When I walked into the women's shelter that sweltering Sunday night, there was already a slim woman huddled in the corner. I could barely make out her face as she had hid herself inside the hood of her sweatshirt. I tried to say hello but she refused to make eye contact and shifted away from me. Most of the women I've met at the shelter have been friendly and warm, but every once in a while, I run into one who is so beaten down, she can barely function. Some are mentally ill. But this was something different. This was the first time I felt fear. My immediate thought was to keep a close watch on Levi, my nine-year-old son, and to wear my pocketbook across my chest.

On the second Sunday of every month, my temple serves dinner at a local women's shelter. The women are given meals during the week but on weekends, are left to fend for themselves. The area's temples and churches all pitch in to cover those nights when the residents might go hungry. I signed up my family because I wanted to help others and because I wanted my son to get in the habit at an early age of helping others as well. Sometimes Levi would help make our end of the meal, sometimes he would help set up, sometimes he did nothing at all except accompany my husband and I while we served. But he watched and learned. Learned that not everyone enjoys his good fortune, and learned that those who are different or down on their luck are still people who could joke and talk with him, and are still worthy of respect. I wanted him to move past fear and pity, and see the person.

Which is what I was failing to do miserably on that hot night. It had to be ninety degrees in that room, and yet the woman was bundled up, glowering out from that hood. I couldn't see so much as feel two fierce eyes, daring me to mess with her. I nervously avoided her as I went about my business of setting up, and prayed that some of the other volunteers would show up soon. As if on cue, Alice, another temple member, arrived. No-nonsense Alice looked around and sized up the situation in an instant. Without pause, she loaded up a plate of food, marched over to the woman and began talking.

At first, Alice received only grunts in response. Then, slowly, the woman raised up her head and pulled back the hood. I almost dropped a plate from the shock. This was no tough woman, but a girl, maybe 16 or 18. A frightened, confused kid. As Alice engaged her, the girl slowly dropped her pose, and began to smile and become animated. She shyly accepted the food. Later, I asked Alice what they talked about and Alice related that the girl did have a job but it was minimum wage. She got behind in her rent and lost her apartment. "Doesn't she have family who can help?" I asked.

Alice smiled ruefully, "She said, 'I only have my mother and she doesn't care what happens to me.'"

Hot shame raced over me. This was a scared child trying to find her place in the world, probably kicked so many times that her only defense was to hide behind that hood. I felt admiration for her tenacity to be strong enough to still mount a pose to ward off potential threat.

I never saw the girl again after that night. I pray that's because she got back on her feet. But I think of her often, and silently thank her and Alice. I learned a lot from them that night, a lot that I should have already known about appearances and judging. This child was nothing to be afraid of -- her initial tough stance was her defense against her own fear. How easily that stance crumbled when someone bothered to acknowledge her humanity. And as a writer, I should have known that everyone, no matter how scary looking, has a story to tell.

Now that this girl has torn my blinders are off, I see the women in the shelter now, really see them. I not only serve them food, I talk and listen. There is the woman whose last job was in the World Trade Center. When it was destroyed, along with her employer's business, her tightly woven world came unraveled. She stays at the shelter because it also offers job training. "I will do what it takes to get back on my feet," she says with determination and not a lick of self-pity.

Then there is the woman with the gold earrings, khaki pants and embroidered sweater. She looks like your basic suburban mom. I had always assumed she was an employee at the shelter but no, come to find out she is a resident. Turns out she is on the run from an abusive husband. When breaking bread together, we both cast off our metaphorical hoods and see each other's faces. It's a start.

I came to volunteer in the shelter because I wanted to help and I wanted my son to learn. The extra bonus is how much I learn as well. How wide is the world when we choose to let it in.

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