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Lions Roar : March 2014
out all afternoon getting to know one youth and another and another. Then I went back to organize a huge school event to raise money for the shelter. Now, after years of practice and ther- apy and everything else, I see I’d recognized something in this group of kids that was in me. You also spent time working on Wall Street as an invest- ment banker. Yes, for a couple of years. I think I needed to know that I could do anything that I chose. In the end, I chose to turn away from the money and the power and the opportunity and the status, and to serve others. I also had a job in between, working for the designer Ed Schlossberg. But Adam called me there, asking to work on design projects with some of his students at Cov- enant House. As soon as we started that, it was like, “Okay, okay, I get it!” I left and we started Reciprocity right away. Adam quit his job too. It was probably one of the biggest acts of faith of my life. I’d gone to Harvard Business School and had a good, wealthy network, but Reciproc- ity Foundation was a few degrees away from the kind of philanthropy that the people I was con- nected to were doing. Has that changed? We’re a contemplative nonprofit working for kids, not for donors. That’s a hard path to walk, and I think it’s why we’ve never become a million-dol- lar agency with a big, powerful board. Adam and I are doing this as spiritual practice. It’s deeply nourishing and it’s absolutely what I want to do, but that doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable or happy or pleasant all the time. Do the homeless youth often push back against the spiri- tual and contemplative aspects of what you do? I mean, this is not necessarily normal stuff to any young person, homeless or not. Yeah! They’ve never experienced anything like this and it’s some- thing that they deeply crave. But there’s also a part of them that wants to run away. They know that what we expect from them is authenticity; we want them to show up exactly as they are, and we’re ready to welcome them and embrace them exactly as they are. That’s scary for a teenager or for a young adult. No one’s ever said anything like that to them. Right. They think, What if this group of people rejects me too? What if they don’t see my goodness? What if they don’t embrace who I really am? How is it that homeless youth come to you? And how do they come to feel at home in the group? We’re connected to shelters and caseworkers and social workers, so they refer them in. But then we have youth who basically say to peers in shelters, I really like you, and I want to show you a group of people that you should meet. Students often first visit our Thurs- day-night gatherings. We have a big meal, a guest speaker, a medi- tation. Students begin to feel, “Okay, I can trust this. There are some cool people here and they’re feeding me and it feels good.” Or we schedule an intake with them. But instead of “Here’s a seven-page form, give us your sexual history, your medical history, your history of homelessness, your identification,” our approach is, “Yeah, we want some information from you but first, three questions: Who do you want to be in this world? Why are you really here as a homeless youth? Where do you need to go? We don’t offer housing, so we need to know what is it that we can really do to support your journey. There’s often tears because, literally, no one has asked them these questions before. Everything falls away and they’re just crying Thank you. Thank you for recognizing that I have a role to play even if I don’t know what it is yet. That’s beautiful. What comes next? Usually, individual counseling sessions at least once a week, par- ticipating on our Thursday nights, finding a mentor from our community to help them work on career or college aspirations and also how to bring together all the aspects of their beings. Yes, it’s nice to work toward having a great job and a sustainable wage, but you also need to know how to take care of your body, how to be in healthy relationships, how to make good choices, how to trust yourself and your intuition. Do those working with you—not just youth and their families but local state government agencies and potential benefactors—see the spirituality of the Reciprocity Foun- dation as a red flag or an obstacle? Well, Adam and I are really open. I’m a practicing Buddhist and he’s a practicing Christian, and there are no secrets in terms of how we identify. We make clear that our students need to PHOTOBYALEXISNEOPHYTIDES “We’re ready to embrace them exactly as they are,” says Tagore. “That’s scary for a teenager.” SHAMBHALA SUN MARCH 2014 20