David Kowalski leads one of our Atlanta weekly outreach teams. Read the interview below to find out why he volunteers his time in this way and how you can get involved too.
How long have you been volunteering with Lazarus?
I started volunteering with Lazarus nearly 10 years ago around 2006.
What prompted you to get involved, and then keep serving?
Originally it was because Allison (the founder of Lazarus) needed folks and asked me to volunteer, but it soon became a bigger part of my life and I started to understand Lazarus as a whole. My motivation was different than just being needed. Once I started to see people come out of homelessness and see people stay in homelessness and see where Lazarus existed in that context was what made me keep serving.
What’s the best part of leading one of the Weekly Teams?
It’s something different every week and I love that. It’s different volunteers and its different people we serve. At first it was really hard because the population you serve in Lazarus can be transient so when you think you are making a difference in someone’s life, the next week they have moved on and you never see them again. It really taught me what it means to serve and made me look at my real motivation. It’s not about what you get out of it but truly how you can meet people where they are. It’s an unusual context for serving because you don’t always see the results. I think we sort of live in an age of instant gratification on all levels, even with how we serve. We want to have success stories and we want to make it something we can put on Facebook or Instagram. Working with people who are homeless and their transient culture sort of eliminates that. That is one of the best parts, it’s taught me to look at my motivation. One of the most regular volunteers on the team I lead is in middle school, it has been so interesting to see that interaction. Its not a PG environment, but it’s the real world and its been interesting to see what that looks like for a kid to interact with people who are facing homelessness. I’m grateful his parents see the value in that and grateful he keeps coming back.
Looking back over years, is there a particular story or person you’ve met that sticks out in your mind? Someone you grew especially close with?
There was a guy named JQ that would always be there when we pulled up with the lemonade or hot chocolate. He was super bright and personable and according to my construct of society, should not have been homeless. But he was, due to some bad decisions and life circumstances. I think he taught me a lot about what it means to treat people like a human being and not as a homeless person or anything else for that matter. He was just a normal human being that happened to be homeless at the time and we had normal conversations. We struck up a friendship and I would check in on him and how his job interviews were going and he eventually got a job in IT and moved to his own place. Few things will give you more hope in the world than to see someone transition out of homelessness. To see the excitement when they have an interview and get a job or when they find a place of their own.
What do you see as the biggest impact Lazarus is making, short-term and long-term?
I think Lazarus bridges the gap for a lot of organizations. If you let it, serving with Lazarus will teach you a lot about humanity. I think anybody who volunteers on any level would tell you that it helps you more than it helps the other person which has been 100% right for me. I think short term, we hopefully make people feel included. Long term, hopefully we help people get out of the cycle of homelessness. We don’t give out food and we don’t give out homes, but hopefully we give them a moment where they don’t feel “homeless” and feel like a normal person deserving of dignity. Whether they get out of homelessness or not, I hope we make them feel valued.
What advice would you give new volunteers, or people looking to begin serving with Lazarus?
Stick with it. It’s not an instant solution, but it has impact. You need to stick with it and put your heart in it. Learn the people’s names. Learn their problems. Pray for them. That is advice to myself too. The same goes for any other context in life.