Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service in which we spent the morning portion of our day canvassing DC neighborhoods informing families and individuals about the importance of fire safety and the free services available from the fire department. While this was important for the communities, I found the afternoon to be much more intriguing.
A year ago today I was doing a similar service trip in Camden, New Jersey, in which i met a homeless man who changed my life. His name was Mister Eddie Marshall. When I first met Eddie, we spoke for the whole day. I learned he had a masters degree in Psychology, served in the army, and discussed with him about religion, politics, education, and life in general. After this great experience however, upon my arrival to the shelter the next day, Eddie was intoxicated and acted in a completely different manner. It upset me to speak with him again, this time interacting with a seemingly different individual, speaking nonsense and dozing in and out of sleep. I think what most upset me was to witness this sad sight in a man with so much potential and so many things to offer.
Our afternoon in DC was the “urban plunge” asking us to see what it was like to be homeless, and to interact with others within the homeless community. While my group was not fortunate enough to hear the story of any particular individual we encountered, our team discussion was enlightening. The other groups all had greatly different experiences from each other. Each encountered different sorts of people, and had conversations about different aspects of homeless life. While this discussion was going on, I was reminded of my encounter with Eddie a year ago. Hearing these other stories gave reminded me once gain that not all homeless people are alike, each having their own backgrounds and current situations. It gave me hope to remember that there is possibility in everyone to fulfill their maximum potential and make life better for themselves and maybe, if they are fortunate enough, for others as well.
On Wednesday morning, four of my team members and myself piled into our van and headed on our way to North Camden, an area considered to be the worst part in what is considered the most dangerous city in America. We arrived at Hope Works, where we learned about one of the greatest and truly life-changing organizations I have ever come across in my life. Here we were introduced to Mike, a year-long volunteer, who told us all about the place we were going to spend the day at. Hope Works offers programs to teach teenagers and young adults computer skills such as web-design and Photoshop. It also tutors the students in preparation for SATs and GEDs. The program typically lasts for 2-3 months, and after completion of the program students are able to work for Hope Works, receive the help they need to further their education with a college degree, and are even given a place to stay. The residence for the college students working with Hope Works is known as “The Crib”, and it’s a gorgeous facility complete with study areas, a common room, and kitchen for community meals.
After learning so much about how this organization really empowers the disadvantaged youths of Camden, we were told about our first job. We were sent to canvas different neighborhoods in the area, putting flyers about Hope Works in every mailbox with help from our delightful guide and graduate from Hope Works, Jamal. He was exceptionally happy and energetic, frequently singing along to the Lady Gaga playing on his iPod. As we walked through the streets I noticed that there was a larger concentration of abandoned houses in the North Camden in comparison to the rest of Camden I had seen, as sometimes there were 3 or 4 houses consecutively unoccupied and boarded up. It was amazing how receptive the people were to the flyers and information we were handing out, and how people even pulled over their cars on the side of the road and asked for a flyer. Other people told us of people they would spread the word to, and then there were others who simply thanked us. It was a different experience to be on the other side of the canvassing process, and felt good to know that people were appreciative to learn about something in their community that could really help them.
On our arrival back to Hope Works, Mike gave us a tour of the Crib and where he lived with other volunteers. We sat around the dining room table there and enjoyed mugs of hot chocolate and funny conversation getting to know one another. After our lunch break we were given the opportunity to tutor kids in grammar, math and vocabulary skills. It was inspiring to see their desire and motivation to learn, even if they did not particularly like the subject matter. It made me realize the excellence and level of my own education, especially while I was tutoring a boy my age in grammar skills that I had learned in 3rd grade.
Visiting Hope Works truly did bring me hope about the future of Camden. Knowing there are such genuine, kind, and motivated people willing to develop strong and useful institutions and implement these organizations in the places most desperately seeking them gives some comfort in thinking that change is and will continue happening here.