Monday, July 21, 2014

On This Date

When I was a kid my favorite part of the newspaper was the small, inconspicuous section of page 4 called, "On This Date in History." It was only a column consisting of a few paragraphs, but it was infinitely interesting to me. Specific years would be listed and facts were supplied to state something (hopefully) cool that transpired on whatever the current date was in a previous year. Sometimes the years would span back over a century and it was fun to track the progress of certain inventions or advancements in technology.

Other years would sing the praises of sports events and the the birth and passing of famous people. Politicians seemed to finagle their way into certain entries and specific legislative decisions could be tracked to their infancy and then cross-examined by the current political climate.

But the epitaphs that moved me the most were the ones dedicated to certain people who accomplished great things because they saw a need and thought it might also be nice to provide a solution. And many of these individuals were not famous. They inspired me to want to (someday) have an accomplishment of my own that others would read about a century from now. How could I contribute to the betterment of this planet in such an epic manner that would be remembered for all time?... or at least while newspapers were still relevant.

Now that I'm older and less idealistic than when I was 10, I'm afraid I have consigned myself to the fact that I lack the energy to change the entire world on such a grand, Herculean scale. Realism has replaced my youthful zest and I happily admit I feel more comfortable trying to effect change in smaller ways and stages. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by the sheer volume of infinite problems plaguing our world, I can hone in on one or two fixable issues in my own, immediate sphere of influence.

Changing the world doesn't mean we have to discover the means to world peace or invent a serum that eradicates the common cold or take Justin Bieber under our wing and mold him into a fine, outstanding citizen. It's much simpler than that.

We change our world by reaching out to others and addressing the needs in their world, which then affects THIS world. If can grasp the idea that our stories and experiences are intertwined and related to others, then we no longer can claim exclusivity to our own personal narrative. Our story becomes linked with everyone else's and when we help improve the lives of others, we are improving our own situation on numerous levels.

And who knows, perhaps a selfless act of kindness and involvement you commit today will be read about 80 years from now. What will YOUR date in history be?

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Twelve Zeros

1,000,000,000,000.

1 trillion dollars contains more zeros than most of us can conceptualize. I am usually happy when my 'zero count' passes one, so twelve of these goose eggs lined up next to each other seems absolutely otherworldly.

This morning I was watching one of the national news programs when something interesting caught my attention. A report was shown that indicated the amount of debt college students in America have accumulated has surpassed the trillion dollar mark. There have been measures passed to alleviate some of this debt. And this also doesn't take into account money provided from grants and scholarships awarded to people. But the truth of the situation is sobering: college is expensive.

It seems education can be a double-edged sword. It offers more opportunities for an individual to make a living, but the debt accrued can hang like an albatross around one's neck for decades. I've spoken to many high school students who are leery about going to college because of the student loans. Others have decided against it, altogether. For homeless kids, the daunting task of pursuing a college education can be even more overwhelming due to a lack of a permanent address or low grades caused by perpetual transferring in and out of schools.

The report focused on a Colorado school district that brokered an agreement with one of the local community colleges in their area. These two entities have joined forces, allowing high school students to take college courses. Now, this is not uncommon and many school districts have programs like this. What's happening in Colorado is a bit different because the alliance between the public schools and the college extends to 9th and 10th graders and, here's the kicker... The classes are provided for free.

One girl was profiled in the story and she had saved nearly $70,000 by utilizing this program. She ended up graduating with an Associates Degree 9 days before her high school graduation! This particular young lady was one of several siblings who would not have been able to go to school without a significant and sizable loan. Kids are offered the chance to take concurrent college classes at their high schools.

The logistics and bureaucracy involved with a merger and partnership like this must have been a nightmare. But it shows that programs like this can be successful and, even more importantly, can make a tangible difference to students who would not have an opportunity, otherwise. Thinking outside the box is the only way we can address issues that refuse to go away.

Now, hopefully we can eliminate some of those zeros.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Going Home

LeBron James gets it.

Recently, this basketball legend shocked the sports world by leaving the glitz and glamor of South Beach, Miami, for Cleveland. James began his basketball career in Ohio (where Cleveland is located, just in case geography isn't your thing), where he was born and raised and played high school ball before being the #1 pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

He played a few years there before bolting to Miami, where he won a couple championships. His decision to leave torpedoed Cleveland and he went from beloved son to hated villain. I've been to both Cleveland and Miami and the the places could not be any more different. Most people would chose Miami because of the sun and beaches and food and a whole slew of other reasons. People from other countries flock to Miami in droves. Not so much for Cleveland.

James made his move back to Cleveland (dubbed the "mistake by the lake" because it it borders one of the Great Lakes) because he missed it. In a letter he wrote for Sports Illustrated, he explained that he wanted to go home because where he grew up and his love for Northern Ohio was bigger than the game of basketball. He recognized something that most of our residents at Samaritan House have known the whole time they've been homeless: a sense of home and community is a powerful thing.

