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Lions Roar : May 2013
take off her coat. One day, she told me she had read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert three times, and wished she could eat what the author ate in Italy because the food would make her happy. “When I eat,” she explained, “I usually feel sick or break out in a rash.” She unwrapped her scarf and showed me the large swath of red pimples that covered her neck. “I have these all over my body, and now I’m scared to eat at the shelter.” I needed no further convincing: it was time to start a healthy vegetarian meal program. We bought a large slow cooker and began serving homemade vegetarian chilis, soups, and curries to our homeless students. The meals coincided with our evening programs, so students were offered sustenance for body and mind alike. Jada was a bit suspicious of our vegan concoctions at first. She would ask for a small portion, take one bite, and then find a reason to rush off to check email. “This food won’t hurt your body. I promise,” I’d tell her. It was a few weeks before she would eat a full dinner. “This is good,” she teased, “but I bet the food is even better in Italy.” As our vegetarian meal program began to pick up steam, our students began to “wake up” during mealtimes. Those who were prone to drift off or send texts dur- ing workshops began to gather around the slow cooker to find out what was in it and how it was being prepared. Students asked questions about vegetarianism, cooking techniques, and the varieties of vegetables and spices in the pot. We invited students to contemplate their relationship with food. We asked them, How does your body feel when you eat at the shelter? What do you wish for most at mealtimes? “A home-cooked meal” was the answer we expected, but what they actually said was much more powerful. Some students admitted that mealtimes at the shelter provoked “intense loneliness.” One student said she longed “to eat slowly, rather than wolf down my food and run into my room.” A group of youths said they wanted to “talk—you know, really talk” to someone during mealtimes. Jada sug- gested that we recreate the Thanksgiving meal in Eat, Pray, Love by giving thanks in turn—even when it wasn’t a holiday. Homeless youth, we learned, are starved for both meaning and nutrition. This fall, we expanded our food pro- gram. Reciprocity now offers the largest vegetarian meal program for homeless teenagers and young adults in the coun- try. We are determined to serve food and inspiration, in equal parts, to youth in cri- sis. To address the inner hunger our stu- dents feel, we designed a ritual inspired by Jada’s obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir: After taking a seat at the Reciprocity farmhouse table, our students reflect on something for which they are grateful. That might mean giving thanks for a cot at an emergency shelter, or even expressing gratitude for the profound experience of being homeless. In my line of work, compassion can feel like a strong ache. I hear about a homeless youth’s pain and I want to do something to make it better, so the ache will go away. But the Buddha taught that compassion should be more than a fleeting impulse. We have to keep returning to the well of suffering and drink deeply from it. A year ago, my work at Reciprocity was about trying to fix tiny bits of suffering. Now I am learning to uncover suffering layer by layer and remain open-hearted, even as I see that suffering has no end. Sitting with my students’ hunger, I have learned that it was more vast and complex than I had imagined. But instead of feeling depressed and overwhelmed, I tried to use this view to inspire a more expansive solution. Now mealtimes at the Reciprocity Foundation have become opportuni- ties to nourish and rejuvenate home- less youths’ distracted minds and broken hearts. Last week, I listened to Jada giving thanks—not because she’d accomplished her dream of gorging herself in Italy but for her life right here, in a New York City shelter. After giving thanks, she turned to another student, and they began to talk openly and honestly about their lives. Their eyes glistened with hope. At that point, even if the food were to run out, I knew that it would be okay. Our students would still leave our center feeling full. o SHAMBHALA SUN MAY 2013 20