It’s been roughly a year since we started volunteering with Atlanta Standup for Kids. And while I’m just going to cop-out on this entry and repost below something I wrote a long time ago – some of you may still not have read it before. It was written last January however, the photos are new. The video above? Clips taken from the outreach center last Wednesday + our recent volunteer appreciation party at No Mas Cantina, and then photos from the benefit concert earlier this year at Smith’s Olde Bar. We’ve seen lots of volunteers during this past year and some even come back every now and then when it’s right for them – and obviously they’re always welcome. Still. I understand. It’s difficult in so many ways.
I wrote the portion below earlier this year and although I’ve been at this for a while now, it’s still pretty close to how I feel, and what I experience there every week. In fact, a few months ago I started going only every other week simply because… I’m not quite sure how to describe it – but even though for most of us it’s only once a week – we still need breaks. Like anything done in this realm of social-worky-type things, it’s very easy to feel like you’re not making any progress with any of the youth – and the disillusion is frustrating. Especially when you’re talking about the difficult ones that require counseling/managing/mentoring from someone else who’s much more qualified than I/you are.
But obviously, they’re not seeing those people. They’re not getting that help and counseling from someplace else. Even though they’re arguably difficult or simply – a pain to deal with – we can only do as much as we can and beyond that… beyond that there is usually nothing else available to these kids as far as a redeeming influence, or even what we would consider a good example to learn from.
More kids have been coming to the center lately, last Wednesday there were 30 youth signed up and at the center. Many of us double or triple-up on kids now. Through it all, Atlanta StandUp for Kids has made considerable progress over the last 6 months let alone over the course of the year since Leah and I started volunteering. Having grown from a small group of dedicated volunteers – they’re significantly more organized and structured – even just during those 5 hours on Wednesday night. Honestly, I don’t know how long I’ll do this – but I also said that a year ago. Either way, I know that if I ever dropped off the face of the planet, if I randomly showed up on a Wednesday night, the other volunteers would show their appreciation and then quickly put me to work. Because there are always more youth.
WE REPEATEDLY FAIL EACH OTHER and I couldn’t care less, I won’t – I refuse. Screw the Homeless with their open hands, begging for a handout while I sit 2 hours in traffic everyday, my life squandered while the meter runs at $4.00 a gallon.
Others fight to eke out an existence, giving up life for less than minimum wage, begging on a corner for employment from bigots because they’re not allowed to be in this country. Seeing them battle for work makes it difficult to care about panhandlers who seem to ‘want’ to live on the street. I do what it takes to not be homeless, why can’t they?
Every Wednesday night, nearly without fail, I find myself surrounded by them; kids, teens, and young adults on the verge of never having a better existence than the one they have right now on the streets. The longer they’re out there without help, without breaking the cycle of their poverty, the less likely it’ll ever change. Most haven’t reached the point of begging on the streets. Full of misplaced pride, they’d rather steal, and even then with this bunch that seems to be a very last resort.
I volunteer at StandUp for Kids and it’s always a battle with myself. After 10 hours of work and commute, spending another 5 hours volunteering isn’t at the top of my list and I don’t want to go. Two hours later, as I stand in the kitchen spooning food and listening to a chorus of melody and syncopated rap rhythms, I see what the other, more caring volunteers see in these kids.
As a group of young black males sit together, rhythmically pounding the table while beat boxing and rapping in circle, it’s easy to witness them open up and forget the dire situation in which they live. They’re relaxed here, and when their defenses lower you can see something in them that very few others will, their potential to be greater than what they’re headed for right now.
StandUp for Kids isn’t a right-away feel-good volunteer project for many of us who spend time there. Sure there are the weekly dinners provided by a church group, or corporation, or even restaurant, but for the rest of us, it’s a crazy commitment that allows us to see actual change and development in these youth. When the restaurant Trois brings food – great food such as excellent breaded teriyaki chicken, it’s a welcomed treat and the kids show their appreciation.
Requiring nearly 24 hours of training and background checks before you’re even allowed to work with the kids, this isn’t for everyone. It probably isn’t for me – and I don’t think about that too much, pushing those thoughts to the back of my head and pulling better reasons up front. Pulling the good reasons, the sort that they throw up on commercials to pull at your heart and get you to give. I grind my teeth at the cheesy thoughts floating around in my block of a head. This ‘doing good’ schtick is eating away at my cynicism, erasing the cold bastard I so often claim to be.
It’s hard. Every now and then I get tired and I want to stop. It’s easy to just stay home and do nothing. No one will call asking me to come and help out. They’ll just go on about their business and I’ll be a memory. On those nights when I’m tired, and on the very rare occasion when I’m somehow roped into giving a ride home to a pregnant teen about to give birth, my disposition isn’t in top form.
But it’s hard not to change attitudes when I arrive at her home and witness 10 people in one room, strewn across the floor, sleeping soundly while the walls creak from the cold outside. They’re conditions worthy of a ‘save the children campaign’ and before I can say much of anything, the pregnant teen says thank you and pushes me back into the night, away from seeing anymore than the too much I already have. Hers is a reality completely foreign to me and although we welcome anyone at the center, that doesn’t mean the feeling is or should be reciprocated with her home.
So I go, every Wednesday night and I work with the more committed, more experienced and absolutely more caring volunteers, trying to help these kids from a life they didn’t sign up for, but are clearly living. It’s difficult and progress is rarely noticeable, but there are moments. Glimmers when one person shines and you see that they want something different, and without you, without this group of people, they have much less of a chance out there to be something great, or even something where they don’t have to worry about their next meal.
They don’t need help surviving. They’re already doing that. They need help breaking a cycle of poverty that many of them were born into and don’t know how to escape.