When we were kids, many of us dreamt about the day we could leave our home and get out of town. The allure of exotic new locales and adventures beckoned us to exist our little burgs and towns as soon as we could. But, as we grew older, some of us came to view our home towns with a little nostalgia and a sense of pride. We could identify with other expatriates we would bump into. And as we assimilated into our new surroundings, there was still a large part of our being that belonged to the place we grew up.

I've spoken to many of our residents over the years who portray a sense of longing to get back to where they grew up. Exciting places like Fargo, Bakersfield, Spokane, and Ft. Collins. It's not necessarily because these places are destination locations. The reason people miss where they come from is because they are tied to an identity and this identity can foster a sense of belonging, inclusion, and pride. Surroundings are cherished.

Cultures and customs help dictate how we grow up and view the world. They make sense when they are the dominant ideas but as we live in other places with more divergent thoughts, we change. Our comfort level wanes and we can desire the security of being in a place where life 'made sense.' James wanted that feeling. Our residents often want the same thing but are frustrated because they've had to leave the very places they forged an identity with.

Home is much greater than an address on a mailbox. It's a force.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Pursuit of Happiness

Happiness is an interesting word because it means different things to different people. Cheeseburgers make some people happy while others clamor for world peace. Happiness seems relative to our own ideas and definitions. For the record, I love a good cheeseburger!

When our Founding Fathers decided we have the right to pursue our own happiness, they had a very specific idea in mind. They borrowed "the pursuit of happiness" from an ancient Greek named Aristotle who believed people were at their happiest when they were doing whatever it is they did best. In essence, society ran better because people were happily contributing by doing what they were skilled at.

We could argue about the philosophical implications of this and whether we think it's true. However, the intentions of the Founders is very clear: people should be able to have the chance to try and secure employment that is fulfilling and provides enough finances for them to live. The right to work is an essential part of the fabric of our nation. Now, the Founders weren't staring that everyone should be allowed to do whatever they wanted. They knew that would be unrealistic and lead to chaos. But they did think the right to pursue what we loved should be afforded to us. We should have a crack at it.

The problem is that life too often gets in the way. We all had dreams of being astronauts and sports stars and winning Oscars and Grammys. Most of us had to adjust those notions because reality is far more constraining than fantasy. We have become social workers and teachers and police officers and chefs... Happiness hasn't been abandoned as much as it has been refashioned. In a perfect world, it would be truly amazing if we could all be employed in roles that we were inclined to love and be passionate about. Sadly, this world is not perfect and we have learned to adapt and adjust.

I've spent a lot of time thinking about this idea. Where things begin to break down for me is the concept of pursuit. So many Americans never get to really pursue their chance at happiness because they are bogged down with circumstances that barely allow them to keep their heads above water. Poverty is cyclical and often children born into poor families have two strikes against them compared to kids their own age who were born into more prosperous circumstances.

Many of the children who have come through Samaritan House have not had a level of stability that offers them the chance to pursue anything. They are simply coping and surviving. If the parent(s) work long and odd hours, supervision is sacrificed. A consistent lack of financial resources leads to unhealthy nutritional habits which have been linked to everything from health problems to poor school performance. Inequality stretches across several areas.

The right to an opportunity is an epic concept. If we could live up to this idea, then America would benefit. And since there are so many people who often long to return back to "true American values," I cannot think of a better way to start than by doing what we can to reduce and eliminate homelessness. This seems like the right thing to do.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Liberty

The idea of liberty saturates our identity as Americans. I mean, how many other nations have state mottos that scream anthems like "Live Free or Die!"? And while we didn't invent freedom, we have uniquely adapted it to suit our way of life. Liberty, as a concept, provides an environment of independence that allows us to make choices that are beneficial to our betterment.

Every day we are inundated with decisions and some people have even argued that the pressure to make all these choices is almost like its's own sentence that restricts us. We have so many options that we can become overwhelmed by the magnitude and abundance of our freedom. I suppose this is an excellent dilemma to have because we are not the Land of the Free for no reason. And sometimes our life is so chalked full of options that it mirrors those cool 'choose your own adventure' books we read as kids. Each decision leads to the next which provides more opportunities to succeed if we play our cards right.

But often, the deck can be stacked against us from the beginning. All of our staff have spent time listening to the stories of our residents and each one of us have heard first-hand accounts of lives that held limited options. In a country that espouses liberty as a defining characteristic, too many people (often children) have few choices available to them because of limited resources, finances, or even time.

1 out of every 5 children in Montana go to bed hungry. These kids are not picky eaters or have turned up their collective noses at what food is presented. They simply have an inadequate amount of food to eat on a regular basis.

Single parents have the highest percentage of multiple part time jobs because the schedules can be amended to allow them to spend enough time at home to avoid the high cost of childcare. Many of these jobs pay minimum wage or only slightly higher, which is the reason people have to work more than one job just to survive.

