Every year I stand in front of a group of 75 eighth-graders and talk to them about homelessness and Real Change. I tell them stories of people who are waiting for services getting moved from the sidewalk to the alley so affluent neighbors don’t have to deal with the inconvenience of having to see them.
I share a story about a man I met when I was 13. He lived under the viaduct and told me that all he asked from me is that I acknowledge him.
I explain to them how our use of cell phones has reduced the availability of pay phones that poor people once depended on, thus requiring people to pay for cell phones.
My talk with the kids isn’t just a presentation. I’m hoping it will help them see and think about things in a new light as they walk the streets of Seattle. These middle school kids from Seattle Academy are going on Seattle Challenge, a three-day trip where they will visit and volunteer at homeless services, have very little money to eat, no mode of transportation besides their feet and will be unsure of where they are sleeping at night.
Don’t worry. They will also be chaperoned by adult leaders who have a plan, emergency supplies and resources. For the kids, the trip can be an eye-opening experience that helps them have a better understanding how the invisible live in our city. I know, because 20 years ago I went on the very same trip. The man who asked me to acknowledge him was someone I talked to during my Seattle Challenge. His words have stuck with me ever since and led me to volunteer and eventually work at Real Change.
In my seven years of working at Real Change, I have only talked about my experience a handful of times. I don’t want our vendors to feel like I know where they are coming from because of a three-day trip I took decades ago. However, I still understand it was an extremely valuable experience for me. Years ago, I started to talk to the kids because I wanted them to get as much out of it as I did. Now as a mother of two children of my own, I have a new motivation; it is important that all kids understand the state of emergency that we are in and how citizens and politicians are responsible for making it happen.
I talk to the kids about the disappearance of the Ride Free Zone, which allowed people to ride Metro buses for free downtown, a valuable resource for homeless people. I explain to them that poor and homeless people have busy schedules to obtain shelter, food and health services. Finally, I encourage them to make people visible again. Once people are visible and a part of our community, policies will change and money will be reprioritized. We won’t ask people to stand in the alley anymore.
For me, this is where Real Change comes in. When I ask the kids if they have heard of Real Change, the majority of hands in the room go up. When I ask if they know a vendor’s name, multiple names are shouted. Without fail, at least one kid mentions a vendor who has died that they have known for their whole life. I explain that Real Change allows poor people not only to be visible again but also re-enter as a member of their community.
My cautious four-year-old now proudly gives our regular vendor money for a paper. My daughter has conversations with the vendor discussing important things about her day: that she is wearing her favorite color or what she’s eating as a treat today. My daughter says bye and thinks nothing more of the interaction, but I know that Real Change is providing an opportunity for my child to engage with the invisible. I hope in 10 years my daughter still remembers the vendor’s name.
Encourage your kids to purchase our paper and help them expand their world.