Nora [Roberts], that’s my girl.
It is impossible not to like Kevin Smith. He is happy. He is extremely friendly. He is open. He is honest. After all, how many 50 year old men living in north Omaha would proudly declare his love for a romance novelist?
Kevin makes friends easily. I have known Kevin for six months. During this time, I have seen Kevin give countless hugs. I have watched as Kevin does not just say hello or ask how you are doing but always stop to engage in a conversation. I have witnessed him spend time with a lonely grandmother and comfort a single mother afraid of how she is going to feed her children. Kevin truly is the dedicated volunteer that always puts others first. I have talked with multiple staff members about how Kevin embodies everything special about the Center. Admittedly, I have wondered if Kevin is too good to be true.
At breakfast, I find out there is much more to Kevin. His normally upbeat demeanor changes abruptly as he retells the story of finding out his sister died roughly 15 years ago. He talks about how difficult her death is for him and that a piece of him died with her. We talk about his mother. Kevin mentions that he has not seen his mother for “awhile now” despite her living one block away. He says that he wants to first get a job so she will be proud of him when they see each other next.
Kevin desperately wants a job. Kevin has applied for multiple jobs at restaurants and is waiting to hear back about whether he will be hired. Any company would be lucky to have an employee like Kevin. He is hard working, loyal, and caring. Similarly, the Heart Ministry Center is lucky to have such a dedicated, friendly volunteer. In the short time I have known Kevin, he has become much more than just a volunteer but one of the people I respect most in this world. Kevin has become not just a great volunteer but someone I feel blessed to call my friend… even if he does like Nora Roberts.
Scheduling breakfast with Jaclyn was not easy. Jaclyn has a very busy schedule being a single mom of three young children and working a full-time job. Despite the trouble in setting this breakfast up, it was well worth the wait. I have known Jaclyn for the past four years. During this time, I have seen Jaclyn change tremendously for the better.
Jaclyn came to the Center pregnant. She was tired and scared. She already had two children and no place to live. Her children’s father was abusive at his worst and completely unengaged at his best.
Before this point, Jaclyn had had a difficult life. As a child, her mom repeatedly told her she was stupid and her father entered and left her life. The family moved multiple times constantly facing eviction and Jaclyn regularly went to bed hungry. By the time she was 18, Jaclyn was in love with the first male that showed her affection. Shortly thereafter, she became pregnant. After her second baby, her boyfriend started to become distant and eventually violent. I met Jaclyn a few months later when she was pregnant for the third time.
Jaclyn initially came to the Center looking for food. She then became a regular volunteer. The Center also worked with Jaclyn and referred her to a therapist to address some longstanding co-dependency and other issues. Jaclyn found the courage to leave her abusive boyfriend and continued to work on problems stemming from her childhood. For the first time, Jaclyn also started to think about the future. In the meantime, Jaclyn worked multiple jobs at one time to put food on the table and a roof over her young family’s head. Jaclyn also somehow found the time to study and earn her GED.
Today Jaclyn says life is good. Her children are happy and healthy. She talks about marriage but only if the right person comes along. She has a good paying job and is actively involved her children’s school. Jaclyn is busy but tells me as she finishes her coffee that she loves her life.
Going to school should not be dangerous. Last week one of the young men in our mentoring program walked to the Center after school. I was surprised to see James as he does not live close to the Center and his school is nowhere near 24th and Binney Street. I asked James if he needed anything and he just responded that he was scared. James had been warned to not ride the bus home as he was going to be attacked. My immediate thoughts went to the recent after school shooting where a young man was gunned down once he got off the bus. I offered to give James a ride home. As we approached his house, he slumped in the passenger seat. He told me to look across the street where there was a group of young men with baseball bats and 2x4s. James informed me this group was probably looking for him. James was definitely flustered. Not wanting to press him on what was going on, I asked him if he would like me to take him to breakfast and school in the morning. James quickly said yes.
At breakfast the next morning at McDonald’s, I asked James specifics about the previous day’s situation, his attackers, and why were they looking for him. For being 16 years old, James was incredibly insightful and I believe honest. James talked about the gangs that live close to his house. He talked about how alliances can change quickly and most of the killings are to settle grudges that many do not when or how they started. I told James that I would never judge him but wanted to know whether he was in a gang. He was adamant he was not but a brother was involved. He speculated the group of young men the previous day were really looking for his brother. He talked about wanting to be loyal to his brother but fearing what this means for him and his dreams.
