Watkins takes class lessons to heart

By Dee Ann Adams

Amy Smith* (*name changed) had thought about fleeing for months. Escaping her abuser meant walking away from a career, friends, family and temporarily leaving behind two of her five children. It also meant becoming homeless in a strange city.

She knew it would be tough, but Smith had a plan. She had saved enough money for a down payment on a house but couldn’t blow the savings to stay in a hotel until she got settled and found a home to purchase. So she searched online for family shelters.

When Smith came across Wayside Christian Mission in Louisville, Ky., and saw the photos of a hotel-type atmosphere where she and her kids would have their own space, she knew it was time to go.

Smith packed up her two-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter and headed out on the long, emotional journey to Kentucky, becoming one of the more than 630,000 homeless Americans on any given night.

When they arrived at Wayside, Amy was devastated to learn they would have to stay in an older, run-down building for several months before qualifying for the nicer hotel. Little did she know that help was on its way.

Just a couple days later, senior Sam Watkins visited Wayside with her Poverty and Discrimination class to fulfill a course requirement in community service. Taught by Nasrin Shahinpoor, chair of Hanover’s economics department, Watkins took the class not only to fulfill an elective for her economics minor but because she wanted to make a difference.

The class started the day touring the Wayside hotel that Smith had explored online, but when they moved to the facility where Smith’s family had landed, the mathematics major from the small town of Chelsea, Ind., was shocked by the dismal living conditions and immediately felt a negative energy.

Though many shelters around the country have to turn people away due to limited resources, Wayside is able to provide three meals a day. With a first assignment of moving food into a freezer, Watkins soon learned the situation was far from ideal.

“It had been sitting outside in the sun for a couple of hours and a lot of the food was expired,” she said. “I thought ‘this just isn’t right.’ I wouldn’t have fed it to my dog.”

When asked to spend time in the dining room talking with the homeless residents, the naturally shy girl was reluctant to strike up a conversation with strangers. But when she noticed Smith and her two kids,  Watkins was intrigued to hear their story.

“Once I started talking to Smith, she spilled her guts to me,” she said. “The more (the family) talked, the more my heart poured out to them.”

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, about half of all homeless women and children in the U.S. have fled from domestic violence. Often, providing families with immediate access to permanent housing provides enough stability for them to become independent and never become homeless again.

When Watkins went home that afternoon, her heart was heavy thinking about the struggling family. She believed Smith and her family just needed a little boost to get back on their feet.

After explaining the situation to her mom and 20-year-old sister, Watkins was determined to make a difference. That evening, she asked the council at River Valley Community Church in Madison to donate enough money to put the family in a hotel for a week and buy groceries. Her church’s council approved it immediately, and the next day, Watkins and her family returned to Wayside to find the family and share the good news.

“They were so surprised to see me. When I told them, they started crying and hugging me,” Watkins said. “It was so joyful for them to know someone cared.”

After finding a suitable hotel with a kitchenette, Watkins’ mother and grandmother drove Smith around Louisville to show her hospitals where she might find a nursing job. They also stopped by the unemployment office and shopped for groceries. Knowing the kids would be bored with running errands, Watkins and her sister took the kids to the mall where the young boy played and the girls talked.

The teenager admitted that she missed her friends but fully supported her mom’s decision to make the move. She was curious about the area and asked if kids her age were into drugs, alcohol and sex.

She told Watkins, “Where I’m from, all the girls are pregnant by the time they’re 14.”

Watkins and her sister assured their new friend that she could stay away from that lifestyle and go to college like them.

“She seemed inspired to meet two people who could go to college and make it,” said Watkins.

When one week was not enough time for Smith to find a new home, Watkins’ church donated additional money for two more weeks at the hotel. During those few weeks, Smith found a job on her own as a hospital janitor and shortly thereafter secured a nursing position. It wasn’t long before she was able to buy a house and reunite with her two other children. Her oldest son, who’s in his 20s, lives on his own.

Visiting Wayside and getting to know Smith’s family was a wake-up call for Watkins, who exchanges texts often with Smith and plans to visit the family soon in their new home. She said the experience has changed her perspective on poverty, the very objective of the class where it all began.

“I used to blame people for their situation,” said Watkins. “I would think, ‘you got yourself into this, get yourself out. Now I know there are so many different circumstances that people can’t control. I am more eager to help others without questioning why.”

Her big heart and initiative certainly impressed Shahinpoor.

“It was remarkable that she did this on her own,” said the professor. “This is an example of how education can go way beyond what you expected. It just warms my heart.”