Thursday, March 21, 2013

Column: A semester in D.C.

By Kelsey Hulbert
Cardinal Staff

As my time in Washington, D.C., is coming to the halfway mark, I’ve had to do a lot of adjusting to the “real world” in a big city. Adjusting to everything, from having to cook dinner after class at 9 p.m. to getting horribly lost in the metro, has been a big adjustment from life in small town Winona.

However, the biggest lesson I have learned thus far is the importance of asserting yourself and being an active and engaged citizen. While my internship with the Peace Corps has been great, there is a much bigger picture that goes on with the program at the Washington Center. In D.C., I am in the heart of so much that goes on with the world politically. The program is designed to give students more knowledge of how the political atmosphere works and how students can actually evoke political change.

The Washington Center offers a mixture of advocacy programs that range from homelessness to animal welfare to LGHTQ rights. The program takes a step back and tries to get away from the “band-aid” approach to solving the world’s problems. Instead of being encouraged to volunteer at homeless shelters, we are taught what causes homelessness and what we can do to solve it.

Needless to say, this has been my favorite part of the Washington Center thus far. We have had speakers, who had all previously been homeless, come in and share their experiences with us.  Listening to them was definitely an eye-opener; two of the three speakers had come from solid middle-class backgrounds with well-paying jobs and supportive families before losing their homes through a very quick series of bad luck and poor decisions.

Their overall messages were ones of caution, but they were much less stay-in-school, don’t-do-drugs than I expected. The main lesson they wanted to teach us was that homelessness can happen to anyone, at any time. The best defense we can have against it is building and staying close to a support network of friends and family and not isolating ourselves when things get rough.  That’s the best anyone can do.

Recently, as part of my service hours, I went with a group of five other interns to Samaritan Inn, a part shelter, part rehab center that runs 28-day programs designed to give men and women reliable housing and support to overcome their addictions. We were there from 3 to 7 p.m. to prepare and serve dinner for a group of about 14 people.

Dinner was a big hit and everyone loved the minestrone soup that we made. We served dinner a few minutes after 5 p.m. and then sat down to eat and converse for an hour-and-a-half with the residents. I was a little bit shy at the beginning, wondering what exactly we’d talk about. However, I ended up talking to the same woman for over an hour about her family and experiences at Samaritan Inn. It was a great way to dismantle a lot of stereotypes on homelessness and just break down barriers in general. If I have time, I’d like to go back and do it again before the semester ends, which is something I definitely did not expect to take out of this program when I began two months ago.

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