Lessons from the Shopping Mall

The_Fashion_Centre_at_Pentagon_CityI was surprised when the Just My Size catalog of women’s undergarments arrived in my mailbox. I’d forgotten that I used my home address to ship some bras I purchased for one of our former residents and I was now clearly in their database as a good customer.

Before joining the Joseph’ House staff, I couldn’t have imagined that bra shopping would be among my “other duties as assigned.” To the contrary, however, I have now gone on several bra shopping expeditions and that first experience was one of the most important of my first year on staff.

Joanna, who returns to the house frequently for meals, laundry, and friendship, had come to me because she had no bras that fit, often causing her embarrassment when she left her apartment. In listening to her explanation for why she needed to go shopping, I soon realized how demeaned she felt at times walking into her doctor’s office or even getting on the bus. So, off we went in search of bras, neither of us knowing her size or the stores that offered the best chance of success.

We first ventured out to a large department store where the clerk measured her, but was unable to find bras in stock that fit her. She was frustrated; I was determined. After several similar outings in which her frustration at so few options stoked my own impatience, we finally decided to look online. That’s where we found bras in her size that she liked. With that, I became a Just My Size customer and she finally had bras that fit comfortably and well.

It would be a vast understatement to say that I’d never given much thought to the importance of a good-fitting bra or the challenges a woman can face trying to find one — especially a woman living in extreme poverty and with many competing needs.

I learned both lessons pretty quickly and, as it turns out, they weren’t the only ones I have learned shopping at Joseph’s House. Who knew the shopping mall could be such a wise teacher?

IMG_3479Soon after those expeditions, I began shopping for the residents’ Christmas presents using a donation from one of our friends. Among those on the gift list was Leroy, who had lived at the house for a number of months. Bedridden when he arrived, his health was improving slowly. He now went out often onto our deck in his wheelchair and asked for a new pair of very warm slippers to wear when he was outside. On Christmas morning when he opened the gift I had purchased, there was disappointment in his eyes. Confused, I thought to myself, “Isn’t that just what he wanted?”

Later, up in his room, I asked if there was a problem with the slippers. There was. He told me he really wanted rubber-soled slippers because they were better for walking outside. My heart sank. I had bought lovely, soft-soled slippers because I thought they would be more comfortable sitting in his chair. But he dreamed of walking! I knew that was unlikely – at least for as long as he lived with us. But it was his dream. A dream I knew nothing about. The slippers went back the next day, replaced with a rubber-soled pair that brought an easy smile to his face.

It wasn’t so much that I’d gotten it wrong; it was that I had not even asked. I had not given him the respect to ask him in detail what he wanted. I just assumed I knew.

So often, those who are poor have to accept what’s given to them. Used shoes, worn coats, mass-produced sandwiches, even brand new slippers unlike the ones of which they dreamed. All of these, of course, are better than nothing and some, in fact, are very nice. I think of the much-needed, much-appreciated winter coats some of our residents and friends have received from Catholic Charities’ Coats of Many Colors coat drive, where there are many fine choices.

It was Joanna, again, making her way to Joseph’s House one day in the snow in a pair of water-soaked sneakers that lit the brightest spark. Like so many others in our community, she has foot problems from years of ill-fitting or poorly made shoes; shoes often received from donation bins. Without cars, these friends all have to walk to the Metro or the bus, often waiting outside, in order to get anywhere they need to go – doctor’s office, grocery story, 12-step meeting. In Joanna’s case, she found most shoes so painful and had so few resources that she had nothing to wear but those old sneakers.

These challenges are far more than inconvenience for those we love. Without boots or coats that fit well, cold winter days and storms can mean missed medical appointments, unfilled prescriptions, or simply staying at home alone, isolated. We knew we had to do something more.

14916_791788137536426_6970040719108137101_nWe reached out to one of our steadfast friends, and with the support of the Association of American Medical Colleges we now have funds dedicated to buying good-fitting, high-quality coats and winter boots, and even women’s undergarments. Boots and coats and underwear that our residents get to pick out for themselves – the type of things that are so personal, we don’t put them on our wish list. Time and again, I have seen the satisfaction in the eyes of our friends when they have choices and the opportunity to make their own selection. The same opportunity I have whenever I walk into a store.

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