Walking alongside youth who are homeless
At Cup of Cool Water, we serve youth who are experiencing homelessness, but what does that actually mean? We have been an organization for about 25 years and what it looks like today is different from what it looked like in 1995. And yet, this is the same organization and we serve youth in the name of Jesus with the same conviction and calling today as we did then, to “Walk alongside youth experiencing homelessness on their journey of reconciliation with themselves, God and Society.” This may sound ambiguous to those who haven’t walked through the doors of the drop-in center, but over the next few weeks, my hope is to share some stories that will help you see clearly what it looks like for us to live out this mission. I remember the first time I heard about Cup of Cool Water. It was 2010 and I was in a Youth Ministry Class at Whitworth University. There were different representatives from para church ministries in town and Mark Terrell was there representing Cup of Cool Water. I remember Mark well, he had a beanie on and he said “Fuck” at least once while he was sharing. He seemed to be raw, no pretense, he was simply there to share the truth about the youth at Cup of Cool Water and that in the midst of their brokenness, Jesus is wholly present and that He is furiously in love with them. What I found intriguing about Cup of Cool Water was that it did an incredible job of helping the community see youth who are homeless as created in the image of God, very good. At that time, I had no idea that I would end up working at Cup of Cool Water. It wasn’t until spring of 2014 that I started as a Youth Advocate serving Youth who are homeless. I was drawn to the authenticity of the organization. Not much (if anything) was polished about Cup of Cool Water; even the fact that nearly every youth or volunteer simply referred to it as “Cup” (which Mark secretly hated) gave it a grass roots/mom and pop feel. I loved it; the drop-in center never felt the same twice. The kids who walked through our doors were honest about their lives, their struggles and some were open about their disdain for Christianity, but their tolerance of Christians in this setting. The First client I built a relationship with was named Joey; his nickname was “Toothpick.” He was 6’ 5” and skinny; he was built like a scarecrow, but a terrifying, high on meth scarecrow. He was tall, imposing and violent in his speech and behavior. His presence was menacing and I wanted to stay as far away from him as possible. The first day I saw him in the drop-in center, he was waving his arms around telling a story about how he threatened a security guard in the mall with a hatchet. As soon as he got done with his story, he walked down the hallway and when he was partway down I noticed that he gave Danny Cramer, the other Youth Advocate a big hug. At this point, I was really confused.
When drop-in was over, I sat down with Danny and he plainly stated that Toothpick is an enforcer on the streets, but really he is just a teddy bear at his core. I took his word for it and proceeded with cautious optimism. Shortly after this encounter, Toothpick went to jail for about 4 months. During that time Danny moved back to Ohio to be near family and another Youth Advocate was hired on. When Toothpick was released, I offered to take him to lunch. We sat down awkwardly at a diner. I started asking him all kinds of questions to help get to know him. He answered my questions while maintaining a safe emotional distance. We agreed to meet weekly on Thursday mornings at Frank’s diner and as we met, I learned more about him. There were times when he was so high I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. Many of those times I wasn’t sure I was making any difference in his life. I found out much later that those first two or three months he truly believed I was a cop or an informant. He would give me a little information to see if the info he gave me ended up getting back to the cops. When a few months went by and he didn’t end up back in jail, he started to trust me a little more. He struggled during those first few months as he fought the charge he was facing. Jail rattled him and he didn’t want to go back. If there are two things I know about Joey that hasn’t changed much over the years, it is that he has a strong sense of Justice, and he loves his freedom. He was facing a charge just across the border in Idaho, so when the time for his hearing arrived, several of us from Cup of Cool Water joined him. Mark wrote a letter expressing the changes we had seen over the last few months and the rest of us joined in solidarity. There was Joy and Forest Baird, Joe Valente, Mark and Rachel Terrell, Aaron Bracht and myself. The judge read the letter and looked out at us while he was giving the sentencing. He said that he had never seen a show of support like we had shown that day and that rather than Joey spending several years in prison, he would have 3 years of probation and that during that time, part of his probation agreement would be to continue being involved at Cup of Cool Water. One of the most beautiful moments I had with Joey was a year and a half ago. We were at Frank’s diner and he was frustrated by old associations who were challenging him, trying to draw him back into old drama. This was a real temptation. He was tempted to succumb to his old pattern of behavior. At that moment we talked about the difference between “Toothpick” and “Joey.” Toothpick is representative of his old self, the enforcer that used strength and will power to force others to relent, while Joey worked hard, was loyal and committed to help a friend in need. It was an honor and gift to see Joey leave “Toothpick” behind and to truly embrace “Joey.” My time with Joey was and continues to be such a blessing in my life. I hope to continue to share more about youth we have had the honor of spending time with at Cup of Cool Water.