At Friends Academy, we highlight the importance of giving back to the community. Charity work is an integral part of Quakerism and a Quaker education, acting as a strong focal point of our development not only as students, but as good global citizens. Through opportunities like the Boys and Girls Club, Worship Buddies, Work Crew, Cooking for the Homeless, and more, FA’s students are given ample opportunity to not only repay the community, but make it better as a whole. Four times a year, Friends Academy’s sophomores are given the chance to reach out and make a difference in a place a little farther away than Locust Valley: the Big Apple. Through the YSOP (Youth Service Opportunity Program) program, on November sixteenth and seventeenth, 27 sophomores and five teacher chaperones took a bus to the Friends Seminary on East 16th street, where we spent a full 24 hours learning and giving back to the people of New York City. It was an educational and self-fulfilling experience that redefined many of the preconceived notions we may have had about poverty, homelessness, and charity work.
When we arrived at the Friends Seminary around 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, after dropping off our bags, the YSOP instructors led us down into their beautiful cafeteria. They wasted no time in stimulating our minds, giving us verbal and writing exercises which began to stretch our thinking pertaining to the tasks we would be performing for the next 23 hours. We spent a lot of time on the causes of homelessness. This topic was particularly eye-opening, for there are so many more causes for lack of stable living conditions than any of us had previously imagined. Reasons such as lack of a reliable income or substance abuse were addressed, but also less apparent causes of homelessness, such as mental illness, or an adult child’s being unable to support his/her parents were brought to light. Our talk provided us with a whole new perspective on the over 64,000 homeless men and women living in New York City, showing us that homelessness does not have a set image. People affected by homelessness all face vastly different difficulties and struggles, which granted us a more encompassing view of the issue that plagues our cities and towns, but also showed us how a great many people perform many different jobs to help.
After a short writing exercise, we were presented with our main task for the evening: preparing a hearty meal for ten homeless individuals who were invited to come to the Friends Seminary to share dinner with us. After being provided with gloves, hairnets, and recipes, we broke up into groups and prepared vegetarian chili, coleslaw, garlic bread, and delicious brownies for our guests. It was so much more than cooking, though. The making of the meal taught us all the power of cohesion, and we grew closer as middle school chorus songs and laughter were heard echoing throughout the cafeteria. After the meal was prepared and we all had a chance to clean up the kitchen, the guests began to arrive. Some did not speak English, but everyone was keen to express their gratitude as we served them hot coffee and tea. Then, everyone broke up to sit down a play games. As the Jenga towers and Dominos fell, our bonds
grew as we listened to our guests’ stories, jokes, and advice. We heard about their families, childhood, and experiences. Each guest had his/her own unique story to tell, which continued to broaden our perspective on the people affected by homelessness. When it was time to eat, all the sophomores took orders from guests and chaperones alike, bringing back piping hot meals made with a lot of love. Seeing the satisfaction on everyone’s faces as they ate their chili and bread taught us the power of a good deed, and bestowed upon us the satisfaction of making someone else’s day. By the end of the party, many of us were sad to see our guests go, for we felt that we had made a unique connection. For the first time, many of us saw how strong, and resilient these people are to live the lives they live. They were open with us, and we with them, and from this new bond arose feelings of respect and appreciation for everyone who came to dinner.
After dinner, our education on homelessness in New York City was deepened when were spoken to by guest speaker and social worker, Susan Nayowith. She spoke to us about how she helps people, sharing many inspiring stories that gave us another example of how people give back to the community. Then, it was time for bed. We rolled out our sleeping bags and went to sleep, not knowing what the day ahead would bring.
At promptly 6:30 in the morning, we all woke up, and plagued by bloodshot eyes and serious bed head, went down to the cafeteria for a simple breakfast of bagels and cereal. We were then broken up into small groups by advisory, and were sent out to volunteer at various food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. Our efforts were not only limited to the island of Manhattan, as two groups assisted “Reaching Out,” and “New York Common Pantry,” located in Brooklyn. Others went to “4 Star Kitchen,” “Lady of Sorrows,” “Neighbors Connect,” and “Good Plus.” While everyone performed different tasks and helped lots of different people, our reflection back at the Friends Seminary yielded a common consensus: it felt good to give back. Working with these organizations gave us another chance to directly connect with the people we helped. They became more than a statistic, more than a number. We saw the individuality in every person that walked through the door, and every time we handed out a meal, or provided groceries, or moved boxes in the back, we felt like a part of something larger than ourselves. As teenagers, many us are focused on who we are and want to become. But to step out of that mindset and focus on issues outside our own conscience was self-fulfilling and vindicating. Though our efforts won’t be specifically remembered, we left our mark on people and collectively worked towards a better future.
Our last activity as a group was to write down one way that we could continue the work that we began here at YSOP. This made us realize that the service we performed is not done; it is just a step in the right direction. Our experience at YSOP taught us a lot about homelessness and poverty in New York and ways that we can give back to the community. However, we learned just as much about ourselves as we did about the people of New York City. We learned that we really can make a difference.
There is a common parable about a person throwing starfish back into the ocean that would have otherwise dried up on the hot sand. The beach is littered with the creatures, and a
jogger comes up to the person throwing back the starfish and says, “Why are you doing that? There’s no way that you can save them all!”
The person throwing back the starfish proceeds to pick up another one and says, “It matters to this one,” and the person throws it back into the ocean. This embodies what we learned on YSOP. It is impossible to help everyone, but that is not a reason to abstain from helping at all. We were exposed to a prevalent issue that affects 64,000 men, women, and children. We saw first hand that we need improvement and reform to better help those with less beneficial opportunities. We met the people that lack basic necessities for living that most of us have been fortunate enough to take for granted. These people have to face hunger and cold, while we have jackets and refrigerators. While we recognize that we should not feel guilty, we know now to use our privileges in some way to help give back to the community.
Homelessness is no one’s fault, but rather a combination of many negative influences, decisions, and treatment from others. Therefore, a collective effort is required to combat it. We all got a chance to be a part of that effort on YSOP, and the many lessons we learned will continue to influence us in our continued efforts to help the people and communities around us.