Waitress offers lesson for young philanthropist
By MORRIAH KAPLAN
article created on: 2009-05-14T00:00:00
The Oregon Jewish Community Youth Foundation recently hosted a benefit dinner for its annual allocations. The event was incredibly successful, but personally it was bittersweet, because the close of this school year marks the end of my fifth and final year with OJCYF. At this point, I am compelled to look back and reflect. Why did I stick with it? What did I get out of it?
If you asked me what the best part of OJCYF was, I would tell you it was the site visits. Every year I visited local organizations that are tackling huge issues such as hunger and homelessness, mostly through creative, grassroots methods.
Blanchet House is one such place. It serves 800 meals a day and provides transitional housing while operating on a budget of a little over $100,000 a year. Or p:ear, which approaches teen homelessness through art and creative expression. I could go on, but suffice it to say that I’m inspired every time I go.
I didn’t always feel this way about site visits. They actually used to scare me. Obviously, most of the places we travel to on site visits aren’t glamorous, and when I joined OJCYF I was a timid eighth-grader from lovely southwest Portland. That’s not to say that I was completely ignorant. I knew that hunger and poverty existed, but I had no perspective or personal exposure. I had no human context for the vague discussions that are held around the issues confronting “those less fortunate.” That is, until I joined OJCYF.
OJCYF and especially the site visits have given me a wider lens with which to consider the harsh and sometimes heartbreaking reality of the world we live in.
I want to tell you about one site visit that is stuck in my mind: the Sisters of the Road Café. About two years ago, I was sitting in the café after its closing time interviewing the café’s director. A woman who had been clearing tables came by and introduced herself. Her name was Francine. She was an employee of the café, but she wasn’t always so fortunate. After the typical introductions were made, she sat down and told me of how she had found herself on the streets, and then how she got off of them.
While talking to Francine, I learned that she had lost a son, suffered a mental breakdown, and found herself homeless. She told me about her experience in the transitional projects and in a homeless shelter for women and finally about coming to Sisters of the Road Café and getting back on her feet. Talking to this woman was uncharted territory for me. I mean we’ve all seen homeless people before, but how many of us have actually sat down with such a peson and asked them to tell their story?
Perhaps this sounds like a cliché, but hearing Francine’s story put a face on poverty, a huge and complex issue. In addition, it took many of my assumptions about those less fortunate and turned them upside down. Francine taught me that everyone has a unique history that you can’t anticipate by looking at them. I suppose this sounds something like “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” but my experience at Sisters of the Road Café took this platitude and made it human. It taught me to check my assumptions and question my biases, and that there is always something to be gained by asking someone’s story.
As for my own story, I’m still working on the intro. But with the inspiration of the people I’ve met in OJCYF, I have a little better idea of how I want this story to go; I know more about where my passions lie and how to go about pursuing them. I think it’s fair to say that I’m not the only board member who feels this way, and together our stories will be a richer anthology because of our experiences in OJCYF.