I work with homeless and at-risk youth. I’ve been doing it for 42 years, the first few decades in or around New York City but for the last 20 years in Vermont. I’m an executive director, a role which entails much time and energy attending to budgeting, fundraising, and strategic planning.
But I commit myself to cook dinner for the youth in our Drop-in Center once a month as well as breakfast for the 16 who reside in our shelter. I view it as a sort of spiritual discipline, a way to ground myself in what’s important. It’s where I get to interact with our staff so I better understand who they are and what their work life is about, and they get to know me as more than the name on the bottom right hand corner of their paycheck. It also gives me a chance to interact with some of our young people.
It was during one such evening meal that I met Ben, a 19-year-old living in one of our residences. We just started talking one night, probably about sports or something mundane, and the next time I was making dinner we picked it back up. Several times in our conversation he mentioned “my church.” I am Catholic but the nonprofit at which I work, Spectrum Youth & Family Services, is nonsectarian, so I make it a point not to bring up religion. But by the third time he mentioned, “my church,” I had to ask, “Which church is this? Which denomination?” That’s when he told me he was attending services at the nearby University of Vermont Catholic Center, was undergoing the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, and in fact would be baptized and receive the sacraments at the upcoming Easter Vigil.
“Would it be okay for me to come to that?” I asked, and he immediately replied yes.
A few weeks later I attended the Vigil; Ben’s case manager from Spectrum attended as well. The latter was not a Catholic, and I myself had actually never been to an Easter Vigil. An hour in, the case manager turned to me and asked, “How much longer does this go on?”
“I’m not sure,” I replied, “but we’ve only gotten to Baptism. We still have two other sacraments to go.”
I stayed and there was a reception at the end for Ben and the others. I asked him which name he had picked for Confirmation.
“Augustine,” he replied. “I feel like I can identify with him and how he changed his life.”
Eventually Ben moved out of Spectrum and into his own apartment nearby and we kept in touch, getting together for lunch once or twice a year. He always had a good work ethic, but it was always at a minimum wage job such as McDonald’s or another fast-food place. But I knew he had an affinity for repairing cars, so during one of our lunches I encouraged him to consider enrolling in the auto tech program at Vermont Technical College. I offered to go with him to check it out.
He called me a few weeks later and agreed to at least go and see the college. I picked him up, we made the one-hour trip there, toured the campus and met the person in charge of the auto program. I asked this man, “What is the job placement rate for those graduating from here?”
“It’s a two-year associate’s degree program,” he replied, “and the job placement rate is 100% and at a very good starting salary.”
We headed back home and when I dropped Ben off he turned to me as he exited the car and said, “Thank you for doing this. I’m not used to people doing nice things for me.”
My immediate reaction was that I am very used to people doing nice things for me: my parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, priests, nuns, work supervisors I have had. My reality is that people have been doing nice things for me my entire life. But that has not been true for Ben. And I doubt it is true for the majority of young people coming to Spectrum for help.
Ben did apply to college, was accepted and received generous financial aid. There were high points and low points during the next few years there, but in May 2018 he was scheduled to graduate. I took him out for breakfast one week before, and just as he had when exiting my car a few years earlier, said something I will never forget: “I am the first male in my family not to be serving a long-term prison sentence. My grandfather killed a man. My father stole cars for a living. My brother is serving time in a prison right now. And I am graduating from college next week.”
I was there for his graduation a week later, as was one other Spectrum staff member. And there was one other person as well, a priest Ben knew from the Catholic Center. We were the family there for him to celebrate his well-earned associates degree.
My advice to him after that was, “You earned your degree, now you can go get your above-minimum-wage job,” to which he replied, “I will do that, but I also want to go on and earn my bachelor’s degree in business.” He did exactly that and was even selected to give the commencement speech at graduation.
Ben moved from Vermont to upstate New York. We text and occasionally call, and he never fails to send me a Christmas card. In his last one, he wrote, “This year has been full of surprises and things are going well. Having two college degrees under my belt is starting to pay off. I cannot begin to thank you enough Mark for your intervention all those years ago as it seems like a lifetime ago, like it happened to someone else almost. I hope you and your family enjoy the peace and tranquility that I myself have found this year.”
It’s a card I will treasure and keep forever, and his phrase, “like it happened to someone else almost,” is one that really struck me and still does. It’s hard for me to imagine someone’s life changing so dramatically for the better that the person has to remind themselves that it is actually them who has undergone such a transition.
There is a passage in St. John’s Gospel shortly before the Passion in which Jesus says, “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends….” I never called nor considered Ben or any of the young people at Spectrum a “servant.” The term we use in my field is “client,” a term I do not like and in fact rarely use myself. (Advertising firms have clients, not human service organizations, but I digress.)
But that is now how I regard Ben, as a friend. I’m proud of what he has accomplished against some very steep odds. But even more, I am just grateful to have his friendship, both now and hopefully for the rest of my life.
Mark Redmond is the author of Called: A Memoir.
Mark Redmond has worked in the field of caring for homeless and at-risk youth for over 42 years, starting as a member of the Covenant House faith community in 1981. He is presently executive director of Spectrum Youth & Family Services in Burlington, Vermont.
He has published columns in Forbes, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Commonweal, The National Catholic Reporter and America. He is also a storyteller. His story “This Church” was on The Moth Radio Hour and podcast, and he has had stories on other podcasts such as The Lapse, Family Secrets, The Goodness Exchange, Outside the Walls and Risk! A story he told for WGBH’s Stories from the Stage played on most public television stations around the United States, and his one-person show on Broadway, So Shines a Good Deed, premiered in October 2019. Six days later his one-person show The Moustache Diaries premiered at The Flynn Space in Burlington. He has performed on stage in Boston, Brooklyn, Montreal and Burlington.
His first book, The Goodness Within: Reaching out to Troubled Teens with Love and Compassion (Paulist Press) was published in 2003 and his latest book, Called: A Memoir (Onion River Press) came out in May 2021.
Mark graduated from Villanova University in 1979 and from New York University with a masters in 1986.
Mark lives in Essex, Vermont with his wife Marybeth and son Liam who is a junior at the University of Notre Dame.