BY ELIANA SAKS
Former New York Times reporter Tina Kelley and president of Covenant House Kevin Ryan spoke Thursday in a lecture aimed at first-year students to promote Jesuit values.
Ryan and Kelley are the co-authors of the book “Almost Home,” which all incoming first-year students were required to read this year. Brian Conniff Ph.D., the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, introduced the speakers at the lecture. Conniff said the book was assigned to introduce students to The University’s mission and identity. He connected the book’s theme of finding home to The University being home to all of the students at the lecture.
Kelley spoke first about her experience with Covenant House, an organization for homeless youth with locations around the world, and how writing the book impacted her life. Before writing the book, Kelley spent time volunteering for Covenant House and interviewing some Covenant House residents as a part of her first job at the foundation.
From that experience she discovered that the “least interesting thing about [the] homeless is their homelessness.”
During her time as a New York Times reporter, Kelley came to know Ryan through articles about the organization. She was a natural choice as a co-author for a book to “put a face to homelessness.”
“How can we as a society help them if no one knows who they are there?” Kelley asked.
Kelley put the function of Covenant House into context by pointing out that many famous people in history, such as Ignatius of Loyola, would have ended up at places like Covenant House if the organization had existed during their day.
Ryan took the stage after Kelley and explained the purpose of Covenant House more in-depth by sharing various stories.
Ryan’s first encounter with a homeless youth was in the Amtrak tunnels in 1992 when he saw a 13-year-old pregnant homeless girl. She was prostituted in New York City until her pregnancy, when she became “unsellable” and was tossed out onto the street. When Ryan encountered her, she was living in the train tunnels like many other homeless youth.
The following month, Ryan and his wife encountered a group of HIV-positive boys – one of whom had AIDS – singing a song by Boyz II Men. He later found out they were singing the song they wanted played at their funerals. All three were gay and two had been kicked out of their homes because of that. None of them lived past 19 years old.
After Ryan discovered that there were approximately 350 homeless youth in New York City alone, he decided to get involved with Covenant House. The first child he met was named Vinny, who was so anxious that she would not look Ryan in the eye. She kept rocking back and forth and cried throughout their initial meeting. After her mother died when she was 13, Vinny was passed over to her aunt, who treated her poorly. By age 15 Vinny was turned over to a gang, where she was trafficked and serially raped until the age of 18 when she was able to escape. She lived in the airport terminal and port authority until police brought her to Covenant House.
The fourth and most recent story that impacted Ryan most profoundly was about an 11-year-old mother in Guatemala named Ingrid.
She was sold to a gang at age 9. Like the 13-year-old in New York, she was abandoned after the gang discovered her pregnancy.
These incidents prompted Ryan to think about the Christian value of loving your neighbor. He challenged the first-year students to “figure out who is your neighbor.”
The book and lecture inspired students to think
about getting involved with service in the community. First-year Patricia Hoffman said she feels empowered to help the poor now.
“Anyone can fight homelessness in both big or small ways. Any small action helps the fight against homelessness,” she said.
Other students said the authors’ work challenged them to consider their lives in a new light. Taylor Ryan, another first-year student, said it forced her to think about how the discomfort of a new home compares to the struggle of being homeless.
“For me, the difficulties they faced in the book are huge compared to what we face, but it made us more comfortable with the transition and opened our eyes to things around us. Things are not as big of a deal as we make them,” she said.
Covenant House was founded 1972 by a Franciscan priest, Rev. Bruce Ritter, to serve as a homeless shelter for youth. The organization served 50,000 homeless adolescents in 2012, according to Covenant House.
Ryan also spoke about how the writers chose the characters to feature in “Almost Home.”
“We wanted to make sure that we had kids whose homelessness and the causes of their homelessness represented the face of homelessness of Covenant House,” Ryan said.
The book impacted the lives of everyone involved, especially the homeless featured in the book.
“All of the kids in the book now are in a good place … the epilogue for the kids has been a happy one,” Ryan said.
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