|Page 5 of 5 <|
INGRID'S SUMMER SHEPHERD INTERNSHIP almost didn't happen. In the spring of her junior year, caught between the competing visions of her future, she applied for both a poverty internship and a highly sought-after investment banking internship with Goldman Sachs in New York.
For the poverty internship, she contemplated going to a poor area of Boston to work at a community development center. Too dangerous, her parents said. So she set her sights on D.C., where her older sister lives, and the D.C. Central Kitchen.
She liked that the nonprofit didn't fit the stereotype of a soup kitchen, distributing handouts from afar with a touch of pity. Instead, the cooking is done by culinary trainees, all recovering addicts, ex-cons and homeless people who are ready to get off the streets. They run the place, telling volunteers what to do, and, after graduating from the kitchen and going on to earn a food handler's certificate from the city, are ready for full-time employment. It made so much sense to Ingrid: Feed the hungry, use available resources, make human connections, and teach skills that help the poor get themselves out of poverty.
She was all set. Then the offer came from Goldman Sachs. Her parents were ecstatic. It would be the perfect start to a bright future, they told her. But Ingrid was paralyzed. She explored compromises, tried to figure out a way to do both. "You could tell she really wanted to do the Shepherd internship," says Stacy McLoughlin-Taylor, one of her advisers at W & L. "She just had to figure that out."
After weeks of stomach-churning indecision, she decided to turn down Goldman Sachs. "There's either honoring your parents or honoring yourself," she says. "If it weren't hard, it wouldn't be a decision." When she picked up the phone to break the news to her parents, there was a long silence on the other end. "All you could hear was the crackling on the phone."
Poverty 101 had gotten into her bones. The previous summer, after she took the first class, she'd started thinking that maybe her mission in life was to start a nonprofit. She'd discovered a book at Barnes & Noble that she kept coming back to read. It was D.C. Central Kitchen founder Robert Egger's Begging for Change, a sort of wise-guy plea for nonprofits to run more like businesses -- efficiently and with accountability -- and to remember that human transformation, not feel-good handouts, should be their mission. "I kept going in and reading it. Then I bought it," she said. "The message was, we don't need to be springing up new nonprofits but looking at nonprofits we have and working toward making them better."
In the book, Egger wrote, "If you're ever in the nation's capital, feel free to visit us." A few weeks after she finished the book, Ingrid found herself walking the area around Union Station, thinking she might find the kitchen. It's housed on 2nd Street NW, in the basement of the Federal City Shelter, one of the largest homeless shelters in the country. She remembers turning around several times, nearly losing her nerve and giving up before finding the dirt alleyway, past the dumpster and the bands of homeless men, that led to the kitchen's eggplant purple entrance. It was Egger's birthday, and he proclaimed Ingrid, a young person seeking him out because of his book, the best present ever. Before she left, he asked her to consider bringing a Campus Kitchen Project to Washington and Lee. She left, she says, thinking she could take over the world.
Egger remembers the day clearly. "This is so what I wanted to happen when I wrote the book," he says. "I wanted young people to say, 'Yeah, I think this way.' It's almost like they want to find a new way to serve their community. They don't want to just do charity anymore."
So for her internship last summer, Ingrid lived with Dane and other Shepherd interns at N Street Village, where their discovery that a 10-pack of ramen noodles went for $1 was cause for celebration. She split her time working at D.C. Central Kitchen and the Campus Kitchen Project's national office. At the Central Kitchen, she donned a hairnet and rubber gloves and, as is the practice, took orders for chopping, cooking and cleaning from the culinary trainees -- one a recovering alcoholic, another who'd spent 15 years in prison.
She expected stories of hardship. She thought she'd hear self-pity. Instead, on the first few days of work, feeling tired and thinking of calling in sick, it was her own self-pity that struck her. She was humbled to learn that the director of the homeless shelter hadn't missed a day in eight years.
One day, Ingrid was helping the trainees practice for job interviews. Some were so filled with self-doubt and gripped by fear that they simply froze up. That night, Ingrid wrote in her journal that, "I like to pretend that I am being selfless and kindhearted by being here and 'working so others can have a better life.' I am learning how blessed I am and how ridiculous it is to think anything I am doing is all that special . . . I have had people telling me since I was born that I would be successful. What is hard is growing up with only negative influences, voices and feedback and finding confidence in yourself."
Egger, who affectionately calls her Ingy, said he was impressed by her big heart. But over the summer, in the questions she asked, in how she pondered ways to end poverty and hunger, he also saw a rigorous mind at work. "I see in Ingrid a real evolving soul," he said. "She's on a journey. Her destination is a better world."
THE JOURNEY THAT BEGINS IN POVERTY 101 has taken people surprising places. Charles Allen grew up in a wealthy, white suburb of Birmingham. He never knew about his city's civil rights past or its persistent poverty, he says. Coming into W & L in 1995, he was a biology major on a beeline to medical school. Then, in the spring of his sophomore year, he took a religion class from Beckley commonly known as "Malcolm and Martin," which covered Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. At the end of the class, Beckley suggested that Allen take Poverty 101, which was starting that fall. "That one moment changed everything for me. That's what set me on this path," Allen says now.
He spent the summer after Poverty 101 interning at a free clinic in South Boston. He saw with his own eyes how health care -- or the lack of it -- exacerbates poverty: the preventable asthma attack that keeps a child out of school, the untreated illness that keeps a worker away from the job.
Although he'd taken a stack of medical school applications with him on the internship, he ended up doing an about-face. Instead of medical school, he went on to get a master's in public health, eventually going to work for the D.C. Primary Care Association, a nonprofit that advocates for better health care on behalf of the city's poor. His family was a little taken aback at first; he could have made big money as a doctor. But, says Allen: "I can do without that. I get a whole lot of personal satisfaction from helping people, knowing I'm making a difference. The trade-off, to me, is pretty insignificant."
