for me like no other community service project. The mission of PHC is to provide a single location where non-profit medical and social service providers collaborate to serve the homeless. And while many of us do lots of community service through other non-profit organizations outside work, there is something that puts homelessness at the core of what it means to serve. What better way to do so than with a team of co-workers who also bleed purple.
I had the privilege to meet my client for the day, who I will refer to as Michelle for this blog. In the course of a few hours Michelle and I had developed a seemingly warm and trusting rapport. We started out seeking disability insurance since Michelle had recently suffered an aneurysm and was out of work. Next we went to look for alternative housing since she is now living in a shelter. After a bit of back and forth with some of the agencies, we then went to seek employment opportunities. I must admit I found myself becoming somewhat anxious with the “system” and bureaucratic nature of securing support outside of being a Veteran or having a behavioral mental disorder. No disrespect to those in this category, but it just felt like a gap among those who were just trying to get back on their feet and return to a normal lifestyle after an unexpected life changing event that landed them on the homeless list.
After we were all done with the applications, surveys and standing in line, I told her that I really hoped our efforts to gain resources and referrals of employment contacts would lead to something beneficial for her. Michelle had told me repeatedly if she could just find a job, she could get her own place and get back on her own two feet. With a government issued cell phone she was able to make and receive important phone calls for up to 250 minutes a month, and she also had access to an email account. However, just having a job would have been more meaningful. She had no interest in long-term government assistance.
Our last stop was to obtain a quick dental exam for a few of her aching teeth. After a visit to the on-site dentist, we were able to get her a slot on the mobile dental unit to have her two infected teeth extracted. A big thank you to Katie Kitchen who was kind enough to help us avoid the cut off that had occurred earlier. If we had not gotten Michelle in on Friday, she was kindly given a list of places to visit including UT Dental which offered extractions for only $40 a tooth. Only $40 a tooth seemed like a lot of money to me for someone who was homeless.
As we strolled around and checked-in at different stations, we could not help but notice the barber shop set up in one of the far corners of the room. How good it must have felt to receive a fresh hair cut for several who wore smiles as they sat steady for the finishing touches of a lining. There was even a place set up to get a makeover for the ladies. And yes, it was full of activity. What an impressive operation.
By now it was near noon, we had eaten lunch and it was time to wrap up the day. We said our goodbyes and parted ways. While I felt like Michelle’s escort and advocate for the day, she too was helping me. She taught me a few lessons.
As I drove away from the facility, I reflected on our conversation she and I had over lunch where she told me about her determination to change her situation. She said some worry instead of praying and others pray instead of worrying and she chose to pray. She told me about how she had raised six children, who are now living with their father in another city. She demonstrated to me a lesson in humility and the importance of making the best of your situation no matter what the circumstances and certainly not to complain.
So this is my story from FedEx Cares Week. I’m sure there are many other stories told and untold. While spending a few hours standing and lobbying for my client, my day was easier than others I’m sure. Throughout the course of the day I noticed there were many families and parents that entered the Pipkin Building with babies and small children. I could not help but think of my own children while imagining how unbelievable it must be in this environment.
Perhaps Michelle was all I could handle and those with a larger tolerance for even more heartbreaking stories were better suited.
For these reasons, I am forever grateful to be part of a team that is committed to helping the community and bleeding purple.