I pushed open the door to the shelter for abused women where I volunteer on Saturday mornings. They needed me to work in the donation room again.
I trudged down the steps to the basement, dreading the mess that seemed to materialize week after week. As usual I had a long morning ahead of me. Piles of women’s and children’s clothing littered the floor, waiting for me to organize them.
Why do I keep coming here every week? I asked myself. It just wasn’t as fun as when my best friend used to come with me. She had moved, and now I was reluctantly coming alone. I started plowing through the donations and organizing the usable items. I worked for about half an hour and was starting to see some appearance of order when I heard the basement door open.
I stood up, expecting another volunteer. Instead, a mother and her little girl stood at the open door. Slowly they walked down the steps. This woman and her daughter had left the man in their lives because he was abusing them. They had left in the middle of the night, and the girl didn’t have anything to wear. The woman looked tired. The child, about four years old, wore a faded, flower-print flannel nightgown. Her white-blonde hair fell in wispy tangles around her face.
After figuring out the girl’s size, finding a T-shirt and a pair of shorts was easy, but I knew that finding shoes would be a problem. The clothing was organized according to size and type. The shoes, however, were merely thrown into a large cardboard box. Discouraged, I dragged the box to the middle of the room and dumped the contents on the floor. The mother and I sat next to the pile and started sifting through the shoes. I finally found a shoe that looked about the right size. The little girl loved the shoe because, not only did it fit, but it was her favorite color—pink!
I started searching again, hoping to find the matching shoe. As I pawed through the huge pile, I began to realize the other shoe might not be in the box. As the mother began to realize the same thing, she started trying to find a different pair of shoes. I continued to look for the match, clinging to the unlikely possibility that it was hidden somewhere in the pile.
The mother found a pair of dirty red sneakers and began to coax her daughter into wearing them, but she had little success. The child had nothing: no home, no father, no toys, not even her own clothes. She seemed to need something of her own, and she had apparently decided on this pair of pink tennis shoes. To give up the only thing she had in this new place was too much for her, and the tears began to trickle down her cheeks.
Now I had to find that other shoe. Every week I came here feeling useless. What could I really do for the women I met? I couldn’t give them new husbands, new houses, new jobs, or new lives. I felt humbled by their bravery. They took their children and walked away from everything in their lives to escape abuse. If only I could find that matching pink sneaker. This little girl, who had known more sorrow in her four years than I had in my seventeen, could be a princess, at least for a while.
I went into a frenzy searching through the shoes and decided, finally, to put them back into the box one by one. I tossed a green pump towards the box, but it missed. I had to stand up to retrieve it, and as I dangled it above the box, I looked inside. There was a glimpse of pink. I dropped the pump and dug my hand down frantically. It closed around a small tennis shoe.
Is it possible I could have left some shoes in the box when I turned it over? I prayed silently that this was the shoe I needed and lifted my hand out. Yes, it was a pink tennis shoe, but was it the match? I did not dare tell the little girl I might have found it. Instead, I quietly picked up the other shoe and compared the two. It was a match! I felt like a little kid. I wanted to yell, “Look! Look what I found!” at the top of my lungs. Instead, I quietly handed the shoes to the mother, who was still trying to dry her daughter’s tears. She held the shoes and looked up at me.
“Thank you. Thank you. You can’t know how much this means to her,” she said softly.
But I did know. I finally understood. I had been coming here in search of a way to help people, and I had been frustrated with the realization that I could not change these women’s lives. I had no control over their situations, but I understood at that moment why I was there. It didn’t matter that morning that I couldn’t give the woman a job, or a house, or a husband.
What mattered was that I helped a little girl find a pink shoe.