This week, I began working in the finance department of the Covenant House in New Orleans. The Covenant House offers food, shelter, and guidance to at risk and homeless youth between the ages of 16-22. While my days consist mainly of expense reports and accounting, the first thing my supervisors did on Monday was to give me a tour of the facility and explain how the organization works. They wanted me to see the purpose behind the assets, liabilities, and budgets I will work with over the next eight weeks.
Of the 719 kids serviced by the Covenant House last year, ~85% suffer from PTSD and ~30% take medication for mental health. The Covenant House attempts to provide the parental care that is so often lacking in the lives of its residents, many of whom have parents dealing with drug addiction or incarceration. The Rights of Passage program offers transitional living on campus while requiring the young man or woman to work, save, and continue their education on the path towards self-sufficiency. An on-site medical clinic, employment partnerships with the local community, GED programs, free bus tickets for youth to visit their families across the country, and on-site pre-school education for children of homeless mothers are a few examples of the Covenant House’s mission to treat the cause of homelessness rather than dull the symptoms.
Since that tour, I’ve been thinking about the impact that parents have on their children and how lucky I am to have my parents. I count the hard-earned savings of other 21 year old boys and girls struggling to maintain a balance of $300 with part time jobs as they pursue their GED with a newborn child and no help from mom or dad. I file expense reports for a prom dress or graduation party that these kids cannot otherwise afford. I look out the window of the finance office onto the courtyard of homeless youth and realize that trading parents with any one of them would probably mean trading places.
To varying degrees, we all like to view ourselves as a “self-made” man. While we may acknowledge the influence that people, cultures, and experience have on our development, we take great pride in the freedom to create and recreate ourselves. No one wants to be a product of their surroundings; rather, they want to influence their surroundings. However, none of us grow up in a vacuum. Our experiences may not define us, but they certainly shape us. Although we crave control, we will never have enough to satisfy our appetites. Despite the power of hard work and love to transform a society, many things elude our authority—disease, natural disasters, parents, geography, time.
I’ve always prided myself on being independent. I started making my own lunch in 2nd grade, my parents could no longer help me with homework by middle school, and I began working at the golf course in 7th grade. Between then and now, I’ve credited too much of my progress to individual skill and gumption and not enough to the extraordinary resources and people that have filled my life. Working at the Covenant House is a daily reminder of the powerful role that parents play in shaping their children, and a dose of humility that I couldn’t have done it alone. As I enter my senior year of college and get swept up into the frenzy of beginning a new chapter called “the real world”, I hope I can stay grounded through this experience at the Covenant House. While places like Duke encourage us to think big and open up doors to cure cancer and become titans in business, there may be no greater impact to be made than that open to the common man: raising a kid well.