The One I Messed Up

From the desk of Luke Kujacznski, Urban Alliance’s Executive Director

About three months after I started volunteering at Urban Alliance, the Executive Director at the time asked if I would be willing to coach one of the current Momentum participants. Momentum was running its 3rd term, and I do not think there were even 10 participants in the class. This point it was more of an idea that was showing some early promise.

Before I get into the story, I think it is important for me to share where I personally was at the time. I had been volunteering and enjoying it. I was really starting to get the hang of writing grants and helping to fund the programs. I was also actively looking for a compensated position. I had expressed interest in working long term for UA, but like many nonprofits, they did not have the funding. I bought into the vision of the organization but was not at all thinking this was where I would spend my next ten years. Well, that was about to change, and I think this experience is what cemented that in my mind.

I met Evan about two weeks into the then 10-week Momentum course. Evan was younger; my guess is about 22. He had dropped out of school in about 8th grade. He had a string of convictions for possession of controlled substances. I am not sure how many or how severe. At the time the training for coaches was minimal, and the information I had was even less. My goal was to connect to this young black man, who needed a lot more than a job. Evan had been living a fast life since dropping out of school in Ohio. He moved a lot, made money in any way he could, and he was just trying to survive. He was staying at the Mission while he was going through the Momentum program, which was not at all common at the time. While he was incredibly quiet, we were able to connect a little. At the bare minimum, he knew that I was in his corner. Looking back I am sure there were many signs and discomforts I was missing, but we kept meeting, trying to form a bond.

Part of Evan’s story was that he had no photo ID, which would prohibit him from finding a job after Momentum. While Momentum did not have the support staff then, like we do now, we helped Evan throughout the term assemble the pieces needed to get his ID. Evan had a ID from the state of Ohio when he moved to Michigan, but in one of his encounters with law enforcement, the ID was lost. We did find out that the ID was out of date, which may have played a role in it being misplaced. Either way, Evan was a 22-year-old black male, who had no photo ID. During the time I knew Evan, this was an active issue we worked to solve. Evan really wanted to get a driver’s license, something he had never had in his life. This was the motivation we needed to help him get all of the various pieces of documentation needed to get his ID, which was necessary to get his driver’s license.

I remember the hours Even and I spent driving my car around. He had driven but had never been taught. He was a good driver and we enjoyed the interactions. I thought I had really helped, I did not understand how much deeper the wounds went.

For those of you who do this work, you know how hard it is for someone to get a photo ID without a photo ID. It is possible but, at the same time, nearly impossible. I remember going through the list of required items, checking and double checking to see if what Evan had would be enough. I do not remember the exact pieces, but I do know what we barely met the requirements.

The first time Evan went to the Secretary of State, they turned him away without even trying to find a way to make his verifications work. Boldly, I suggested I go with him, and maybe my whiteness would be enough to help the system work in his favor.

As we walked into the Secretary of State I was confident we would be walking out with an ID. We almost did. When we got to the counter, Evan presented all of his items, trying to prove he was who he said he was. The women at the counter was incredibly gracious and looked through each item as I explained to which category they belonged and why I thought they would work. She agreed and was about to move forward, even though it was a stretch. At the last minute, or maybe this was her plan all along, she called her manager to double check things.

He walked up and looked at the items, looked at me, and then looked at Evan. I don’t need to explain what Evan looked like. It shouldn’t matter. The tattoos were his story. In a flash, the manger dealt a devastating blow, and said the only way Evan would get an ID is if he had had another ID. Period. I calmly explained the whole situation to the manager. Evan had no photo ID. The only one he ever had was lost during an arrest. The manager didn’t really care. It was a not a problem that would affect him. The manager suggested we check with his high school because they might have a yearbook with his photo and name next to it. Seriously?

I walked out of the Secretary of State with a loose plan in my head. I asked Evan what was the last school he attended, which he quickly named. I googled the school, a middle school mind you, south of Cincy, over 6 hours away. As I called them, I was thinking about how I was going to fix this whole thing. Surprisingly, the school was willing to help, they talked about finding something for us, and said they would look for it when we got there…. Evan had no money, no car, very little support from an aging grandmother, and me. This was a setback even I could recognize. That was a long way away for something that was not even guaranteed to deliver.

