The Spirit of Volunteerism

Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free … " This phrase keeps running through my head. It's the day after Art From the Streets, the annual art show and sale of work by clients at Austin Resource Center for the Homeless (A.R.C.H.) and this phrase is running through my head.

I'm thinking about Heloise Gold, who started an art class at A.R.C.H. Eventually, there was so much art, she created Art from the Streets to sell the work and give all the proceeds to the artists. That was eight years ago. Never once has she wavered in her commitment to this program.

I'm thinking of other people in our community who regularly give their time to people who, for whatever reason, need help. People like Sandra Martinez, Ana Sisnett, Malcolm Greenstein, Peg Kramer, and Wisdom. I'm thinking about the upcoming holiday season. I'm thinking about the whole notion of giving that gets lost along with the credit card receipts.

I'm thinking all these thoughts, and still, that phrase from Emma Lazarus' poem, "The New Colossus," at the base of the Statue of Liberty, is running through my head.

The way Lazarus writes the poem, she rebukes Europe's socially stratified, war-mongering society and hails the woman at our gates as the Mother of Exiles who "cries with silent lips, 'Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp! Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door.'"

Fiery words for a young woman from a wealthy New York Jewish family in the 1800s. But by the time Lazarus wrote the poem in 1883, she was done with being a drawing room poet and pleasing litterateur. Her eyes were open to what was happening to Jews in the world and she was writing commentaries and essays attacking and responding to anti-Semites of the day. She was a regular visitor and volunteer at Wards Island, where she learned of the Russian pogroms of 1881-82 from the Russian Jews who landed there.

I can imagine Lazarus standing on Wards Island as the sun was going down waiting to ride a ferry home. I can imagine her mind reeling from the insanity recounted by Russian Jews. I can imagine her seeing the Statue of Liberty under construction and identifying with this woman standing tall and welcoming a people whose very edges of their psyche were under siege. I can imagine her penning a very deft and poetic tongue lashing to the perpetrators of this crime while thinking, "Come here. I'll minister to you. I'll listen to you. I'll welcome you." And she did, until her death four years later.

I think that's why this phrase is playing in my head. Because people who give their time, their love, their support to people whose lives are made different because of it hold up a kind of beacon, not just to the people to whom they offer a safe harbor but to the rest of us, who need to be reminded of the better parts of ourselves.

I know there are many people and organizations who make our community better for their giving. Far more than the six profiled here. If we missed someone you think shouldn't be, then use the article as a catalyst. Call them up, tell them yourself how valuable you think they are. -- Lindsey Lane

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