“Let me see what I have.” If I had been old enough to speak, never-mind understand what my father was saying, I might have found it intriguing that he was speaking to a group of homeless Iranian “beggars” as they were known.
But I was only eighteen months old that excruciatingly hot day in Tehran. My family and I had moved to Iran six months beforehand for my Dad’s job. With my tiny single finger on each hand, shortened forearms and one-toed feet, I was undeniably different.
My parents were walking home from lunch with me in my baby carriage and my older brother Peter, age three, trying his best to keep up while holding our mother’s hand. It was in that moment that two homeless women approached us with three children, holding out their hands saying what my father must have presumed meant, “spare change?” in Farsi. As he reached into his pockets for any rials, both women waived at Peter and the one who had asked for money then stuck her head into my carriage to see me.
In that moment, she began to point and screech from fright. Before she could take any money from my Dad who had just pulled out several coins, she pulled at her confused friend’s arm to leave. At that point, the friend glanced at me too and then quickly understood the problem and joined her friend running away from me and my family.
To her, I was not only deformed, my difference might even be contagious. Or, even if not the case, my parents quickly learned that most in that region believed that mere exposure to me could bring terrible misfortune to them and their family. I think of the irony, they were homeless and hungry yet I was the unlucky one? But one thing was crystal clear….we had as little insight into their life experience as they had into mine.
On behalf of Don’t Hide It Flaunt It, I am very pleased to announce a new partnership we are establishing with Family Promise, a national non-profit organization dedicated to ending family homelessness.
Founded in my home state of NJ, Family Promise has been part of my family’s priorities for the past several years. We’ve all volunteered or attended benefits for the organization. When I reached out to Claas Ehlers, the Family Promise President, he was enthusiastic about meeting me but didn’t know about my own particularly personal exposure to the issue. As child living in different countries in the Middle East and South Asia I had a recurring experience encountering desperately poor, homeless people. In each of those many events, they pitied me as much as the reverse.
Coincidentally as I began to write this blog, I happened to see an article about the artist Jewel who described her experience as a homeless youth at the SALT conference in Las Vegas. According to Jewel, “I was a homeless kid who was stealing.” She then recalled how people would literally back away from her. “People treated me like I was contagious. They thought the homelessness might spread to them,” she said. Eventually, at 19-years-old, Jewel was discovered “by accident” as she described, when she was singing in bars and coffee shops. She sold 30 million albums, was nominated for four Grammys and landed on the cover of Time — triumphs she never thought would be in the cards for someone with her background.
Likewise in my life, strangers that meet me quickly conclude that my life experience could best be described as unfortunate. They see me simply as someone suffering from a physical disability, whereas I perceive myself differently – as happy, outgoing, social, the girl who loved to sing, dance, play the piano and even the trombone. In my mind, what has made, “me, me” has nothing to do with my physical difference. Unless people remind me of it, I often forget it’s there. It is not a coincidence, therefore, that a primary goal of DHIFI’s mission is to stress self-acceptance and understanding.
So, to prepare for my meeting with Claas, I researched Family Promise to learn more about what motivated its founder, Karen Olson. One day, Olson was rushing to a business meeting and passed a homeless woman named Millie on the street. Her first instinct was to offer Millie a sandwich, which she readily accepted. But Millie yearned for something beyond a temporary curb to her hunger. Millie wanted a chance to be heard—to counter the fact that homelessness carries such a stigma in society, and which generates, in turn, profound feelings of diminished self-worth.
After reading about Olson’s story, I was further convinced that the missions of our two organizations were not only in sync, but could thrive in collaboration. And so, after a couple of hours, two lattes, brainstorming and candid sharing, Claas and I were on the same page. Our organizations have a common purpose—providing people a platform to share their stories and feel dignified in telling them.
Our joint effort will engage the children (ages 5-17) of Family Promise program participants to submit essays or art inspired by the DHIFI theme, “The things that make me different make me me.” The topics of the Family Promise Kid and Teen “flaunts” can range from discussing visible differences, such as height, race, health and unique appearances (birthmarks, eczema, etc) to exploring invisible differences, such as religion, accents, sexuality or anxiety. Questions about submissions can be sent to email@example.com. The contest will run until the end of September. Winners will receive gift cards, be announced during Family Promise’s National Week October 22-29, 2017, and featured on the DHIFI website (www.donthideitfllauntit.com)!
Most importantly, Millie’s story therefore continues to inspire. We at Don’t Hide It Flaunt It are honored to give such a deserving group of people a chance to be heard.