by Allison Toy
It was a warm afternoon when I applied to volunteer at The Cove, a new nonprofit serving homeless youth in town. A young woman welcomed me in, and I told her I’d read an article about the Cove while I was living in Cambodia for a few months. I told her I was passionate about working with at-risk students. I told her my schedule was super flexible.
I didn’t tell her I was majorly struggling to adjust back to American culture. I didn’t tell her I was broke and very broken as I grieved the community I’d left in Cambodia and the community I expected to return to in Waco. (I had not yet learned moving back to a city is much more difficult than moving to a brand new one.)
She told me the students would come after school for a few hours, receive help with homework, meet with counselors and social workers, and enjoy a family-style dinner. Each evening, they would be dropped off wherever they were staying at the time. She gave me a tour of the facility, showing me the washer and dryer, shower, offices, and kitchen.
With both hesitation and eager anticipation, I showed up at The Cove to meet the students, hauling all my brokenness and depression through the door with me.
Week after week, hour by hour, I came to know these students and love them. Each student was unique, but they had something in common: they knew they could use some help. There was no pretending to have it all together.
Their honesty and openness about life was refreshing. Because of this, I related to them more deeply than I related to anyone else in the city. Because of this, I began to find healing in the midst of life’s difficulties.
I showed up broken and needy, just like they did. They didn’t know I didn’t have a washer or dryer either. They didn’t know I, too, was deeply grateful for the dinner at The Cove because that was one more meal I didn’t have to worry about. They didn’t know I often went to counseling and worked through trauma the same day they did at The Cove.
They didn’t know exactly how deeply I identified with them, but I think they knew I didn’t view myself as above them. I think that made a difference.
When I showed up at The Cove back then—and when I show up today, there are no defined “giver” and “taker” roles, no labels of “needy” and “affluent.” I give my support and knowledge of homework and jobs, and they give me nights full of laughter.
One evening, I kept hearing students use the word “boomgang.” Feeling dated and out of the loop, I finally stopped one of the students passing by.
“What does ‘boomgang’ mean?” I asked.
“Oh, Miss,” she said, “you don’t know what ‘boomgang’ is? I’ll show you!”
She glanced mischievously at a fellow student who was sitting on the couch across from me and then proceeded to grab the shoe off of his foot and run into the other room.
“Boomgang!” she yelled, laughing hysterically. “I just boomganged him!”
“Sooo…it means taking someone’s shoe?” I was still utterly confused.
“Nah, Miss, it means taking someone’s stuff,” the now one-shoed student explained before hollering, “Give me back my shoe!!!”
In the end, I ensured the shoe was given back, but I never forgot this experience. It encompassed the essence of the choices we made regularly at The Cove. When situations begin as confusion and chaos, we choose to come together, learn from each other, and engage in raucous laughter as often as possible.
“When situations begin as confusion and chaos, we choose to come together, learn from each other, and engage in raucous laughter as often as possible.”
The other volunteers and I have built friendships, too. Serving together often creates family among the most unlikely people. We discuss memorable experiences with students, our weeks and our families and our work.
Once, during a holiday party for the community, I gave tours and bragged on the facility, the washer and dryer and counseling office and shower. But most of all, I bragged on the students. They exhibit a resilience we could all learn from and a willingness to extend grace to others, messiness and all.
It’s been over a year since then, but my night at The Cove is still one of the highlights of my week. I’m not broke anymore (well, at least not all the time), and I’ve found deep friendships, mental health recovery, and community in Waco once more. But I’ll never forget the volunteers and the students who welcomed me with open arms.
I wasn’t a student, but I needed a cove to hide in, a shelter from the storms of life. I wasn’t physically homeless, but my heart was. The Cove showed me my need and then met that need, and my heart found a home among the homeless.