The white Emory van pulled into the circle by the DUC at around 8AM on Sunday morning. Seven strangers slowly piled in, rubbing the sleep out of their eyes. I didn’t know any of them, but I was about to spend the most intense week of my life by their side.
Excited introductions were made as we made our way to our first stop. It was a very diverse group of students, with a wide range of ages, states of origin, birthplaces and ethnicities. It seems like a lifetime ago that we sat in that smelly van. We’ve all grown a lot since then.
We were each handed a crisp $5 bill, and let loose in Atlanta’s semi-famous “Murder Kroger.” Clutching the $5 that would turn into our lifeline for the week, we walked in together, and made a beeline to the peanut butter aisle.
I had no idea peanut butter was so expensive! Or that Nutella was a superior good, at double the price. I decided to pick up a loaf of bread, some peanut butter, and a pack of gum so I wouldn’t choke on my own breath. Many went the same route, Mehtab and Mihir going so far as to pick up toothpaste. At the counter, I realized I’d picked up one too many of the small bottles of peanut butter, asking the cashier to put it back while staring forlornly at the crumpled $5 bill in my hand. The man behind me stopped her quickly and said, “Here, I got it.”
It was a taste of a kindness that we wouldn’t see much for the rest of the week, and even as I explained our project to him, he looked at me worriedly and said, “you’re still going to be homeless though, are you sure you couldn’t use that extra bottle?”
We all squeezed back into the van, heading for a backyard farm put together by the Paideia School, a charter school in Atlanta. I use the term backyard loosely; it went on for acres. We planted peas and weeded beds, and our efforts contributed to a harvest that provides about 2000 pounds of food to soup kitchens and food pantries in Atlanta per year.
For me, the trip really began that night at the Covenant House, a transitional facility for youths aged 18-21. They attempt to save these young adults from sex trafficking rings, drug operations, and directly from the streets. They also have crisis counseling and outreach programs for at risk youths in the area.
We made pizza, mashed potatoes, salad and I helped make some world-class brownies that were definitely the favorite part of the meal. It was one of our first bonding activities as a group, and I could see how well we gelled together.
Serving the dinner and eating with the residents was simultaneously very familiar and very strange. In retrospect, Covenant House was quite unlike most places we worked at that week because there was a sense of hope. The residents were jovial and happy, cracking jokes and messing around with one another. There were visible cliques, and the sexual tension was tangible. If I hadn’t known the context of the location, I’d have guessed we were sitting in a high school cafeteria or a college dining hall.
And yet, this same, familiar youthful exuberance was the hardest for me to difest. I had known that these people would be young but it still struck me just how young they were, and how much they had already suffered. We might be sharing a space and a meal at that moment, but our worlds couldn’t have been on more separate planes.
As a sociology student, I’ve been taught to notice the composition of my space, but it didn’t take an expert to see that there was an overwhelming majority of black males sitting in the dining room. It was a disparity that I noticed just about everywhere that week.
One of the residents instantly won our hearts. He was loud and funny and so full of life, sitting smack in the middle of the room and giving his friends a hard time. He was incredibly witty, and comebacks seemed to fly out of his mouth before I’d even had time to digest what was being said. Once again, his happiness and obvious intelligence made for a poignant juxtaposition with his current situation, and I remember thinking how I’d love to have a college class with this kid and hoping that someone someday would have the opportunity to.
I was sitting with two guys who were messing around with each other as guys are apt to do. Slowly, the slurs got racial, and while I knew they were joking, I had a feeling the comments were backed by personal experience.
“I wouldn’t ever get arrested yo, I run like Usain Bolt.”
“But the cops gonna shoot at you first!”
“Why the f**k would they do that”
“Because those stupid ass dreads”
“You’re the one that’s Jamaican though!”
“You a dark-skinned ni**a. You really think they gonna shoot my lightskinned ass when you look more black?”
“You know, they’re going to end up putting bullets in both of us. You’re joining me up there in hell anyway!”
They were laughing the whole time, but I couldn’t bring myself to laugh along.
After Covenant House, we dropped the van off at Emory, put all of our precious belongings in giant trash bags, and trudged up to Elizabeth’s house. She was our mentor of sorts, and we’d be sleeping in her backyard for three of the five nights. It was three miles away, and Jun, our lead, had us walking in circles for a good 20 minutes while he figured out the map. When we got there an hour and a half later, we were exhausted and ready for bed.