I remember telling Evan not to give up, we would sort this out. He said he had somewhere to go, and I handed him enough cash for his bus fare, thinking I would see him the next morning…he never showed. In fact, I NEVER saw him again. I think about this often, and for some reason a lot more as of late. If I knew what I do now, I would at least understand how deep Evan’s trauma was, what level of emotional capacity he had or didn’t have. I would at least have guessed at his ability to handle big problems, but at the time I didn’t. I had no clue. This was a big problem, but I failed to recognize how profound of an effect it would have. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. He was done, disappearing into the streets.

We looked for Evan for almost 6 months, checking in at the Mission on a regular basis, talking to friends on the streets. If anyone knew where he was, they never told. Maybe this is why I push hard now. Maybe I am carrying guilt for things out of my control. Maybe not. But I miss him. I often wonder how and where he is, and wish for another chance to help him know he is valued.

I do know that how we would help Evan now is much different than my interactions with him back then. I am thankful though, because this interaction, this relationship I have with Evan has influenced the way I approach this work. I would go so far as saying this experience with Evan was critical in the determining why this organization is still growing to this day.

Fast forward 8 months after this last encounter with Evan. I had been hired on as the Program Director of Momentum, and was sitting in an emergency meeting with the Board of Directors because the Executive Director then had suffered a significant medical issue and was unable to continue his role. As I stepped into the role as interim Director of the organization, there were quite a few competing ideas about what should be done with the organization, including but not limited to stopping all programming until things were sorted out, merging the organization with another organization, to just shutting the doors and saying it was a good run. I am happy to say that most of the board was not interested in the latter two options, but several were. It was everything I could do to reshape those conversations. At the back of my mind in all of those were my failures with Evan, and the individuals that would be missed if we didn’t fight to save the organization. I do realize that last sentence sounds a lot like a savior complex, and back then I probably had one at some level. Though as I handle those thoughts now, and I think back to that incredibly difficult time in the organization and my personal development, I can recognize what was happening. There was a fog that had to be cut through. We were seeing pieces of what the work was about. We were seeing parts of a whole. That was the beginning of the push, not that UA was the only organization that could help, or was I the only person who would be able to do it, but that was where I found out why I was fighting.

I firmly believe that the work of reaching out to the fringes of society and pulling those incredible human beings into the mix is the most important work that can be done. Like all important work, I also think it is the most heavily resisted work out there. Resisted on multiple levels, but largely resisted on a societal level. Why? Because the nature of the work is often forcing the individuals who make up society to face their bias or prejudice. It is forcing individuals to live out their respective faiths. It is forcing individuals to live by the golden rule, and it is forcing a certain evolution of thought.

There is something magical that happens when we allow or encourage our own charity to confront beliefs in us that we know need to change. I tend to believe this is the purpose of helping the poor or those in need. In helping, we see a piece of our own humanity or our own need to help, moving us to a more vulnerable space and time. As we push into this more and lean in, I believe we realize that in our helping others, we are nurturing our own selves back to life. In turn we give more, help more, make ourselves more available, we move to behave in the manner we were created to be.

Evan was me. I was lost at that time. I had been unemployed for 3 years. The first part of it by choice, the second part not so much. I was recently sober and had lost many “friends.” I didn’t have a firm and solid foundation of who I was, what I was supposed to do, who I needed to be, or what the world was asking of me. In that time that I was in Evan’s life and he was in mine, my pursuit of him was also a pursuit of myself. I was hoping to see a glimpse of what I was supposed to be. I did not realize it at the time. I did not realize it until I typed these sentences. All I knew then was that I was supposed to connect. Little did I know that I was really connecting with myself, with a purpose, with a vision of what could be, with empathy, and with a passion for those we lost.

I had to leave the path I had known. I had to pursue the lost sheep so to speak. When I found the sheep, I realized it was me all along.

Now it would be clever if that was the end of the journey and I could wrap it up in a nice, neat, little bow. What I found when I reached that lost sheep is that there was another one out there, and another. The quest would continue. The work continues, as I continue to strive to assist those in most need of help, I continue to find ways I must grow. This was not a static event, where change happened and all is well. It was an invitation to a life of growth and significance.

One of the pieces that I recognize now is that there are invitations all over the place in my work. I don’t mean just meetings to attend, events to show up to. I mean invitations to grow. I think this is one of the reasons I really love the work I do. I actually have to choose not to grow, if that is what I want. The work naturally forces a progression of thought and ideas. It naturally asks and rewards that growth. You find yourself incredibly aware of your shortcomings, but surprisingly patient in working on them.

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