How New Experiences Paint the Canvas of Your Life – Los Angeles, U.S. — The North Star Reports – by Kendra Johnson. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
[Photo: Cardinal Manning Center – Where we stayed.]
It’s easy to compare cities we’ve been to or have experienced before (like hometowns or frequent vacation destinations) to places we only see pictures of or hear stories about in classrooms at school. We don’t completely have a full understanding of the different lifestyles people live in various parts of the world until we experience it for ourselves. This is why I’ve wanted to study abroad for so long. Then I thought, how could I experience the world when I haven’t even experienced my own home — the United States? That’s when I decided to apply to volunteer for a mission trip during my Christmas break of 2015 to Skid Row located in Los Angeles, California. Skid Row has one of the largest homeless populations in the nation with roughly 43,000. I was a little hesitant at first but then I thought it would add experience to working with a huge variety of different people to my skill set and it would most likely come in handy when I start my nursing career.
[Photo: Group 2 Picture- The group with our guide, Kevin, getting ready to see Skid Row.]
Our group, which consisted of 11 St. Scholastica students and two group leaders, had two meetings to get to know one another before heading to the other end of the country to arguably one of the most famous cities in the nation.
Day one: When we first arrived the first thing we all noticed was the beautiful sunny weather and palm trees. It was a nice change from the -50° weather in Minnesota we had left just a few hours before. We wasted no time making our way through the streets of L.A. with our suitcases rolling down the sidewalks in one hand and our cameras in the other. As we kept heading to where we would eventually stay for the duration of our trip, the areas kept getting dirtier and reluctantly made us more cautious of our surroundings. From one building or house to the next it was impossible not to notice the consistency of vandalism and graffiti. Garbage lined the sidewalks and streets like nothing I had ever seen before. I think this is when we all realized the next eight days would have a significant impact on our lives.
[Photo: Group 4 Picture- Doing food prep at Midnight Mission (the three of us were assigned to crack eggs).]
We eventually made it to our temporary home. We stayed at The Cardinal Manning Center in the heart of Skid Row. Cardinal Manning is a homeless shelter for men and roughly 40-50 men stay there each night. The center has a comprehensive program that helps men transition off the streets and into housing through transitional housing and intensive case management services. It was refreshing to hear a homeless center that actually helps people try to make a living for themselves and get them off the streets instead of giving them shelter for a little while and sending them away. They really do care about trying to shrink the growing homeless population by teaching the men lifelong skills and giving them opportunities they wouldn’t be able to find by themselves. After we toured the center, learned more about it, and set up our mattresses in the conference room, we had dinner with the guys staying there. It was intimidating at first because some of the guys were very shy and didn’t want to chat with us but some could go on and on for hours about their life. We heard so many different stories from so many different guys. By the end of the night, I realized that instead of coming in with preconceived ideas already painted on a canvas, I should approach new experiences with a blank canvas instead and paint it as I learn more through the new experiences. Every single person I talked to had a completely different story and they each taught me something I had never known before about things such as homelessness, Skid Row, Los Angeles, faith, life, and much more.
We ended the night with a group reflection about what we had experienced already after just the first day and this grew to be one of my favorite parts of the trip. It gave us all the opportunity to hear stories and things other people noticed or experienced throughout the day that we ourselves might have missed. While reflecting, I felt I was able to re-experience the day in a completely different way and that added to the overall impact this trip had on me and my perspectives on things.
[Photo: Group 7 Picture- We kept dropping the egg shells in the pot because our gloves were so slippery that they gave us this tool to fish out the lost shells.]
Day two: Once we all awoke, had breakfast, and got ready for the day, we went to the main lobby area to wait for our tour guide that would eventually show us around Skid Row. We were all anxious, nervous, and excited about experiencing our first full day in Los Angeles. Our tour guide, Kevin, arrived and he told us something to put our awaited adventure into perspective and help ease our nerves about Skid Row. He told us not to be afraid of anyone or anything even though it may look and seem like a scary place. The people living there are the same as us and the only difference between us is where we lay our head at night. Skid Row is not a dangerous place and any preconceived notations otherwise should be disregarded.
