Writers in Community

Yesterday, I attended the Writers in Community session during ODU’s 33rd Annual Literary Festival. I asked my students to attend at least one session and write about it, so I’d like to do the same, especially since I keep thinking about what I heard.

Dr. Armstrong, Mr. Gungle, Mr. Norman, and Mr. Pollard were on the panel. Dr. Armstrong spoke first about her work at St. Columba Ecumenical Ministries. She described the help they provide to homeless people four days a week, including giving them toiletries and a place to shower. In the beginning, she asked if anyone was an expert on hardship (The Literary Festival’s theme this year is “Hard Times in America”.) and my friend, Lea, elbowed me. I said, nothing but thought, Lea, we know hardship, but we’re hardly experts (I don’t particularly care for the connotation of the term expert.). But as Dr. Armstrong described the scarcity of food where she grew up and the constant fret of not being able to make ends meet, I knew I was definitely not an expert, and by the end of the talk, I realized I don’t really know anyone who is, even though I know plenty of people who think they are experts at hardship because they grew up without material wealth.

Though Dr. Armstrong had my ears burning and my brain searching for ways I might help rather than feel helpless, Mr. Gungle approached the podium and told us he was once homeless, which really sent my mind whirring. He said he went to St. Columba for help and was given a pair of shoes to replace his old ones. He was so happy with the gift, he told them he’d be willing to help out at St. Columba if needed. Then he said something like, “Life is never so hard you can’t volunteer.” In time, he was able to interview for a job, and now he works there and has an apartment.

The last speaker hit hardest for me. Mr. Norman read a profile of Mr. Pollard, a homeless ODU student and U.S. veteran, with posttraumatic stress disorder. Apparently, Mr. Norman interviewed Mr. Pollard several times and developed the profile for a class at ODU. He read an abridged version of it that revealed a man so resilient, he managed to remain enrolled in ODU and earn a 3.5 GPA despite being homeless. He did his homework at the library, on a park bench, or anywhere he could find a quiet place. When it was cold, he wrote with gloves on. What I gathered most from the presentation was that homelessness does not completely cancel you out; you don’t have to be at a dead-end. You can try to fight your way through. I also learned that I have no idea what I’d do if it happened to me. My mind went blank when Mr. Gungle said something like, “Imagine what you’d do at nightfall. Where would you go?”

Writers in Community seems like a group that goes into organizations, institutions, and schools to help people discover their voices, to write their stories. Writers in Community seems like a great resource to consider for my class.

Disclaimer: The picture is of a building on JMU's campus, not ODU's, but for some reason I wanted to share it here. Go figure.