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A lesson in light

When an experience truly changes you, it does so slowly, in snapshots.

A little over a week ago, I took a 20-hour road trip with a group of fellow Mizzou students to the mountain city of Denver. Countless miles and a significant consumption of Girl Scout cookies later, we found ourselves on the streets of downtown Denver. As part of Mizzou Alternative Spring Break, we had committed our week to helping serve Denver Rescue Mission. I went into this trip with little knowledge of homelessness in Denver and many false ideas. I left honored and humbled to be a small part of a large Mission that is transforming a community from the inside out.

It’s impossible to sum up or simplify our work with the Mission, so I’m not going to. Instead, I’m going to show you snapshots. These are the lessons that taught me the most, after all.

Lessons from Gary

Denver Rescue Mission isn’t about bandaids. A major lesson I learned is when a person is homeless, so often their hardships cannot be magically fixed by food, money or even a home. True healing has to start much deeper. One of the programs I was most inspired by at the Mission is the New Life Program. Men and women accepted into the program spend the next couple of years changing their lives through work therapy, counseling and spiritual development.

My team had the pleasure of working with several program candidates at the Mission’s Lawrence Street Shelter. By the end of the week, one candidate in particular felt like family. Short and stout, Gary has a boisterous laugh that can fill a room. As we prepared meals for hundreds of homeless, having Gary in the kitchen with us felt like having a big brother nearby. He was always around with a ready smile and a helping hand, and couldn’t go more than a few minutes without cracking a joke. Gary was the spirit of the kitchen, he was the hairnet police, he was a friend.When talking to Gary about food or just life, I never would have guessed he had spent part of his own life homeless. Gary’s perseverance and determination to right his life was a light in a dark place, and will continue to be.

Lessons from a 7-year-old

More than 60 percent of homeless in Metro Denver are families with children. I hear a statistic like that and feel a little punched in the gut. To say my perception of homelessness was turned on it’s head after a week with the Mission would be an understatement. When I thought of the homeless, I pictured the Lawrence Street Shelter – men lined up for food and a bed.

What I didn’t picture was a blond 7-year-old with a missing front tooth. Oliver was wearing a Thomas the Train Engine T-shirt the first day I met him. My team volunteered at a reading and writing club held at The Crossing, a long-term shelter for families and program participants. Oliver was practically exploding with joy, because his birthday was in March, and that was the day when all March birthdays were celebrated. He got his very own birthday cake and three presents, all of which were sports related. Throughout the week, I helped Oliver with math and reading. He re-taught me my multiplication tables. Grammar worksheets, however, were another story. I never really understood the phrase “pulling teeth” until I tried to get this kid to do grammar worksheets. The problem? Oliver didn’t grow up reading. He didn’t grow up with a stable educational environment, that is until his mother moved to The Crossing.

“Homelessness in America is a cycle” is a phrase I heard throughout the week. I get that now. After all, if you grow up worrying every night about where you’ll sleep or what you’ll eat, your future seems limited to the pavement that is your home. When thinking about all the children who face that insecurity in Denver alone, it was easy to feel overwhelmed in disheartened. Even when working with a program as far-reaching as the Mission, I knew my hands would always be too small to catch all the pain I want to heal. Yet, Oliver was a ray of hope to me. He loved, loved learning math, and I know he will get there with reading. He’s a fighter and a joyful one at that. On days I was feeling most discouraged, Oliver taught me to believe that cycles can be broken.

Lessons from Denver 

On our first full day, someone told us Denver is one of the sunniest cities in America. That’s why 30 degrees there felt wayyy different than 30 degrees in Missouri. That’s why we could go sledding in short sleeves. Fittingly, if I had to limit our trip to one word, I would use “bright.” Be it a smile when serving dinner, playing endless games of make-believe with kids or hiding thousands of Easter eggs – my group learned how to be a light to those we served. And as with any form of service, I know I took away much more than I gave. My work with the Mission illuminated so many misconceptions I held about homelessness. More so, it illustrated the impact a small group of Missourians could have on a city as large as the mountains surrounding it. The lessons learned in Denver will stay with me for the rest of my life, and I’m grateful to have the opportunity to carry them back with me to Columbia. Homelessness is an issue across the world, including in my college town. If my group can come back with just a semblance of the empowerment the people we served gave us, I have no doubt we can change Columbia. I have no doubt we can change the world.

