Every Tuesday night I work with a volunteer at Project Forward. The purpose of Project Forward is to provide clients financial management tools and life skills that will help them deal with their barriers to re-integrating back into mainstream society.
Last night, one of the clients who attended is a man in his late twenties. Tall. Slim. Like so many other clients, homelessness caught him by surprise. He's a father. A Licensed Practical Nurse by training, but the sudden onset of 'cervical dystonia', a neurological disease believed to have been caused by a reaction to the drugs he was taking for bi-polar disorder caused the basal ganglia in his brain to mis-function. He can no longer work. Where once he could lift a 180 lb. patient with ease out of his wheelchair, suddenly he was weak, unable to control the activity of his limbs. His speech became slurred. His neck twisted, his head tilted down towards his shoulder and spasms rocked his body.
"My bi-polar disorder was causing me to do bizarre things," he said, his head tucked into his chin, his hands gripping the arms of his chair to keep them from shaking. "It was awful for my wife and kids and then, when I started taking the drugs to help me with my bi-polar, this happened. My marriage broke up. I can't work. I've applied for government assistance but I can't get it until I see a neurologist. I can't get an appointment with a neurologist for two years. My family want me to come home but my kids are here. I don't want to leave them and so I wait. Here."
He motions with his head to the room around him. We're on the sixth floor of the Drop-In. In the boardroom. A quiet place one floor up from the fifth floor where he has a transitional bed. "I'm grateful I don't have to worry about where I'm sleeping every night," he says. "But I sure wish I wasn't forced to take handouts."
He gazes out the large plate glass windows that overlook the river valley and the hillside beyond where we sit in the boardroom. The river is dark, its water's glistening with reflected light. On the hillside, lights twinkle. The sky is indigo blue. Deep. "The view sure is beautiful up here at night," he says with a smile.
He always has a positive thing to say. "It's all I've got," he says when I mention his attitude. "If I don't keep thinking positive I'll drown in this place. I can't let that happen."
French philosopher, Voltaire, wrote, "Life is a shipwreck but we must not forget to sing in the lifeboats."
For this man, life became a shipwreck because of a disorder he did not choose, did not ask for, did not want.
Yet, he's singing in his lifeboat. Smiling every day as he sits on the second floor, working as a volunteer, talking to people, trying to lift their spirits with a joke, a warm look, a listening ear.
"I always like seeing you when I'm on the second floor," I tell him. "You make me smile."
"It's your smile that makes me smile," he replies. "Guess it's true. Smiles are contagious."
He's right. They are.
In this place where so few have anything to smile about, a smile is sometimes all we can share. And yet, a smile can make a difference between seeing only darkness and despair, or the possibilities of what can happen when we shift our attitude and look out the windows at the world beyond.