Volunteer Spotlight: Erin’s Story
This article by Erin Russell first appeared on the blog Literally, Darling.
“So if the resources were here, you’re saying these kids wouldn’t choose gangs?” “Nahhhh man, nah man – you choose that cause there’s no hope.”
“People taking choices like going to college and that’s, like, making a choice—here you ain’t make no choice. There’s no choice—it’s like you’re waiting for someone to come save you, man. You just ain’t gonna never get saved, man.”
This was the phrase that made me do something. It was a Saturday night, I was lounging around my house watching Netflix in my pajamas (no judging!), and had stumbled across a documentary called “Crips & Bloods: Made in America.” A neighborhood two hours away from me was portrayed as an uninhabitable war zone, and I watched with a blasé attitude. All the Hollywood explosions from my other movie nights left me indifferent to residents describing the frequency of gunshots and helicopters in their neighborhood. It wasn’t until the camera panned to funerals that I made the connection that for some people, this was reality. I began to actually listen to the sentiments echoed again and again from the gang members being interviewed: We want to do something else, there just aren’t other options.
While the credits were still rolling, I started to research the few “other options” mentioned in the movie. I found one located in my city, aptly named Reality Changers. I read their testimonials that simply going to college gives teenagers the opportunity to change the patterns of poverty and be an example to the other kids in their neighborhood. How, in college, students could be exposed to a reality other than the one they wrote their entrance essays about: dropouts, shootings, meth addictions in 7th grade, and industrial-sized cans of beans stretched to last a week.
I lived three blocks from a sunny California beach with palm trees and drunk college kids. How could this violent and disturbing world exist outside of movies and news stories—much less only 25 minutes from my house?
When I drove over to Reality Changers for the first time, I made sure to turn down the TuPac blasting from my iPod. I was terrified. What were these kids going to do to me? Why was I volunteering for something that required a background check? Just past the supermercados and liquor stores with people milling around outside, I turned in to a brightly colored office building. The building guard(!) guessed where I was going and sent me to the 3rd floor, where a cheerful Asian girl about my age met me. She led me through a hall of pictures with smiling teens proudly holding college sweatshirts and showed me the small room with three battered brown couches where, once the program started, about 100 kids per night would pack in for three hours of leadership lessons and tutoring. I gave her my application, returned to my car (relieved that everything was still there), and sped back to my comfortable neighborhood.
From the first day, I understood that the organization was a family. Half of the staff were graduates of the program, foregoing more lucrative prospects after college to come back and be an example to their neighborhood. Parents brought dinner between lessons and tutoring, which introduced me to pozole and tortas. And once a month, the students exposed their lives in a speech tournament with the topic “My Defining Moment.” There were stories of being in the back of police cars, of praying the monster in your family wouldn’t invade your bed that night, of struggling to find enough light to do your homework from the car you called home. There were tears. But the overall message of these stories was, “We have hope.” They want to go to college, and then they want to lift the others up.
Working with Reality Changers altered the way I viewed the world. For the kids, participation in the program meant years of voluntarily spending free time preparing for college, instead of doing teenage stuff with friends or working to bring money to their families. I’m not sure I would have had the foresight to do this at their age. To be perfectly honest (don’t tell the people who read my college entrance essay), I’ve never been into volunteering—it was just never something I felt a connection to. At Reality Changers, I was there every Tuesday without fail. I could see lives turned around every week.
I’m not going to say this kind of volunteering is sunshine and rainbows all the time—it is not. There are stories that break your heart, like worrying about what happened to the 17-year-old sophomore with gang tattoos and sweet brown eyes who just stopped coming. But there are moments that make it worth it, like the struggling, defiant girl becoming enthralled with a book, saying that she didn’t realize reading could be interesting until she worked with me.
On the last day of the program, the seniors stood in that same cramped room that held them for four years to announce where they had been accepted to school. After others announced intentions for Berkeley, Princeton, and Duke, a pretty Cuban girl stepped forward with only one envelope, seeming a little disappointed to announce that she had been accepted to CSU—Los Angeles. From the audience, her mother sprang up, grinning widely and yelping, “Esa es mi hija!!!” Other parents hugged the mother and congratulated her, and tears streamed down her face. I was witnessing a family increase their earning potential, realize a life away from gunshots, and accomplish something they had only dreamed. So it wasn’t Ivy League—who cares. College acceptance meant change for that family, for their relatives and neighbors—a beacon in a community where hope was a luxury.
When I returned to Austin in 2012, I had to continue this arc. I found work at philanthropic organization that showed the masked inequity of the trendy hippie city I grew up in. I’d never seen the housing projects, I didn’t understand that the residents couldn’t buy produce because it literally was not offered at grocery stores in their zip code. I’m learning every day about the amazing people in my city fighting to make a change, and the more I understand, the more inspired I am to improve the world around me. If you are living in a bubble, get out of it.
I’ve heard that there comes a point in everyone’s life where they want to have a higher purpose, but it’s not something that just happens. You need to make it a reality. Your cause might be advocating for a child bouncing through the foster system or protecting a child from abuse using your motorcycle. It may have nothing to do with kids at all, but growing healthy food and community or helping nonprofits be more efficient. You may be on the front lines, you may be helping them build a Salesforce database. The need is there, the opportunity is there. Get off the couch. Do something.