My Alternative Spring Break group, taking Denver by storm.

My Alternative Spring Break group, taking Denver by storm.

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Coming back with some voice

Now that spring break is over and done with (blog about that to come), the realization we have a little over a month left is truly setting in.

Looking back on the semester so far, I’m amazed. I’m shocked at how quickly it is gone by, as I am by every phase of my life. I’m terrified at the thought that I haven’t taken full advantage of my brief time here. Above all, however, I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve been given as a reporter at the Missourian.

This last phase of the semester also marks one of the most challenging opportunities I’ve received at the Missourian. The education beat is currently juggling an e-book project, which will hopefully paint an all-inclusive picture of the new Battle High School. In the midst of scheduling interviews with teachers, organizing reporters and trying very hard to keep my sanity intact, one thing has become clear to me. In the business that is this semester, I quickly loose sight of the ultimate goal: to better myself as a reporter.

A term thrown around a lot in the newsroom is that of a writer’s “voice.” I’ve read articles from journalists who were snarky, tear-jerking or even livid. Though so different, their work had one thing very much in common: they reflected the authors’ voice clearly. One of my editors told me once that voice is writing something the way that only you can write it. With my time left as a reporter, I want to craft every piece into something that only I could have written.

These next six weeks are going to go by fast. Much faster than I would like. And I’m resolving to use those six weeks to do some serious work on my voice as a reporter. I won’t let them fly by.

Meet the new press that’s changing lives

Jump back to New York City, cerca the 1800s. Commercialization and industrialization has begun transforming the nation, and along with it, the newspaper industry. Subscriptions and political patronage has given way to a new system of selling papers – a street system. Newsboys now fill the alleyways with with papers in the air and “Extra, extra!” at the top of their lungs.

Fast forward a few decades. Street newspapers are making a comeback, though this time not with the sensationalized content that characterized the papers of the 1800s. These small, nonprofit newspapers are taking to the streets via a group of people whom American society has largely forgotten about – the homeless.

The North American Street Newspaper Association represents 31 street newspapers that work with more than 1,5000 individuals experiencing homelessness and poverty. These people gain immediate income through the sales of the newspapers every month, and the papers cumulatively have a circulation of 300,000.

“Street newspapers play a vital role in stabilizing urban street corners through building self-confidence and self-worth among a population who lives without shelter. Alone, each street newspaper acts in a vacuum. Together, we make up a movement to change the way people relate and respond to homelessness and poverty locally, regionally and globally.”

Through selling newspapers on street corners, the general public receives a knowledge that goes beyond the paper they are buying. They begin to know, “the individual on the corner, not as a bum or a drug addict, but as Joe or Jane, and recognizes that individuals on the streets are no different than themselves.”

This idea is fascinating to me. It’s a kind of social development journalism, and I hope to see it develop across America.

 

What sequestration means for the kids

Sequestration kind of rhymes with armageddon, and that is the sentiment surrounding the potential across-the-board reductions in funding to every federal agency. Without serious intervention by lawmakers, these cuts could go into effect Friday. For public schools, however, cuts wouldn’t go into effect until the new fiscal year on July 1.

For the sake of this blog post, let’s pretend the sequestration does go into effect. What will that mean for public education in America? Well, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan estimated $725 million in Title I funds, earmarked for schools serving the largest populations of poor students, could disappear. She said about 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs. States could also lose almost $600 million in special education funding, according to The Educated Reporter.

Nationally, federal dollars account for about 12 percent of a local school district’s operation budget. For Columbia Public Schools, federal funding supports 7 percent of the budget, said Superintendent Chris Belcher at a school board meeting Monday. He mentioned the district was lucky in that regard, as some districts in the state (and country) rely much more heavily on federal dollars. For example, in states like Mississippi and Idaho, more than half of the school districts lean on federal funding for 20 percent of their budget.

