Skip to main content

There’s a Mark Twain quote that says, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” He’s not wrong. Everyone told me to layer as I was packing for this summer, and when I stuffed four sweatshirts and five jackets into my suitcase I thought I had covered all of my bases, I thought I had understood the art of layering. Turns out, I was wrong.

Getting ready in the morning, I shuffle through my closet deciding on which sweatshirt to wear under which jacket, already shivering at the sight of 56 degrees on my weather app.

As I brace for the cold and make my way to work I pass a group of homeless youth, my age, out in the cold without coats, without shelter from the bitter winds and I am instantly reminded of why I chose to come to San Francisco. And almost as immediately, I forget about being cold. It may still be 56 degrees outside, but at least I have a coat.

I came to San Francisco to make a difference in the lives of homeless youth, and in my mind that looked something like making sure everyone had a coat to keep them warm in the cool winter month of … June, or that they all had a safe shelter to spend the night in, or a warm meal to sustain them from day to day.

As a DukeEngage group we are split between two work sites, Larkin Street Youth and At The Crossroads, both focusing on helping homeless youth move beyond the streets and into housing, but they operate different capacities. The students at Larkin Street are on the front lines, they are providing direct services to homeless youth. The students at At The Crossroads (ATC) work behind the scenes, organizing a fundraiser so that ATC can provide services to youth.

I decided to work at At The Crossroads this summer, even though I felt more drawn to the Larkin Street work, very candidly because I wanted to challenge myself to see the bigger picture of nonprofit work and to focus on the structures that allow non-profits to function effectively.

However, to say seeing the bigger picture has been challenging would be an understatement. When I was packing for the summer, I didn’t realize that the layers I’d really need weren’t for the walk to work, but were for understanding my impact, and the role I play in helping homeless youth in San Francisco. ATC and Larkin Street are two pieces  of the same puzzle, but they look very different. ATC is the base layer that keeps you warm; Larkin Street is the raincoat you layer over the top to keep you dry. In the middle of a rain storm not having either would be miserable, having one wouldn’t fully cover you, but having both is the perfect combination. You need both.

In my mind, and I think in a lot of others, the front line is the most important, the place where one can have the most impact, the more “glamorous” experience. It has taken me a lot of work to remind myself that while the fundraising I’m doing at ATC might not sounds as glamorous, and might not feel as directly impactful, it is still just as important as the Larkin Street students.

This lesson is exactly why I came to San Francisco and chose to work at ATC. I wanted to challenge myself to see the bigger picture, I wanted to push myself to understand the role of the often-overlooked administrative personnel, I wanted to have an impact that would outlast my 8 weeks in the Bay Area.

Now, as I get ready for work every morning, I don’t absentmindedly sift through my assortment of jackets and sweatshirts anymore, I think of how lucky I am to have these layers in the first place. I give myself a second to step back and remember that I am doing important work, even if today that just means tracking donations in an Excel sheet. And, I remind myself that in the middle of a rainstorm, you need a warm base layer and a raincoat, that’s the art of layering. You need both.