A few of us headed out with a mission. A mission not really defined, but a general mission of spending the $5 dollars each of us was given by our professor on something for someone we did not know. With such little money, even if we combined all of our sums together, it still seemed like it would be insignificant to really, really do anything. So we thought. We brainstormed ideas, buy Slurpees and pass them out to thirsty-looking humans downtown? Buy a bunch of Kline’s ice cream cones and give them to sweaty kids? How about the taco truck that is always poppin down the road- let’s go there and buy a bunch of tacos for passerby pedestrians. One girl thought we should cruise around looking for one of the many people experiencing homelessness in our own Harrisonburg community. Buy them a meal. Anything we could really. Bingo chingo! Great idea, right? Helping someone in apparent need, in some kind of need. We had the money, they had the need. In our venturing to find this person, who we presumed would be rugged, bearded, have sun-baked skin and toting a stuffed backpack or grocery cart, we started to feel strange. How much would this even do? We can’t give them a key to a house. We can’t even provide them with some form of shelter from the elements- a coat, a sleeping bag, whatever it may be. We were feeling a bit stumped. Driving onwards, we pass a building on the outskirts of downtown. It has a mural on the side of it, filled with people of all ages and colors, riding bikes, laughing, enjoying life, simply being a community. In fact, this place was called Our Community Place. Yes!!!! I exclaimed. I have heard of this place. They helped those dealing with homelessness, whether that be providing a good meal, personal growth programs, Internet, showers, information about available resources, and most importantly, someone who will listen. Stumbling upon OCP was one of the best things that could’ve happened for a few folks in a college class centered on defining ~good advocacy~. Good advocacy…something, as someone who wants to pursue this effort for uh- her entire life, I have struggled with defining and enacting.
Cue the meeting and conversation had with Ron, the Executive Director of OCP. Rocking a baseball cap and the most worn, loved Birkenstocks I have ever seen, he spoke to his experience with this community, his community, our community. He talked of a time when they first opened the building, providing free hot meals 3x a day, letting anyone sleep in the building during the harsh winter months, giving all he possibly could to anyone, he vehemently expressed, anyone who walked through the front doors of this place. He spoke of the commonality between every single person he spoke to who was dealing with homelessness, the one heartbreaking common denominator, childhood trauma. He told of his widespread efforts, buying a farm for people to work on, running a restaurant downtown, huge and wonderful efforts that eventually led him to experiencing a serious breakdown. He was exhausted, having gave so much to his community and not seeing much improvement in many people’s’ life circumstances. Closing down OCP, he and his fellows took a month to reevaluate their mission. The biggest revelation they had? Something that may sound so incredibly simple, but that many advocates and people who want to help others often forget to ask. What do you need? Immediate needs are necessary, of course. But what do people need to pull themselves up, to empower them and create sustainable change? Questions we forget to ask ourselves and the people who we are supposed to be offering a helping hand to. When Ron and his team discussed this, they came up with real, cooperative ideas to create a more sustainable project and community: community memberships, co-operative meals where EVERYONE ate together (because the food wasn’t “just” for a certain person), real-world work and skills training, playing to their strengths and becoming aware of where they needed support, and only accepting volunteers driven by their own initiative.
Ron dropped some serious knowledge on my team and I that day. Seeing serious, hard advocacy at work is much different than reading and theorizing about it in a classroom. As advocates, we often forget the imperative questions in need of asking- what do you need, how can I help? And sometimes- asking ourselves the same.
Make a difference, start small, ask a simple question.