Lisa Nigro (also see #27 in this link here or see her in a video played during last years' Oscars here) is probably the most unforgettable person in my life. I met her while on a spring break mission trip in college.
I had never been big on mission trips. The mission trips I had always known were “door knocking campaigns” where you knocked on someone’s door and prayed with/for them. I didn’t care for them because 1) I didn’t want someone I didn’t know knocking on my door just to pray with me and leave, and 2) I felt like if people wanted someone to know God, a one-time shot and never seeing them again wasn’t going to miraculously do that; there needed to be an on-going relationship. So, when the opportunity arose to go to Chicago and volunteer in an inner city ministry, that seemed to make a lot more sense.
Once there, we worked primarily through a church. Because of the minister’s relationships, we were able to volunteer at several different agencies around the uptown neighborhood. One of those places was the Inspiration Cafe. I remember walking in and Lisa tried to find us things to do. Cleaning wasn’t what we wanted to do. We wanted to work with people, but there were no people there and she seemed to be trying to accommodate eager college students.
During that time, Lisa and I ended up in a conversation. Somehow she agreed to hire me for a 6-week internship that summer. I went back at the end of May and began working with her. The entire first two weeks I was there, my entire job was to, “get to know the people.” Though that seems to make a lot of sense to me now, I was there for a job. I was there to learn how to run a café that catered to formerly homeless people. I couldn’t believe she would pay me to get to know people. Lisa taught me that people who are homeless have thoughts and opinions. And she taught me that their thoughts and opinions are very valuable and sometimes have insight that we don’t think about.
So, for the first two weeks, I sat with the guests, ate breakfast, and talked about politics, the Bulls, and how life was in the city. I learned about 12-step programs, Alcoholics Anonymous, and many organizations that served homeless people (the respectful ones and the rude ones). The guests of the café (all people who were working toward sobriety, getting a job, and getting off of the street) were my teachers and my friends.
I watched as Lisa interacted with the guests. I never saw pity or a do-gooder feeling on her part. In fact, when someone relapsed (or was on that path) into their drug addiction, I could see that it hurt her. But I also learned from her that holding people accountable was important. They were dismissed from the café, but always welcomed back with open arms if things changed.
I also watched Lisa work with restaurants and funders. She expected everyone with whom she interacted to value homeless people just as much as they valued the other people they served in their own restaurant or interacted with in their own lives. I’ll never forget Lisa’s reaction after a fancy restaurant she had solicited brought sandwiches to serve to homeless people in Lincoln Park. The very next day, Lisa was on the phone speaking with the person in charge at that restaurant. She asked them if they served sandwiches in their own restaurant (which they didn’t), then challenged them and asked them why homeless people deserve sandwiches if that’s not something they serve in their own restaurant. I don’t remember if the restaurant changed what they brought to serve or if they quit coming altogether, but I remember the lesson loud and clear…Just because someone is homeless doesn’t mean he/she deserves “less than.”
I learned many lessons during that short summer internship. And I went back many times throughout the rest of my college career. I don’t stay in touch much with Lisa, Harry, Cooper, Richard, Tommy, or the others I got to know that summer. But when I do reach out to contact them, they always remember me. They always welcome me back. What I learned from all of them was invaluable and impacts me every day of my life and was extremely unforgettable.