Seeing the Homeless

Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

The entire high school packed into the auditorium on a December morning for the weekly assembly. After a few student announcements, the chairman of the Community Service Board asked us to step up our contributions to the gift drive because we weren’t on pace to meet our goal of 2,011 gifts. Roderick Demmings, a senior, stood up and asked if he could say a few words. He walked up on stage, stared out at all of us, and took a deep breath. He reminded us how he played piano in Carnegie Hall at 13 years old. He reminded us of the countless hours it takes him to master his musical trade.He took another deep breath. With absolute poise, Rod continued his speech and told us his first keyboard was a gift that he received in a gift drive while living at Austin Street Homeless Shelter. He went on to tell us how he has been homeless twice in his life. He ended by saying that any one of the gifts that we donate could change a life.I felt tiny in that auditorium. As Roderick spoke, I remembered the petty concerns that had been on my mind at the beginning of the assembly. I felt selfish. I knew others did too. This young man came to school every day and left his own problems off campus. He was at every sporting event and knew every student’s extra-curricular involvements. He offered to listen to a debater’s argument so he could craft the perfect approach, to hold a photographer’s lights so he could shoot in the best environment possible, and he offered to be a wrestling dummy so that I could improve my low-single. He gave everything he had to give when most of us would be in his position and say that we had nothing to give.Why? Because even if Roderick didn’t have a house to call his home, he was never homeless. He came to school, his home, everyday to support his 864-person family, us. And because of his care for us, if he ever needed a place to sleep now, he would have 864 offers.I pledged not to let myself forget Roderick’s speech or example. What did he have to teach me, really teach me? Homelessness is a major issue impacting all cities and neighborhoods. We can observe it as we drive up to a red light, or we can seek it when we serve dinner at homeless shelters for community service. We experience it, and then we forget it because we don’t think it affects us. But, in reality, homelessness plagues all of our communities. I have seen peers glide through these halls like ghosts just to get to the end of the day. Roderick taught me that a home is not primarily a residential structure. It is formed by love and care more than by bricks and mortar. Roderick made the micro-communities he inhabited homes not just for himself, but for everyone—places everyone felt known, welcomed, and supported in their thriving. Did I?I resolved to make all of my micro-communities—the newspaper staff, football team, wrestling team, community service board, Poetry Club, and all of my classes—as much like homes as I could. The results were eye-opening. It turns out that there are nearly infinite opportunities to care for people and make them feel genuinely welcome every day. I see and address the nervous freshman at the edge of the wrestling mat who is terrified of try-outs. I see and address the junior with the dark circles under his eyes, behind on his story deadline and overwhelmed by problems at home. I see and address the sophomore and now most avid member of Poetry Club, who once thought he was content drifting through high school and not capitalizing on the numerous opportunities around him. Solving homelessness, literal and symbolic, is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. It is, in a sense, the most important thing I do every day now. And I learned it from Roderick and the anonymous person who donated the toy keyboard for a gift drive fourteen years ago, who had no idea where her generosity would lead.

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