When I first move to LA one of the things that I noticed immediately (plastic surgery-ville aside) was the homeless people on the streets. London certainly has its fair share of homeless, but for some reason the plight of the homeless in LA tugged at my heart even more. I guess perhaps because so many of these people to me seemed mentally or physically unwell and given the history of the healthcare system in the US (or, more accurately the lack thereof) many of these people were not homeless through their actions or choices, but were victims of a society that didn't take care of the most needy and vulnerable.
Funding for the mentally ill was cut drastically in California in the 1960's and later legislation was adopted that meant many mentally ill people were literally turfed out of safe institutions and left to fend for themselves in a world and society in which they needed protection, care and guidance which they simply didn't get. It goes without saying that the repercussions for not only these people, but for society as a whole has been catastrophic.
I would find it heartbreaking that as I went to Whole Foods to buy organic produce to eat in a lovely home I would pass people who had nothing, looked in dire need of medical care and seemed so broken, and, seemingly invisible to the masses. The stark contrast to the Beverly Hills/Hollywood lifestyle seemed beyond unfair to me and left a nasty taste in my mouth. So I decided to look for some type of volunteering role, selfishly, to make me feel marginally better about things.
The Kabbalah Center where I am a student had a program called 'LovingGivingFeeding' where they worked with Volunteers of America to feed the homeless at a shelter downtown. I eagerly signed up, pleased at the opportunity to do something hands on. The first time I went I was genuinely quite shocked. We were feeding a couple of blocks from Skid Row. I found it astonishing what a different world existed a mere twenty minute drive from my home. As I went to unpack the food from my car I was greeted by a few of the people who we were going to feed who were eagerly anticipating our arrival. They were v welcoming and largely loud and boisterous - one stuck out straight away -he was shy and had a timid air about him and an unusual face - I don't know what his mental or physical condition was but he had some type of condition which rendered him having this unusual face. He came and said hello and sweetly smiled and helped carry the food. That day was definitely eye opening and different to anything I had experienced volunteering in London at temporary homeless shelters. It was a tad more dangerous (there were a few near fights) and very raw.
As I left, being the last volunteer to leave with our group leader whom I was driving home, I spotted a dead body lying a few yards across the road. A man, half naked, probably dead for about six -12 hours (I have seen a few dead bodies in my time, long story but that's how I knew) and I had to call emergency services to come and take him away. After leaving and dropping the group leader back to her car I drove to Whole Foods to get my lunch. As I got out of the car, an elderly homeless man, barely able to walk, was crying. I stopped and asked him if I could help. He asked for some water and then cried again saying he was sorry to have to ask me for anything. I got him water, some food that was light enough to carry gave him the items and five dollars and got into my car and burst into tears. I felt so, so bad for this elderly man, for the dead man, for all these people who somehow had ended up like this. I vowed to continue with the feeding and through the Kabbalah centre would return there if not every weekend then every other weekend to feed.
Over the next six months or so when I was in LA the shy man would always greet me, with open arms to help me with the food and slowly we would talk a little. Not much more than a few words - he had a stutter so it took him a lot to even say those words but seeing him and our exchanges were the highlight of my volunteer sessions, he literally lit my heart up. Like all good things I guess it had to come to an end. The violence and fights started to become more frequent at our feeding sessions. My heart sank with each incident as I felt in my gut that this program may be forced to come to an end. One week I went to feeding and my shy friend came and greeted me as usual and asked if I would be there the following weekend for the Thanksgiving Feed. I replied that I would. When I got there the following Sunday he said, 'I have this for you' and pressed a piece of paper into my hand, looked me in the eye and without stuttering said 'thank you angel'. I was taken aback but opened the note as he walked away and shed a tear or two as I read it. The letter can be read here http://ambisitham.com/the-love-letter-from-a-stranger/
A few days later I hurt my back and couldn't drive so didn't attend the feeding. That day that I missed there had been a big fight and things had gotten very dangerous for the volunteers. As a result the feeding program was temporarily halted and ultimately a decision was made a few days later for it to be cancelled as the volunteers safety couldn't be guaranteed. I was devastated and fought with those in charge sending angry emails as I couldn't bear the thought of the program being stopped. But it did.
What I was left with was the opening of my eyes to the plight of so many that are invisible to too many, memories of the experiences I had volunteering, and of the sweet friendship I made with this man who to me, is an angel. Our connection and his note to me is a wonderful example of affection and appreciation between two complete strangers from completely different worlds, yet who both felt some type of deep connection and dare I say, love, for each other. To this day I miss my angel friend and think of his sweet face often. I wonder if he somehow knew that we would not see each other again and that's why he wrote that note - seems totally serendipitous that he gave it to me that day, that I was unable to attend the week after and then the program was cancelled. I pray that he is keeping well and wish he could know what an impact he had on my life, how often I read his letter and hold it to my heart, and how he is the inspiration for a project that I am working on to try and raise awareness of the plight of him and others in his situation.
I know that no matter what great love I have experienced since last November, and no doubt will go on to experience, the love I experienced with my angel friend will will remain with me as being extraordinarily pure - and I will treasure his note forever as a very special love letter.