Skip to main content

Two weeks down, and Duke Engage San Francisco is not what I was expecting.

I was told that I would be working with homeless youth at Larkin Street Youth Services, running a workshop of my choice. I envisioned myself in a controlled classroom, with different groups of kids around the age of 14, slowly going through a creative writing curriculum, and building relationships along the way. In reality, I’m working at the Haight Street Referral Center (HSRC), and the youth that access our services are aged 18-24. My day-to-day work consists of cooking, cleaning, making safe shooting and safe smoking kits, making referrals, and consistently working to build relationships with the staff and the youth. My creative writing group has only happened once in these two weeks, and it mostly consisted of making journals and listening to music — with a small amount of writing, of course. The work and this summer are certainly not what I was expecting, but I couldn’t be happier with what I find myself doing instead.

The aura of HSRC is infectious; the staff and the clients seem to compete for the loudest personalities, the funniest jokes, and the biggest smiles. The physical space of HSRC is tiny, and the walls are lined with graffiti and homemade signs that the youth have donated to the space while passing through. The trust and genuine love that is shared between the youth and the staff is palpable, and it made me want to join the community as fast as possible.

Of course, it’s also an intimidating space, especially to a newcomer. I had no idea how to respond to the energy, let alone truly be apart of it. In my first few days, I mostly stood on the side, listening to the conversations, and only talking to the clients that approached me. During my first week, although I hadn’t made any referrals yet, I got into a conversation with a client who had a lot of passionate ideas about social structures. I was immediately sucked into the conversation, and in the middle of it one of the staff members jumped in with, “Wow! Those are some really smart ideas. Have you ever thought about going back to school and putting that brain to good use? City college is free in California!”

Oh, I thought, right. That seemed so easy. So why couldn’t I do that?

That’s was the moment when I not only started listening to the excitement of the place, but also the ways in which the staff were engaging with the clients. I’ve started throwing myself into the jokes, the energy, and the conversations in order to begin building relationships, while also keeping an ear out for the things the youth might be trying to tell me that they need. Sometimes they just want someone to talk to — or talk at — and sometimes they actively seek advice. Sometimes they engage in conversation, and are surprised at a referral or opportunity that they didn’t know existed. Sometimes they have no desire to talk to me, and just want to grab some food or take a nap. I’ve started getting better at making referrals — mostly to other Larkin Street services, because those are the ones I know best. Yet, I know there is still so much for me to learn, and I am so thankful that I am working with people who are so excited to teach me. I’m not working in a controlled classroom, with children that see me as a mentor or teacher. I am not the educated Duke student, who can solve all their problems with a partially filled degree. I am a relatively clueless, open-minded, and light-hearted intern who is constantly amazed at the brilliance, hilarity, and tenacity of the people I work with — staff and clients alike.