The Stories Behind the Handprints – Albuquerque, NM

This Spring Break, I had the privilege to get to know the clients and staff at St. Martin’s Hospitality Center, a day shelter serving the homeless population, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I say “privilege” because the stories I heard were filled with vulnerability, laced with hurt, yet also full of joy- it was a privilege and honor to be trusted with these stories. Throughout the week, I heard stories that broke my heart, made me angry at the injustices faced by my neighbors, and reminded me of the resilience of the human spirit.

One of the most poignant points in the trip was when I was tasked with heading up a community art project- each of the clients had the opportunity to place their handprint and initials on the wall outside the shelter. As I watched each of the clients come up to put their handprint on the wall, I was taken aback. Many of the clients spoke of being able to finally put their name to something permanent. They spoke of losing their jobs, homes, and possessions many years ago, as well as their wallet being stolen the night before. But nobody could steal their handprint from this brick wall. Nobody could move it, nobody could take it in the middle of the night while they were sleeping. It was permanent, unmoving- just like the community of St. Martin’s in their life. Many of the clients had been coming to the Center for years and it was the only place they had that could be remotely construed as “home.” Now they had the ability to put their name on its walls.


If I told you the story behind each one of the handprints, I’d never stop. I would tell you the stories from the Native American man who spent an hour telling me about his tribe and his struggles with alcoholism. I’d tell you about the father who explained to me his shame of being unable to provide for his family. I’d tell you about the boy a year older than myself who found his way onto the streets because he developed an addiction out of his difficult childhood. I’d tell you about the woman who walked around in a Batman sweatshirt and had so much wit and sass that she lit up the entire room. I’d tell you that the hundreds of little packets of cream and sugar I handed out for coffee were needed because most of their clients got so little sleep the night before on the cold street. Most of all, I’d also tell you about the never-ending toothless grins and the senses of humor in the hundreds of clients I spoke with each day. The stories I had the privilege to hear and the wonderful people I got to journey through life with for a week will stay with me forever. I was reminded that the person you see on the street corner is not defined by their inability to pay rent- they’re a person first. A person with a past, present, and hopes for the future.

You see, those handprints are more than some paint on a wall. They’re symbolic of a sense of belonging and community. They allowed the clients to showcase their pride in their community and call a place their own. The sense of joy and enthusiasm that people radiated as they placed their handprints and initials on the wall is unexplainable. To the entire community at St. Martin’s, it was an honor to be able to place my handprint next to all of yours’.

Abby Smith
Class of 2020

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