Still, Belcher said, if the sequestration takes place, the district could lose up to $500,000 in funding with little time to adapt. There was no doubt in his mind that this would result in elimination of teaching positions, reductions in programs and would deal a serious blow to Head Start. For an already underfunded district, the repercussions of even less funding could be very widespread.

But let’s not head to the bomb shelters quite yet. The Washington Post came out with an article the other day that claims the sequester is spinning ahead of reality.

The administration’s dire projection that “as many as 40,000 teachers could lose their jobs” is guesswork at best, according to the article, and most school districts will not start sending out layoff notices for the next school year until around May.

And some believe the federal money is out there for public education, but it is being funneled into wasteful programs. A bill from the Education and the Workforce Committee suggests reducing by half the number of federal education programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. “This bill will help balance the budget, restore fiscal discipline, and promote a more appropriate federal role in education,” it says.

So what does sequestration mean for the kids of America? Honestly, I have no idea. And I don’t think many people out there do. We’re in a waiting game right now, but the reality is that all school districts rely on federal funding to some degree. And all school districts – and therefore student learning – will suffer with less of it.

A moment of True/False

I blogged a little while ago about how excited I was that the weekend of the True/False Film Festival had finally arrived in Columbia. Now that it’s passed, I have to say I’m already missing the vibrance it brought to the downtown area. I’m missing hearing 10 different languages as I pass down the street, and casually pumping into filmmakes I greatly admire.

Thankfully, the weekend left enough memories to carry me till the festival returns next year. One moment in particular I’ll carry around in my pocket for a long time occurred right after arguably one of the best films present, The Crash Reel. I was still reeling (aha) from the power of the story when I got to speak with the filmmaker, Two-time Academy Award nominee Lucy Walker, one-on-one afterward. I should mention that Waker is one of my heroes in the industry. Some of her work includes Waste Land, Countdown to Zero and Devil’s Playground, and I believe that’s all I need to say about that.

In our conversation, she said a line I’ll carry with me into whatever field I go into in the future. “The most important thing I do is tell stories,” she said. “You tell stories well by becoming enraptured by the story you’re telling.”

As the semester progresses (the fact we’re halfway through gives me heart palpitations), this is a concept I will strive to enact in every story I tell – to become enraptured by what I’m telling.

Learning leads

One of the hardest things to do as a journalist is get your reader to stick around to the end. I’ve heard mentors and professors harp about the inverted pyramid my entire career – mainly because it’s so effective in getting the most important information to your readers before they bail. We live in the age of 140 characters, after all, so it takes quite the compelling lead to: a) bring in your readers b) get them to stick around for a while.

When it comes to these powerful types of leads, sometimes uniqueness can go a long way. One such example is a story about a local musician that was published in the Missourian last week. Eric “Rocket” Kirchner saw The Rolling Stones play when he was a boy and thereon dedicated his life to his music. The lead, which paints a picture of Kirchner playing music at a winery, puts the reader in that very room, even offering some of the lyrics Kirchner was singing at the time. As a result, I instantly connected with the musician and wanted to learn more about him. So I stuck with the story till the end.

It’s fair to say, however, that when leads are effective, they are really effective. For instance, a story about 911 and emergency management services published in the Columbia Tribune does little to bring the reader into the issue.

The lead reads, “Those promoting an April sales tax proposal to fund 911 and emergency management services recognize they might be battling voter fatigue when it comes to tax hike requests.”

Though this is clearly a straight news story, I get boggled down mid-sentence and promptly give up. A challenge of any news reporter is to take a complicated issue and write a lead that is interesting or clear enough to entice the reader to learn. Where this lead goes wrong is in its unnecessary wordiness. It is not a terrible lead, by any means, as it gets the main issue across, but I believe I would have been more inclined to read the story had the lead been rewritten more concisely.

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