Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Reading and Remembering on Memorial Day

Wow.  Rarely has the A section of The Washington Post been such a roller coaster of emotion for me.  

Two front page articles had me in tears.  One took me by surprise with its goodness--the last place one expects to find good news, after all, is the front page of a newspaper.  “Honoring the dead to treat the living” by Lena Sun was the story of a ceremony honoring the families of dead people whose organs were donated to research.  The Georgetown University medical students carried candles creating a ribbon of light, and the ceremony celebrated the priceless contribution of both the dead and their loved ones.  The author interviewed relatives about the difficult decision to donate, and medical students about their respect for the people whose organs they had explored in anatomy lab. The beauty of it took my breath away.

The second article brought tears to my eyes, but this time tears of despair. “Homeless,not helpless” by Annie Gowen was at first glance an uplifting article about a once-homeless vet, Jas Boothe, who purchased a house in the Northern Virginia suburbs as a shelter for homeless female vets and their children. I am, as readers of this blog know, frequently and vocally in awe of the power of one individual to make a difference. But in this case that awe was overwhelmed by the dread that this house was a drop in the bucket of a problem that is a disgrace by its very existence, which is that we aren’t taking proper care of our vets who have served our country so bravely.  One of the issues is that many of the shelters created to support vets don’t accommodate children.

I have known about the link between homelessness and mental illness in war vets since the Vietnam vets of my generation, but heretofore only really made the connection regarding male vets.  I’m sure it’s not that every war hasn’t had female vets shattered just has badly of course, and I’ve read several stirring and disturbing books by female veterans, but this article brought these women, right now, in my community, to light.  Gowen writes, “Although the overall number of homeless veterans declined 12 percent between 2010 and 2011, the number of homeless female veterans is increasing, the VA said in a draft report this month. Women are the fastest-growing segment of the homeless veteran population.”  Gowen also shares the VA’s acknowledgement that female vets “are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems and to have suffered sexual trauma during their military service” (though the author doesn’t say whether the VA report notes the further horror that some of that is at the hands of their fellow American soldiers).

I set down the newspaper for a while, deeply disturbed and wondering how I could help this cause (which turns out to be through Final Salute, whose mission is to help homeless female veterans with safe and suitable housing).

When I returned to the A section a bit later it was another piece of good news that caught my eye—and sent me down Memory Lane.  I squealed at the first sentence of Olga Khazan’s “Kickstarter spies asunglass start-up” article as a familiar name jumped out.  Vincent Ko, one of my son’s best friends since elementary school, who he’d roomed with in DC most recently last summer, had a vision and is making it a reality.  The entrepreneurial 24-year-old used crowdsourcing to fund his startup selling sunglasses made of bamboo.  And if that’s not cool enough, he’s taken inspiration from the model of TOMS Shoes, which for every pair sold donates a pair of shoes to the needy.  Vincent and his co-founders have partnered with an organization that for every pair of Panda sunglasses sold provides an eye exam and eyeglasses to someone in need in India, Colombia or Argentina.

I read with growing excitement (the sunglasses will be selling in Urban Outfitters and Anthropologie, and sales have already been responsible for more than a thousand eye exams), as puffed up with pride as if Vincent were my own. I did, after all, offer food and shelter to him and the rest of the bright bunch of tots-turned-teens that formed my son’s posse for so many years, and toted them to middle school dances and skating packed tightly in their gangly glory of pre-adolescence in my car, whose moon roof I had to open to let out the competing colognes. 

I finish reading the newspaper feeling a sense of connection to my community and the world, optimism that there is still a place for good writing and that journalists can be voices for change, and, after all, inspiration at the power of one individual to make a difference.  

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