I decided to join my Momentum family (life transformation program) on a Saturday morning to make bag lunches and pass them out to people who wouldn’t have had a meal had it not been for the ones we provided. It was one of the most emotional and incredible days of my life that had nothing to do with me. It was about them: those people who sit on the concrete, their backs against garbage cans, as they watch our footsteps scurry past them and eyes dart around to keep from making eye contact. On that day, I saw those people. People. Just like all of us, but somewhere, somehow, in their lives, their choices landed them on the streets.
There was nothing but love in the room as we developed an efficient assembly line to write loving messages on the bags we packed with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a granola bar, clementines and candy. A local cafe allowed us to use half of their dining area to assemble the bags and curious customers came in, asking what we were up to and many of them grabbed some of the bags to hand out on their way out. It was amazing to inspire others to connect with people in the world who are constantly ignored.
Armed with bags of sandwiches, I teamed up with two people–Liz and Richard. We started in Port Authority in Times Square and handed out a quarter of the bags. Liz had to take off, so Richard and I continued and walked around Port Authority, then walked down to Penn Station. On the walk down, Richard and I were already seeing that everyone we handed a lunch to, looked up, made eye contact and showed so much gratitude. It felt like they were more thankful that we talked to them than they were about the paper bag lunch.
Inside of Penn Station, as Richard and I walked around, searching for people to feed, we saw a man squatting. He looked like he could have been praying and when I said, “I think he’s praying,” the man crawled over to us on all fours, like an animal. I was ready to scream, laugh and run, dismissing the moment to a comedic experience I could recall to my friends later. But Richard stood there and so did I, waiting for the man to crawl over to us. And he did. Richard pulled out a bagged lunch and asked the man if he was hungry. Crouched in front of us, he looked up, grabbed the bag and crawled over on all fours to a column and rested his back against it, opening the bag. He would have something to eat today that otherwise, he wouldn’t have. On that day, he was treated like a human being.
Richard and I had a dozen more interactions that day similar to that one. One in particular that sticks out in my memory is a man who was screaming all kinds of incoherent insults and profanity. I was afraid to approach him at first, but with Richard right there with me, I had the courage. I stepped to the man, gently asking, “Hi sweetheart.” I made eye contact and he seemed to calm down. “Are you hungry?” I wasn’t expecting him to answer, so I started handing him the bag. He reached out, “Yes, thank you.” He words were clear and deliberate. What seemed crazy and easy to dismiss turned out to be a gentle soul with hurt in his heart, who just wanted to be treated like a human being. “God bless you,” I said as I started to walk away.
“God bless you sister,” the man said, connecting our pupils. And these were the interactions we found ourselves having for most of the day. There were so many compliments given to us as we handed off meal after meal. One couple looked at Richard and me, thanked us and said, “That’s really cool what you guys are doing.” A man near them said we’ve inspired him to challenge himself to see what he could do to give back. It doesn’t take much.
By the time we walked around Penn Station, we’d almost depleted our stash. I started taking more time with the people I handed bags to. One man named Chase, right outside of Madison Square Garden sat on that very concrete, with his back against the garbage can, holding a sign that said he had pancreatic cancer and was homeless. My heart broke in places I didn’t know it had. I asked him about his cancer and how he was managing with no place to live. He goes to a clinic and gets checked every six months–which is extremely risky as a person with pancreatic cancer. Those doctors have started referring him to a specialist in Philadelphia, but he has no way, no money, no possible option to make it that far out of New York City. So he begs, saves the pennies, nickels and occasional dollar bills and he goes to his doctor appointments.
He told me that a friend of his was diagnosed the same time he was with a different cancer, nine months ago. Chase’s friend looked at him and told him they were going to die. Chase said he wasn’t, he wanted to live. Three months after that diagnosis, Chase’s friend died. I gave Chase a bagged lunch and offered to pray for him. I wanted to change his life, but I felt like I didn’t have the capacity to even try. It was hard to walk away from Chase knowing that his life would be the same way it was before I walked into it.
