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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Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.
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