Cardboard Signs & Vulnerability

August 6, 2020

It’s a hot day, traffic is lighter than usual due to the pandemic, yet here he stands, in the middle of the highway. Holding a cardboard sign with black sharpie letters, telling the world his most vulnerable requests. The sign read, “HOMELESS. Need help. Willing to work.” 

He needs help. If I had cash, I’d roll down my window and hand it to him. Instead, I find myself emotional and praying for this stranger, this man on the concrete dividers of the road. 

He stands there sweaty, brave, and emotionally exposed. Most wouldn’t consider his actions brave, but I do. 

How many times can you say you’ve been valiant enough to hold a sign, for the world to see, stating your intimate needs and wishes? How many times were you bold enough to ask for help? To show up and willingly tell the world, “I can’t do this on my own. I NEED support. I need you.” 

I can’t say that I am as brave as this stranger who stands near me, pierced by the sun, and weathered by the elements. I can’t say that I’m bold or confident enough to step out and share my inadequacies and inefficiencies with the world, yet here he stands doing that very thing. 

Most look at him with judgement and ridicule. Most look at him with misunderstanding and disgust. Most look without empathy, compassion, or understanding. Do they see a man asking for help, or begging for a handout? Do they see a man scarred and broken, seeking redemption and holding on to hope? Or do they see a man unworthy of the very things he’s asking for?

I’ve heard the stories of the people who stand with cardboard signs who drive BMWs and shop at Gucci. I’m sure there are a few of those among the true needy that also hold these handmade signs. There are always outliers. But the truth and harsh reality of most of these people is that they wholeheartedly need the help. They truly need the donations, the support, and the compassion of the drivers that pass them. How much more vulnerable and determined can you be than to stand in front of the world, weak and messy, disheveled and broken, desperate for the support of strangers? 

As the light turns green and I drive away with a car full of children, food, and love. I reflect on the quick and simple stoplight lessons I’ve just been gifted. 

Lessons to ask for help when you need it, even if it’s scary and difficult.

Lessons to be brave, bold, and vulnerable, even if it brings shame and self-doubt.

Lessons to carry determination and grit, even if it looks like cardboard signs and hand-outs.

Lessons to house grace, compassion, and acceptance of the needs of those surrounding me, even if I don’t understand or relate.

This man, this stranger, probably stood there feeling defeated, ashamed, broken and messy. He has no idea that he provided inspiration and perspective to a woman driving by. He had no idea that his message, written on a cardboard sign, gifted me lessons that will carry me and push me to be a kinder human, a more compassionate human, and a braver human. 

When you stop looking in judgement, you start opening your mind and heart to the valuable lessons of strangers. Today, I left my house with a target of chicken nuggets and french fries. I ended up learning priceless lessons from a man with a sharpie and a handmade sign.

His sign read, “I need help.” and little did he know, he’d be providing the help to me. 

xox, Chels

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Chelsea Ohlemiller

Chelsea Ohlemiller

A thirty-something wife, mother and educator who has Indiana roots and a passionate spirit. Chelsea is a sappy romantic, coffee junkie, book collector, and person who wears her heart on her sleeve. She’s sarcastic, full of jokes, full of tears, and enjoys writing most when life gets messy or complicated. In 2017, Chelsea's mother passed away. Through her grief journey, she decided to take her mother’s advice and share her writing with the world. One day she gained the courage to honor her mother's wishes and write. It turned out to be one of the best decisions she's ever made.

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