Richard and I walked a few feet away from Chase and there was another garbage can. There was a man sitting on the side facing us and someone else on the other side. I asked Richard to talk to the man facing us and I would go around the garbage and talk to the person on the other side. I walked around, looked down and saw a girl who could very much be my litter sister smiling up at me. Her face was round like mine, a tint of warm caramel, like mine and her smile was just as bright as mine. Her sign was detailed, offering passersby the story that got her there and the things that she needed, including “organic cat food.” I wanted to chuckle at the irony of the sign, but she looked young, hopeful and lost. I couldn’t.
Her smile never faded as I offered her a bag. “What’s your name?” I asked, matching her bright smile with mine.
“Shaunyece,” she smiled.
“How long have you been out here Shaunyece?” I asked, never breaking eye contact.
She’d been on the streets for a few weeks, getting kicked out of her apartment by a crazy landlord who cheated her out of her rent money and security deposit. I didn’t ask about savings accounts, backup plans or even why the boyfriend she was out there with couldn’t save them from living on the street. It’s hard to live in New York City and if you’re not raking in the dough, savings accounts, backup plans and making ends meet are pretty much not a thing. In fact, I am only a paycheck away from the same type of poverty that left Shaunyece to beg for survival.
I did, however ask her about her family and why there’s no option there. She mentioned a few family members–siblings with new babies, aunts, uncles and a distant father. I assumed what I always do–drugs tears them away from their families and they have no one else to turn to and no way to making money because they haven’t worked because of the drugs. I didn’t know what to think. I only felt. I looked at Shaunyece like a little sister. Her words were weighing on my shoulders and behind my sunglasses, my tears welled up for her. Every option she had was a dead end. She had no contact information–no phone, access to email, nothing. She was desperate to find work, but nothing ever panned out because there was no address to put on applications and let’s not forget the tradition of dressing to impress for job interviews. Again, not an option.
She told me that her boyfriend went to make a call to his friend about staying at his place for $60 a week. Shaunyece didn’t know where that money was coming from, but when she talked about the possibility of somewhere to sleep that’s not concrete, her eyes were bright.
I couldn’t make my feet walk away from her. I gave her my number and urged her to call if she ever could. That still want’s enough for me because who knew when she would have that chance? I just didn’t know what else to do. Her story took the pieces of my broken heart (remember Chase’s story broke it) and smashed them. I eventually pulled myself away from Shaunyece, but I still felt her pull on me and wanted to do more.
Richard and I had about six sandwiches left and handed them out close to where Shaunyece was. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and it was Shaunyece, still smiling. She looked directly into my eyes and exclaimed, “We got the room! Can I have a hug?” She asked.
I couldn’t help but scream for Shaunyece, hugging her tight. I was overwhelmed. I still wanted to help. She said it was $60 a week, so I reached in my wallet and gave her $20 to help her with the rent. Richard looked in his wallet and didn’t have cash, so we headed to the ATM and came back. As Richard was handing Shaunyece the $40 towards her rent, a couple of our Momentum family showed up.
I told Shaunyece about Momentum and how it’s a life course that will literally change your life. She was already excited about the possibilities, but it was one of my Momentum family members, Velvet, who gave Shuanyece a Basic workshop scholarship. Shanisse looked at me with those sparkling brown eyes, and thanked me for the entire moment we shared. From a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to helping her have a roof over her head and a new way of being in the world to a lifelong connection with Shaunyece that is deeper than some of the relationships I’ve nurtured for years.
Shaunyece is set to come to Momentum’s Pay It Forward night, which is the night that the word-of-mouth life course advertises to potential students. We get together, celebrate that changes that many of us have made in our lives and invite others to experience this level of living on purpose. I will get to see Shaunyece again and watch her start her new life’s journey. We all deserve to actively live our lives and not all of us get that chance.
For people who are like me–with a roof over their heads, food in their tummies and money in their bank accounts, humanity is up to us. We can choose to keep avoiding eye contact with those who need us–telling ourselves it’s because they’re going to use what we give them as drug money to make ourselves feel better, but the truth is…we owe it to ourselves to at least give them a chance. All I can say is #AllLivesMatter.
I challenge you to give a chance to someone who wouldn’t have any other option if it wasn’t for you. Whether it’s a dollar, a sandwich or an ear to listen, give something to someone who needs it. Let me know about your experience in the comments below.
If you would like to donate, please do so here: DONATE TO SHAUNYECE!