A Volunteer Caregiver at the Cadillac Hotel Finds Meaning in the Tenderloin
John Ungvarsky is a thoughtful, contemplative environmental scientist who retired from the Environmental Protection Agency in August 2022, and in October 2022 he began his training at Zen Caregiving Project to become a volunteer caregiver at the Cadillac Hotel in the Tenderloin.
“Anybody who has spent time in San Francisco is aware of the Tenderloin,” John said. “It doesn’t have a good reputation. It’s not the kind of place where people want to spend a lot of time. It’s in the news about fentanyl deaths, homelessness, and more.”
While John knew he wanted to serve in the capacity as a volunteer caregiver, he wasn’t sure what to expect at the Cadillac Hotel. But John also knew that there was a great need to serve there because of all of the people who are suffering, and he was open to seeing how his service would unfold.
John spends up to five hours a week at the Cadillac Hotel meeting with residents, listening to their stories and finding ways to connect with them.
In 2006, John was present with his mother when she died, and in 2016, he found himself sitting with his brother, an alcoholic, as he passed away. He discovered in both situations that being present with them as they died were some of the most powerful moments in his life. So he knew, when he retired, he’d want to find ways to sit with others in times of need.
At the Cadillac Hotel, there are elderly sick people but also a great number of middle-aged and young people. Many of the residents have been affected by poverty, homelessness, drugs, alcohol, and/or mental illness and have a desire to stay off of the streets.
They’ve been through some very difficult periods of their life that have led them to live there. They are isolated, and some don’t get out much. They feel safer being in the Cadillac.
At first, John explained, the residents wondered what the volunteers wanted from them. They were certain that there must be some kind of transactional relationship. But given time and consistent presence, John explained that they have been very successful at building trust.
“We are welcomed each Friday, and we are having a very positive impact on the residents,” he said. “It is a gift because it is teaching me so much about myself. We are touching their lives and they are touching ours.”
John acknowledges that it has been a surprise for him at how comfortable he feels being around the residents.
“Zen Caregiving Project offers us an opportunity to connect with people in need, and the most important quality for us as caregivers is being vulnerable with the residents, and in turn, they can be vulnerable with us.”