By Michelle Kosinski, NBC News correspondent
Life's simple pleasures…are NOT so simple, when life has been hard. Not so easy to sit back and soak in the notes of a musical performance, or a quiet day in nature. Or to simply express yourself by putting what's INSIDE--out there. To be honest, that can be tough for any of us. It can be a challenge to just live in those little moments that are somehow good for our spirits.
I have to admit, when I heard about this story, it sounded sweet, but a lot like something I had heard and seen many times before: using the arts to help, for this group or that. A wonderful concept, but it didn't really register as something unique.
And then we sat for five minutes, in Luanne Allgood's class called Creative Living. At the Miami Rescue Mission.
It took about that long to realize that her completely unselfconscious exuberance, her unembarrassed expression of joy in just about every moment--that can make some of us squirm a little at first--was truly being embraced by a group of diverse guys who, in many cases, had spent a dozen years homeless, in prison, or mired in addiction.
People that might have been written off as 'untouchable,' by many, throughout their lives.
It was a little shocking, at first, to see grown men-- some of whom fully look the part of the tough guy, and seem to relish that, others with a palpable gentleness in their faces and demeanors-- sing and dance to one of Luanne's little songs. To see them paint a picture of flowers or smiling faces. To play kids' games in the park. To spontaneously burst out in song, without worrying about pitch or what the guy next to you thinks.
I say this not because I am amazed that these men can take enjoyment from these things-- but only because I know that we all might have a hard time letting loose enough for Luanne's no-holds-barred style.
In a way, these activities are SO simple, we were talking about how we might at first feel slightly put-off or even insulted-- thinking "oh, come one" or "is this for real," if an almost comically cheerful person suddenly wanted us to sing happy tunes for a few hours. Or play tug-of-war or three-legged-races in the park. We might feel self-conscious, worried about looking foolish. Or might think we had a lot more important things to do.
The fact is, we take a lot for granted.
Luanne, a producer of TV commercials and a lover of music and art, had originally planned to volunteer for a day at the shelter serving food. That was twelve years ago. She realized that the men there had a hunger for much more enrichment in their lives than just a warm dinner. But there was no one, at the time, to share that with them. And she had much more to give.
"They're numb," she says. "So many people that are living broken lives are numb to the beauty that exists out there. To their options, their choices. We try to get them to FEEL. Because feeling is key."
Now, a few times a week, she takes these men on outings to the symphony or theater-- opening them to a new experience, or just allowing them to feel a part of society again. She takes them to parks and botanical gardens. Helps them learn to just let go and feel a moment. Feel comfortable relaxing and working with other people.
Feel comfortable in their own skin.
And we all know, that's a gift.
Rondell Fairell is 50 years old, and can now talk freely about his past. He says as an addict, he lost the trust and support of his family. A year ago, he found the shelter, and eventually, Luanne Allgood's class. He explains that when you feel like a misfit, that is the part you continue to play. Now, he has relished these opportunities to observe the world from a position engaged within it, not outside of it. To find pastimes that are healthy and safe. Things he didn't really know how to approach before.
"Now I'm letting that part of me come out," he told us. "I look at the beauty. I can look at people as people, as human beings. And start to love them again."
Some of the students called this a second half of their lives, that they are only just starting. The first half, they know they can't get back. And now is a chance to LEARN how to live well.
It is too easy to forget how welcome something as human and simple as laughter is, when we need it. How exciting an invitation can be, after a difficult time. How supportive an arm around your shoulder or a high-five can feel. Luanne stepped in to help them, with exactly those elements. Not difficult, for her. But precious, to them. And to any person who has felt the absence of those small gifts.
They are trying to find a new way. And for many, emotions are starting to sprout back up along the path.
As student Chanse Reece put it, Luanne Allgood's class "is about learning how to enjoy."
Something we all might need a refresher course on, from time to time.