Ashley Yong shares the founding of Give A Box, actionable altruism and the importance of encouragement and relationship building within student affairs at the ACUI Annual 2018 Conference in Anaheim, CA.
I was born and raised in a suburb near Chicago. I lived a very sheltered life in my comfortable, middle-class, white suburban neighborhood. Whenever my family would take a trip into the city, we would come across homeless people on every corner. Growing up all my life I would hear things like,
“Don’t make eye contact.”
“If you give them money they’ll spend it on drugs and alcohol.”
“If they got a job and stopped sitting around all day they wouldn’t be homeless.”
I grew up learning to dehumanize people. I grew up learning to suppress compassion. But I didn’t let that ingrained bias and society’s view of homelessness stop me from taking personal responsibility.
So, just three years ago, I was a 17-year-old senior in high school. Around December, everyone was getting excited for prom, shopping for dresses and booking hair appointments. One night I was sitting in my room procrastinating homework and on a YouTube binge. I came across a video of someone giving Thanksgiving dinners to the homeless in Los Angeles. That video was the push I needed to decide to ditch my prom to help the homeless.
Immediately I started making a list of things homeless people often need. I set my plan into motion of how I was going to sacrifice a night of fun to serve people in my community. So $200 and a few months later, my father and I drove into downtown Chicago with 20 cardboard boxes scattered on the floor of our minivan. It was one of the most exhilarating times of my life.
So what you just saw was a shortened version of the video that I posted on YouTube after prom.
Before I knew it, Ashton Kutcher and Nicki Minaj posted about me. I was on news networks in Japan, Mexico and Ireland. Eventually I had raised over $6200 on GoFundMe. I was getting Facebook messages and emails from all over the world from people telling me that I inspired them and that they were going to start creating care packages for the homeless in their communities.
With all the momentum, I started Give A Box: a nonprofit organization dedicated to packaging and distributing boxes of food, clothes and supplies to homeless people. To date with the help of many volunteers, we’ve served more than 500 homeless men, women and children across the country.
I named the organization Give A Box because it’s simple, and giving is simple. Being an active citizen in our communities and our spaces is simple.
Now, I know you’re probably wondering why I’m here speaking about homelessness at a college unions conference and how this all ties into the larger scope of student affairs. But it’s all connected quite simply. At its root, student affairs, like Give A Box, sees a need in a community, cares about that need and takes action.
So to really drive my point home, I did some research. I surveyed 50 students and professionals working in student affairs, most of whom are here in the audience. I asked two questions: (1) “What is something you have done or would feel comfortable doing to help a homeless person” and (2) “Think back to your first day of university or first day on the job. What is something someone did for you to make you feel a part of the community and to feel loved?
To organize the responses, here are a few categories of things I would personally consider to be necessary for a happy, successful life.
I then put each response into the category it best fit. Here are the results for question 1. So as you can see, what most people are comfortable giving is material things. Some of the answers included care packages, hot meals, clothes and so on.
Here are the results for the second question. As you can see there’s a large shift toward the relationship category. Some of those responses include “invited me to eat with them,” “introduced me to new people,” and “they became my friend.”
This is an activity that we often do before Give A Box events and the results are very similar every time, across ages, ethnic groups and religions. The whole point is to really understand that yes, while we are giving food, supplies and other necessities, it’s really the relationships that we build with the people we give to that inspires hope. That enhances lives. That make them feel like they matter. And this is no different in the lives of those around us.
The relationships that you build in your unions back home have a far reaching impact you may not even see. Your work in this field is quite often thankless, yet you understand your role and continue to create a culture of caring, and that is a huge reason I fell in love with student affairs. Like probably many of you, I didn’t know student affairs was even a career option. Yet it was at this conference one year ago that I fell in love with it, because I saw how passionate all of you are in wanting to create a campus that addresses all types of needs. And that’s really what I’m here to talk about today - the importance of building relationships in your community.
It all starts with empathy. Acts of kindness to help others understand we care about them. What does empathy look like, and how can we make tangible changes to our lives to incorporate it?
Well I was in downtown Philadelphia this time last year for the annual ACUI conference. If you were there too or you’ve ever been to Philly, you know there’s homeless people everywhere. I saw a homeless woman who looked like she couldn’t have been much older than me. She held a sign that said, “Anything helps, even a smile.”
What does it take for you to smile at a person? A second out of your day? Well you’ve got 86,400 of those every single day. I know, you can spare a second.
See, I want you to understand that giving and caring come in many different forms. You can give your attention. You can give your time and effort. You can give your encouragement. See, don’t get this wrong: giving isn’t about how much money you can donate. Giving is about how much of your day, of your life, you are willing to sacrifice for another person on this earth, another student on your campus. All the successes in my life have come from someone giving me hope or affirmation or friendship. You alone can change someone’s life, but you first have to believe you can.
You are in an incredibly unique position to be able to interact with students every day in your roles on campus. So I want to share with you what you can be doing to be a part of this movement towards empathetic giving.
Let’s start with encouragement.
As my prom story was being shared more and more online, comments poured in criticizing what I was doing because I wanted attention or I couldn’t get a prom date.
There was one thing that kept me going as I received hate mail online. It was a letter I received from a 5th grader with special needs. Jordan wrote, “You should keep helping people that are poor. Don’t let what people say stop you.”
There will be trials and tests and tribulations and everything in between. Encouragement is what gets us through it.
Encouragement is vital for countering imposter syndrome, which is very real at my age. We have been lied to, that we’re too young to do this or too naive to know that and we’ve been believing those lies for far too long. I had no idea how to run a nonprofit. But I didn’t let this hinder me or stifle my passion, because I knew my mission and I knew I cared and ultimately there were others there to support me.
I want to take minute to encourage you all. There’s an old greek proverb that I love that says “A society grows when an old man plants a tree whose shade he knows he will never sit in.” And as a field of student affairs that’s something we do on a daily basis. So as you work tirelessly for your students, your peers and your university, I hope that you remember that though you may not reap the rewards of your actions, there are rewards nonetheless.
My other piece of advice is to get your hands dirty. When you care about something, dive into it. Learn as much as you can about it. In this time of online credit card donations and Twitter hashtag campaigns, it is important now more than ever that we truly understand the people or cause to which we are giving. That’s why in each box Give A Box donates, we include a handwritten letter from a volunteer. People often don’t know what to write. And I ask them to imagine themselves in the same situation, and write what they would need to hear to remain hopeful. That is empathy. That is caring.
I want to close with a quote from this homeless man in Chicago. "When you feel like giving up, think of me. Think of me because even when you think you have nothing, you have something—your heart. That's something no one can take away.”