The Kindness of Strangers: Helping the Homeless
Read how one act of kindness changed the lives of two students forever
By Beth Levine and Marti Attoun
Fourteen years ago, as Kirsten Lodal, then a 19-year-old college student in New Haven, CT, and her friend Brian Kreiter walked out of a pizza parlor, a homeless man approached them, asking for change. Instead of simply ignoring him, as many others might, they struck up a conversation and listened to his story.
Estranged from his family, “Wimpy,” as he called himself, had lost his job, his home and his way. “He said he wasn’t used to being treated with kindness and that no one had ever asked him about his hopes and dreams,” says Kirsten. “I was so moved. All I could think was, How did he end up here?” She and Brian decided to help Wimpy the best way they knew how: by working with him to find a job. Over the next few weeks, the two met with Wimpy at coffee shops and on campus, and wrote his résumé. Wimpy was visibly touched as he read it, remembers Kirsten. “Perhaps it finally allowed him to see himself for the person of worth he truly is,” she says. Kirsten and Brian continued to work with Wimpy until he ultimately landed a job at a painting company. “To think that something as simple as treating him with kindness could be so powerful to him. That was the tipping point for me,” says Kirsten, who had been doing volunteer work for years. “I knew then that I had to make helping others my life’s work.”
The following year, inspired by the experience, Kirsten and Brian started LIFT, a nonprofit center where people in need can receive free assistance finding jobs, securing affordable housing, getting public benefits and connecting with other social service agencies. “There are many services for low-income, struggling people like Wimpy. They simply don’t know how to access these services,” she says. “They’re too intimidated, frightened or beaten down. The world is hard for all of us to navigate, but when you’re one crisis away from falling off the cliff, it’s especially hard.” She and Brian sought advice from community leaders, social service providers and policy experts, secured space at a local YMCA, and used grant money to get the organization off the ground. “We just ran with it,” she says.
Word spread about the new center, and it soon became such a success that after graduating, Kirsten and Brian set up centers in five other cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, DC (where Kirsten now lives with her husband and their 16-month-old daughter), with another center currently underway in Los Angeles. Although Brian is no longer directly involved with LIFT, except as an advisor, Kirsten still leads the nonprofit as CEO, and to date the group has helped 50,000 people onto a path out of poverty. “My mother always taught me from a very young age that we’re all in this together and we have to look out for each other,” says Kirsten. “That’s the lesson I want to pass on to my daughter.”
To learn more about LIFT, go to LIFTCommunities.org.
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