By Aaron Fenster
Aaron spoke about his experience as an AVODAH corps member at the Washington, DC Partners in Justice event honoring Marcia E. Weinberg and Rabbi Harold S. White. His remarks follow below.
I’d like to tell you a story. It’s about a woman named Erica – one of our clients at Miriam’s Kitchen, a place that provides food, clothing, poetry classes, art therapy, case management services and more to low-income DC residents. Erica is a woman who made a change. She had smoked cracked for 15 years. She was a strong middle aged black woman whose eyes showed years of struggle. I learned that she had persevered through countless episodes of trauma, drug addiction, and domestic violence. She had six children, but her parents cared for them because she was homeless. Erica came to Miriam’s Kitchen for a new start. Erica told me with excitement that she had been clean for the 3 months and she was eager to regain stable ground in her life. In January, Miriam’s staff learned about Erna’s House, a new permanent, supportive housing program through N Street Village, where Ilana works. Case Managers worked with Erica and got her name on the top of the list to get a home. She had all the necessary paperwork. All we could do was wait.
The chances were small for Erica. Only 31 women would be chosen. Erica and all the staff waited eagerly for any news. Finally, in late February, Erica came rushing in, her face glowing with excitement. “They chose me Aaron! I’m moving into an apartment, my apartment next week!” I cannot describe the joy that overcame me. Instead of a hug, I opted for the quintessential Miriam’s high five. I describe it as a “clinical hug.”
Two weeks later, Erica returned to Miriam’s and told a story that I will never forget. She told me her apartment was the best thing to happen to her. Erica had a comfortable bed, her own bathroom, and most importantly, a full kitchen. She told me of the first meal she made; she couldn’t remember the last time she cooked for herself: fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and corn. By her smile, I knew that it could have been mistaken for a 5 star meal. But more importantly, she told me of her guest at dinner. While she was cooking, she saw her neighbor across the hall, an elderly Miriam’s Kitchen guest who was also recently housed. Erica asked if she would like to join her. The women replied, “I have nothing to give.” Erica replied, “Don’t be silly. We live here. I would love for you to join me.”
This story filled me with new hope. Before this experience, after months of working with this population, I felt run out and dejected. Day in and day out I see people struggling to survive. I often questioned whether I believed that homelessness could be solved. This story gave me a renewed sense of hope. Today, we ended homelessness – for one person – for Erica. Erica has a home. I am indebted to AVODAH for being a part of this moment. But this is obviously not enough. We need bigger picture work to solve these difficult issues. Erna’s house and others like it are piece of a much larger puzzle.
AVODAH has played an essential role in helping me understand how to put together the pieces of this puzzle. D.C. has an incredible web of social services and AVODAH places us right in the thick of it. On an average day I am in touch with corps members across the city connecting my clients to their organizations. I could easily have sent Erica to Katherine at Survivors and Advocates for Empowerment following her domestic violence situation. And once Erica was placed in an apartment I told her about healthy eating classes led by Molly at So Others Might Eat. Finally, she could visit Caitlin at Capital Area Asset Builders to learn how to budget so she can one day care for her children again.
I am indebted to AVODAH for these moments. This organization has given me an experience that is invaluable – not just because of the tremendous amount I have learned but for this moment of hope that I will carry with me going forward. Even though I do not know where my future lies, I do know that Erica’s story and all the others I hear from my fellow corps members have a lasting footprint, not only for me but for our entire community. In D.C. alone, corps members reach out to around 22,000 clients a year. AVODAH provides the groundwork for a motivated and experienced group of young, able Jewish leaders who will make real change in our society. Thank you for making that possible.
Aaron Fenster is from Rochester, NY and attended Clark University. As a DC corps member, he is a Case Manager at Miriam’s Kitchen, which provides free, homemade meals and high-quality, individualized support services that address the causes and consequences of homelessness in an atmosphere of dignity and respect, in an effort to end chronic homelessness.