Schools usually offer many extracurricular activities and sports, but lack of transportation can exclude those kids whose families have no car. The child is deprived of an incredible opportunity to grow socially, physically, and academically if they are not able to attend.

Living on a hand-to-mouth paycheck disallows the liberty to shop for certain ingredients that can supplement a healthy diet. When an individual doesn't make enough money to constitute a living wage, then corners are cut to ensure survival. Heat is kept low in the winter and air condition is sacrificed during the summer, which can both lead to dangerous conditions. Medical care is often skipped due to the fear of being buried by costly bills.

Liberty is a grander and nobler idea than simply telling others that they may not tell you what to do or how to live your life. True liberty allows us to function on a level which permits life to be not only tolerable, but enjoyable. Many homeless in America have learned to live as secondhand citizens by not being able to partake in choices available to others. It is our hope to provide the opportunity that allows our residents to rediscover what it means to be an American... To be liberated in ways that allow them to flourish.


Thursday, July 3, 2014

Life

Life.

What a great way to kick off a discussion regarding the rights of every American. What does it mean to be guaranteed the right to life? Today, this topic can trigger a passionate and volatile argument revolving around the debate of what constitutes a life and when life actually begins. We're going to bypass this conversation because both opinions are well-noted and chronicled. Also, embryonic argumentation is not what the Founders were writing about, so I won't use this platform to comment on this particular matter.

For me, the concept of life extends way beyond the day we are born, anyway.

Life encompasses our entire existence. It's filled with our desires and emotions. Life surpasses the alternating rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. To truly be alive means we do more than measure and record our pulse; we raise it. When the Declaration of Independence states we have the right to life, it implies we should actually get busy living. Living becomes a verb because it is an activity and not a sedentary state of being. But I view life as more than an extreme soft drink commercial.

The right to life needs to include a proper understanding and standard of an acceptable 'quality' of life. If our obligation to one another extended only to the day of our birth, then we are misunderstanding this fundamental right to live. We also need to consider that our right to live means we have the right to a life that has value. Living constitutes our basic needs of shelter, food, protection, education, and the opportunity to earn a sustainable, living wage. The right to life encompasses the whole of life and the dignity that should accompany each aspect.

Through this grid, life becomes more holistic because all the components for self-sufficiency are present. Part of the American dream is the hope that we can take care of ourselves. I'm not campaigning for handouts or programs that deplete the financial resources of the government in order to give things to people. I'm simply suggesting there are times when we need to consider the needs of others and ask ourselves if there are things we can do to help improve the situation. Not because we have to, but because every person should have the right to a life of dignity.

Helping the homeless merge back into society as contributing members means we remember they have a right to life that transcends breathing. The situations leading to homelessness are as numerous and specific as the person they are attached to. While it is absolutely true there are people who are homeless because of poor and even criminal decisions they have made, the majority of homeless people in Kalispell were rendered homeless by forces outside their control. Their lives have changed through no fault of their own.

It is our desire to put people back into positions where they can succeed. We want our residents to find employment and explore all the avenues available to other Americans. We believe life encompasses legacy and our hope is that each person at Samaritan House will be able to find permanent housing and remember what it means to truly live.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The (pre) 4th of July

June is nearly over and July is just about ready to make it's 2014 debut. I like July. It's usually warm and people seem to be generally more agreeable in July than they are in February. It is much easier to be nicer to others over a cookout or barbecue than it is while shoveling snow and ice out of the driveway. The grayish-blue hue that colors our winter existence is replaced with a bright and vivid cloak of sunny perfection.

Another important facet of July is that it bears the honor and distinction of hosting our national day of independence. The 4th of July is my favorite holiday and I thought it would be fun (okay, I'm a self-admitted history nerd) to reexamine some of the ideas mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. Context is everything and since we are not living in the 18th century, some of the original language of this document might be lost on us in our super-cyber, social media driven life. Even though Thomas Jefferson was an incredible thinker, he had no followers on Twitter.

Over the next week or so, I will attempt to look at the following passage and investigate what it means to us, today:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

I would argue these 36 words frame some of the most amazing ideas ever considered. The intent was to form an axiomatic principle from which 13 struggling colonies could emerge into an independent, self-governing and functional nation. The beliefs shaping this document were meant to transcend our war with King George and forge an identity that would allow us a platform to gauge how we treated each other. To be fair, it needs to be stated that the Founder's ideas regarding "all men" were quite limited. Women, slaves, Native Americans, and those not owing property were often excluded.

And that is only one reason we will look at this amazing sentence. Times change. What do these concepts look like 238 years later? Have we truly embraced the idea that all people have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Many of us have memorized this passage and can rattle it off with as much familiarity as our phone number or address. We have no problem accepting these values for ourselves. But do we have the grace to extend them to others who are different from ourselves?

We shall see.