Garbo started volunteering at COTS a year ago, fulfilling a promise she’d made to herself back in high school.

Then, recently arrived from Singapore, she’d volunteered to help clean up a creek. She and her classmates bagged plenty of trash, but they also found evidence that the creek side had recently been a home. She remembers that one cache of belongings included a pair of tattered shoes and a dirty blanket. Seeing them, she had tried to imagine what life had been like for their owner. Later, she came across encampments, which opened her eyes. “It was all very tight and unsanitary,” she says. “It upset me to see how people lived. I wanted to help.”

After graduating from college and while taking a few years to work in the health sciences field, Garbo started volunteering at COTS once a week in the evenings.

She works with lead cook/volunteer Patricia Moats, and says the experience has been nothing less than “phenomenal.”

“People there are nice and sincere. It’s fun to be with other volunteers and they bring a lot of positive energy to the residents.” She appreciates the high standards that Patricia sets. “We take pride in making good meals,” Garbo says. “Food brings people together, especially when it’s good.”

Meeting COTS residents through the work has been wonderful in two ways, Garbo says. She enjoys the conversations she has with residents and enjoys learning people’s stories. She also likes that volunteering has caused her to recognize and address her own unconscious biases about homelessness. “No one’s immune from those,” she says. “It’s important to be aware of them.”

Garbo, who’s in the process of applying to med school, was happy to learn about our on-site clinic and looks forward to meeting Petaluma Health Care Center Nurse Practitioner Annie Nicol.

“From what I know of her, she’s what I aspire to be,” Garbo says. “I believe that a healthcare provider can be effective not only because of what they know but also because of how much they can connect with patients. And from what I hear about Nurse Annie, she is very good at that.”

Until high school, Garbo was raised by her grandparents in Singapore. Garbo’s interest in medicine stems from that time with her grandparents.

“When they got older, they got sick, and I saw from a close perspective what that was like,” she says. “It made me want to do something.”

Her grandparents are from China. Theirs was a family of professionals and intellectuals who lived through the Cultural Revolution. She says her grandparents taught her that “my future is not just a question of what I’m capable of or what I want. There are historical and social factors that we are all affected by.” That world view gives her a perspective on our work at COTS and on what she wants to do with her life.

“In my family we accept that there are things we can’t change, but we focus on the things we can. The world is imperfect and there’s suffering and injustice. But we all have a part to play in the story of how humankind will play out.”

Helping the homeless is one thing she can do, Garbo says.

Before the pandemic, she had been working as a medical scribe but is out of work temporarily due to the virus.

She’s spending her time reading, tending to her chickens (who are endlessly entertaining), chatting by phone with her grandmother, practicing piano and learning to play the fiddle via YouTube tutorials. She also taught herself to sew so that she could help the Petaluma Maskateers provide masks to our clients.

She may use the time to finally watch a Greta Garbo movie. “My mother and grandmother really love her and that’s how I got my name,” she says. “Maybe it’s time to check her out.”

Her advice to others thinking about volunteering? “If you feel like there’s something that needs to be done, do it. You’ll find other people doing the same thing. That’s how the world works. Collaboration makes change.”

Thank you, Garbo. We can’t wait to have you back volunteering, and we can’t wait to see what you do as a doctor.

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