How to Save a Life

My alarm and PDA blare at 7:20 a.m. I’m about to lose two hours of sleep and $16.00. To an American full throttle in the work force, that’s not much. But to a college student, like me, that little bit goes a long way.

I and six other FAU students had been invited to volunteer at the Department of Juvenile Justice Broward Intensive Halfway House. The purpose: to inspire the 24 youth, ages 14 to 18, stuck in the program for 9-12 months – some longer. We broke their schedule that works like clockwork. Lights out at 9 p.m., wake up at 5:30 a.m., where the boys must complete chores like laundry, go to class, participate in the Drop Everything and Read program and other aggravating tasks the boys would rather do without.

When we first walked into the room of boys in their day room, I didn’t know how to act. After all, this was a high-risk program. I’m not sure the color of the boys’ shirts coded their capacity for a type of risk.

There were powder blues, oranges, and greens – but they didn’t act much different from us.

I recall a guard standing up to tell us we shouldn’t be fooled by their calm countenances, that they were no saints. As those words came from his mouth, my mind came to a screeching halt at something I heard from a Social Problems video, recorded from an Oprah Winfrey episode on “Education in the U.S.” An expert said, people rise and fall to expectation. She had been referencing the deplorable conditions some American students are exposed to in their educational environments – leaking roofs, classrooms with no windows, ceilings with paint peeling and insulation sticking out. The negative reinforcements would not help these children become any more than what they’ve been in the past. If a child or anyone for that matter is told directly or indirectly that he or she is everything or that he or she is nothing he will play into that side of the field, becoming his or her environment.

As each of us got up to speak, we could see some youth with glazed looks in their eyes. Others listened intently, just as we do inlectures. Many eyes reiterated the boys’ fates, realistically: not all of them would make it once they left the halfway house. Some of the boys would be too hardheaded, but their core was clearly the same – they wanted their freedom back.

Once my turn to speak came around again – to close out our time there, I could feel the transformation that often takes place in my mind, body, and soul before I perform a poem. I had been curled up in a plastic arm charm just seconds before, seemingly unenergetic, thinking of ways to tap into the most emotion.

I had never realized the importance of volunteering until I was less than an inch from the chair and my mouth opened. I would leave the boys with my poem, Public Service Announcement. As the words “it’s not a secret we are dying…” pealed from my throat, and I awakened – something of a phoenix’s fiery rebirth – and tears streamed down from the corners of my eyes, my esophagus built up with phlegm from the emotion and sheer power of giving back.

On this day, I had not been forced to volunteer to satisfy some graduation requirement – as was mandatory in high school. I was doing this because I wanted to. My sincerity to volunteer began with FAU’s Office of Students with Disabilities, as a note-taker, and would not stop at the halfway house. There is no better feeling than that which materializes in the soul, that stems from a pure need to want to change and, in some senses, save a life.

It’s about time we start seeing ourselves in one another. Not walking over the messes each of us makes, but walking into them, getting down on our hands and knees with a toothbrush and helping to clean up.