A Touching Story

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

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."

Care Through Touch volunteer and client.
Jennifer Hale
Care Through Touch volunteer and client.
Care Through Touch volunteer and client.
Jennifer Hale
Care Through Touch volunteer and client.

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.

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