by Scott Umlauf, Re Teacher (Coming of Age)
The weekend before Thanksgiving a team of Youth Group and Coming of Age students embarked on a trip to New York City for a Youth Service project on homelessness and food insecurity. Leaving by train on Friday afternoon, the group, with two chaperones in tow, navigated the subway and an outdoor market and arrived at the Friends Meeting House in Manhattan, the base of operations for the weekend.
Coordinated by Youth Service Opportunities Project (YSOP), a non-profit organization, our group met up with a partner group from a Presbyterian church in Morristown, NJ. After a brief orientation, the youth from both churches began preparing a meal for the guests (homeless people who would be sleeping in the Meeting House that night). The youth did essentially all of the food prep themselves, with a little direction from the YSOP staff and chaperones. Once the guests arrived, we all sat down and played games and talked for about an hour until dinner was ready. This pre-dinner period provided a great opportunity for the group to learn about the each guests’ circumstances as they were comfortable sharing. The youth then served dinner to the guests and ate with them. After dinner, James, a former business man from New Jersey, shared his story of how substance abuse left him homeless and how he found the Bowery mission where he has worked for over 30 years.
After bedding down in the Meeting House overnight, the next morning the group grabbed bagels and headed for their different activities: working at a soup kitchen in the Bronx or a food pantry near Time Square. Both were intense experiences with the soup kitchen serving over 200 people and the food pantry over 300 families. Both sites gave us all a perspective not only into the magnitude of the problem of homelessness and food insecurity in NYC, and America generally, but linked human faces and stories to the statistics. As part of the overall experience, all participants had only the food and drink that were shared with the guests for the weekend, giving a small taste of the reality of finding enough nutritious food to stay healthy, particularly at this time of the year when the weather is cold and also frequently wet.
After navigating the subway and streets busy with holiday preparations, both groups returned to the YSOP offices at the Meeting House for final reflections. Grabbing our sleeping bags and duffels, we headed back to Penn Station for a grateful ride back to our homes. Despite being stretched beyond their comfort zones, the kids were great, working energetically to help out in each assignment and treating all of the people they met with dignity and compassion.