As we wandered up and down Skid Row, we had to be very aware of the things around us. We were told not to step on any garbage along the sidewalks or in any puddles because it wasn’t water; it was urine. Because of how dirty it was, the smell wasn’t the best either. We walked past cardboard boxes and tents that had an overwhelming scent of marijuana and other drugs along with feces and more urine. It was something that we certainly weren’t used to experiencing back home in Minnesota. Even with the different sights and smells, we were greeted most of the time with a smile and hello. Kevin was right. They were for the most part welcoming, respectful, and just like any random stranger you’d meet back home. It was amazing to experience this because it was nothing like what we were expecting.
We ended the tour at another shelter we were going to volunteer at called Midnight Mission. Here we would help out in the Kitchen and complete food prep for dinner later that night. But first, we got a tour and were able to learn more about the history of the shelter and what they do. Another new thing I learned was how different homeless shelters are from one another. I had always thought they were relatively the same but their mission statements, service programs, and demographic of whom they primarily reached out to set them apart from others. Once we were actually volunteering at the different shelters it was easy to see the similarities and differences between each of them. After our food prep was done we headed back to Cardinal Manning (which was about a 15 minute walk) to end our day with dinner with the guys and our nightly reflection. We went to bed with full hearts and excitement for what the next day would bring us.
[Photo: Group 10 Picture- One of our many bus rides around L.A.]
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29 responses to “How New Experiences Paint the Canvas of Your Life – Los Angeles, U.S. — The North Star Reports – by Kendra Johnson. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal”
The metaphor of painting a canvas with new experiences is very thought provoking. Our pre-conceived notions of a group of people or a place can lead to forgetting their humanity and similarity to all of us. I was wondering if you could go into more detail about some of the differences between the shelters? And I was also curious if you see many women or are the vast majority of homeless people in the area men?
I also took part in a service trip through CSS (to intercity Chicago) and I had many of the same revelations. The “dangerous” neighborhood we stayed in was home to friendly families raising their children the best they can in some old neighborhoods. At our service sites I felt a strong sense of community and realized that my own preconceived ideas about the poor and community in Chicago had been completely wrong. Awesome to see that these trips have such an awesome impact on the students!
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I liked what you said about studying abroad but first visiting your own home country. My whole life my parents have been very supportive of travelling and seeing new places and people that are different than what is at home and it is amazing how much our own country has to offer. Seeing so many homeless is heartbreaking and, just like you said, so different than what we see in Duluth. These kinds of experiences are important for any kind of career because it makes you aware of what life may be like for others and that regardless of their situation they are still people.
It can sometimes be hard to not keep stereotypes about the people we expect to meet in certain areas. Like you said I think keeping a blank canvas is instrumental to being able to relate to people. Your experience sounds very eye opening to the world around you, I like how you said how can you travel abroad without first knowing your own country. I personally have not traveled enough to know the country either. Were there any negatives to the trip? It sounds like a great experience thank you for sharing1
I could not imagine going from a place like Duluth, MN to a place like that. That is really awesome that you put yourself out there like that just to gain an experience like that and make yourself a better person! I thought it was really cool that for the most part the people living there were very similar to us also. How big in total was the Skid Row? Also, would you consider ever going back?
I hadn’t thought about the need to understand one’s own country before studying abroad. I think that allows us to break down the barriers that we have already made here and become more open minded. I also would like to know more about the differences between the two shelters.
Thanks for the interesting read.
What was your first thought when you first seen how bad the are truly was? I liked how you used the metaphor of the blank canvas. I feel like it truly did describe your experience perfectly. I love that you went out there to go and experience that. There are so many who need to learn and experience what you did. I have seen to many video examples of people being so cruel to homeless people.
I can only imagine the stories you were told through your mission with the homeless. I’m sure just having someone to share their life story with made their day that much better. I’m interested to know if any of the homeless civilians had any hidden talents that they would display? I go to a lot of Wild games and there is a phenomenal drummer that comes and plays after every home game.
