By Katelyn Olden, a sophomore double majoring in psychology and philosophy
I've volunteered at soup kitchens and homeless shelters. My freshman year in high school I went with my youth group on a mission trip to San Francisco and helped provide sandwiches for homeless people.
But as much as I've enjoyed helping people in need, I realized I still couldn't fully relate. Urban Plunge sounded like a good opportunity to understand more.
My parents were uncomfortable with my involvement at first. But the information SPU provided about the program and the efforts SPU takes to keep the students safe helped. And I think my passion to do this helped them understand its importance.
So on a Friday afternoon in December, we all took the bus downtown. I was grouped with three other SPU students. We got off near Denny Street and – dressed in layers of old clothes and ripped jeans from the Goodwill – began walking around Seattle.
And we walked everywhere! From Capitol Hill to the University District and back to downtown Seattle. You walk to keep warm, to pass the time.
We looked through dumpsters to see what we could find. We took naps in the Seattle Public Library, and spent time on the Internet and reading books. We explored Pike Place Market and got free food and drink samples.
But the most eye-opening experience was "spanging." Spanging is the act of collecting spare change from passersby. It’s a contraction of "spare change." We were curious to see what would happen if we tried this.
What happened was that people wouldn’t give us the time of day. We were downtown during the Christmas season. It was amazing to watch people haul loads of packages and bags around, but they wouldn't look us in the eye. Sometimes we were so hungry and we’d watch people just toss away half-eaten sandwiches, cookies, fruit.
One of the most hurtful realizations was that people didn’t see us as human. Just to have someone smile at us, to say "Hi," and even talk with us would’ve made us feel more human, instead of just part of the scenery.
From that I learned it’s important to dignify people — especially those who are marginalized. It was hard to realize I'd done the same thing to people; that I'd avoided looking at them. But you can’t understand until you are in the situation the youth face and you’re treated as sub-human by society.
I needed to go where the youth are, on their turf, to get to know them and what they go through. As one youth shared with me the night before the program ended, "Through your learning, you can help me." Standing behind a counter handing out food is a good thing. But because of Urban Plunge I'm better able to help them.