“…I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now, I see…”
I sat in the kitchen, the gathering place for many a dialogue and intimate conversation in my lifetime, and shared stories with Bridget, my son Jeremy’s lovely girlfriend who was going on her very first homeless outreach with us last night. In an effort to explain this ”down the rabbit hole” experience that helps define the bulk of my adult life, I was the storyteller once again, talking about my three children, my family, and the influences in their lives, the people who boldly touched their souls. She had mentioned how much my son Jeremy spoke of the run to her and I wanted her to know why. Jeremy was only 9 years old when he went on his first Midnight Run outreach and I recall with genuine pride, how moved I was watching him hand out cups of hot coffee to the people of street, from the back of a van, saying, “I’m Jeremy, would you like some coffee?”
As Rob’s infamous chili bubbled on the stove, I spoke about the encampment under the West Side Highway, who I referred to as the Mole People’s upstairs neighbors. The names of those who lived in this section of Riverside Park read like a version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” There was Shorty, the Captain, Papa Doc and the Professor, Larry and Leon and the women Marianne and Nikki, whose dog was better cared for than the people he lived with.
I told her about Papa Doc, a former Herald Tribune newspaper man back in the day, who took a liking to Jeremy and how this particular person impacted my family’s life.
One early spring night on an outreach run, Papa Doc asked Jeremy what he was going to do over the upcoming spring break from school and Jeremy responded as any child of two working parents would. “Oh, nothing,” he said. ”My father’s working and my mom will probably go down to school to work. We’re not doing anything…” And it was then that Papa Doc crouched down to be level with my son and gently asked him, ”Jeremy, have I ever told you the story of the man who had no shoes? Well, he complained to everyone he met about this dilemma of his…until he met a man who had no feet.”
The sheer force of this story on my son, I told Bridget, was something palpable and lasting. Whether he remembers that moment or not, I couldn’t say, but I recall the look of clarity and astonishment on my young son’s face.
Catie, my youngest, grew up, from the time she was an infant, in the culture of this commitment to the disenfranchised, the disempowered. My recollections match those of some of our oldest street friends when they ask about her now and are stunned to learn that she will be 24 years old in less than a month. There have been sweet conversations about how she was passed from one person to another as a baby on the Run, these strangers who became our friends over the many years our lives intersected. And it was Catie who first introduced me to Sam, our ancient Japanese-American friend. She was eight years old then, and very comfortable on these monthly runs into the city. She had discovered him sitting on a small hillside in Riverside Park near the Boat Basin, where we were stopped, on the street above the below-ground Rotunda and she came to me begging for a blanket to cover his swollen arthritic knees.
Sam became her ally and confidante, a friendly grandfather who made her and her two brothers origami toys and ornaments out of papers he recycled from MacDonald’s and the area grocery stores. Sam wasted nothing and created beauty out of everything.
When Catie had become sick with a very stubborn infection in high school, missing several Runs, Sam folded 1,000 inch-long cranes for her, making a mobile out of them. Upon their completion, he made a wish to the gods that her health be restored, as the legend goes. Indeed, a week later, she was much better and on her way to recovery. The mobile, which she placed by her window in her bedroom is still there.
And although I am writing this a day after the run, it didn’t occur to me how coincidental life can be until the conversation I had last night with long-time friend Bernard Isaac, under the leafy branches of the huge trees in front of an entrance to Central Park. I told him about the article in the Times last week about Chris Pape, the graffiti artist who recreated famous masterpieces on the walls of the old Amtrak tunnel where Bernard and his crew lived. The murals were painted using spray paint and when I saw them, I knew I was in the presence of some surreal genius. We chatted about the old days of the Tunnel and the Boat Basin, of Riverside Drive and our mutual friends. It was then that Bernard shared the news of Leon’s death. The significance of this for me is twofold: I had just been speaking of Leon to Bridget just a few hours earlier and it was Leon who was my son Gabe’s connection, the gentle, quiet man who helped ease Gabe’s discomfort as a 9 year old on his first homeless outreach. It was Leon who asked Gabe about the lanyard he was making and it was Leon who walked away with a new lanyard, the skill in making another for himself after Gabe showed him how, and a new friend in my young son. It was Leon who helped Gabe overcome his shyness that evening in the park. My sadness over his death is real: I have never grown used to the loss of any of these fragile folks on the street. I doubt I ever will.
The weekend of family and friends, the Midnight Run and Rob’s chili, is coming to a close. While last month’s run may have been labeled “perfect”, this month’s run, for me, became all about the families I have: my own as well as those street people who impacted the lives of my kids as well as mine – and now Rob’s – in their simplicity and generosity of spirit.
While Rob napped, Jeremy called and told me he and Bridget arrived safely in Boston. Catie stopped by earlier and after I know Gabe is home from work, I’ll call him and we’ll have an opportunity to catch up. Family is defined in countless ways and I’m certain that despite my confusion over many other things in this life, family is something I have never lost sight or clarity of, near or far…homed or homeless. Somehow, none of that seems to matter really.
ASIDESHARE the Project, Inc.
dba Project S.H.A.R.E.
“Take the time…SHARE the experience”
September 28, 2011
Project SHARE’s 22nd Anniversary
Thanksgiving Dinner for the Homeless
For over 20 years, Project SHARE has helped guide high school and college students toward a clearer understanding of the social responsibilities required to ensure a brighter tomorrow for everyone. By transforming community service into social activism and by changing the idea of service “requirement” to “choice”, we lay the foundation for a culture and a society that is richer in understanding and acceptance of the disenfranchised, the dis-empowered and the poor.
Among the many service choices we offer, Project SHARE has been actively involved with outreach volunteer work within the homeless communities of both Westchester County and New York City, partnering with the Midnight Run, Inc. Our largest endeavor has been hosting an annual “family style” Thanksgiving Dinner for 500 men, women and children in the New York metro area. Approximately 300 students are involved every year in our holiday celebration. We do the event preparation and cooking ourselves, we provide buses to transport our guests, entertainment for all and babysitting for the children who come to share our feast, thus involving many within the community. This year’s dinner will take place on Tuesday, November 22nd at Congregation Kol Ami, 252 Soundview Avenue, White Plains, New York.
Last September, SHARE received its not-for-profit status and we are now a public charity. We rely heavily upon the contributions made by our friends to keep us afloat. This year, we have begun using the website http://www.indiegogo.com/Thanksgiving-Dinner-for-the-Homeless-1?a=146689&i=addr as a means of fundraising and it has been successful. 100% of the collected funds donated through this site goes to Project S.H.A.R.E. Please consider making a donation and then send this link along to 10 of your friends. It is really a simple way to make a donation that will help those in need.
Many thanks in advance,
Executive Director and founder,
SHARE the Project, Inc. dba Project S.H.A.R.E.
See us on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RXOdhMZ8rhI
SHARE the Project, Inc. is A PUBLIC CHARITY – Tax Exempt #01-0944154
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.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.