I really liked how you took this opportunity to go and serve a different community. It sounds like it was definitely an eye-opening experience and it sounds like you have a little different understanding of the world now. I’ve been on a few mission trips through my church, but we never stayed in the Skid Row areas, because of concern for safety, but it doesn’t sound like you had any issues!
Traveling to new countries is a life-changing experience, but people often forget to travel their own. I think it’s beautiful that you drew out how important it is to experience your own home country. We often forget how large this country is. People generally stay in the mindset of their own state, city, or community. Often times we do not realize the disparity between the people in our own country, and it’s wonderful that you’ve had a chance to both think and experience this in Los Angeles.
I appreciate that you thought about traveling the USA first, I myself have been to more countries than states and I feel I’ve done it backwards! It is nice to hear that there are some shelters working hard to get people their lives back; it seems that most of the time we hear stories of temporary fixes which do nothing in the long run. I find it interesting that the people on Skid Row greeted you with smiles, even though their situation might not have been the best. Overall it is wonderful to see people going out and learning about the issues in this country, rather than sweeping them under a rug. Great story!
How does the size of Los Angeles seem to compare to that of Minneapolis, or are they impossibly different? I become intimidated when walking around the streets of the Twin Cities, so I can’t imagine strolling around in a city as huge as L.A. Would you feel comfortable walking around there by yourself, or is the presence of your leaders necessary to remain calm? Also, would you say that Skid Row has fairly earned its place as one of the most well known homeless shelters in the United States?
I can’t even imagine walking through Skid Row. I don’t think I would have been able to make it through it. Growing up in the suburbs, I haven’t had much experience in the city so going through Skid Row would have given me so much anxiety, especially with the unsanitary state. I also hate when strangers come up to me, but the fact that you said the people were so nice gave me some comfort. Your reporting has changed my thoughts on the area and has once again reminded me that I need to experience an area in order to judge it. Nice job!
What was the bigger transition; the weather or the culture shock of being quickly introduced to a much less fortunate area? I liked how you said the people of skid row greeted you with smiles, a common misconception that we share as a private institution of students is that poor is synonymous with crime. Criminals we believe are less likely to be friendly is something we also believe. It was very refreshing hearing this perspective. I admire your ingenuity and thoughtfulness of choosing somewhere like this to travel despite other opportunities for travel.
I love that you thought about traveling within the US before experiencing more abroad areas. I think it’s so important to notice how diverse America is. We don’t really notice how much we have to experience within our own “walls.” Has this experience caused you to work within for shelter situations? I feel like I would want to submerge myself in as much volunteer work as I could after that!
It is wonderful that you were open to listen to many of the people you met in the shelter’s stories and learn from them. I found from my own experience volunteering at a soup kitchen in Duluth for community day twice last school year, that at first it was hard for me to open my heart and listen to the stories of the people who came to the shelter to eat. I was afraid of what I might hear and many of the other students who came felt the same way. With some pressure from our Professor, we set our fears aside and sat at different tables to talk with the people who came. Did you find it difficult to set those preconceived notions aside before you spoke with them, especially after walking the streets and seeing their living conditions?
This wasn’t surprising for me to read about L.A. since that is where I grew up. Homelessness was part of the reason why my parents decided to move here to Minnesota because they didn’t want my brothers and I to be exposed to that. I still love L.A. and I noticed homelessness when I visited Venice beach. Everywhere I looked there was always someone wondering around for money or doing some type of entertainment to earn money. I remember seeing this lady who had her kids dance just so they can get money. My first reaction was “how could this mother do this to her kids?” but then my cousin reminded me how bad the homelessness population is down here.
Your title is awesome! I have heard about Skid Row before in my Sociology class, but it was nice to read it from the perspective of someone who has actually witnessed it instead of a books representation. It is really a sad thing to witness, but it is awesome that you gave up your break to go and help out. i have a couple questions that arose when reading your article. You talked about the differences when it came to shelters, how different were the ones you visited? Does the city even acknowledge Skid Row? How many missions are there in Skid Row? Great Article!
