That’s how it felt when I first met the amazing volunteers and kids at StandUp For Kids my Junior year of college, and that’s how it felt again when I returned this year as a Senior in college leading the new group of 11 New York City college students that I had been a member of the year before. Every Spring Break, Fordham University (through an incredible program called Global Outreach) sends multiple groups of student led teams to different cities, both domestic and international, to enter into new communities and learn about social justice issues facing the people who live there. One of our oldest partnerships is with StandUp For Kids in San Diego, California, and I am blessed to have been able to participate in this project twice, as a team member last year and this year as the team leader. I remember leaving San Diego last year feeling unfinished with StandUp, and the amazing and inspiring people I met there, so I was ecstatic to learn that I would be returning again in 2017.
Our time at StandUp was divided into three parts: organizing, outreach, and being in community with the kids at the center. Before the drop-in center opened for the kids, our Fordham team would come and do whatever tasks were on the list that gave us. In 5 days we were able to repaint the parking spots, organize the hygiene room and hallway, clean and organize the kitchen, and reorganize and go through the storage unit. The wonderful thing about StandUp is that they are becoming more and more well known, and thus receive countless donations. However, what my team was shocked to learn was that the workers at StandUp are in fact volunteers. They come from their day jobs straight to the center to be with and take care of the kids. There is simply no time for them to go through the countless amount of donations they receive, donations that eventually pile up. Being able to organize for the volunteers felt like a gift we could give them. I have never seen what love in action really means until I went to StandUp.
These volunteers, at the end of a long work day, come to the shelter and give their entire attention to these kids who are often overlooked, stigmatized, or shamed for their situation. They come to StandUp and get an overflowing amount of love and attention from the volunteers, not because they are kids experiencing homelessness, but because they are simply kids and kids deserve and need to be loved fiercely. Being able to do something as small as organize for the volunteers felt to me like giving them a big gift for all the work they do and love they give. Seeing them care for these kids also showed me that the biases about homelessness I had had before were rooted in stigma, and that these kids were simply kids in a difficult predicament.
Being with the kids has shown me that there is no difference between me, a 21 year old woman, and the 21 year old kid sitting next to me eating pizza at dinnertime as we laugh about sports, accents, and other topics of conversation I have with my own friends on a normal, day-to-day basis. The only difference is that my situation and my privileges have kept me in a home while theirs have brought them to the street. But in the end, we are still two twenty-somethings arguing playfully about whose home-sports team is better or giving each other a high five when the other makes an “epic” goal while playing foosball.
These kids are not “homeless kids.” They are kids experiencing homelessness. Their situation is not the first thing about them, it is simply their situation. There is so much more to them than their living on the street. I met one kid who lived merely towns over from me in my hometown state of Minnesota. I met a kid who loved Chicago sports teams like my family and I do. I met a young girl who loves art like I do. I met someone who sprained his hand but didn’t go to the doctor yet because he didn’t want to wait. His resistance to going and waiting at the doctor’s office reminded me of my own younger brother, who was this kid’s age as well. I couldn’t help but feel myself slipping into “big sister mode” as I encouraged him, as I would my brother, to go to the doctor and ice his hand. It all felt so normal, being with these kids, because it was just a group of kids, some from Fordham and some not, simply “hanging out,” the most normal thing a group of kids could do. It only seems abnormal because we call some kids “homeless” and some not. This keeps us not only from being in true community with one another, but really being able to break down barriers and simply be with one another as kids.
The most powerful thing I will take away from StandUp is the knowledge that if you were to walk into the center while we were there with the kids, you would be unable to tell who was experiencing homelessness and who was not. StandUp does not stigmatize or categorize these kids. They treat them as the kids they are, and in turn educate a group of 12 college kids from New York City every year on how to see beyond stigmas and situations to the very essence of a human being, a person who needs love first and foremost before anything else. StandUp give an incredible amount of love to these kids, and taught our Fordham team how to really love another person for just being a person. This is a no-strings attached, bountiful, powerful, beautiful kind of love we are all called to do. So, coming to StandUp feels like the most loving home you will ever enter, and even when you leave (like I have had to do twice), you will feel your heart weighed down – in a wonderful, blessed kind of way – with more love than you ever thought you could have.
I can’t wait to go home again soon.