Each fall,Washington D.C.teems with incoming freshmen from all over the nation… Oftentimes, these students get a glimpse of homelessness for the first time as they roam the streets during their first few weeks. But for the students of Georgetown School of Nursing, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and American University, the encounter took place face-to-face. For years, the NCH’s Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau has presented to the first-year students at these universities, in the case of Georgetown, since 1989.This year, between August 24th and 29th, NCH’s Speaker’s Bureau spoke to nearly 600 incoming students at these universities, where many of the young adults were personally confronted with this issue, and given a fresh perspective on the experience of homelessness.
The Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau is one of NCH’s longest-standing and most successful programs. Through the program, panels of people who currently are or have been homeless present their personal experiences to groups of all ages and backgrounds. The Washington D.C. branch of the Bureau has been educating the public through these presentations for 15 years, and in the past 4 years NCH Speaker’s Bureaus have sprung up in Maryland, Massachusetts, Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. The Bureau’s approach is unique in that it empowers those who have been affected by homelessness to directly advocate for themselves and others, and bridge the gap between themselves and their audience, who have often never seen the faces of homelessness up-close. As the Speaker’s Bureau shares the often unexpected variety of paths that can lead to homelessness, the negative view of homelessness as a personal problem is challenged and perceptions of the issue are re-evaluated. In 2010, the Speaker’s Bureau spoke 270 times, reaching a combined audience of 15,000, and 2011 is shaping up to beat that number by a landslide, with over 400 bookings.
This August, each of the three undergraduate presentations was given to incoming freshmen in specially-designed community service programs, and their responses were overwhelmingly positive. Freshman Peter Sacco, from George Washington University’s Community Building Community early move-in program, felt the experience “forced me to re-examine my perceptions of homeless…I used to look at these unfortunate souls as lower level people, whose poor choices in life forced them into their own predicaments. But I desperately want to change this perspective.” He has since reached out to NCH to take part in the 48 Hour Homeless Challenge later this year.
Speaker Jackie Grimball made her debut as an NCH Speaker the GWU program. Her story, which includes an elite family background, a privileged life, and “the best private schools that money could buy, along with a Masters from George Washington University” had an enormous impact on the audience. As it sunk in to the audience that she was speaking to her Alma mater, Ms. Grimball “noticed one young lady in the audience whose mouth dropped.” She also shared that she “could not help but be amazed at the reaction of the students as I was talking to them about my family’s rejection of me when they found out my plight. I saw a few of them crying.” Ms. Grimball received a standing ovation for her presentation, a response which aptly reflects her assessment of the evening: “I believe the GWU students’ reaction was that I was still able to ‘stand’ and I am still ‘standing.’”
Donald Whitehead, one of the presenters at American University, is one of the country’s most notable experts on homelessness. As a former Executive Director of NCH, and two terms as President of NCH’s board, he has been active in the Bureau for years. According to him, speaking to incoming freshmen at American’s Freshman Service Experience “has always been one of my favorite speaking engagements,” but this year he felt “there was something special in the room…The questions that were asked by this year’s group were extremely insightful. As a presenter, I left with a genuine sense of hope that at least for one night there was a room full of amazing young people that truly believe that we can and will ‘Bring America Home.’”
Georgetown School of Nursing and Health Studies invited Steve Thomas of the Speaker’s Bureau to present in accordance with their induction ceremony, where the incoming students swear to the values of upholding the common good, and advocating for social justice, among others. “Universally, everyone in attendance was deeply moved by your presentation,” Samuel Aronson, the Assistant Director of Academic Affairs, later told NCH. “This kind of engagement is something I have never before witnessed,” Arnson said after the nursing students voluntarily gathered the next day to share their response to the presentation. One of the attendees reflected that Mr. Thomas’ “ability to bring us into his dark hour of despair and share with us the hope and kindness he thankfully found was something I will not forget.” Another shared “deep gratitude” with Mr. Thomas, “for his willingness to share his thoughts, feelings and experiences with us.” An article about the Georgetown Nursing event can be found here.
These events are just a handful of the thousands of times that NCH’s Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau has impacted audiences by allowing people who have often never interacted with people experiencing homelessness to hear what it is like, and encouraging both parties to learn and discuss what they can actively do to end it. For more information on our speakers themselves, booking a Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau event, or starting a Speaker’s Bureau in your area, please visit the Faces of Homelessness Speaker’s Bureau website.
– Adeline Pearson, Fall 2011 Intern