We like to think that we don’t prejudge people. In fact, after 18-plus years at St. Vincent de Paul, I was sure the admonition to “put judgment in your back pocket” had sunk in.

So, to acknowledge this Thanksgiving holiday, I’m thankful for an incident that reminded me I seldom wear back pockets.

It was early September. Victims had already fled the Holiday Farm Fire, and stunned valley residents were doing what they could to cope and help. Mountains of donations had amassed, ranging from practical to the “What were they thinking?” category. Regardless, those who gave just wanted to help.

St. Vinnie’s was asked to apply one of its specialties: Organization, storage, and distribution of goods in a former mini-mall at 4 Corners. For a few eventful days, forklift drivers and administrative staff worked alongside volunteers to sort items into categories and sub-categories and set them out so recipients could walk through and make their selections.

The goods were donated on behalf of fire victims and would go only for that purpose. My co-worker Alli and I contemplated this on opening morning as we peered through tears in papered windows at the rough-looking line forming outside the door. We knew in our hearts of hearts that, while some were bound to be fire victims, many were not. Once the doors opened, it would be up to Alli to greet, ask questions, serve some, and turn others away while I wrung my hands.

Alli was already in tears. She didn’t go into nonprofit work to withhold anything from anybody. In her view, homeless is homeless regardless of the cause, and helping people in that situation is what we do. To say “no” was unthinkable.

I stood by in panicked paralysis, images of the recent mayhem near the Washington-Jefferson bridge looping in my mind. If we were to turn people away, no matter how dire their circumstances, would we then be stuck inside that old building as glass shattered and flames climbed the walls?

Obviously, I had watched too much news. I sent a frantic mayday to co-workers at the nearby Lindholm Service Center then bolted to the back of the building to summon our tall, beefy forklift driver. He could stand behind Alli, look tough, and give teeth to everything she said, I reasoned.

By the time I huffed and puffed back to the front, the crowd was dispersing. Staff from the Lindholm Center had hit the waiting line first, calling out individuals they knew to be regular clients of St. Vincent de Paul’s homeless services, telling them, “This is for fire victims. You know better.” The clients muttered as much as they shuffled away, but no, we couldn’t blame them for trying.

A county employee had stationed himself at the entrance, armed with addresses of properties affected by the Holiday Farm Fire. People who couldn’t rattle off a qualifying address couldn’t get past him.

We watched as the line dwindled to a handful of fire victims who had made the trip from east Springfield. Clearly, 4 Corners was too far from the hub of fire-related response to be effective so the whole operation was relocated.

What stuck with me, though, was my peering through holes at a group of people — people like me but far less fortunate – and expecting the worst. While I called for crowd control and a bodyguard, others simply stepped up, looked people in the eyes, and communicated the truth. Crisis resolved.

My experience holds a lesson we can all learn from, and it doesn’t belong in anybody’s back pocket.

By Judy Hunt