Lost and Found

by Brian Gilbert '18
February 15, 2016

Brian is a sophomore studying applied mathematics who has been working with Housing Opportunities for People Everywhere (HOPE) since the start of his freshman year. 

This story is dedicated to the memory of outreach team leader John Freitas. The work he did mattered.

When I first got to Brown, I really had no idea what to do with myself. I was one of the elite group of arbitrarily selected first years who had been awarded a single dorm, and when I shared that fact with my classmates, I was the object of considerable jealousy, which I would encourage by hinting at all kinds of potential intrigue made possible by the absence of a roommate. I’d always end up returning to an empty room. Some nights, just to escape, I’d trek down College Hill and wander through downtown Providence in the darkness. Sometimes I’d pass people getting ready to spend the night on the street, but I felt too sorry for myself to feel sorry for them.

I’d heard whispers of a glorious fountain of information, a gold mine of purposeful leads for the aimless known as Morning Mail. I began to read it. What most caught my eye was a walking tour of Providence sponsored by the Swearer Center. I didn’t know what the Swearer Center was, but I figured a solid geographic orientation might reduce the risk of my midnight strolls ending me up in Boston (or, God forbid, somewhere worse).

I hadn’t gotten the memo, but it turned out the walking tour had a theme: homelessness. It was led by two formerly homeless people who now work as advocates for the Rhode Island’s homeless. They showed us the site of the tent city where they used to live until it was dismantled by order of the city, and various locations where homeless people have tended to congregate since then. To be honest, I don’t remember very well the specifics of the tour. I just remember thinking how much deeper my depression would be if I didn’t have a room, however lonely, to come home to at night, or family to call when I was feeling scared, or a practically unlimited food supply at my fingertips any time I felt the slightest hunger.

I started volunteering with HOPE right away as an outreach worker, surveying Providence at night to ensure the safety of the homeless population.  At the end of my first night out, as I was getting ready to hike back up the hill, my team leader declared, “Remember, the work you do matters.” I’ve never been comfortable with self-congratulation, and I nodded awkwardly as I walked off.

I soon discovered that my team leader would close every outing with those words, and eventually they began to sink in. They became something of mantra for me, a thought to cling to when I felt like I had no reason to be here. For a while, it was my biggest motivation to stay at Brown, and now my friends and I are very glad that I did. These days as a leader of HOPE, I sometimes remind my volunteers that community service is not about you-- but it is far from self-sacrificing.