I started interning at Westhab as a college student while home from school in the summer. I worked with children in our family shelters. I loved it.
I quickly learned that I wasn’t just different from the majority of the clients we served, I was also different in many ways from the majority of my co-workers. I was universally the “white college kid.” Many people get into this work because they grew up in tough circumstances and decided they wanted to make a change for the next generation. I got into this work because I grew up with every advantage, and I wondered what made me more deserving. The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing.
I have vivid memories of my early days at Westhab. I remain so grateful for the families that allowed me into their lives. The people I met, my successes and failures as a wide-eyed, clueless budding social worker, and my entrée to this whole new world just minutes from where I obliviously grew up have shaped my career and shaped who I am.
I remember one experience like it was yesterday. One of the young people I had created a real connection with was the single most charismatic and electric 14-year-old I had ever met. Let’s call him John. John’s story was filled with tragedy. In another setting, he would have become the frontman of a boy band or the CEO of nearly anything. He was rough around the edges—just hanging on in school, dating older women, generally doing things that a 14-year-old shouldn’t be doing. But he was interested in learning, receptive to my counsel, and a tremendously warm and special young man.
When new teens moved into the shelter, testing the white college kid was par for the course. I wouldn’t approach immediately and say, “Hey, come join my teen leadership program.” That was not the right sales pitch for this audience. I’d let them see me interacting with kids that I had already broken through with, get them interested in what was going on, and approach when the time was right. One day, two teen brothers moved in and were intent on establishing themselves as the toughest in the building. I don’t really remember what was said, and I don’t remember taking particular exception to anything, but clearly John felt that a line had been crossed—he leapt on the pool table in the teen room and called these kids out. Lots of profanities ensued, but suffice to say, his sentiment was: Rich is my man. And if you mess with him, you are messing with me.
I got John down from the table. I suspended him from the teen room for one day for standing on the pool table. I suspended him for a second day for cursing.
And then I said, thank you.
[Postscript: Due to the power of social media, “John” recently re-connected and thanked me for the impact I made on his life all those years ago. I let him know that the impact he made on me was far greater than anything I could have done. He’s doing really well. Hearing from him made me incredibly happy.]