James is embarrassed to talk about the future. He wears three buttons on his shirt at breakfast. Each button is for a friend or family member that has been killed. To him, talking about what he wants to do when he is thirty years old seems like he is really just dreaming. Even so, James mentions he wants to work construction after he graduates high school and attends a trade school. James is proud (although he tries to hide it) he is on the honor roll. James has several skills he would like to learn in school so he can become marketable. He talks about never wanting to rely on anybody to pay for shelter, food, or clothing. School is important to him and he boasts that nothing will prevent him from graduating. I believe James. After all, I have just seen the dangers he confronts to attend school.
I have always been moved by a scene in Good Will Hunting. In this film clip, Ben Affleck’s character Chuckie relays to Matt Damon’s character Will how he hopes every morning when he drives to pick him up that he will not be there. Last week I had the opposition situation arise.
I was supposed to meet a client for breakfast last week and he was not there. This client’s name is Anthony. Anthony is almost 40 years old. He was born and raised in Omaha by his single mother. He was the youngest of four children. The family struggled greatly to make ends meet and were frequently chased out of homes by slumlords and neighborhood gangs. When Anthony and I have talked in the past, he tells me how his childhood was still happy despite going to bed hungry. He was not very smart but worked hard in school and is proud to have graduated from Benson High School. Without any idea as to what to do after high school, he worked odd jobs but could not find a steady paycheck.
Tired of struggling, Anthony made the impulsive decision to steal some expensive music equipment. Anthony re-sold the valuable electronics and paid his rent as well as to buy some nicer household goods for himself. Eventually Anthony was arrested for his crime and spent time behind bars. Once he was released, Anthony found many employers were unwilling to hire a person with a criminal record and limited marketable skills. From what I know, Anthony’s life has remained essentially the exact same for the past roughly 15 years. Anthony applies for job after job but is rejected because of either his criminal record or lack of work experience. As such, Anthony makes ends meet by finding work mowing lawns, painting houses, shoveling snow, or performing other temporary/seasonal work. Anthony comes to the Heart Ministry Center often. He asks me all the time what he can do to get a “good job.” He frequently berates himself for making such a stupid mistake as to steal. That said, it is hard for me to understand how a person making a mistake almost 20 years ago can now mean he is unable to take care of his basic necessities.
I wanted to meet with Anthony for breakfast for two purposes. First, I wanted to find out more details about his life so I could include them in the blog. Second and much more importantly, I wanted to see how Anthony was doing and what we could do to really help him. After all, since I have gotten to know Anthony these past four and a half years, he just looks tired. I can tell the stress of not knowing when he will eat again, if he will have a roof over his head that night, and does he have clothes to keep him worn is draining. Consequently, I am very alarmed when Anthony is not at our pre-determined meeting place. Over the past week, I have been extremely worried. In Good Will Hunting, Chuckie was excited when Will is not home. In real life I only wish it was this simple. Right now I just hope Anthony is okay.
Life is not fair. This saying simply and perfectly sums up how I felt last Tuesday night. I received a phone call from Yolanda, a single mother whose two sons are in a mentoring program. Yolanda was crying uncontrollably. She cried so hard that for the first minute or two I could not understand what she was even saying. Eventually, she calmed down enough to tell me that the older of her two boys Marcus had been arrested for shoplifting. She proceeded to tell me that Marcus was stealing a coat for his younger brother Darrion. Darrion was being mocked and bullied relentlessly because his clothes are old, his coat is too small and smelly, and his shoes have holes. Marcus felt bad for Darrion and wanted to help him out so he stole a coat but was caught. I told Yolanda that I would spend time with her two boys the next day. She thanked me multiple times. We finished the conversation by her repeatedly telling me that the boys were “good boys,” she is trying hard and the whole situation is her fault.
Fast forward one day and I am eating with Marcus and Darrion. I asked them what happened and Marcus simply apologizes for letting me down. I honestly do not know how to respond as I know Marcus had good intentions.
