Lots of organizations like ours run on a shoestring budget, which for us often means making decisions like, should we buy coffee or cups? We can’t sell coffee without cups to put it in, but if there’s no coffee, then there’s nothing to sell. The struggle is real. Recently, I found myself laughing at the way we “make things work.”
Thanksgiving Dinner needed a sign hung on the outside of the building to let the neighborhood know the date and time. We had a roll of butcher paper, but I needed to double the size. We had no scotch tape, no packing tape, not even any duct tape. What we did have was an abundance of medical tape that someone had donated to our first aid supply. I taped the long papers together, and then when the wind threatened to blow down the sign, we used some more medical tape to stick it to the wall. That stuff is strong!
I received a text from Judy, one of our leaders, saying, “The hot water heater is leaking.” She discovered it, because it was dripping on her head. Yes. On her head. The kitchen at Joe’s is very small, so in order to fit everything in there, we hung the hot water heater up high on a wooden platform above the microwave. A man in our community has a lot of plumbing experience, so he took a look at it for me and discovered it is more than eleven years old (which makes sense, since that is how long ago we opened) and that the warranty has run out. It’s a slow leak that fills up the metal pan underneath the heater and then spills over. For the last month, I’ve been climbing a ladder every three days to scoop out the water with an espresso cup, so it doesn’t leak onto the wooden platform and then fall on Judy’s head!
The doors on our refrigerator do not close properly, and if they get left slightly ajar, condensation collects and pools inside on the bottom. Every few days, water begins to leak out and then seeps under the wall between the kitchen and the coffee shop space. When I see the little stream beginning to flow, that is the clue that it’s time for me to empty the bottom shelf of the fridge and literally mop the water out onto the floor in the kitchen. At least this ensures that the kitchen floor receives an extra thorough mopping every few days.
The other fridge started fluctuating in temperature. The health department inspector is the one who discovered this for us. Sigh. The temp was a few degrees higher than allowed. Cannot leave this problem unattended. I paid a repairman to fix it for us, because that cost $180, as opposed to $800 for a new one. Now, on the warmest setting, everything in the fridge freezes. We discovered that frozen and then thawed milk does not make good lattes.
There’s an old margarine container sitting on the shelf in the closet that catches the dripping condensation there. The bathroom exhaust fan quit working, so we keep a steady supply of incense handy. We recycle the aluminum pans that donated food comes in and add the few cents to our coffers. The building needs a good painting, and some broken tiles should be replaced. But we make it work.
What I have discovered though is that people who have grown up in generations of poverty have an uncanny ability to “make things work,” an ability that I never developed.
We receive some of the most random donations of food items, and our dear Paulette turns them into creative, gourmet delights! Recently I noticed in our freezer three large boxes of phyllo dough. We don’t have an oven, and no ability for baking large desserts. I asked Paulette, “Why did you take those? What in the world are we going to do with all that phyllo dough?” She said, “I’m makin’ lasagna!” Sure enough, one of our guys used his food stamps to purchase ground beef. Another bought some cheese, and with donated tomato sauce, Paulette put together a delicious lasagna in our large roaster. She made turkey pot pie out of it with our leftover Thanksgiving Dinner food too!
Last year, my Jeep quit running. I know nothing about cars or their engines. I just need one that gets me where I need to go. One of the men in our community is really good at fixing vehicles, so he took a look at it for me. Come to find out, the thing that was broken could only be fixed if the air conditioner was also fixed. Something about a belt that goes through the air conditioning system that then runs the whole car? Seriously? Why? Fixing the air conditioner was going to cost more than the car was even worth. So he created a work around.
When I received my car back from him, there was a new toggle switch installed on my dash board. I had to turn it on for 30 seconds or so, and then turn it off. Then turn it on for 30 seconds or so, and then turn it off. The whole time I was driving. If I forgot to turn it off, he said, my car would blow up. Or at least the engine would seize up. Something like that. No way the mechanic at the Jeep dealer would have known how to do that work around, nor would he have done it, even if he’d known how. It made for some stressful driving, but I got another year of life out of that Jeep, before it finally gave up the ghost.
One of our men who lives outside was able to receive a total hip replacement surgery this fall. Another nonprofit here in our city helped to get the donation of the surgery and a week of aftercare. It was an amazing gift to a man who had been in chronic pain for years. We were so grateful. However, when the week of aftercare was over, there was no way he could go back to sleeping on the ground in a tent. One of our ladies who runs our Free Store said to me, “I’ll take care of it, Jamie. He will have a bed in his tent.” I assumed that meant she knew we had one available, or at least she knew where to find one.
The day he was to go back to his tent, she came to me and asked if I would give a free drink to two of our guys. She told me they had worked really hard for her that day and that she thought they deserved a reward. We sometimes do this, so I told her, “Sure!” I wondered what she’d had them working on.
Later in the day, I went into our Kitchen Table space to retrieve something from the Food Pantry and noticed a mattress sitting there. Well . . . part of a mattress. It was the length of a regular full-sized mattress, but it was only two feet wide. The springs were showing where the mattress had been cut. Suddenly I realized! We didn’t have a twin sized mattress, and his tent would not fit the full-sized one, so they had cut it down to fit the size. Covered with a sheet, you’d never even know. This is how things work. Our friend said it was the most comfortable mattress he’s ever slept on.