Discuss your involvement in and contributions to a community near your home, school or elsewhere. Please select an experience different from the one you discussed in the previous question, even if this experience also involved leadership. What did you accomplish? How did this experience influence your goals?
“Hello, can I have a medium long-sleeved shirt? I don’t mind the color.”
These words were the same I’d been hearing all night. I was in charge of distributing t-shirts to those that came to my side of the van, and all night I’d had trouble keeping track of who wanted what size and which color, long or short sleeved. But, despite the chaos, I recognized this lady’s unmistakable Nigerian accent. I surprised her by replying in Igbo, asking her name. Nneoma replied in Igbo, and talked to me as I found a shirt for her. I learned that Nneoma’s mother and father had died shortly after arriving in America and that, since then, she’d struggled to support herself and her three younger brothers. That night, though we were strangers standing on 53rd street inhaling the cold night air, we connected through Midnight Run.
Midnight Run is a non-profit organization dedicated to bridging the gap between the housed and the homeless of New York City. Every night, Midnight Run volunteers stock vans full of food, clothing, blankets, and toiletries to meet the homeless halfway, interacting with them on equal footing at designated stops around the city. My introduction to homelessness in New York was Grand Central Winter, a memoir by Lee Stringer. The autobiography follows Mr. Stringer through the eighties and mid-nineties, during which he lives homeless and crack-addicted on the floor of Grand Central Station. In his book, Lee wastes little time bemoaning his situation. In fact, he encourages the housed to view the homeless as they’d view themselves: one mistake or addiction away from the streets. A week after finishing Grand Central Winter, I sat down with Lee to discuss his autobiography and, during our talk, he said something that has stuck with me for the months since our parting: “In an imperfect world, you make your own choices and those shape who you are.”
Personally, I haven’t had to make many of my own choices yet because my worldview is colored by youth and circumstance. I’ve lived in Kennesaw, Georgia and Concord, Massachusetts, two small towns cushioned by wealth and privilege. Thus, as I began my semester away program in New York City, I was shocked by the ubiquity of homelessness in the Big Apple. My prior definition of homelessness concurred with Mr. Stringer’s: a series of mistakes that led to life on the streets. But, as I handed Nneoma a medium, long-sleeved shirt, I realized that she hadn’t gotten to make many of her own choices either. Both Nneoma and I had come to America searching for opportunity, but I’d had the benefit of educated parents and an extended family’s support as I got my bearings in Atlanta. Nneoma’s story showed me that homelessness is far from black and white, in that Nneoma’s path to homelessness was forged by tragedy, not choice.
My Midnight Run only lasted 4 hours, but it left a lasting impact. After the conclusion of my semester away program, I returned to my school in Concord, determined to initiate change in my community. I connected with Rosie’s Place, an organization dedicated to housing, feeding, and clothing thousands of homeless Bostonian women a year. After visiting the venue, I organized a fundraiser called ‘Rosie’s Drive’, during which I collected books, canned foods, blankets, coats, and jeans from the students and faculty at my school. The change I brought about was small, but it was meaningful to me.