I (Allison) am a grade eight student in the Challenge program at Calvin Park Public School. I wrote this story for a project called Challenge for Change which is meant to raise awareness for a global issue. My story is about two girls, one wealthy and one poor, who meet at a homeless shelter. Will their different backgrounds keep them apart, or bring them together?
I sit in the cramped backseat of my mom’s sedan, glaring angrily up at the rusting roof. Mom bought this car at a used car dealer a few years ago, and it’s over twenty years old. The reason Mom can’t afford a decent car for us is that she gives every spare dollar to the poor.
"Mildred, please," my mom sighs. "I know you’d rather be at that party with your friends, but please try to keep a positive attitude. Remember, many people aren’t as fortunate as us, and it’s our responsibility to bring a little joy into their lives."
"Well, that’s all right for you," I say with a scowl. "Go ahead and help those ‘less fortunate’. But have you ever stopped to think that you’re ignoring the needs of your very own daughter, who might be considered one of the less fortunate herself? And by the way, would it kill you to call me Milli instead of that old-lady name?"
"Mildred–sorry, Milli," Mom snaps. She doesn’t take her eyes of the road, but I can picture her clenched teeth and furrowed brows. "I really don’t like the way you’re acting. Please try to have a little respect. Some of these people were thrown out of their homes when they were only children. Some of them go to bed every night undernourished, lucky just to get a hot meal from us. For some of them, it’s a struggle every day to stay alive. I really don’t think it’s quite right to lump yourself, a well-fed, safe young lady, in the same category as them. And about your name–your Great-Aunt Mildred is–was–a respectful, hardworking, caring woman." Tears are streaked across her cheek. "If only my daughter had inherited some of her personality from her as well as her name."
I’m starting to feel guilty, which really bugs me. She makes such a big deal out of everything. It’s not that I don’t care about the poor–I do, okay? It’s just that I don’t see why she has to drag me along to the homeless shelter she volunteers at when I could be at Jenna’s huge birthday bash. And about my name (ooh, I just copied my mom, scary)–what kind of woman would give her born-in-the-late-twentieth-century daughter the name Mildred?
My mother, that’s who. My activist, old-fashioned, do-gooder, goody-two-shoes mother.
We turn into the sleek parking lot the Oak Street Homeless Shelter. The building looks like it’s about to fall on us. Seems to me that if this place is meant to give poor people a comfortable place to stay, then they could fix it up a little nicer.
I guess Mom can read my thoughts, because she says, "We’re not a fancy place, but we’ve got heart."
I suppose that’s true–if dirty tables and peeling wallpaper are signs of heart. The large, blonde shelter director bounces up to us and says something in a thick accent, gesturing frantically to the room where the people stay.
"Doris says that they have a girl just your age staying here," Mom translates for me. She seems to think that this news will overjoy me, when frankly, I’m not interested in interacting with kids whose parents don’t even have jobs. Nothing against them or anything, but it would be kinda...weird.
The place is crazy busy. I have to step over bodies and sleeping bags to make my way through the room. I don’t see a girl my own age, but I do see a man in a wheelchair who flaps his hand at me, trying to wave.
"That’s Jimmy," Mom says cheerfully. "He has cerebral palsy, which means he has trouble moving his limbs. He can’t talk, but he’s a very friendly person."
I smile apprehensively at Jimmy and park myself on a narrow bench, across from the girl my own age, whom I’ve just spotted. She has long, stringy dark hair, which hangs loosely over her pale, sickly-looking face. Her clothes are thin and ragged, her sneakers nearly falling apart. She and her family–a middle-aged woman, a little girl, and a teenage boy, who all have the same look as her–are sitting cross-legged on threadbare sleeping bags, biting into pieces of baguette like it’s the only thing they got to eat all day. Which it probably is.
"I wish Dad would come back," the girl sighs softly. I notice that her eyes are red and puffy.
Suddenly interested, I tap on the shoulder of my mom, who’s talking to Jimmy. She spins around. "Yes?"
"How did that girl there lose her dad?"
She taps her chin, thinking. "I think Doris said the parents were fighting and the dad just walked out on them. He didn’t leave any money, food, anything. And when the mom lost her job, the family started slipping into poverty. It’s tragic." She takes out a Kleenex and blows her nose loudly–my mom tends to be slightly overemotional about these things. "I think the young girl’s name is Rachel."
I look at this Rachel, with her threadbare clothes, and suddenly feel a strange sense of connection to her. You see, Great-Aunt Mildred wasn’t the only person who died in our family recently.
I remember that day as if it were yesterday–coming home from Pizza Pizza with Dad (my mom would never waste money on something as superficial as a restaurant). Singing along at the top of our lungs to oldies songs on the radio, not a care in the world. The yellow Hummer, driven by a drunken man, that hit a road sign and came barreling toward us like a giant spinning top. The roof caving in–knocked roughly out of the car–screaming at the top of my lungs–my dad slumped at the side of the road, his face streaked with blood. It took all the energy I could muster in my bruised and shaking hands to pick up the cell phone and call 911 and my mom. I was unconscious before the ambulances came. When I woke up, I was confined in that cruel white hospital room, unable to move or do anything but sit and feel the doctors poking and prodding me with various hospital instruments. I only had a broken leg, but my dad–as the stupid doctors said–"didn’t make it".
It was just a few days before Christmas last year, which made the pain even worse. There were no presents under the tree last year–my mom was too busy burying her face in the cushions and weeping in a strangled voice at random points during the day to buy me anything. I didn’t care, because no one could give me the only gift I really wanted–my dad back.
Thinking about it makes a familiar rush of sadness run through my body. It pours through my veins and into my heart, turning it into a shriveled lump. I don’t cry, because unlike my mom, I’m not the outwardly emotional type. In fact, you probably couldn’t even tell I was upset unless you talked to me. But I notice Rachel looking at me with brown eyes full of sorrow. Can she tell?
Maybe she can. Maybe kids who lost their dads have a strange sort of telepathy with each other. Of course, Rachel’s dad loss isn’t nearly as bad as mine, but I figure being homeless makes up for that. Maybe I can sit down with her and have a conversation about our troubles in life. Maybe, despite our differences, we can be friends.
But then Rachel gives me a look that makes me feel like dirt, and I quickly turn away. Here’s what I’m thinking: people as rude as that deserve to be homeless.
Chapter 3 coming tomorrow!