21 days of love
What if everyone celebrated their birthday by giving back to others, for 21 days in a row?
I DON'T MUCH remember my 21st birthday.
Like a lot of brand-new grownups, I celebrated in a stupor. I wish I had observed my entrance to adulthood as thoughtfully as Lorae Bonamy is observing hers:
By spending 21 days getting to know and help the homeless. Her "21 Days of Love" campaign kicked off on Dec. 4, her birthday, and concludes tomorrow, Christmas Day.
"Your 21st birthday is all about putting attention on yourself," says Bonamy, a junior communications major at Temple University. "I thought, 'I get plenty of attention in my life. What if I spent 21 days paying attention to others?' "
Yes, she really said this.
Bonamy launched her campaign when other birthday plans proved too pricey. Surely there was a way to make this birthday special, to show the world the kind of adult she intended to be.
So she took a closer look at the person she already was: a young woman, raised in comfort, whose heart broke when she moved into the city for college and saw people living on the street. Their despair, which many of us longtime urban dwellers have stopped seeing, hit her with urgency.
"It was a shock," says Bonamy, who had enjoyed a lovely childhood in the tiny Delco borough of Rutledge, where she'd never even seen a panhandler. In Philly, when street people asked for cash, Bonamy says she gave freely.
"My friends said, 'Why are you giving that guy money? What if he spends it on drugs?' I said, 'What if he doesn't? What if he's really hungry?' I was hurt by their coldness."
So she decided to spend the 21 days after her milestone birthday filling 21 reusable tote bags with 21 items to help 21 homeless people get through their day - hats, socks, gloves, toiletries, ChapStick, SEPTA tokens, granola bars. To stock the bags, she held a benefit to raise awareness of homelessness.
Cost of admission: two items per person, for the bags.
She found party space at Old Pine Community Center in Society Hill, talked a sweet caterer into donating the food and found a bartender to pour for free. "I paid for the alcohol," she said.
Enough items were donated to fill 50 bags. But Bonamy wanted to do more than help 21 people. She wanted friends and family to better understand the plight of those she'd help. So she enlisted Project HOME's education specialist, Heather Bargeron, and a former homeless man, Reggie Young, to organize a talk about homelessness.
Says Bargeron, "The solution to homelessness lies within all of us. What Lorae is doing can create a ripple effect that helps people see, with fresh eyes, that this issue is shocking and scandalous. The heart is moved by that."
Even so, Bonamy says, we mustn't forget that the homeless, like all of us, are in God's hands. So last week, she, her aunt and two cousins held a two-hour prayer vigil at 15th and Market. They invited passers-by to pray with them for the well-being of those without shelter.
"I am so awed that God put it on Lorae's heart to do this," said her cousin Stasia Gray. "She's a very special young woman."
By Sunday, Bonamy was ready to give away her bags. One of her first recipients was Tory Graham, on the street for eight years, who was panhandling on 15th Street near Market. He shivered on the sidewalk as Bonamy handed him the tote bag of supplies.
"It's desolate out here," Graham said as he tugged on the hat and gloves he found in the bag. "This is a blessing."
In the Suburban Station concourse, Bonamy befriended Edith, an older woman who stays at her sister's house but has no money for food or a warm coat.
"This is beautiful," she said, opening the Ritz Bits she found in the tote Bonamy handed her.
When four young men - Andrew, Joaquin, Belo and Joe - saw that Bonamy was handing out bags, they hurried to her.
"This is nice. A lot of people get down on the homeless. They judge," said Belo, who has been homeless, off and on, since childhood. "People should sleep outside for one day, to see what we experience. They'd never survive."
Tomorrow, Bonamy will end her campaign by serving Christmas breakfast at the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission on 13th Street near Race. She will be joined by her mother, Lorraine Bonamy, and others inspired by her project.
"I'm so proud of her," says her mom. "Her project has changed me. I used to give money to street people but I wouldn't always talk to them. Now I do. And I find myself wondering what else I can do to help them."
Imagine what the world would look like if we all paid attention to others, for 21 straight days, in honor of our own birthdays. Imagine how connected to the world we'd feel by the end of those three weeks, how connected we'd feel to the best part of ourselves - the part that says we are so abundantly cared for that we have more than enough to give.
I bet every day would feel like Christmas.
To read more about Lorae Bonamy, go to 21daysoflove.org.
On Twitter: @RonniePhilly