The staff members at Community Home Repair Projects of Arizona (CHRPA), the organization I am serving with during my YAV year, are required to write two stories a month about their experiences providing home repair services to low-income clients. The motivation behind this requirement is CHRPA’s belief that the best way to convey their work and impact to the general public is through the art of storytelling. Each February, our Development Director compiles stories written during the past twelve months into a book called “CHRPA Tales.” As a volunteer, I am not exempt from the two stories a month rule. Therefore, I thought this blog would be a great place to merge my writing for YAV and writing for CHRPA. Periodically, I will publish a story I wrote for CHRPA to give you a better sense of my ongoing work with this organization. Below you will find a story I wrote about a client I visited in September, during my second week as a volunteer. Enjoy!
Note: All names in this story have been changed for sake of privacy.
How do you respond when someone you have known for merely six hours shows you overwhelming gratitude, especially when you feel that gratitude is unwarranted? That is a question I wrestled with during my second week at CHRPA.
For context, I started at CHRPA with no prior experience in home repair. Before this year, the only tools I had ever used were a screwdriver, a hammer, and occasionally, a drill. During my first weeks as a volunteer, I was constantly learning about new tools and new methods of repair, and my head was spinning trying to keep it all straight. The people I worked with were excellent teachers, taking the time to answer my questions and exhibiting patience when I made inevitable mistakes. Still, my lack of prior knowledge meant the amount of help I could actually offer my coworkers on jobs was minimal. I knew this would change and I would eventually find my stride, but at first, I was constantly humbled by how little I knew.
Shortly after I began volunteering, I was assigned to assist Kelly with replacing major portions of an air duct in a client’s home. Air ducts were something I admittedly knew little about. I was fairly sure that air travelled through them, and they also seemed to be great places to crawl through buildings undetected in spy movies, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Kelly, on the other hand, has decades of experience in electrical work and a myriad of other fields, so I felt confident that the client and I were in good hands.
When we arrived at the home of Leticia and her husband, Diego, she gave us a large, warm smile and immediately offered us coffee and water. Kelly and I got to work and the project took us the entire day. We had to cut out the old ducts, retrofit and trim the new ducts to fit the space, install them, cut out parts of the wall, add new support beams, and clean up the mess we made. Kelly led the way, while I held what needed to be held, cut what needed to be cut, and swept what needed to be swept. I also listened and watched as Kelly explained each step of the process to me. Sure, I helped, but I was not an integral component in bringing back cool air to Leticia and Diego’s home.
This fact would not have been evident if you went by Leticia’s reaction. She praised and thanked both Kelly and I throughout the day, telling us how impressed she was by “our” work, and how helpful and smart we were. She went on to explain that this used to be the type of job Diego, who worked in construction for decades, could have done, but age had slowed them both down. She beamed with pride when she recounted how they had both worked hard their entire life to raise a family and maintain their home. Leticia thanked us again as we were leaving, and gave us a bag of homemade tamales, salsa, and candy for the rod.
I will admit, Letica’s gratitude made me uncomfortable at several points throughout the day, mainly because I felt it was unearned. Why should she be thanking me? She and her husband were the ones who had worked so hard to provide for their family for so long, and Kelly was the one who had the skills and knowledge to complete the job. There were times during the day when all I was doing was watching and listening. In the moments Leticia thanked me, I would smile and nod, but inside I couldn’t shake this feeling that it was somehow wrong for me to accept her thanks.
As Kelly and I were driving back, she told me something that shifted my perspective. She explained that it was fairly common for clients to offer us food or gratitude. She went on on to explain how clients often don’t want to feel like they’re being given a “handout”, and by thanking us or giving us a small token of appreciation, they feel like they’re part of an exchange of goods, not just simply being given something. I can see how this exchange creates dignity on both sides. Leticia felt grateful for our work, and she wanted to share her gratitude with us. By accepting her food and hospitality, we are validating her as a person, and acknowledging that we are not the only ones giving something to her, she is giving something to us as well.
Each week I continue to come across clients that display extravagant generosity. While I have developed more confidence in my abilities and knowledge, there is still much I do not know, and I constantly have to rely on the wisdom and experience of the volunteers and staff around me to complete jobs. One thing I do know now is how to respond when a client shows gratitude towards me, whether it was earned or unearned: a smile and a “you’re welcome”.