I started a non-profit entirely by accident.
Sure I could say that I had it all planned out and executed a long-standing dream of mine, but that would be a lie. Plus, the truth is much more beautiful.
Last winter, I felt a yearning to do something bigger than myself. During a time when many people see a scary and unstable world, I could only see confusion and misplaced frustration. Entirely by accident and sheer boredom, I discovered the live streaming app, Periscope. After seeing that 7,000 people had watched me on my couch, I had that light bulb moment. A voice whispered that there might be something I could do with this. I listened.
Next, I was sitting in my living room broadcasting to total strangers and telling them that I had set up a GoFundMe with a goal of 500 dollars to do random acts of kindness. A few people told me that I was crazy, and doubt momentarily overlook my mind. But after three days I was staring at a computer screen in complete disbelief as I reached my goal. Not one person in my personal life knew about this, and it was now time to act.
So I went out on a mission to use 50 dollars of the donated dollars to take a homeless person to lunch—allowing them to keep the change. I still remember that freezing cold day as I paced up and down the block wondering who I would approach. Fear and insecurity held me back as I wondered how this stranger would react. Would he want to go to lunch with me? Would he be okay sharing his story? Finally I got the nerve up and approached Tom. It was quite the anticlimactic interaction: “Hi. Would you like to go to lunch with me,” I asked sheepishly. “Sure,” he said.
Tom and I sat across from each other as he told me his story about being homeless for six years. When I asked him why he didn’t get fries with his burger, he told me it was because he didn’t have bottom teeth. We laughed together. His raw honesty and complete surprise at the gesture changed me forever. Repetitively he told me he couldn’t believe it was happening to him. My heart broke and filled up at the same exact time which was a feeling that was entirely new to me at the time. Now this feeling is a familiar friend and I would have it no other way.
I still look for Tom in hopes of telling him how he changed my life forever.
After our lunch, I posted our story on social media along with a photo. Curiously, I wondered how people would respond. The result is something that still makes me smile. My belief that human beings are incredibly good at their core became confirmed.
There was an outpouring of support and well wishes for Tom. It was the greatest gift I’ve ever received. My GoFundMe went up and suddenly donations came pouring in. I started to make up bags for the homeless and continued to share their stories. Soon I had 2,000 dollars and Philadelphia media outlets began to share what I was doing. People started sharing their own stories with me. My inbox became full of people who’d either been homeless or wanted to start a Dignity Project in their own city.
My mission stayed simple: to continue to give and share.
Next, I announced that if I reached 10,000 dollars I would spend one month living in a van giving to homeless people in 14 U.S. cities. The decision was left to those who believed in what I was doing. The people spoke and in May I completed “The Dignity Tour.”
Some days I hated it. Many days I hated it. Emotionally and physically it pushed me past my limits and then some. But, what I learned made every moment worth it.
Ending homelessness is not my agenda. No one has that ability. Often people ask me for solutions or strategies and the reality is I know none of them.
What I do know is that isolation is painful beyond measure. If I were to site one goal, it would be to show others how to offer themselves. Listening and sitting in someone else’s space of pain is a practice. Sometimes it flows through you and sometimes you run directly into a wall.
Every time it makes you more of who you were meant to be.
Every day we each have a choice: to walk around blindly and avoid human beings struggling on the same journey as us or to kneel down next to them and say hello.
Choosing hello can heal this world. This truth will heal you in the process.
Here are a few pics from along the way:
Author: Lolly Galvin
Image: Author’s Own
Editor: Travis May