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. We were going to wake up shivering on the cold rocks, walk miles and miles together, and share slowly dwindling supplies of bread and peanut butter.
Excited introductions were made as we made our way to our first stop. It was a very diverse group of students, and we had 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,” named so due to the number of murders that occur annually in the parking lot. Clutching the $5 that would turn into our lifeline for the week, we walked into Kroger 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.
I regretted that decision later in the week, and the rest of my teammates who put hygiene over food supply may say the same.
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, where we cooked and served dinner.
Covenant House is a transitional facility for youths aged 18-21. They save kids from their hardships, often rescuing them from sex trafficking rings and crack houses, and some are even picked up from directly off the street. They also do crisis counseling and outreach.
We made pizza, mashed potatoes, salad and some world-class brownies that were obviously the favorite part of the meal.
Serving the dinner and eating with the residents was, well, something else. I had known that these people would be young but it still struck me just how young they were. How could they already be in this situation? Who would put a kid in this situation?
But Covenant House was quite unlike most places we worked at that week because there was a sense of hope. They were jovial and happy, cracking jokes and roasting 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.
EXCEPT there was an overwhelming majority of African American males sitting in the dining room. It was a disparity that I noticed just about everywhere that week.
One of the kids instantly won our hearts. I won’t reveal his name for privacy reasons, but he was so full of life, loud and funny. He sat smack in the middle of the room, and as his friends walked by he pointed at each and called them a bully for our benefit. They rolled his eyes at him, jabbing him right back with some witty comeback, which he countered by using their words as evidence of their bullying behavior.
I was sitting with two guys who were roasting 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.