"You're only one bad decision away from being homeless," said Steve Thomas, also known as Better-Believe-Steve, told the mostly student audience last month on the Penn State Abington campus. "Be careful of the choices you make and be careful of the company you keep."
Thomas lived on the streets of Washington, D.C., for more than a year and attributes his experience with homelessness to the addictive powers of drugs, specifically, crack-cocaine.
"It took 30 seconds to try it. It took 30 years to get off of it," he said of his drug addiction.
Thomas mesmerized the audience for more than an hour with his life's story: from having it all and living large to losing it all due to a drug and alcohol addiction. He attributes his drug and alcohol recovery, and new lease-on-life, to a volunteer who reached out to him one cold night and steered him to a recovery community.
"I prayed for God to cover up the hole I had been digging for myself all my life. But instead of burying me, he planted me."
Today, Thomas is one of the most requested speakers at The National Coalition for the Homeless. Continuing to pay it forward, Thomas is the executive director of his own nonprofit homeless organization called S.T.E.V.E.--Striving To End Vagrancy/Homelessness Everywhere.
Sharing the stage with Thomas during his talk to the Abington campus were about 10 Penn State Abington students who had met Better-Believe-Steve in D.C. during their alternative spring break service (ASB) trip and invited him back to campus to speak to the student body. These ASB students spent the week in Washington, D.C. feeding the homeless and living in a hostel.
Brianda Freistat, a sophomore studying political science, was on the trip, and said the group regularly worked from 6:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. These individuals didn't know each other well at the beginning of the trip, but now consider each other family.
Working with several homeless organizations such as SOME (So Others Might Eat) and Martha's Table, the group pitched-in wherever needed from setting-up tables and wiping down trays to restocking shelves, assembling brownies and prepping and serving food. By the end of the week, Freistat described the experience as "life-altering for [us] all."
"We've all been changed. Our attitudes have changed. Homeless people were drug addicts, lazy people, scary people, smelly people at the beginning of the week. They're now just regular people to us," she said. "We've been through some experiences that made us uncomfortable and have stretched us to our limits. Not only our physical limits, such as fatigue, sickness and lack of space, but through our emotions. This has changed us for the better. It has given (service newcomers) the spark in their hearts to begin the fire of giving back. For us veterans with service, it has added fuel to our burning passions. Everyone knows that when you're first affected by service, you don't leave it. It stays with you for life. But that doesn't mean that giving back isn't tiring, or thankless and hard. We need these experiences too, to keep our fires from burning out."
Just ask Thomas, who said he represents just how invaluable volunteers can be to those in need. Now clean and sober for more than two years, he is no longer homeless, "because someone volunteered their time to help those less fortunate than themselves; because someone took the time to help me," he said.
To read the student blogs written during ASB and see photos of the service trip go to http://bjf5131.livejournal.com/ online.