This is Reality, Not a TV Show

The A&E cable channel has a reality TV program called "Hoarders." It is described as a "fascinating" look inside the lives of people whose inability to part with their belongings is so out of control that they are on the verge of a personal crisis. Being a reality show junkie, I checked it out. As the program began, the following message came up on the screen: "Compulsive hoarding is a mental disorder marked by an obsessive need to acquire and keep things, even if the items are worthless, hazardous, or unsanitary." I watched about five minutes of it before turning it off - it hit too close to home.

Three years ago at our first parish service project with Good News Partners, Dr. Bud Ogle, co-founder and president, gathered the 30+ Holy Comforter volunteers in the Jonquil Hotel to welcome us with kind words and prayers. We sat there with our new work gloves and bottled water eagerly awaiting his instructions. He asked for volunteers for a variety of jobs: painting some empty apartments, moving a family out of their apartment because they finally found permanent housing; breaking up dangerous concrete stairs with a sledge hammer (the boys jumped on this one!); and miscellaneous cleaning. There was a lot of chit chat in the room as the volunteers tried to make their choices. Then Dr. Ogle paused and, with an almost apologetic look on his face, asked for a few female volunteers for a rather unpleasant cleaning job, one that took a strong stomach and a good heart. He warned us that it was not an easy job, but one that needed to be done. Knowing that most of the volunteers were eager to do more manual labor-type jobs, I reluctantly raised my hand, as did three other women.

After the meeting, as everyone broke into their work groups, gathered the necessary supplies, and went off to work, Dr. Ogle walked with me and the three other women several blocks to a Good News co-op building which provides affordable housing for low-income families. We were going to the apartment occupied by Judy and her son, Brian. As we walked, he told us their story. Both of them have severe health problems and are physically unable to clean their apartment. But the real issue is that they are also mentally unwilling to do it. They are hoarders. They have lived in the apartment building for years, and the neighbors complain about them quite often. He brings in a cleaning crew once a year, twice if he can find the volunteers, to at least make it somewhat habitable. As we approached their third floor apartment, he cautioned us about what we were to soon experience. After several knocks and reassurance that it was indeed Dr. Ogle on the other side, Brian opened the door. The four of us women were literally taken aback - no amount of warning could have prepared us for what we saw . . . and smelled. To put it mildly, we were horrified. The downstairs living spaces were so filled with stuff, we could barely fit in the apartment. The smell was even worse. Stunned, we were introduced to Judy and her son. Dr. Ogle assured them we were there to help and, much to our surprise, they graciously welcomed us into their "home." We put on our rubber gloves, and face masks and tried to make a dent in what was a horrible and (I hate to use this word) disgusting mess.

The apartment was filled with stuff, some new, some broken, mostly trash: computers, video games, papers, take out menus, empty soda bottles, half-eaten food, prescription bottles, books . . . everything. You couldn't see the floor or get up the stairs because of it. The kitchen, which I took on, was filled with out-of-date groceries because, Judy admitted, even though they go shopping, they eat fast food most of the time. We filled bag after bag with dirty laundry (when they ran out of clean, they would buy new) and took them down to the laundry room for Brian to wash. Throwing things out became laborious because we had to convince Judy that it was indeed trash - and there was a lot of it. The maintenance crew had trouble keeping up with the number of garbage bags we piled in the hallway. And the smell was mainly due to a mangy cat that surprised us as it came out of hiding when one of us decided to tackle the upstairs rooms. Obviously, the cat didn't have a litter box. I'm not sure that I breathed through my nose the entire time I was in that apartment.

Over the course of the day, we got to know Judy and her son. Brian looked to be about 20 years old, but had the personality of a child. She told us that when he was a baby, Brian's dad, in a fit of anger, threw him across the room, causing brain damage. Both of them are extremely overweight and have health problems, probably due to lack of personal care and nutrition. Judy could no longer get up the stairs, so she sleeps on what remains of a sofa in the living room. She buys her son computers and video games because, as she said, he's smart that way. Brian also likes comic books and music - and they have old albums that probably are worth a lot. And Brian loves that mangy cat; it's his only friend.

It took everything we had to return to that apartment after our lunch break. We decided to rally and do as much as we could for another hour or so and call it quits. When we finished and looked around, the place didn't look too bad. We had made the space livable, at least for a while.

Last November 2010, we returned to Good News for another parish service project. Dr. Ogle, who had by then "retired" as president, went through the same welcome routine and again, asked for female volunteers for a "most unpleasant" cleaning job. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and along with two others, raised my hand to help clean Judy's apartment.

Holy Comforter volunteers will return to Good News Partners on Saturday November 12, for a third time. The projects will be pretty much the same - painting, light carpentry, arts & crafts with children. And I already know that I will be cleaning Judy's apartment again. I dread it and I get emotionally upset and a bit nauseated when I think about it. But, as Dr. Ogle stresses, nobody said community service was easy. It's about digging in deep and providing the community with services they need and that make a difference, and to build relationships with those we serve. Judy needs my help and I know, in spite of the fact that the impact doesn't last long, it does make a difference to her and Brian. When she opens the door that morning and sees me, she is welcoming a friend, not a stranger. And my co-workers (Pru, Stephanie, Judy, Char, Emily) and I have a unique bond and a real appreciation for each other.

I hope you will consider participating in our annual parish community service day on November 12. It's not an easy job but it will make a difference in your life. This is, after all, reality, not a TV show.