Profiles of Virtue: A Volunteer

The following is the first installment in a new series profiling the good works of everyday humanists.

“Exhilarating” is how humanist activist Doreen Saferstein describes her experience creating an interactive poetry program for homeless youth in Phoenix, Arizona.

“When I volunteer, I engage in ‘the exhilaration and vulnerability of learning something new,'” Doreen continues, quoting the sociologist Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a winner of the prestigious MacArthur Prize.

A retired teacher, Doreen is a member of the Humanist Society of Greater Phoenix (HSGP) and the American Humanist Association. In recent years, HSGP has supported HomeBase Youth Service, a non-profit, non-sectarian organization that teaches life skills to at-risk youth in Phoenix. “You are valued; you are worthy of respect; you are welcomed here,” are the three key messages of the organization’s outreach.

Doreen herself was seeking to be welcomed. “As you get older,” she says, “you don’t feel your services are as valued as those of your younger counterparts.” She approached the staff members at HomeBase Youth Services several times about her proposed poetry project, and finally won them over by hearkening to the national poetry project of Billy Collins, “Poetry 180, A Poem A Day for American High Schools.” The poems selected for Collins’ project were meant to “inspire and make us think about what it means to be a member of the human race.”

Like Collins, Doreen wanted to select a variety of poems that spoke to different subjects. She hoped students would hear the music of the poetry and sense its beauty.

“These young people come into the HomeBase Youth program trying to clean up their lives, and they come with a full plate of concerns as well,” Doreen comments. “They want to know about the benefits of rejoining society. I provide poetry or prose that might reflect their search for a different and meaningful transition from the streets to a structured life.”

For nearly two years, Doreen has met monthly with up to a half-dozen youth, teenagers around 17 years old. She reads poems aloud, or sometimes incorporates imaginative exercises, such as having the students create “What’s it like?” metaphors. “I will ask the students, ‘What is it like to be homeless? Is it like carrying a load on your back?'”

“These kids do come in carrying such loads,” Doreen continues, “and they are so vulnerable. But poetry is forgiving. It can be interpreted in many ways. It seems to me that a democratic society can’t work without these literary windows.”

To stir even greater interest, Doreen showed the film “Freedom Writers,” starring Hilary Swank and based on the book Freedom Writers: How a Teacher and 150 Teens Used Writing to Change Themselves and the World Around Them, by Erin Gruwell and the Freedom Writers. She has worked (along with others) to bring in performances that would resonate with youth, including a rap artist and a black theater troupe performing Hamlet in modern wording.

Her volunteer activity does come with a few caveats. For example, she purposely avoids speaking about her humanist views on religion. HomeBase Youth Services is, after all, non-sectarian. In two years, she has never heard a student say “I’m an atheist,” but she also admits, “I just don’t go there. I don’t want to raise any alarm.” She will, however, introduce work by poets who were critical of Christianity, such as e.e. cummings. She encourages students to keep journals about their experiences with poetry.

Another caveat is student turnover. These teens are busy looking for jobs or working on their GEDs, and so Doreen has become realistic about the limitations of her poetry project. “I can’t make demands on these kids,” she says, “with one exception–asking them to turn off their cell phones.”

Despite problems, Doreen has reaped enormous benefits from her volunteerism. “My association with HomeBase Youth Service has broadened my love for poetry, as well as been a way to connect with youth who have experienced life strewn with potholes. These young women and men have much to say and poetry might become their voice.” She recalls that Jay Wright’s poem “The Healing Improvisation of Hair” connected with many of her students: “I carried my life, like a stone/in a ragged pocket, but I/had a true weaving song, a sly/way with rhythm, a healing tone.”

“Surely,” she says, “writing or reading poetry can be a productive way to channel creative energy.”