Even though it was only 5 p.m. it was already dark outside. I was wearing a heavy jacket but my nose was red and my ears numb. There was a slight breeze and I couldn't wait to get inside.
I passed a few guys having one last smoke before dinner, and said a quick hello. I knocked twice on the door and was quickly relieved of the December night. I walked into the kitchen, which felt like a sauna, and saw many familiar faces. I threw off my coat, put on an apron, and quickly got to work.
It was Wednesday, which meant it was spaghetti day. I glanced through the doorway into the so-called dining room and saw a line of 30 people: old men and women, moms, children, young couples, blacks, whites. It was 5:45 p.m. and dinner began at 6 p.m. The other volunteers and I scattered to finish last-minute details. One by one the people went through the line, getting as much food as they could.
When dinner was over, they handed me their dirty trays. I smiled and told each to "Stay warm" or "Have a good night."
The dining room emptied until there was only one man left. He stood, grabbed his tray, and slowly walked toward me, keeping eye contact the entire way. He handed me his tray and smiled. He started to leave, but turned. He looked at me and said, "You, you must be an angel. You can look me in the eyes without getting nervous or looking away. You come here week after week and keep smiling. Most pass us on the streets and don't even glance at us, as if we're not human. We may be homeless, but we're still people. I just wanted you to know that I appreciate what you do, and that you're always smiling. I also appreciate your acknowledgment. You treat us like normal people. And for those reasons, to me, you are an angel." The man finished his touching speech and left.
I still remember that night even though it was years ago. It was these words that kept me coming back to the homeless kitchen, and it is because of that man that I still volunteer. A little gratitude can go a long way. It makes me want to try harder and do better, and hopefully make a difference.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.