What does the way the streets begun to change in quality say to you? LA is one of the biggest and most glamorous cities in the world, but when you take a closer look we can also find one of the biggest homeless shelters in the US. We tend to generalize things and speak about them as if we know all there is about it. This can be seen all round the world. I am glad you are raising awareness to the parts that need it!
I really like the way you speak about learning about another piece of the world before making the judgments we all so readily make. Along with that, the mere fact that you were willing to take a trip in the U.S. before studying abroad is very important, too. All too often students are pushed to move out in the world without a basic understanding of where they come from. Your experience itself sounded like there was a lot of useful, and eye-opening interactions between many different people, that’s awesome! Did you travel anywhere in California where the stereotypes you held were, for the most part, correct?
Thank you for sharing your experience. It was such a wonderful read and I really enjoyed the accompanying photos and captions! When I was reading, I was really struck by many phrases but this one stuck out the most for me, “The people living there are the same as us and the only difference between us is where we lay our head at night.” You spoke of how nervous you were and that you decided to step out, take a chance, and go for it–it sounds like you made a great decision! Best wishes that it will help you in your career as a nurse. Also, the way you write is really conversational and friendly; lovely post!
I experienced a mission trip to Queens, New York. What the author described the impoverished parts of the city to be like, was almost near to exact what I experienced. Sometimes society is deceiving, and most people would imagine that in that part of the city people would be cruel and rude. But most of the time those people are very kind because they have been through alot and know what it is like to experience loss, and living with the minimal. So yes, pre-judging can be very dangerous, and I agree with the author in the sense that in life, approaching everyone with a blank canvas is a good thing.
I’m so happy for you that you got to experience this. I was interested in your statement about coming in with predetermined ideas about what to expect. I don’t think it wise to throw those out completely or have a blank canvas. Perhaps this is a personal experience, but I like to keep those values that may have changed for me close to my heart so I know there has been intellectual and emotional growth.
Your experience was such a heartwarming story for the all of us. Speaking for myself, I grew more interest into the lives of the men and their stories as I was reading your article. I too have spent my time during Spring Break to help the impoverished in the states. I went to Kentucky with two other students and one student leader. Our group was very small and underrepresented when we got there but that that did not stop us from meeting new people. I really liked my experience because it opened my eyes to the different levels of poverty in this world. We often only see the kind of poverty in the t.v or none at all. Yet, trips like mine and yours sheds light on issues like this. Thank you for sharing!
I personally really liked that you wanted to get a broader scope of the United States before exploring other countries. I think this is so important because you can drive 30 min and be in a new city with an entire different look at culture. I am amazed at some of the unpleasant sights you witnessed during this trip. It was eye opening to myself. Thank you for sharing and for taking a part in this experience. This article has made me ever more proud of the small town that I did grow up in. I am impressed at how successful it is for the size of it.
Thank you for sharing your experience. I have been fortunate enough to travel to several foreign countries. One thing that has always stood out for me is the constant of poverty. This article is a very important reminder that poverty is much closer to home than we remember or realize sometimes. We can even see it right here in northern Minnesota. Most importantly though, this article is an excellent reflection of the humanity of all people. A person’s socioeconomic status and living conditions do not define their human worth. Thank you for reminding us of that.
Thank you for sharing this experience. Poverty is definitely far different than what we conceive it to be, and it baffles me that there are so many people living in these conditions in the richest country in the world. I find it interesting how homelessness is one of the most stigmatized states of being and how even the most well intentioned, kind hearted people cannot help but have preconceived notions.
How did this experience change your perspective once you came back to Duluth (as there is a notable homeless population here as well)? What insights did you gain from those you spoke with?
Kendra, It seems like you experienced a very immersing experience in Skid Row! I think many people have preconceived ideas as to why there is a such a large homeless population. It is really easy to have a shallow prejudice of the homeless population because many of us haven’t experienced the circumstances it takes for someone to become homeless. It is extremely alarming that the homeless population of Skid Row is 40,000. I really think more needs to be done to address this issue since it is obviously such a enormous issue in America.