Taking on the Rockies

1912378_10152208827572870_834156329_nI pushed open the doors, stepped foot inside the St. Francis Center in Denver, Colorado, and took a gasping breath. I turned my head up and was greeted by the sight of around 700 people staring at me. I could only think of one word to describe how I felt: intimidated. Feeling that many eyes on me, I decided to turn right and walk up to the desk that was labeled “Intake.” As I reached the desk, I was greeted with a smile and a few words, “Is this your first time here?” It hit me, then, that you never realize who you are until you are mistaken for someone else. It didn’t matter where I was from, what ethnicity I was, how old I was, ANYONE could be homeless, because it could happen to ANYONE. Make no mistake about it, I was not offended. I gained insight. I knew then how much I was about to discover.

The St. Francis Center is a homeless day shelter that provides mail services, a clothing room, access to a phone, storage, and other basic necessities like showers and laundry. All of the Denver group got split into pairs for the first two days and were assigned a location. My partner, Eric Stanek, and I were a bit disoriented as we walked into the staff break room, awaiting a coordinator to tell us further directions. After about twenty minutes we were equipped with name tags, and given our first job, the clothing room.

This was a more one-on-one interaction with the guests. Our job was to stand behind one of the counters and get t-shirts, underwear, and pants from the shelves according to what size the customers wanted. Of course being a girl, when a man is saying size 36 x 32 you are absolutely distraught over what this means. I tried to make small talk with them, smile and tell a joke. Relating to the guests was a way I could give back, let them know I wanted to be their friend, not just give them things. Like a mutually beneficial relationship, I slowly let myself gain knowledge from these people who were, in many ways, probably wiser than me. You don’t expect them to offer you anything, you are there to serve, but you acquire understanding from real events, from real people and their experience.

Our next work site for the day was at mail services. It was chaotic but worthwhile. One of my most distinct recollections was of a man named Thomas. Like every other person that came up to the window, Thomas told me his full name and asked politely if I could check his mail. I examined his I.D. to verify his name and went to search. Three minutes went by before I returned with his mail. I handed him his envelopes and wished him a nice day with a smile. He took the letters from me and said with sincerity, “Thank you Gwen. Heaven must really be missing their angel.”

He walked away while I was still in bit of a state of disbelief. I have reflected on that moment dozens of times since then, each time realizing something new. He wasn’t trying to be cliché; he was stating his gratitude for my aid. I learned that something as small as having an address to have your items mailed to, something that we might take for granted, could mean so much for someone. I found that the power of a smile might be enough to shine a light on how one person cares for you. Most importantly, I grasped how going on my service trip might not change the world, but I could make an impact, even a small one, even on just a single person.

Reflecting on your trip is a great method to experience it through the past of what happened, the present of what you learned, and the future of how you want to take that and let it change you. Being intimidated is a scary thing. No one ever really wants to be put in a situation where they don’t have full control. Sometimes you just need to let go and experience. St. Francis Center did intimidate me when I first entered, but the wisdom it has given me will continue to assist me in my future endeavors, especially service.

Gwen McElhattan
Class of 2017
College of Arts & Sciences
SBSJT 2014 Trip Participant



The CCSJ blogs are meant to be a place for Creighton students, faculty, staff, alumni/ae, and friends to reflect on their experiences with programs sponsored by the office or related to its mission. The views expressed in these reflections, and all other blogs found on or linked to from this website, are those of the individual authors and are not necessarily those of Creighton University, the Creighton Center for Service and Justice (CCSJ), or any of the University’s affiliates. The University and the CCSJ are not responsible for the actions, content, accuracy, or opinions expressed in these blogs.