September 17, 2011

On those rare occasions, there are those days and evenings that simply glide effortlessly by, leaving me with feeling that all can actually be right with the world. Yesterday was one of those days and nights. In between running errands for the night’s run, Rob and I went down to the riverfront here as guests of the Class of 1991, as they celebrated their 20th high school reunion. These “kids” were some of the very first group that gave Project SHARE its start and foundation in December of 1987. As I recall last night’s outreach, it is very hard not to think about those former students as I started another year with a new group.

This run was our first of the school year and the kids who signed up to go, like many runs before them, were an enthusiastic and generous group that worked together seamlessly as they got clothing and toiletry items in preparation for the trip to the city. These kids, the volunteers, don’t know me. They may know OF me, but gone are the days of planning and strategizing with my students in my classroom. Instead of relying on my position as teacher, we now rely heavily upon the social media of the day to communicate and build a base from which we launch our programs. The times they are a-changin’…

Somehow though, my monthly panic was eased once I was with them at the storefront and I watched them organize what needed to be done before we left for Manhattan to do this very intimate form of homeless outreach.

Our first stop was the perfect introduction to what proved to be the perfect run. Old friends of mine who I had known for nearly all of my 24 years with the organization greeted us under the leafy boughs of the trees that lined the avenue. Rob, also known as “The Chili Man”, had spent the day with me shopping for his well-known treat and cooked it slowly throughout the afternoon, worried about its taste and kick, with the needs of our street friends his only concern. And so, the chili and cornbread, bagged lunches, clothing, and toiletry items were an ample, heartfelt offering to those who waited patiently for us.

The kids became instantly engaged in helping this handful of men get what they needed and as they did, conversations started and the run was on its way.

A Jamaican man in a dark blue baseball cap came up to the truck where Rob was and in a soft voice told him how much he enjoyed the chili, thanking him for the food and his effort. I am always moved by the sincerity of those we serve, knowing full well that it is the volunteer who truly ought to be doing the thanking.

Our second stop was our largest, a popular stop for the kids on the run, where they have built relationships with the people who regularly wait in the shadows for our visits. No one was disappointed and after the summer’s hiatus, we were met and greeted with smiles and stories and hugs. Again, the chili was enormously appreciated. Again, the thank you’s moved me as I watched the group chat amongst the parked cars of our caravan. A Dominican family I met last year were there and I was thrilled to watch the kids speak with them in Spanish.

At one point, a heavyset gentleman approached me and said, “Mrs. Newman, do you remember me? Do you remember me, Mrs. Newman? It’s me, Timothy.” And I did. He was a long-ago street friend whose crack addiction and homelessness lead him down the slippery slope of depression until he was placed on Ward’s Island where he lost his drug habit and began dealing with his mental health issues. Timothy. The most polite man I know. Always asking about my children, my mother and at one point in the conversation, about my ex-husband.

“Mrs. Newman, how Is your husband?” he asked.
“I haven’t been married in some time, Timothy,” I replied.
“That’s okay. Mrs. Newman. How is he anyway?” was his response.

It’s difficult not to embrace the sincerity, the joy, the love of that conversation, of that well-meaning man whose path I crossed years ago when the homeless had such visibility on the streets of New York.

With farewell hugs and promises to see them all in October, we packed up and moved on to the third stop, where no one waited for us the shadows of the evening.

Our last stop was a familiar one and as soon as we stopped, the kids jumped out of the cars and started handing out the last of our sandwiches and chili, clothing and toiletry items, relaxed and full of conversation that lasted for some time as they settled into small groups with the homeless. They sat on the church stairs or on the pavement itself, talking and laughing and catching up after a summer away.

And in our truck, on the way home, the two boys who rode with us shared their stories of those they spoke with, as if they had just bumped into old friends they hadn’t seen in some time. And, when you think about it, that’s exactly what they did.

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