This morning, to kick off my 26th birthday, I got up at 4:45am and finished baking a praline-topped french toast casserole for breakfast at Hilda’s Place, a transitional shelter for the homeless. This was a first for me in a few ways.

I’ve volunteered at Connections for the Homeless, the non-profit that operates Hilda’s Place a few times previously, but this was my first opportunity to prep and serve a meal by myself. Actually, it was my first time sitting down, eating, and talking with homeless people. (It’s safe to say I’ve led a pretty sheltered life.)

I’m not sure what I expected, but what I got was a mix of disturbing truths and banal chatter. We talked about movies we’d seen recently, our hobbies, where we’d lived. A number of residents were very curious about the hours at the Northwestern library.

One guy asked me how it was outside.

Oh, you know, cold, I said offhandedly as I poured myself some orange juice. (It was 5 degrees F with sub-zero wind chill.)

Yea, I’m telling you, that’s how you die of exposure, he replied, equally casually. It’s too bad the library closes at 3 on weekends. (Residents cannot return to the shelter until 6pm each evening.) Then we went back to talking about his next job interview and the shortcomings of the local bus system.

Up to this point, I had only an intellectual understanding of the difficulties faced by the homeless during winter. I’ve read the New York Times articles about Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s controversial order to remove homeless people from the streets during extreme weather. But I’d never viscerally appreciated the fact that normal people, no different from my friends and family, actually freeze to death outside in the winter. (Think Progress puts the number around 2,000 people per year. That is fucking insane.)

On a different level, this is the first time I’ve volunteered simply because it seemed like a good idea, without immediately adding it to my CV or fellowship applications.

In the past, I’ve tutored veterans in community college chemistry classes, mentored underrepresented minorities in their first lab research experience, judged science fairs and facilitated Science Olympiad competitions, all because that’s what I’m supposed to do. Because it is relevant to and appropriate for someone in science or engineering grad school who wants NSF broader impact brownie points.

I never worried about the true social utility of these service projects, only that they appeared meaningful, a means to an end. If benefits accrued to some underprivileged group, that was nice too. I’m sure some people I volunteered with genuinely cared about advancing the cause of women and minorities in the sciences and stuff like that, but most people were like me: just going through the motions.

I’m not suggesting that making sausage and eggs for a handful of homeless dudes on an arbitrary day of the year has a greater social impact than the mentoring and science-oriented stuff I’ve done before. The difference is that I’m thinking critically about the effect of my actions. I understand the small-scale, community-oriented service work I’m doing right now is a mostly an exercise in building compassion. This work gives me a broader perspective, and that will hopefully enable me to pursue projects with greater utility in the future.

For the first time in my life, that’s truly what I want. It’s not enough anymore to ensure my own safety and comfort. I want to create social utility and affect positive change.


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