Monday, August 9, 2010

Back to School, or Through the Cracks?

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the BlogHer conference, the largest gathering of women bloggers in the world. The event kicked off for me the night before the meeting with an invite to a private party at a champagne bar called Flute. I got to hang out with friends from the Yahoo! Motherboard group I am a part of, sip bubbly, and meet a bunch of other fantastic, inspiring women.

I was feeling pretty good about things, and looking forward to the conference as I walked down Broadway towards the Port Authority and a bus home. That's when I saw them - a young mother, sitting on the cement sidewalk outside McDonald's. She was cradling an infant in her arms, maybe 5 months old, while her three year old son stood at her side. I passed them, stopped, and swung around, frozen in place.

Could this possibly be an exhausted tourist, or was this what I thought it was? A woman begging on the street. Her son held a folded piece of cardboard in his hand, most likely the sign they had been holding up only moments before I'd happened along.

It turns out I wasn't the only one watching them. Outside McDonald's the Street Talk folks were, ironically, collecting money for the homeless. I spoke to two of the men who were there. (Street Talk provides income to impoverished and transient people who sell Street Talk newspapers.) They had taken money out of the collection so the woman could bring her kids inside McDonald's and get something to eat. I chipped in.

One of the workers told me the mom was not exactly homeless; she had a cousin's place to crash at, but nothing more. Obviously the cousin was not able to provide more than a place to sleep at night, and who knows for how long. The Street Talk vendors were hoping they might be able to get this woman a gig with their group, but even if she took her baby along with her, what would her 3 year old do all day? There are programs aimed at getting (and keeping) homeless kids in school, but preschool? What options would this woman have? What had happened to her?

As summer's long days begin to wind down, I've found myself anticipating a regular schedule descending on our home, the beginning of Kindergarten, a new school, the hopes I have that my daughter will have a great year in an institution that will nurture her. I've also been looking forward to buying her a new backpack and taking a short family vacation before September.

It's been a rough summer here, but seeing this woman with her kids put things in perspective for me. And I can't stop wondering about what happens to homeless kids like the ones I saw on the street that night. The Coalition for the Homeless says that there are 15,000 homeless children in New York City. From August 23 to September 17 the Coalition runs a project to raise money for these children. The donations go towards buying new backpacks and supplies for homeless children. You can donate here.

The number 15,000 keeps reverberating in my head. Homeless children have a harder time making it in school, but some of them persevere. While writing and researching this post, I came across this story in the Daily News about a young man who, despite amazing odds stacked against him, will be going to a community college in upstate New York this fall. I was shocked to find out he'll be attending classes in the rural community where I used to be a reporter and where a fellow journalist and dear friend now teaches. It is a large and vast world and it is one in which each connection can make a difference.

I emailed my girlfriend so she can be on the lookout for this incoming freshman this fall. It's a small institution, so the chances are she will probably meet him. The chances that I will see that young mother again are infinitesimal, but I can't stop thinking about her.