Last night, I spoke at an International Dinner. #57. Check.
But it wasn’t as simple as that. Is it ever?
As if it weren’t enough to have to help sort out the issues that are keeping our homeless clients from getting and maintaining permanent housing, funding for shelters is an ongoing challenge. In today’s world of economic “tough times,” as increasing numbers of are sliding into official “poverty”, government leaders at all levels are looking for ways to cut back on expenditures and they can’t help but look at funding cuts to those who are least able to make a fuss about it.
The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates that there is likely to be at least a 5% increase in homelessness in America in the coming two years—an estimate that they consider conservative, all things considered. So at the same time that needs are increasing, resources are at risk. Which means two things: first, we need to stretch every dollar, which is a good thing, and second, we need to find new resources, which is a hard thing.
Our own shelter, The Connection Homeless Shelter, Inc., is funded from a variety of sources, including our thrift store, the Nebraska Homeless Assistance Program, United Way, the Hoggy Doggy Shadow Splash--a quick plunge into the icy South Platte River in February--, individuals, churches, businesses and more. Right now that all adds up to a conservative but healthy balance sheet, but since “right now” quickly becomes “back then,” we’re always looking for wider, deeper sources of income.
This year we had three ideas “out there” that hold some promise: a greenhouse that I built from scratch using a hodge podge of internet-sourced plans, an eBay account to sell some of the more valuable items that come into our thrift store, and soup lunches catered to the larger businesses in town.
Those three ideas are still full of unfulfilled promise. Meaning that this year we learned more than we earned. Which is fine for now but not forever. So when one of our Board members suggested an international dinner as a fundraiser, some of us thought it was a splendid idea. I’d worked with a couple other people to have potluck international dinners in North Platte a couple years ago just for the fun of it, so I was particularly drawn to the idea.
Over the course of several months we did all the things you do to put together a high quality banquet, including searching for a speaker. Enter college forensic competitions.
Our daughter Sheila is a very good competitor in speech tournaments, and is worth going to watch if you ever get the chance. Tammy goes to several of her meets each year (I catch a couple of them, usually toward the end of the season when the competition is getting stiffer and broader) and started talking about this girl who was “amazing.” Niveditha from Omaha. She was winsome and winning again and again in her events, and eventually I could see why for myself.
Bright. Brown. Brilliant smile, made in India. At 5’ 2” in high heels, she stood head and shoulders above the crowd and when she spoke, she took over the room. We laughed, we cried, we raged. And on the spot I invited her to be our speaker at the international dinner. She was interested, but would have to check, she said.
Many months went by. She wanted to do it, she began practicing for it, we counted on it, and then, just weeks before our event, her parents told her that she could not come because they had other plans and expected her to be a part of them.
She was clearly and deeply disappointed. I was more disappointed. She speculated that I would hate her. I didn’t and don’t. I actually thought it ironic and somewhat fitting that we were having a banquet focusing on the Mediterranean area and our speaker couldn’t come because her family still kept a firm grip on what she could and couldn’t do. I wrote and told her that as the director of the homeless shelter, I worked with many, many people who would have been so much better off if their families had loved and cared for them so much.
Now what? I made a few attempts to find another speaker and came up dry, so I decided to be the speaker. Well…I couldn’t exactly decide that by myself, but apparently no one on the board wanted to hurt my feelings by saying it was a terrible idea, so they nodded gravely, valiantly withheld their exuberant cheers, and I became the speaker.
Thank Gore for Google! Not that he had anything to do with it, but didn’t he claim to invent the internet? Whatever, I spent the next few weeks Googling. “Weird facts about Egypt.” “Longevity in Sardinia.” “Bosphorus Straight.” “Gaddafi’s bodyguards.” “Coffee in Turkey.” “Top 50 Tourist Attractions in the World.” “Madrid.” “Trivia about Algeria.”
You get the idea: Beyond a brief trip to Venice, I had never been to a Mediterranean country and knew almost nothing about them, so there was a rather steep learning curve.
Slowly, as I became so obsessed that I started waking up at 4:30 AM to work on it and practice it, my speech took shape. Mummies from Egypt were ground up and used as a medical drink in Europe for 500 years. Istanbul is the only city in the world to straddle two continents and gave us “Istan Coffee” (thank you, Tammy). In Algeria, 60% of lawyers and 70% of judges are women, or the other way around. Madrid is in the exact center of the country. Gaddafi’s bodyguards are women required to wear high heels. Sardinia has the highest per capita number of people who live to be over 100. I wove in some jokes that I thought were funny, and that was that.
The guests arrived, and then the dinner, and then the butterflies. So I didn't get much out of my expensive dinner. I walked to the stage wondering why people clap before you've said anything, and away I went with my opening line: "The good news is, we're saving a lot of money on a speaker tonight."
Three residents of the shelter briefly wove their stories into the speech. When Jacqueline announced that she was studying to be a nurse, working, AND moving into her own place that very weekend, the applause was spontaneous and heartfelt. Same for Nicole, a fourteen-year-old resident who captured everyone’s hearts talking about how she didn't like moving into the shelter, but now “Jimbo says I’m a staff member in training because I know so much about the shelter, and when I had my birthday I got a lot of presents and felt like a millionaire.” Then a dinner guest from Egypt spoke in Arabic about his surprise in finding out that there are poor and homeless people in the U.S., contrary to all expectations before he came. His wife interpreted for him just for effect—he actually speaks excellent English.
When I finished by summarizing Jesus’ (east and north side of the Mediterranean) and Mohammed’s (south side of the Mediterranean) perspectives on reaching out to the poor, and urging the audience to invest wisely in things that we cannot lose no matter how bad the economy gets, there was a standing ovation. I’m never quite sure if that’s because it was a great speech, or because it was over. But I am sure it’s over. #57. Check.
(Postscript: Friends who care for the homeless used the dinner as an opportunity to donate about $25,000 for shelter operations. Yeahhhhhhhh!!!)
Thu, October 20, 2011
by Ron Snell