View From the Board: Jackie Jae Cowsill

As the newest member of ShelterCare’s Board of Directors, I thought I’d share the story that led me here.

When I was in college, my boyfriend and I were walking to our car after a night out and we saw a somewhat disheveled-looking man sitting near the sidewalk. I forget if he held a sign or called out to us, but it was obvious he would appreciate some cash if we had any to spare.

At first, we walked on by. As a young woman, I had been warned not to let my naivete and compassion get me in dangerous situations. “Just keep walking,” had become a self-protection mantra. But having my boyfriend with me added a sense of security, and a block or so away I stopped, pulled some cash out of my purse, and suggested to my boyfriend that we go back and give it to the man.

We did, and the man was genuinely grateful. He didn’t seem threatening at all. Just someone down on his luck and humble, appreciative of our help. As we walked on to our car, we thought, “We can do more.” We decided to go to the grocery store and buy some food to bring back to him.

The shopping process alone was enlightening. What food would be useful to someone who has no way of heating it, no can opener or utensils, no refrigerator to keep things from spoiling? We did our best to be thoughtful about our purchases and filled two bags with what we thought would be suitable choices … a loaf of bread, a box of plastic cutlery, a jar of peanut butter, single-size cans of fruit with pop-top tabs, and as a last-minute “treat” we threw in a big
chocolate bar.

We returned to the man, proudly bearing our additional gifts, only to find he was no longer
alone. He had been joined by three other men, and the four of them were triumphantly sharing
a six-pack of beer, obviously purchased with the cash that had been mine just moments earlier.

My heart sunk. That’s what all the cynics warn you about, right? Don’t give a person on the street cash, they’ll just spend it on drugs or alcohol. But the man looked up, saw us holding the bags of groceries, and was obviously ashamed to have us see how he had spent the money.

Unsure of what to do in that moment, we instinctively just continued with our original plan. My boyfriend handed them the bags. Their faces lit up and they dove into the contents like kids at Christmas. They were so excited and thankful, ooh-ing and ahh-ing over every choice we had included. Then they all whispered together, eyes wide and awe-struck as they held it up … “CHOCOLATE!”

That night was a big eye-opener for me in a lot of ways. Not only the awareness of the food challenges I mentioned earlier, but I realized how hypocritical it was of me to blame someone living on the street for their drug or alcohol use. Here I was, living in a comfortable dormitory on campus, getting an exclusive college education my parents were paying for, and I easily turned to alcohol to soothe myself after a bad day, or to celebrate a good day, or just about any
other excuse I could muster. My worst day was a life of luxury to someone living on the street. Of course, they’d want to numb that pain when they got the chance.

I also realized that for every person I see asking for help, there are probably three others I don’t see. And while I have family to turn to in times of trouble, they rely on each other – they ARE each other’s family. When I gave a few dollars to one, he didn’t keep it to himself. He shared it with three others who were hurting just like him. And together they formed their own network of protection, they watched out for each other like my boyfriend watched out for me.

Decades have gone by now, but those men have never left my mind. I’ve continued thinking, “There must be a solution. It’s a complex problem, but I’m a smart person with a big heart. I may not be able to solve it on my own, but I’m confident there are others like me out there. If I find those people and we put our heads together, we can figure this out.”

Which leads me back to my writing today. I joined the ShelterCare Board so I could dig deeper, learn more, and join other smart, kind-hearted people to figure this thing out.

– Are you one of those people? The fact that you’ve read this far tells me you are.
– Are you overwhelmed thinking you can’t do it alone? You’re not alone. We’re here and need more people like you.
– Do you have an idea? I’d love to hear it, big or small.
– Do you have time or skills to share? Everyone can do something. What’s your unique gift?

You don’t need to have all the answers, just the courage to raise your hand and say, “I care.”

Of course, financial donations are always needed and greatly appreciated, so if you can cut back on your lattes and commit to a monthly ShelterCare donation, that would be awesome. If you own a business, let’s talk about how we can partner and help each other. And if you feel like you’re barely getting by on what you’ve got, just sending a quick “Hi, I care, keep up the good work,” goes a long way.

This is just the beginning of my journey with ShelterCare. I hope to meet new like-minded friends, develop innovative ideas, and look back with you one day and say, “Wow, look at what we accomplished together.” Please reach out and contribute in whatever way you can – I’d love to hear from you.

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