This week, instead of the usual, I want to focus on some stories about good people doing good things, and since the Pilot has taken the time to share these nice stories about people in our community, I’d like to make sure you get a chance to read them, too.
First up is this wonderful piece about a couple in Virginia Beach who provide the ability for homeless people to take showers.
To many of us, this may not sound like much. But I don’t think anyone who hasn’t been in their shoes can imagine how wonderful it must feel just to be able to bathe and feel clean for awhile. There’s little that means more to someone in that circumstance than to gain a little dignity, and something as simple as a shower can go a long way towards generating that feeling.
As the article quotes: “For me, it’s a love now. I thoroughly enjoy the opportunity,” Clay said. “They need a shower, and I’ve already had one.”
What they do do is collect donations of items such as razors, soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste, and other personal sundries from the hospitality industry and manufacturers – many of whom have also quietly demonstrated a tremendous willingness to give – and assemble what they call “care kits” containing these items, which are then distributed to local shelters and other charities which serve the homeless. The care kits are mostly assembled by teenagers from groups like scout troops, and also high schools – particularly Norfolk Collegiate, which has been enthusiastically on board from the beginning.
Hospitality for the Homeless has distributed thousands of these over the years, with hardly anyone noticing. My respect for what they do and the way they go about doing it knows no bounds.
Speaking of being homeless, we learn from this article something about the new vice-president of our local United Way chapter – a man named Luciano Ramos – who, while growing up in Virginia Beach, lived through the experience of being homeless with the rest of his family.
In his role at the United Way, he’s focused on programs to help others – particularly children – escape from the cycle of poverty that infects American society like a cancer.
It boggles my mind that nearly a quarter of children in our country go hungry on any given day. It doesn’t help that the nature of my work exposes me constantly to the heartless barbarity expressed by so-called conservatives who take glee in demonizing others who struggle with poverty.
I don’t know how to ignite compassion in the tens of millions of Americans who apparently have none, but if you want an example of how to break that cycle of poverty, I offer Luciano Ramos, and the people who had his back growing up, as shining examples.
One thing experts know about is the close relationship between the homeless and mental illness. Suffering from mental illness doesn’t mean you’ll end up homeless, nor does it mean that you’ll commit a crime. But if you end up in court and mental illness is a factor, there’s someone in Virginia Beach who’ll make sure that the issues you’re dealing with will be considered as a factor when you’re facing judgement for your actions.
In this piece we learn about Annette Miller, an attorney who works in the Public Defender’s office, and over the years has become an authority about the ways that mental health issues can lead to someone committing a crime, even though there was no criminal motivation on their part.
Our justice system isn’t set up to recognize or deal with mental illness being a factor in criminal behavior. The net result of this is that there are many, many thousands of people incarcerated who have serious issues that are rarely addressed while they’re imprisoned. Because of that and because of the punitive nature of our criminal justice system, these people often end up in worse shape when they’re released.
Imagine someone being confined to a solitary prison cell for most of the day – everyday – who suffers from auditory and/or visual hallucinations, and has to hear the “voices in their head” constantly, with no relief. How can any rational person possibly expect that person to come out of prison ready to function normally in society?
People like Ms. Miller are probably their only hope of ever achieving any relief from their illness. It’s a thankless, and often dangerous task. But she’s spent the past 19 years serving that role. It’s hard to imagine how many people she may have guided down a path that could lead them back to living a lucid, productive life.
For many people who find themselves in trouble with the law, or who otherwise struggle to functionally fit in to society, the things which lead them down the wrong path almost always emerge in childhood. Poverty, broken homes, abusive adults and lack of good role models are just some of the potential contributing factors.
This story about the Commonwealth Challenge program tells us about one method that has shown a great deal of success in turning young lives around.
I could spend a lot of time trying to analyze how this happens, but I don’t have the expertise to do so. What I can say is that it doesn’t mean that their folks were bad parents, or that opportunities for mentorship didn’t exist. Childhood and adolescence are, in essence, a time when kids are supposed to learn how to be good adults. But external influences can and often do interfere with that process.
I believe that the two most important things to learn are self-discipline and responsibility, and let’s face it: nothing that our children are exposed to today – particularly in media – emphasizes those factors.
That’s where the Commonwealth Challenge program steps in. These two ideas are at the very top of the list of what the program emphasizes. Living in an environment that resembles life in the military may not be fun, but these teens come out of it changed in a way that may put them on a path to lifelong success because they learn that self-discipline and responsibility can make their lives so much more focused.
And finally, I want to offer props to a program being used in Suffolk Public Schools. It’s called LEAP – Learning and Enrichment for Academic Progress, and as related in the story, it’s “a voluntary program housed at Mack Benn Jr. Elementary and available at no charge to students at any of the city’s 12 elementary schools.”
The purpose is really to stimulate a love of learning, and a realization early in life that acquiring knowledge and developing intellectual prowess is a joy – not a burden.
How many times have you heard someone – particularly teens – make a statement like: “I shouldn’t have to learn such-and-such. I’ll never use it,” or “I already know enough. I don’t need to know any more.”
These are the morons who you now see on the interwebs screaming at the top of their lungs about topics of which they’re obviously utterly ignorant, but are absolutely positive they know about because some manipulative svengali-like opportunist convinced them that their twisted opinion is an absolute truth.
The kids in the LEAP program are likely to avoid such manipulation because they want to learn and hone their intellectual chops. They perceive the joy of learning.
I hope they represent our future.
(Mike Rau wishes there were a lot more stories like this to tell, or at least that they were told more often.)