Blog, Youth Voice

On Being Noticed, Feeling Safe, and Finding Strength in Community

Two SHC Young Leaders – student and peer mentor – share their thoughts and feelings about finding strength in community, and speaking truth to power, in Washington, DC.

Student Perspective: Morgan, majoring in Wildlife Management.

When homelessness began for me, I never felt comfortable talking to people about it because I did not want them to feel sorry for me or judge me. I met so many young people like me, with SchoolHouse Connection’s young leaders in DC, and I knew I was in a safe place where I could talk about it and not be judged. I was so excited to see everyone and learn everything that happened in their lives. While we were in Washington, D.C. we made use of our time of sightseeing, eating good food, and discussing some of the issues we faced while we were, or are homeless, to the audience at the Congressional briefing, and to officials from the U.S. Department of Education.

In my experience at the Congressional briefing, I felt like many people related to what we were saying and how we felt. Some of them were brave enough to admit that they had been or were now faced with homelessness. They listened and actively took notes on what my peers and I were saying.

During our meeting with the Assistant Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education, Jason Botel, we discussed different options on how to help and relate to students who are experiencing homelessness, trying to find ways to get the resources and information they need to survive on a day-to-day basis. Overall, the experience to me was lovely and felt very safe.

I feel like the impact of what we did to bring awareness and change for homeless youth could be amazing. People will be aware of the issues and say something once they see it, and that is a huge step. Being able to help one person, or even multiple people at a time, is so powerful. SchoolHouse Connection, the audience at the Congressional briefing, and at the U.S. Department of Education are helping us feel noticed for the first time, and giving us opportunities we never thought we could have. It’s incredible!

Peer Leader Perspective: Tia, starting dental school this fall.

In three short days, we made quite a bit of progress towards increasing the visibility of homeless and unaccompanied youth. From a Congressional briefing on Monday to a U.S. Department of Education meeting on Tuesday, and a lot exploring and bonding in between, this trip was a worthwhile experience. I am thankful for the opportunity to be a part of this group as a peer mentor. There were so many “take aways” I got from this venture.

Being in the midst of people who truly understood what it was like to grow up without a stable home, people who could relate to the various issues I still face today, had an overwhelming impact on me. Day one during our meeting with leadership over brunch, my heart felt heavy. I hadn’t even heard all of my peers’ stories yet, but I felt like I was allowed to be transparent. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like I could let my guard down, and be vulnerable. That day I cried for the first time in a very long time. I know that there is a small emptiness that I carry inside me. I’ve spent my life working to fill that emptiness with hard work and accomplishments. Being surrounded by others who understand and have experienced that same void made me feel like we were all created to fill it in each other, even if just for a short time. Having people walk so effortlessly into your heart is a beautiful experience. This makes leaving hard. Before I even unpacked my things, I felt the pain of having to leave them again.

Having the opportunity to serve as a peer leader, although heart-heavy, was therapeutic, empowering and good for the soul. Amidst all of the work and planning, I was able to spend some one-on-one time with a few of the students. Each student that I spoke to inspired me. The perseverance and determination of these amazing students was met with an endless well of compassion and love for them that I didn’t even know I had. I wanted to wrap up each student tight, and take all of their burdens away. These students have all faced so much in their own right, and have come out on the other side shining, whether they see it yet or not. I am so lucky to have had a role where I could help them see it.

Pouring into the students had such a reverberatory effect on me. One example in particular took place over brunch. After watching me play with a toddler over brunch, one student asked “Do you think you want to be a mom one day?” She followed this with, “I wish you were my mom, I think you would have been great.” That statement broke my heart, and welled it up with so much love at the same time. These students inspired me to be better than I ever thought I could. I want to work even harder so that I can one day be a mom or an advocate to someone like her. I so thankful that they have allowed me to see this potential and strive for it even more.

I’ve found that it is a lot easier to pour into others and have them pour into you, than it is to pour into yourself. That is why we need community. One of the best things about bringing these students together is their ability to recognize the resilience, strength, and value of their peers. Once they are able to appreciate how deserving their peers are of support and applause, it becomes easier for each student to turn that mirror right back on themselves and say to themselves “I too am worthy.”

The time we spent speaking with those who have a direct avenue to effect policy change will have a long rippling effect as well. There were people who were visibly impacted by the students’ stories during the Congressional briefing and the discussion at the U.S. Department of Education. Even for those who didn’t seem as moved, I feel confident that we at least got the conversation rolling. Having so many inspirational young people in one room sharing their stories not only creates an emotional tie to the issues of homelessness, but it inspires visibility. The issue of homelessness is often an invisible burden outshined by images of tattered clothes and messages written on cardboard. The true face of homelessness is so much broader than that. We will truly elicit change when we are able to help our community and those in power see those faces. There is so much more work to do, but I am glad I could be a part of a small effort to make a difference.