Last year, Allen hosted two Shepherd interns. They spent their summer researching and writing legislation that aimed to attract more young doctors into underserved Northeast and Southeast Washington by having the D.C. government forgive a portion of their student loans. The D.C. Council passed the legislation, providing $300,000 to fund five to 10 doctors in low-income areas. Allen, meanwhile, has quit his job to manage the campaign of a progressive D.C. Council candidate.
There are other stories of lives altered. Mary Carol Mazza came into Poverty 101 planning to go on to law school. But after the program, she ended up working as a research specialist on poverty programs for the state of Texas. This fall she'll go to Harvard University to study the economics of poverty. "Before Poverty 101, you thought you knew what poverty was," she said. "You don't." Greg Pleasants, a typical frat boy when he entered Poverty 101, interned in Mexico after his sophomore year and taught kindergarten there after he graduated. He's now getting a joint law and master's of social work degree in Los Angeles.
The Shepherd Program is even getting to the venerable Washington and Lee. Since its classes began in 1997, the curriculum has expanded from two offerings to nearly 20 throughout the entire school. Now, there are English classes to study the theme of poverty in literature, economics classes that dissect wage inequality or the economics of race and class, and psychology courses to examine the effects of poverty on children. The university is now also much more actively recruiting minority students and expanding financial aid to bring in more students from low-income families.
"We're seeing a sea transformation," says Arthur Goldsmith, Ingrid's economics professor, who teaches one of the courses. "The Shepherd Program is influencing what we teach, who we hire. A lot of things have been changing."
Sometimes Beckley himself is surprised by the program's influence. Last spring, he encouraged senior Matthew Null, who was graduating with a degree in English and a poverty studies certificate, to apply to become a Rhodes scholar. Null shrugged. "What would I do in Oxford?" Instead, he will go to an impoverished school in the Mississippi Delta for Teach for America. "I didn't want to do something for status," Null explains. "We're an incredibly divided country. We have amazingly large gaps between rich and poor, and wages that are incredibly low. I feel this is a darkly exciting time for our nation, and I want to be here."
The program has attracted diverse supporters, including Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a W & L alum. He has secured grants for the program and included a provision in the Higher Education Act that would create a poverty studies consortium of 10 universities nationally, along the Shepherd Program model.
David Bradley, director of the National Community Action Foundation, an advocacy organization for low-income programs, has been working on anti-poverty issues since President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty. He's seen activists burn out, federal funds and programs shut down, interest wane, poverty rates fall -- and then rise again, as is currently happening. The Shepherd Program, he says, has given him real hope. Its students are "exactly what this national debate needs," he says. "A lot of the poverty warriors that I know of are getting rather long in the tooth and are doing a lot of things the same way that they've done them for years and years and years. Here's a fresh new approach that's desperately needed."
BY ALL ACCOUNTS, Ingrid's trial of the Campus Kitchen Project this spring was a hit. She got 55 student volunteers, some faculty members and even the provost to pile into an industrial kitchen, mix up spaghetti sauce, de-seed grapes and make sandwiches for the needy. By the end of the week, they'd prepared and delivered 320 meals and gotten to know some of the invisible poor in and around Lexington.
Everyone who knows her says Ingrid glowed.
It's something her older sister, Brooke, has found infectious. Along with their brother, Blair, all three siblings are going to Honduras this summer to work at a home for disadvantaged girls. Blair remembers sitting in a bookstore with Ingrid, talking over coffee a few months ago. As usual, he says, he obsessed about whether to leave his safe job at a genetics lab to pursue his art. Ingrid talked about homeless people, people who don't have enough to eat. "When I see people like that . . . ," her brother recalls her saying, before she stopped and teared up. Blair changed the subject, not wanting to embarrass her. "We don't talk about it much; it's a very private thing for her," Blair says. But "Ingrid's always had an acute sense of other people's misery."
Ingrid's parents know that. At home, they call her "The Preacher" for the thoughtful prayers she says before meals, and the inspirational sayings she posts around the house. ("Think of Every Day as a Gift" was one.) But parents want to see their children self-sufficient and happy, and Ingrid's parents worry that her desire to help the poor is at odds with their desire to see her live well.
"We have been mostly supportive of her," Gretchen Easton explains. "It's hard with a child like this. We have concerns because we see how the world is operating. We'd like to see her develop more skills, something she can earn a living doing, so she'll have something to fall back on. We go back and forth and back and forth all the time. She needs to get out in the real world and pay her own expenses. She has no idea. She's had a job -- teaching tennis one summer. The time has come for Ingrid to get a dose of reality."
Graduation was only a few weeks away, and Ingrid, after wavering for months, had finally made a few decisions. She wouldn't, after all, be coming back next year to run the Campus Kitchen. She figured she needed to get out of town for a while -- Lexington can be a small place. So she decided to move to San Francisco in the fall with a friend. She's still not sure what she'll do once she gets there. But, in some ways, whether her path leads her to a corporation, a nonprofit or some other employer, it doesn't matter. She's beginning to figure out that, for her, a rich life means being around different people, working to help others. As she wrestles with her future, trying to be a good daughter and wanting to lead a purposeful life, she's been thinking lately of a poster she saw during her summer internship and noted in her journal. Perhaps it will guide her choices. "Don't try to save the world," it said, "but do what makes you come alive."
Brigid Schulte is a reporter for the Post's Metro section. She and Harlan Beckley will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at noon at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.