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"Find 3 Words and Live Your Life by Them"

Posted By Shea Brack, Mar 30, 2009

Boarded up building

We’ve been back from East St. Louis for a few days now, and I remain at a loss in how to adequately express the experience. East St. Louis was an eye-opening experience because it shook many of my pre-conceived notions regarding impoverished areas and homelessness in general. Some of the homeless in this area were raised homeless and continued in the only way of life they’d ever known. Others had experienced such gut-wrenching heartbreak that they could not return to their lives as they knew it and were eventually swept into a life on the streets. We were told the story of a brain surgeon who lost a patient on the table through anesthesiologist error but was never able to return to work. Another man had taken his family on vacation in his new Cadillac and never forgave himself when his wife and children died in a car accident while he survived. This was an area that did not experience a disastrous event that shook its infrastructure and is in need of repair; rather, East St. Louis is more a representation of what happens when corruption and a “blind eye” are allowed to continue for far too long.

Cars in parking lot

The most hard-hitting moment for me was driving by the School District building and seeing Jaguars, Mercedes, and BMWs parked in front of a building that is supposed to serve schools where many of the children attending do not even have a home address.

Homeless man crossing street

The homeless people I met while handing out lunches were some of the funniest, most genuine, loving, and socially graceful people I have ever met. I cannot imagine being handed my only meal for the day, perhaps for a few days, and being more concerned that everyone else has something to eat and a smile on their face. I was repeatedly told that God had been so good to them that they would pray for me in my journey.

On the first full volunteer day of our trip, I went with a group to St. Vincent de Paul’s thrift store and soup kitchen. I requested to work in the soup kitchen first and ended up staying all day. It was a fun experience because the people were all friendly and happy. One woman came through the line and then came up and asked if she could help with anything since she had been unable to find a job that day. The most noteworthy thing I saw was the families that would come through. These were people that were trying their best to create the best possible life for their children when they could not afford to put food on the table. It was inspiring to see what a great job of making something like going through a soup line seem fun to their young children. The first parent that came through while I was there was a young dad with two kids. He let them feed themselves and made them feel like they were having a special trip out without their mother—like it was a fun escape for just the three of them. The women who worked in the kitchen told me he was one of the few fathers that came in with his kids and that those that do come in often try to drop their kids off like it’s a daycare center. I went over and asked if I could pick up the younger of the kids, a one-year old boy. The little boy was very tense when I first picked him up, then seemed to sense he was safe, and just totally relaxed. His sense of relief was palpable and I don’t think I will ever forget that moment. I cannot imagine how much of his young life has been spent scared, hungry, or uncertain despite his parents' best efforts.

HALO member holding baby

I spent about an hour later that day playing with a little girl named Ashley. She was in the soup kitchen with her obviously exhausted mother and little brother. Ashley was hilarious- she sang and danced non-stop. When I first picked her up, she whispered in my ear, “Never put me down, okay?!” I was only able to distract her by showing her my camera and taking endless pictures of her posing (with her hands on her hips and her eyes closed, naturally) and video of her singing and dancing. I asked her mom if I could pick up her brother and once I did, I realized he’d soaked himself completely through his clothes. I don’t think his mom had any diapers, so I did my best to pretend I hadn’t noticed and just walked him around holding his little hands. I think his mom was embarrassed because she later asked me if he had spilled his bottle over himself again and told me that “he does that a lot.” It was simultaneously heartbreaking and heartwarming to see these families that had so very little but were doing their best to raise happy and healthy children.

Little girl smiling

Shea posing with little girl and baby boy

Little girl posing for camera

Another noteworthy experience from that day was speaking with the man who recently retired from the military and stopped his job search to volunteer six days a week and live off his military retirement pension. He is completely re-doing the thrift store so that it might actually generate profits instead of continually acquiring more debt. To me, his most impactful advice was to find three words that you find especially representative of who you want to be as a person and live your life as the embodiment of those words. His words are “forgiveness”, “empathy”, and “compassion”. Despite having to leave the area promptly after his volunteer shifts because of the increased danger of East St. Louis after nightfall, he accepts every person to walk through the door and helps them in every way possible.

Another memorable experience was in the after-school program we stopped by one afternoon. There were so many funny and excited kids. I was asked repeatedly, "Is that your real hair?!" My roommate Kara was asked if she was wearing colored contacts. There was no racism at all, just genuine curiosity. The police came by that afternoon to talk about what they do and many of the kids were nervous or uncertain. The little girl sitting next to me and basically lying on Kara's lap whispered, "I don't like the police." We tried to reassure her, telling her the police are here to protect her and there was nothing to be scared about. She whispered, "I don't trust them. They came to my house and shot my dad in the neck." It was so sad to have this incredibly trusting and lively little girl clam up so visibly. What do you say in a situation like that where almost any promises you make seem to just be providing false hope? And there are thousands more like this little girl, and like Ashley, who despite their undeniable wit, charm, and intelligence will in all likelihood probably grow up and get lost in the system, like countless others before them. The best answer I received was from the law professor who helped run street law classes in inner-city St. Louis schools: "You do what you can where you are. It doesn't matter where you go, it just matters what you do to help the situation when you're there."

Elementary school girl posing for camera

Group of elementary school boys posing for camera