To be completely honest, in the past, whenever I heard the word ‘homeless,’ other words, like lazy, drug addict, smelly and others, were never far from my mind.
But I have also always wanted to help others. I got the chance when I went on an alternative spring break trip to Baltimore my freshman year with the CNU student organization Raising Educational Awareness through Compassion and Humanity. The group was awesome; I had no problem growing and learning together with the others on the trip. We stayed at a church downtown that week, and boy, it was tough! The heater seemed to have a mind of its own, the air mattress struggled to hold my weight during the nights and the water in the shower had a brownish color at times. But by the middle of the week, I began to realize how minor these problems were in comparison to the challenges we witnessed people facing in Baltimore.
During our trip we served at multiple sites around the city. At Christopher’s Place, an employment academy that works with formerly homeless men, I met a name named John. John told me about how he had separated from his family, fought drug addiction, faced the hard realities of homelessness, yet somehow managed to find his way to Christopher’s Place. As John talked about a current job application he had sent in to a local restaurant, I could feel the excitement and joy radiating from him. We could all see how eager he was to get the job, and we were there when he got the good news over the phone. I’ll never forget how I felt in that moment.
I wanted to meet more people like John and challenge myself to break negative preconceived notions, like those I held before I went to Baltimore. I believe people, regardless of their situation, want to overcome obstacles in their lives and move forward, like John. And like Willie, another man we met in Baltimore, who kept reminding us: “It only takes one wrong decision to find yourself in darkness, one wrong decision.” But I also think one person who truly cares, who works to prevent someone from making that wrong decision, can truly make a difference in others’ lives.
After I got back from Baltimore, I applied and was admitted to the Bonner Service Scholar Program through CNU’s Center for Community Engagement. We are placed within local community organizations and commit to completing 300 hours of service each year. I’ve been with Youth Volunteer Corps of Hampton Roads the past three years, where I help to expand and maintain their program of engaging youth in positive, impactful volunteer opportunities. Among other things, we teach them ways to avoid making that one wrong decision. When I started there were around 600 students registered, and now we have more than a thousand. Such growth is always great to see, but what impresses me most is seeing our organization have such a positive impact on the middle and high school volunteers. I have come to love serving alongside them, and hope to ignite in them a passion to serve that matches my own.
When I hear the word ‘homeless’ now, I think, how can I help? How can I lead – or serve? I think of other words, like challenge and opportunity. And hope.
Linda Oh is enrolled at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry and plans to practice in a low-income or other underserved area upon completion.