Volunteers serving at the Rescue Mission to provide fellowship, medical attention, education, warm showers, and conversation.
The Lai family got connected with Hope For San Diego over 5 years ago and have been serving ever since. They’ve helped out at Casa de Amistad, packed backpacks with San Diego Refugee Tutoring, and gardened with UrbanLife Ministries.
They’ve seen—and helped alleviate—many different needs in San Diego. But their most recent service experience was unique, presenting distinct challenges and surprising encouragement.
A few weeks ago, the Lai family and their community group joined other volunteers to help at San Diego Rescue Mission’s annual Easter feast. They served outside as people prepared to enter. Hundreds of people experiencing homelessness lined up to receive medical care, showers, and a celebratory meal. But the true gift offered that day went far beyond the three-course meal: it was the invitation to fellowship, medical attention, education, warm showers, and conversation. Every interaction was an opportunity to say without words, “I see your dignity. You are my neighbor.”
Winston, who was helping to welcome guests to the event and guide them to the mobile shower unit, said that even the smallest acts of kindness were opportunities for connection.
“It was really good to just be at their service, to be able to help where we could,” Winston said.
He described a sense of light-heartedness within the crowds being served. People lingered and took their time, chatting with staff and volunteers as they awaited a meal or shower.
Meanwhile, Vivian and the other volunteers with medical backgrounds had their own unique vantage point on the homeless crisis. Vivian, who works as a pediatrician in La Jolla, recalls the complexities of serving these houseless individuals.
“It’s just an entirely different [patient] population,” she said. Vivian remembers trying to help one man with a wound on his leg that was so badly infected, she worried the infection would enter his bloodstream.
“It definitely needed medical intervention beyond what we could provide [on the street],” Vivian said.
After the medical team suggested the man go to a nearby hospital—and he flatly refused—Vivian learned from other volunteers that people experiencing homelessness often refuse treatment. Those in uniforms and official positions can often be perceived as threatening, which makes receiving—and giving—treatment a very complicated process.
“It makes me more aware of the lack of the things that you would normally take for granted,” Vivian shared. Things many impoverished people don’t have: access to prescriptions, regular medical care, and safe environments for healing.
That’s why Hope For San Diego and its affiliates make an effort to meet these underserved neighbors where they are, even when it makes that service more complicated.
Because she grew up in New York City, Vivian says she is no stranger to the needs of the urban poor and houseless. And yet her experience at San Diego Rescue Mission’s event still stretched her perception of what it means to be homeless. Seeing the faces and learning the names of these folks showed the entire Lai family that every person’s story of homelessness is different.
People who appeared clean and well-educated lined up to receive medical help right alongside those who appeared to have lived on the streets for a long time. The Regional Task Force on Homelessness recently reported that in February alone, 1,036 individuals experienced homelessness for the first time in San Diego County.
“I think it’s just a grander problem that I feel that I don’t have a solution for,” Vivian said. “But it definitely raises awareness of the fact that homelessness is a big problem right here in San Diego.”
She and Winston brought two of their daughters—sixteen year old Alissa, and fourteen year old Elliana—with them to San Diego Rescue Mission to expose them to the realities of homelessness in their city
“It was an eye-opening experience for them to have a different perspective regarding things they often take for granted – such as not everybody has a house, is able to go to school, or has access to food and clean showers,” Vivian said.
Seeing homelessness up close gave the Lai family the opportunity to embody their values — to serve in action, and not just in word. In turn, their daughters reminded them of the importance of being present and viewing each person as uniquely precious.
“I remember my oldest daughter was really excited because there was someone in the line who spoke only Chinese. She was really excited and said, ‘Mom! I was able to use my Chinese skills to help someone!’”
A few hours later as the volunteers were packing up, Vivian found her thoughts swirling with the rest of the tasks awaiting her at home. As she and her daughters were carrying one of the folding tables back into the church, they saw a man in a wheelchair across the street struggling to roll himself up a steep hill. Suddenly Elliana stopped, saying “Mom, aren’t you going to help him?” Vivian felt convicted that, while her own exhaustion was causing her attention to wander, her daughter was still noticing the needs of those around her.
“It’s interesting how God uses people,” Vivian said. “Sometimes it’s easy to become so busy and task-oriented that we miss opportunities to connect with others and be used by God. And I think that [happening] at the end definitely reminded me that I really need to keep my eyes open!’”
They helped to push the man up the hill so that he could enjoy the Easter meal. Afterwards, as the family processed the day, Vivian told her girls that serving others often actually blesses us even more than those that we serve.
“Even though they’re short lived, these events often help us more by changing our perspective about things.” One of those perspective-shifts was a renewed appreciation for San Diego Rescue Mission’s emphasis on long-term solutions to the homeless crisis.
Both Winston and Vivian expressed their gratitude for the day because it gave them an up-close view of the ways the rescue mission is working to end homelessness sustainably. “We’d love to go back again,” they said.