Homeward’s annual Conference on Best Practices to Prevent and End Homelessness highlight innovative programming from around the country working to prevent and end homelessness. During the conference, Homeward recognizes members of the homeless services community for outstanding achievement through the Trends and Innovations Awards.
To get to know our 2013 Trends and Innovations Awards Winners, we are dedicating the next few weeks to interviews with the winners.
This week, we are featuring Natalie May, Outstanding Volunteer Award winner for her work with Change the World RVA ministry.
What award did you receive & what does it mean to you?
“I received the Outstanding Volunteer award, but I’m a little embarrassed by it. As I said at the luncheon, I’m just the volunteer that you can see – there are dozens of other volunteers in our ministry who are giving their time to help homeless high school and college students, too. We have volunteer drivers, tutors, mentors, host families, cooks, people who donate money and items for the food and hygiene pantries in the schools, fund raising volunteers – it’s definitely not just me. Not at all. Still, I am really happy to draw attention to our ministry, Change the World RVA, and the amazing students in our community who need our support in order to succeed in school and life.”
Out of all the outstanding work you have done this past year, what experience has made the biggest impact?
“The biggest impact, I think, has been that we have managed to build relationships between homeless high school and college students and caring adults in the Richmond community. Our ministry isn’t just about raising money or even collecting items for food pantries – although we certainly need both! What we’re really about is getting adults in the community to actually meet our students – this usually happens when they give them a ride somewhere, but it also happens in the after school program and the summer college prep program and other places. Once people meet our students, they fall in love with them. They want to help them. They want to become a caring person in their life. They reach out in ways they never dreamed of. It is so cool to watch! And I think soon we’ll see these adults join together to advocate for systemic change in areas such as public transportation and quality public education. Suddenly these issues aren’t something that affects some anonymous person or group of people; they affect a young person that they really care about. Members of my church couldn’t have cared less about public transportation a year ago. But after trying to help students find jobs for the past year, we all see the impact that inadequate transportation has on their welfare, self-esteem, and ability to succeed and become independent. My hope is that we will continue to foster relationships that will ultimately result in social change.”
What is your favorite part about your job/volunteer work?
“I have loved getting to know people in different congregations and the people in the homeless services community that I never knew before. But my favorite part is just hanging out with our students. When you get a group of them together for a field trip, meal, or a service project, they are so funny and smart and kind. There have been days when I’ve felt tired or overwhelmed, and after I’ve spent 5 or 10 minutes with our students, I am completely energized again.”
What made you want to be involved in ending homelessness?
“That’s funny. I had absolutely no intention of being involved in ending homelessness! But I met a student, Elaine Williams, and I immediately cared about her and wanted to be helpful. Homelessness isn’t a problem like any other, I don’t think. You can’t isolate ways to help and say, “I am going to do this one thing” to help. You can’t just buy a kid a bus pass and be done with it. You can’t even just offer academic support. If a student doesn’t have a safe place to live and a network of caring adults, none of the other things you might do to help really matter. It’s the same with success in college, which is where we thought we were headed with all this. You can’t just help a student move into the dorm and say, “Have a great year!” You need to be there to help them get over the bumps in the road that could derail a student’s dreams of finishing college. Prior to moving into the dorm, you need to help them with applications and paperwork and photo IDs and college visits and more paperwork. Then you really have to think about whether or not our schools are preparing them academically for college (they’re not). Then you need to figure out what we as a community can do to solve that problem. Homelessness seems so huge, but you have to start somewhere, I guess.”
What was your favorite part of the Best Practices conference this year & why?
“It was my first conference, and I enjoyed meeting people. I also did what I was told by Stevie [Toepke, from The Frontier Project, who spoke at the morning plenary at the conference.] I made some “forced connections” that generated a few good ideas, I think. What really blew me away was that the people who do this work for a living were the first to ask how they could volunteer to help our students! Amazing. I appreciated the opportunity to attend and I look forward to next year.”