First, though, some background: Helping Hand is the result of a rigorous application and interview process that a committee of Post employees conducted. We selected three nonprofit organizations to tell readers about: Bright Beginnings, N Street Village and So Others Might Eat.
I work with the staff at these charities to identify good stories. Sometimes my columns are about people who work at the charities. Sometimes they’re about people (or animals) who volunteer there. But mostly they’re about people who have been helped by the charities; “clients” is what they’re typically called.
I sit down with a client, pull out my notebook, tap the recording app on my smartphone, then say, “Hi. I know we’ve only just met, but please tell me about the worst things that have ever happened to you.”
No, I don’t say it that way, but that’s kind of what’s going on. Amazingly — gratifyingly — people do share their stories. I consider it an incredible privilege to be allowed to hear them.
Always there are things I don’t include. That’s because there just isn’t room, but also because some details are just too sad or too horrific. All I can say is that bad things happen to people at the hands of other people, sometimes out of neglect, sometimes out of malice.
I often wonder what my adulthood would be like if my childhood had been different. Would I have overcome the hurdles the people I write about face? Would you?
As each interview draws to its close, I say: “Thank you for sharing your story with me. I don’t want to embarrass you in the newspaper. I don’t want to make your life more difficult. If you like, I don’t have to use your full name. I can use just your first name. How would you like me to refer to you?”
Now, Washington is a town that runs on the anonymous source. I understand why that’s necessary. But it does amuse me how often government officials will request anonymity for even the most anodyne statements. I get it. They want to keep their jobs.
Contrast that with Rhonda White, who for much of her adult life was addicted to drugs. She found help at SOME’s Jordan House, a place for clients suffering a mental health crisis. It was fine, she said, for me to use her name when I told her story.
“What do they say? ‘You’re just as sick as your secrets,’ ” White told me. “I tried to cover it up for so long. . . . It doesn’t bother me anymore if people know my name or see my face. Keeping secrets keeps you sick.”
Some clients tell me about their lives because they hope their stories will help others.
“My story is very transparent,” said Shania Walker. “If I needed to put my entire story out, I would.”
Walker is a single mother whose 3-year-old son, Jamel, goes to Bright Beginnings, a preschool for children from families that have been homeless. She’s a substitute teacher at Bright Beginnings, too, and her experiences allow her to forge a connection with other parents.
“I tell them, ‘I get you. I’ve been through that,’ ” Walker said. “The transparency itself will put the thought in their minds: ‘She understands.’ ”
Or consider Robyn Ball-Harris, who lives at N Street Village’s Miriam’s House, a place for women living with HIV. After being sexually abused as a child, Ball-Harris turned to drugs. When she learned she was HIV-positive, she said, “I was like, ‘I don’t want anybody to know.’ ”
But today, the virus is in check. Ball-Harris is sober. And she has a nice place to live. That’s thanks to N Street Village.
Here’s what she said when I asked if I could use her full name: “Tell the world: Robyn’s alive! I’m still here! I made it through!”
Now is the time to give
Your Helping Hand donation will help others shout, “I’m still here! I made it through!”
To donate to So Others Might Eat by mail, make a check payable to So Others Might Eat and send it to SOME, Attn: Helping Hand, 71 O St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001.
To contribute to Bright Beginnings by mail, make a check payable to Bright Beginnings and send it to Bright Beginnings, Attn: Helping Hand, 3418 Fourth St. SE, Washington, D.C. 20032.
To give to N Street Village by mail, make a check payable to N Street Village and send it to N Street Village, Attn: Helping Hand, 1333 N St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20005.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.