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Service Learning Essay - From LAUNCH Course

Robert Chooljian Gunzenhauser  

 “Everything you want is just outside your comfort zone.” – Robert Allen

During my time volunteering at Samaritan Ministries on the morning of Saturday, August 8th, my attitude toward the Winston-Salem homeless population underwent a significant transformation. Through undertaking a rather unexpected form of volunteer work at the homeless shelter, I was able to gain a better appreciation for what exactly constitutes the needs of the homeless population, as well as what is required of a volunteer (and aspiring physician) to truly attend to those needs. Through my experiences as a volunteer at Samaritan Ministries, I have broadened the scope through which I view the issue of addressing homelessness in Winston-Salem. Warm food, a clean place to stay, a sense of community and even in some cases, medical attention, are just some of the aspects of wellness that Samaritan Ministries attempts to deliver to their, in general, middle-aged, male, homeless population. Gaining this understanding however was a process that I would like to take a moment to relate to you.

Upon arriving at Samaritan Ministries, I, along with the other ten or so volunteers, entered in through the glass doors of the Ministries’ newly completed homeless shelter. We were promptly greeted by the manager of the establishment who happened to be working that morning. While he introduced himself to all of us, I was still getting my “volunteer” land-legs. Until this moment, I had yet to actually set foot in a homeless shelter, let alone hold a conversation with an employee. I did not know what to expect. Although, earlier in the week, I had envisioned serving breakfast to members of the homeless community, and perhaps sitting down and actually discussing issues that mattered to these individuals most, these mental anticipations of that morning’s tasks proved to be as incorrect as they were unfounded. I and my fellow 2019’ers were briskly set to the task of washing windows, mopping floors, and cleaning bathrooms (which, yes, for the purpose of being a clear writer – definitely involved cleaning toilets). While the nature of the work was unexpected, there is nothing wrong with stepping a bit outside of your comfort zone. 

With mop in hand I journeyed up the staircase that began its ascension just to the left of those glass doors at the building’s entrance. Everything looked incredibly new, polished, and ready for “guests” to “check-in”. Turning the corner, I gazed across rows and rows of beds stretched across the floor of the room in a grid-like fashion, with bunk beds lining the perimeter of the walls. I was surprised at their number, realizing for the first time, how many people must sleep in this open and relatively public area. The smell of a men’s locker room hung in the space, attesting to the frequent use of its facilities. Off to the side a bathroom could be found, comparable in size and layout to one you might find in an airport. I wondered what it would be like to spend a night in these rooms, with others sleeping next to me, just a hand’s stretch away. To know what it was truly like I would have to ask someone who had spent a night here, but it didn’t seem as though I’d get the opportunity that morning. There would be so much to learn from such an individual, I wished I had been given the opportunity. Did they feel as though their sense of privacy was being infringed upon? Could they trust each other in this seemingly communal layout? Did they know each other? Or were they mostly strangers, perhaps struggling with loneliness as much as may be with unemployment? Questions that would certainly take me out of my comfort zone in asking, but answers that might better help address a person’s needs. Perhaps medicine is not so different. 

These thoughts, drifting on the floor alongside my soapy mop, slid me into another thought and into another room – a room that surprised me with its existence here. A medical ward – a small one to be sure, but nevertheless a room set purposefully aside for addressing the health concerns of those residing in this second-floor sleep center. Here perhaps, hid the privacy that outside this room failed to survive in the openness of the bedrooms. Here perhaps, behind these curtains, a physician or medical school student caught a shimmer from the true character of the evening’s attendees. I, equipped simply with a mop and a mind, could only ponder the events that transpire here every weekday evening. Would this bed space, with a curtain drawn around its occupant and attending physician, remain opaque in both sight and sound to the scenes and stories that take place within? Would this fabric-thin encasement bear the weight of secrets that might otherwise go untold, or uncared for? What would be said? What would I say? “Hello, my name is Dr. Gunzenhauser, would you mind telling me a little about yourself and how I can help you today?” Then what would I get for a response?

Would he tell me anything at all? Would I be able to help him if the underlying source of his homelessness existed beyond this curtain, this piece of cloth now drawn round us both in the oh-so definitive nature of whimsical causality? What use is a bright, white, non-waterproof coat against the dark and stormy childhood belonging to the man sitting before me? My ideas of “risk factors” that had brought this man in tonight could range from growing up in a socioeconomically depressed part of town to being raised by parents who could not offer their child the support they were hoping for and maybe that curling, tempting index-finger of illicit substances was, for whatever reason, too much to resist. Or maybe… maybe this was a poor fellow who was just down on his luck, and needed “food for the body, and hope for the soul” if only for tonight. Such histories are case-by-case. There is no one “risk-factor” for homelessness, and to point one’s own index-finger at one such risk-factor and say definitely, “This is it!” would be to douse all other factors in darkness and yourself in ignorance.

Maybe nothing would be said at all. Maybe for the occupants of this establishment, there was no good incentive to get them out of their comfort zones – even if a physician could help. I twirled my mop and walked out of the room. 

I did not see a homeless person when I volunteered at Samaritan Ministries, but I saw a lot in these rooms and in myself. I entered thinking I was going to serve breakfast. I left wondering how I, as an aspiring physician, would someday “serve” health. I also left with a lot of questions regarding the homeless population and their experiences. Questions I hope to someday answer. Samaritan Ministries taught me a lot of things. It showed me, for the first time, what a homeless shelter can be like. It showed me how privacy can be too costly, and how sometimes it is healthy, and good for you, to get out of your comfort zone and into a toilet bowl. In medical school I believe I will continue to have these “toilet bowl” moments, where I’m uncomfortable but where I recognize the importance of having a “clean toilet bowl”.

 Robert Chooljian Gunzenhauser

Robert Chooljian Gunzenhauser
Year in Medical School: MS1
Where I Grew Up: Los Angeles, California
College Attended: Harvard University
Favorite Quote: All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the forest. From ashes a fire shall be woken, a light from the shadows shall spring; renewed shall be blade that was broken, the crownless again shall be king.



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