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Shedding the apron of protection

Madelyn Sullivan
Preston Utley/Vail DailyMadeylin Sullivan, a senior at Vail Mountain School, says she's learned much for life from her yet-to-be finished senior project.
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I have traveled to The Grant Avenue StreetReach program in downtown Denver as a volunteer for the past four years, but it was not until this spring that I took the first step to immerse myself in the lives of the people I served and to try to become a friend to the homeless.

I first went to StreetReach as an impressionable middle school student and found that this “soup kitchen” of sorts offered a new universe ” a new world that teemed with sordid odors, eccentric faces and obscure voices all enveloped and illuminated by the fluorescent lights of a church basement.

During the past four years, I wore a black apron with “StreetReach Volunteer” written across the chest that identified me and, at the same time, separated me from the people I tried to help.

During the spring of our senior year at Vail Mountain School, we are given the opportunity to embark on an independent senior project. I elected to craft a creative project that would combine my love of photography with my dedication to StreetReach.

My original intention was to document the people who are part of Grant Avenue StreetReach, both volunteers and consumers, but I found that the process of documentation, as scientific and clean as it may sound, does not always allow for adequate room for relationships and bonds formed between the documentarian and his or her subjects.

On April 4, I made my third trip to the soup kitchen as a documentarian and not a volunteer. When I arrived, I was greeted with smiles and hugs from the people I had befriended and previously interviewed. Irvin, a regular at Grant Avenue, said he had a gift for me and walked off only to return with a trinket the size of a small journal.

It was a folding clock, with a face on one side and a place for a picture on the other, all surrounded by a delicate frame of inexpensive gold-colored plastic.

This clock now sits on my desk at school, the picture slot filled by a print I made of Irvin a year ago. It is a symbol of the value of our friendship. I never look at the face of the clock to tell the time ” the second hand moves much too fast, but the black-and-white image of Irvin surrounded by the garish plastic frame tells more than the time ever will. His gift to me was not a clock or a machine that keeps the hour, but a memory and a keepsake to remember the conversations we have had.

When a new group of high school girl volunteers entered the soup kitchen during my last visit, donning the signature black aprons, I was struck by the friendships I had formed.

Suddenly, uncomfortably, I found myself on the other side. I was no longer a volunteer with a job to do, dishes to clear, tables to bus, but one of the regulars, relaxing on the outside patio of the soup kitchen. As I looked at these timid adolescent girls, who clearly did not know how to respond to the people they were helping, I felt amusement as well as a sense of pride and a bit of arrogance at belonging to this intimate group of people drawn together by the harsh realities of life.

The double perspective made me dizzy and confused. At first I was startled to find myself bristling at the presence of these new volunteers, then I realized that my defensiveness came out of an intimate attachment to the people I had befriended, and not a sense of hostility toward the girls.

I wanted these girls to try to see the users of the soup kitchen as people, to drop their force fields of fear and let them into their lives. The signature black apron separates the well-off from the poor in many ways, but the day I took the time to remove that protective material and psychological boundary, I discovered compassion instead of pity and friend-

See Apron of protection, page 2

ship instead of friendliness.

I discovered myself with in these people. I realized that there are no real boundaries between the homeless, poor and the middle class or rich, because most of us are transient members of these varying social classes. No matter how many college degrees I get or how many well-paying jobs I take, there is no guarantee that I will not end up on the street someday. We owe it to each other to see one another as human beings, and not as members of different socio-economic classes. I firmly believe that if everyone befriended an impoverished man, woman, or family, no one would be homeless or hungry. A friend cannot deny another friend these basic human needs, but a middle-class citizen can easily deny these needs to a lower-class citizen.

When I embarked on my senior project, I was scared that I would fail as a photographer, as a documentarian and as a human being. The responsibility I undertook to document the lives of people who are no less fragile or sensitive than anyone else terrified me.

I have not yet finished my senior project, nor have I completely resolved the burning guilt I feel that I may be exploiting the lives of the people I so desperately want to help and respect. But I have begun to explore the complex concept of documentation and what it implies. More importantly, it is through this documentary project that I have shattered a self-imposed barrier that prevents me from helping others in times of need by taking off my black apron and taking a seat at their table.

Vail Colorado


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