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A Touching Story 

Homeless people need many things: food, clothing, shelter. But maybe what they really need is a good back rub.

Wednesday, Jul 18 2001
It is a warm, sparkling Thursday morning at United Nations Plaza, where a small group of volunteers from the Care Through Touch Institute has come to give aid and comfort to the homeless, who are, as usual, in ample supply.

The three volunteers stand on the edge of the plaza getting final instructions and a bit of street wisdom from their leader, Cynthia Trenshaw, a longtime volunteer and sometime grant writer for CTTI.

"If people's backs are turned to you, do not interact with them, because they are probably engaged in a conversation you shouldn't interrupt, or there's a drug deal going on," Trenshaw says. "We will probably be refused a few times until someone accepts a massage, and then other folks can watch, and then suddenly there will be more people than you can handle."

She cautions them to stay within eyesight, and then offers a personal experience from a previous outing. The story is meant to encourage them, although it doesn't start out that way. "I got to work on one woman sitting on a bench," Trenshaw recalls. "She was wearing a red velour coat with a white fur collar. She had purple lipstick and white powder all over her face. She looked like a used-up prostitute. I asked her if she wanted a foot massage. And her feet were horrible. Every place you touched, blood fell off her feet. So I started to massage her. She closed her eyes, and both of us kind of went to a whole other realm. And when it was finished, she opened her eyes and said, "This isn't really about massage, is it? This is about giving and receiving, isn't it?'

"And I just started crying," Trenshaw says. "She got it. She understood.

"May you all have experiences like that."

And with that, her charges venture out into the plaza, carrying their necessities -- a pillow, a towel, antiseptic lotion, and, for the potential worst-case scenario, rubber gloves -- looking for more homeless feet to massage.

The Care Through Touch Institute is a nonprofit organization that works out of a virtually barren one-room office near Civic Center. It was founded by Mary Ann Finch, a licensed massage therapist who has a master's degree from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and a decidedly spiritual bent.

The institute's purpose, Finch says, is "to touch [others] with real love and care and respect and dignity, and through our touch to offer them our unconditional regard. We have a particular focus on the most marginal, the most destitute, the isolated frail and elderly, and the dying" -- those whom Finch calls "the hidden people."

Finch founded CTTI in 1989 as a school of massage, but its current mission to the poor emerged a year later, she says, after a six-month trip to India as a volunteer with Mother Teresa. There, the famous nun told her that in the Western world the greatest poverty was not a lack of food, as in India, but loneliness and isolation. Finch came back resolved to put her talents to use with the poorest of the poor.

And so, five days a week, she and a handful of trainees and volunteers make the rounds of homeless encampments, parks, shelters, senior centers, and decaying SRO hotels, looking for the hidden people to whom they can offer a massage.

Of all the ways someone can help the homeless, a back rub may seem a peculiar choice, but Finch argues that touch is as basic a need as food, clothing, or shelter. Massage is a way to offer them simple human contact, she says, and unlike other social services, "our intention is not to fix you. You may be terribly disfigured, you may be terribly demented, but that is not a judgment. How ever you are at this moment, you are unconditionally loved and seen as perfect."

Perfect or not, it is not a job for the squeamish.

"One of the big things for people is getting used to the odors, and getting used to the physical environment in which the massage is done," Finch says. "My students always go, "Oh, jeez, this is going to be the hardest thing: the smell.' The smell of a person who maybe hasn't changed their clothes in weeks. Maybe they're a paraplegic. Maybe they can't get out of that wheelchair. Maybe all they can do is just defecate right there.

"Another issue has to do with the abscesses and the lesions and those kinds of things we see. And the way in which people violate themselves and the way in which they are violated. A person the other day, I was going to give her a massage, and she said, "Just be really careful of my back because I've been stabbed.' She pulled up her shirt, and, my God, I mean the entire midpart of her torso was just nothing but stab wounds."

Dealing with those situations takes a certain training and discipline, Finch says. "If your first inclination is to go, "Yuck!,' that person can pick that up. If they see this kind of disgust, they take that as "I am disgusting.'"

At any given time, Finch may have a dozen or so students willing to put up with the smells and sores to learn the basics of massage and Finch's philosophy of touch. Tuition ranges from $500 to $750, depending on the length of training, which can run anywhere from two weeks to several months. Many of her students, she says, come from caregiving or religious backgrounds: doctors and nurses, social workers, theology students, nuns, and rabbis who are looking for a deeper connection to their work. She also receives a few small grants, mostly from religious-based organizations. The larger corporate and foundation grants are harder to come by, because most ask for some evidence that those she serves will see some improvement in their quality of life -- evidence that Finch says she can't really provide.

Her institute runs primarily on faith, she says. "In my heart of hearts, I know that it makes a difference. Will I ever know that for sure? Maybe or maybe not. But I don't work to know the answer."

She understands that a lot of people are mystified -- if not appalled -- by the very notion of what she does, and she has tried over the years to come up with a satisfactory explanation. In the end, she says, "the only answer I can give is that I can't not do it. It's the place where I'm happiest."

Back at United Nations Plaza, the volunteers have had no trouble finding takers for their foot massages. One of the volunteers, Kathleen Fitzgerald, is already on her fourth massage by midday. Her recipients have included a Vietnam veteran named Peter, who told how his wife had committed suicide while he was on his tour of duty, and an articulate, well-read homeless man named Dean, whose feet were a festering mess of sores and calluses.

Kathleen is visiting from Ireland and studying at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley while on sabbatical from her hospital work as a Sister of Mercy. Sitting cross-legged on the ground near the plaza fountain, she is now gently kneading the bare foot of a young man named Felipe. Felipe speaks only broken English, but Kathleen is able to garner that he is recently from Guatemala and very lonely here in the U.S. He hopes to return to his country soon to see his mother and sisters.

For the most part, though, the two sit together in silence, which is broken occasionally by Felipe's repeated thank-yous. "I'm so grateful," he says, over and over. Kathleen works his feet for a good 15 minutes, and when she is done Felipe reaches into his pocket and offers Kathleen whatever change he has. She tells him to keep it, to give it to his family when he sees them.

She moves on to her next massage across the plaza, but 10 minutes later she feels a tap on her shoulder. It is Felipe, who has returned to repay Kathleen with gifts she cannot refuse: a big orange and a hug.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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