- Janet Pelz
Part way through my volunteer shift distributing food at the Downtown Food Bank a face came through the line. I went through the data bank of my memory – did the person evoked have a job the last time I saw him? Yes – a good one working for the State. Age similar? No, this face was much older. I shut down the computer on that file, but a thought lingered. Something about how any of us could end up on the receiving end of a food line one day, and that you’d be surprised at who you might see….
After a river of faces flowed by I closed the file on that idea as well until I saw him.
He might have accepted my choice of milk or orange juice and moved on like any other, but the line had slowed just as he approached. And there on his chest was a badge identifying him as a seller of Real Change, the newspaper written and distributed by the homeless. And on that badge was his name: Scott Harper (not his actual name).
The computer in my brain booted up again whirring through files of names and experiences of years past. I studied him a bit – the last time I saw a person by that name he would have been 12. How many years ago? Maybe 18 by now. What would a 30 year-old version of Scott look like today, adding a few extra years that the streets would have worn on him? He waited there longer, almost as if the line had stopped deliberately to help me put the pieces together.
These pieces. Those 18 or so years ago I was heading up the Seattle Center Academy. The program was a brainchild of Virginia Anderson, then the Center’s Director, to match the tremendous artistic assets of Seattle Center with young people at a particularly impressionable age. Each student had the choice of one group to study with in the morning and another in the afternoon during their two-week summer session. Hip Hop dance and pottery were among those most often requested. Pacific Northwest Ballet offered a class in the old Opera House rehearsal hall. It was filled almost entirely with girls in pink leotards. And one boy – Scott Harper.
He arrived in a pair of gym shorts and a t-shirt.
I stopped by that first class, knowing the one boy might need a bit of encouragement and support. Although he wasn’t fixing his hair or comparing leotard colors with his other classmates, he nonetheless seemed comfortable enough in that group. Put in other words, he didn’t do what we would have understood in that context – the pre-teen bolt. Instead, he joined the line when the instructor organized the group, and when the first chords of music struck, he straightened his back and extended his arm so gracefully that those of us watching caught our collective breath.
Most everyday thereafter I would wander by the rehearsal hall and peek in to see how things were going. Scott was always participating with commitment equal to any of his female peers, but with an innate sense of grace that exceeded any others. When I got a chance to talk with him about his choice of classes, he responded straightforwardly, “I heard that football players take ballet to improve their footwork and balance.” Scott played football.
At the performance on the last day of camp, Francia Russell, co-artistic director and director of PNB’s prestigious dance school was clearly impressed. “We’ll give him a scholarship to study at the school if he’s willing to make the commitment,” she offered enthusiastically. We spoke with Scott and we spoke with his mother. The deal was sealed.
PNB’s DanceChance Boys in Modern class.
When the Scott Harper standing before me declared his preference for milk I asked the question in the best way I could, not wanting to probe the circumstances that had brought him to this place in front of me. “Are you a dancer?” I asked.
He raised his head, looking directly at me for the first time. “Hey,” he said, “I remember you, from Seattle Center, right?” He delivered his words with a full smile, as if we had bumped into each other browsing the neighborhood book store. “Yeah, I had a full ride at PNB, and then I broke my leg.”
And then he was gone. Accepting a bag of potatoes from the next volunteer in line and looking ahead to what followed.
He left me there, leaning on the table to keep from falling over. Such a flood of emotions, the first, until I realized the egotism of it, about me. I had felt so good about making a difference in this young person’s life.
On the shelf in my office I still hold a ballet dancer’s black shoe. On the bottom the following is scrawled in black ink, “Janet, Thanks for sending Scott to PNB. The best to you always.” It is signed by the woman who taught that Seattle Center Academy class.
And then, once realizing that I was not the casualty in this story, I wondered about the parade of events in this young man’s life – in anyone’s life – that had brought him to selling Real Change on the street corner while relying on the food bank for his meals.
For me, yet again there was first a lesson in humility. As exciting as the possibility might have been that his life could have been turned around by one contribution I made is, of course, unrealistic vanity.
And then there was a small sense of satisfaction, that I could have touched this one man’s life twice – once to give him an opportunity and another to give him a gallon of milk. I hope there are others in his life to give him more of both.
Want to know more about the Downtown Food Bank, including how to volunteer?
Dignity and service are at the heart of the Downtown Food Bank’s mission. In 2010, the Downtown Food Bank handled approximately 45,000 visits and provided more than 269 tons of groceries to the elderly, homeless and working poor within the Pike Place Market and downtown Seattle communities. The Food Bank also provides clothing, baby supplies and hygiene products, which are donated by the community.
Dedicated volunteers -- many of whom are clients of the Food Bank themselves -- contribute thousands of volunteer hours to help meet the growing demand for the Food Bank's services. If you would like to volunteer, contact Kevin Futhey.
You can make a contribution by clicking here.