From knowing Marcus for a year, it is clear that Marcus is a good kid as his mom repeatedly mentioned last night. He is smart and hardworking (on the honor roll). He is kind, well-liked, and sticks up for his classmates, who are being picked on. He is athletic (he plays football and runs track at Benson High School). He has goals and talks about being the first person in his family to graduate from college.
After an awkward silence after Marcus has finished verbally beating himself up, I am “saved” by Darrion. Darrion says that the whole situation is his fault and he is sorry. I am equally stunned by Darrion’s willingness to shoulder the blame. Darrion is 13 years old and has been bullied terribly. He has told me at previous mentoring outings that he loves class but dreads passing periods because he knows that kids are going to shove him, mock him, and generally try to torment him until he cries. Darrion is the most grateful person I have ever met and thanks me at least 5 separate times during a mentor outing. With this in mind, maybe I should have expected Darrion’s next comment. Darrion tells me that he was going to see if I could buy him a coat but he feels bad for bothering me or asking me to do anything else. This comment makes me feel awful. I immediately respond to Darrion that he is never bothering me and to call me, Mark, or anybody else from the Center for absolutely anything. I tell Darrion and Marcus that they are remarkable boys that have overcome more in their short lives than I ever will (their father was gunned down a few years ago while waiting at a stop light).
Darrion and Marcus are not just “good boys.” Darrion and Marcus are great boys. Life is not fair. Even so, Darrion and Marcus remain upbeat and two people that I am proud to know.
I once read, “love is the only mirror we must use to judge ourselves and others.” Clients of the Heart Ministry Center are good people that are going through difficult times. It is not our place to judge or question a client but we need to treat each person with the utmost respect and dignity. As a volunteer, Mike Jones never judges others but instead is patient, generous, and caring. Mike takes the time to help anybody whether that be an elderly lady needing her groceries taken to her car or a young refugee needing someone to listen. Perhaps Mike does not judge others because he knows exactly how it feels to be judged.
Mike had a good childhood. Mike’s parents loved him and took care of all his needs. Even so, Mike ignored their advice and he admits “made poor decisions.” One such choice was Mike experimenting with drugs, which eventually led to a serious addiction. This addiction controlled Mike’s life and led him to making other bad decisions like committing robbery to feed his drug habit. But for a little bit less than a year total, Mike spent ages 18 to 42 in prison for his crimes. By 2007, Mike’s father was terminally ill with cancer. During this same time, Mike had transition to work release, which allowed him to see his father one last time. At this visit, Mike told his father that he was not going back to which his father gave his customary response, “We’ll see.” Mike’s father died shortly thereafter.
Today Mike is a changed man. Mike’s stepmom talks about how he is different today. For me, it is difficult to view Mike anything but the person I have been fortunate enough to get to know. Mike is hard working, Mike is loyal, and Mike is kind. I hope no one would judge Mike for his past mistakes. After all, Mike is an invaluable volunteer, a community leader, and most of all just a good human being. I just wish I knew more people just like Mike Jones.
I had an internal debate with myself. The conflicting thoughts consisted of 1) what child does not like cake for breakfast and 2) cake is not appropriate for breakfast. Long story short, Tavon and I ate cake. After all, it was Tavon’s 11th birthday. In Tavon’s 11 years, he has seen and experienced way too much. He has been homeless, he has been removed from his home, and he has had a father that consistently breaks promises.
Before I ever met Tavon, I was warned about him. I was told that Tavon was angry. I was told that Tavon was uncontrollable. I was told that Tavon did not listen.
When I met Tavon, he was none of these things. Tavon was quiet. Tavon was thoughtful. Tavon was appreciative.
After knowing Tavon, I get more upset about how he was first described to me. Tavon is a better person the more I interact with him. He always says “please” and “thank you.” He talks about saving up money to help his mom. Recently, Tavon and I have had more serious discussions. He knows that people think that he has a temper. He tells me about his father and his father does not love him. He seems genuinely surprised every time he sees me and explains that he assumes that one day I will walk away as well. After all, this is all he has ever experienced from the adult males in his life. They make promises and then never fulfill them. Tavon is 11 years old but he knows so much. He is aware of how he is viewed and has told me that people think he is a “bad kid.” The unfortunate part about this comment is it could not be farther from the truth. It only takes a few minutes to realize this or a breakfast eating cake.