Freedom From Want

The kindness of hundreds of strangers lifted her from homeless to Harvard
"A stranger knitted a blanket for me. Her note read: 'May you warm yourself knowing that people care about you'"

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In 1997, I found myself in a situation I never thought I’d be in: alone and begging for money in New York. I was 16, homeless, and desperately searching for a high school that would let me enrol after years of truancy.

My father had been estranged from our family for a while, and though I knew he was in a nearby men’s shelter, he was in no position to help. My mother had recently died from complications related to AIDS, and I’d spent the few months since her death sleeping in friends’ homes or on a staircase landing in some random building in the Bronx.

What I remember most about such nights is lying on the cold marble floor and using my backpack for a pillow, my worn out flannel shirt draped over me to dim the unrelenting fluorescent lights. I’d listen as the sounds of families echoed up to me in the staircase – children calling out for their parents, TVs playing cartoons, dinner plates clanking – all the sounds of life that transform an apartment into a home.

To deal with the isolation, I escaped into daydreams. With my eyes shut, I would envision my family together again: snapshots of Ma alive and the way she’d get those little lines around her eyes whenever she laughed really hard, and the four of us – Ma, Dad, my sister Lisa, and me – safe under one roof again. But the most vivid daydreams were about my future.

I would see myself sitting in school, diligently taking notes. I’d see myself walking across a university campus filled with tall stone buildings drizzled in autumn leaves, my attention focused as I walked briskly to class. The feelings of safety, belonging and hope helped soothe me to sleep.

My life today bears no resemblance at all to my life then. I graduated not only from high school but also from Harvard University. I no longer wear tattered clothes or sleep in hallways. Instead, I am safe each night in my own apartment in Manhattan. And my passion for the past 11 years has been to travel around the world helping people transform their own lives. In short, I am unrecognisable from my former self.

Oddly enough, even after all that I’ve been through – and maybe because of it – I believe that a certain amount of want is healthy. In fact, “freedom from want” was never my goal. Indeed, want served as a catalyst for my dreams, not a hindrance, and my dreams have always been what motivates me.

When I was that young homeless woman struggling to find a break, I’d spend hours trekking the footpaths of Manhattan searching for a school – any school – that would admit me. What would have been torturous for most was not for me. That’s because I recognised that I was on the verge of enacting the very scenes I had imagined back on those frozen stairwell landings where I slept.

These scenes even had their own soundtrack. In my pocket I carried an old, busted-up CD player on which I played inspirational tunes: Paula Cole’s “Me” and Cake’s “The Distance”. I saw my future and clearly envisioned stepping into it.

Even though I had lost my family and was carrying around nothing more than some music, a photo of my mother, a few articles of clothing, and some shoplifted food, dreaming about my future and then acting on it was as exciting as getting into Harvard. Much the way a captain orients his ship to a constellation, I realised there was a place I wanted to be, and my goals guided my daily actions as I took steps to get myself there.

While I made choices every single day to turn my life around, equally critical to my journey were the people there to see me through. There was the alternative high school, Humanities Preparatory Academy, that was my one yes in a world filled with no. There was also the haven for homeless teenagers called the Door, a non-profit organisation that provided me with counselling, medical care and food, all of which kept me going while I completed my homework in train stations and under hallway lights. For me to have succeeded, there had to be people to meet me halfway, and when I searched for them – they were there.

Perhaps the most surprising help though, I did not seek out; it found me. After I’d spent two years as a homeless student earning As in my courses, The New York Times told my story.

In the weeks that followed, dozens of strangers reached out to me from all across the United States. At my high school, I began receiving handwritten letters of encouragement. Strangers showed up bearing brownies, clothes, books, and even hugs. Since the article mentioned I was applying to Harvard, one woman knitted a blanket for me. She attached this note to the box it was posted in: “It gets cold in those dorms. May you warm yourself knowing that people care about you.”

Before these people – some of them nameless – I just didn’t realise how good people could be. But now I do, and I can say that the people who helped me have forever changed me. They are the reason behind my decision to join the board at the Door so that I can be part of a small team of people opening a high school for homeless teenagers. They are the reason I dedicate my life to opening pathways for others.

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