When I first volunteered with Family Promise I was about nine years old, barely older than the children of the guests staying with my family’s congregation. At such a young age “volunteering” meant tagging along with my mom to stay over when our church hosted families, eating dinner with them, playing with the younger kids, and generally having a good time. At this age, I didn’t think too deeply about why these families were staying in our church hall. I was mostly excited to see new faces, eat dinner, and, of course, play tag with the new kids.
By the time I reached middle school, I was able to help out in more concrete ways. As a certified babysitter, I would supervise the young kids that came through our congregation’s doors while their parents relaxed. I helped serve home-cooked dinners and tidied the rooms where the families would stay at night. I also began to think more critically about homelessness, aid, and what it means to offer community. My mom shared more about each family’s predicament and I had the capacity to reflect on my own privilege. I was particularly struck by the differences between my childhood and those of the children within the program. While in elementary school, the kids in the program were known to me simply as other smiling faces that happened to be staying in our church. Now a little older, my understanding of their predicament began to change. Watching them play, I remember feeling particularly affected as I noticed some of them forge attachments to the toys lent to them by our Sunday school. Inevitably one or two of our young guests would take a liking to a particular toy, yet I knew when they left our church hall, those dolls, and Legos, and picture books would not move along with them. I felt guilty as I thought of my room full of toys I was beginning to outgrow. Yet, through that feeling of guilt, I found not only a renewed appreciation for all I was able to have but, more importantly, a desire to commit to service in more serious ways.
Because of this, in high school my involvement with Family Promise underwent its largest shift. I began to intern at the National Headquarters in Summit, NJ. Equipped with a desk and a monitor, I researched homeless statistics across the nation, organized information in spreadsheets, and typed up comprehensive “Needs Assessments” for my supervisors. It was here amongst the office chairs and coffee mugs that I saw the logistical and administrative side of Family Promise—the place that put the “organization” in nonprofit organization. Here, not only did I get to peek behind the curtain at the more operational aspect of such an interaction based nonprofit—I was able to actually help business run smoothly in my own small way.
Now, after finishing my first year on the pre-law track at NYU, I’ve returned to the national office as a Government Relations Intern. In this capacity, I get to see the way policy for homeless families and youths is championed in the political sphere. I have been to Washington to advocate alongside other Family Promise Affiliates against proposed cuts to affordable housing. I’ve sat in meetings with members of New Jersey Senator Cory Booker’s office to discuss potential bills that will service our state’s homeless families. I am now working with Affiliates across the state to spread awareness of the Homeless Children and Youth Act of 2017—legislation Family Promise Affiliates helped create. Ultimately, although I do not interact face-to-face with the families we serve like I did many years ago with my mom, I am bringing my passion for law and advocacy to my continued work with this organization.
From ages 9 to 19 there is so much this organization has taught me. Therefore, when I was first asked to contribute to this blog—to write a brief reflection on my “experiences” with Family Promise–I found myself asking, “well, which one?” Ultimately, through countless hours, over 10 years, and with a lot of work, the Family Promise model has taught me that there is no “right” way to make a difference. Irrespective of faith, regardless of age—everyone has something to offer and anyone can make an impact. Even when we may feel we are faced with problems too big to overcome, my time with this organization has taught me that any effort beats no effort every single time. Whether you are a lawyer or an artist, a student or a cook—or even just a kid who really loves to play tag—there is always space for you to offer compassion, build community, and ultimately change lives.