Shambhala Sun | May 2013
At New York’s Reciprocity Foundation, homeless youth receive
nourishment for body and mind alike. Founder TAZ TAGORE explains the program’s recipe for success.
Living in New York
City, there is no shortage of joy or suffering. They’re all around
you, on a daily basis. As a practicing Buddhist, I strive to see it all
clearly, but when I arrive at work, that can get very difficult.
I cofounded a
nonprofit called the Reciprocity Foundation, which operates a holistic center
for homeless teenagers on the West Side. Some days, the problems that appear in
front of us loom so large that it’s hard to really take them in.
youth are generally open to change. Some of our students reconnect with their
will to live through yoga classes and meditation retreats. Others awaken their
hearts while making a film, listening to a guest speaker, or simply talking
quietly with a caring adult. Homeless youth are a wonderful population. They
shoulder the consequences of our worst social problems—poverty, drug addiction,
bullying, sexual abuse—and are still willing to open their hearts after as
little as one pro- found interaction with a loving adult.
For the past seven
years we have offered services—both conventional and contemplative—to help
homeless youth realize their potential. Because before they can put effort into
selecting a vocation, a college program, or a career path, they must first wake
up to their own potential. Too many are pushed into school or work before they
feel ready, and that’s risky. When disconnected youth are pushed too far, they
can disengage further, setting off a vicious cycle of isolation.
But for a long time
there was one service we did not offer: meals. Our reasoning was that youth
shelters had it covered, providing three meals a day for residents, and soup
kitchens distributed brown-bag lunches. We
can’t do everything, we told ourselves. We’ll
focus on personal transformation and let other agencies focus on food.
But in 2012, it
seemed that more students than ever were complaining of hunger. How can that
be? We asked them, and the answers were hard to swallow. The food served at
shelters was heavily processed and meager in nutritional value. Sometimes the
food didn’t arrive at all, and when it did, it was often cold or late. Some of
our students developed rashes or digestive problems after a few months on the
“shelter diet.” Others complained of headaches, dizziness, and low energy.
Still, I didn’t think Reciprocity should create a meal program—until I met a
homeless young girl named Jada.
Jada always wore a
scarf around her neck and refused to take off her coat. One day, she told me
she had read Eat, Pray, Love by
Elizabeth Gilbert three times, and wished she could eat what the author ate in
Italy because the food would make her happy. “When I eat,” she explained, “I
usually feel sick or break out in a rash.” She unwrapped her scarf and showed
me the large swath of red pimples that covered her neck. “I have these all over
my body, and now I’m scared to eat at the shelter.”
I needed no further convincing:
it was time to start a healthy vegetarian meal program. We bought a large slow
cooker and began serving homemade vegetarian chilis, soups, and curries to our
homeless students. The meals coincided with our evening programs, so students
were offered sustenance for body and mind alike.
Jada was a bit
suspicious of our vegan concoctions at first. She would ask for a small
portion, take one bite, and then find a reason to rush off to check email.
“This food won’t hurt your body. I promise,” I’d tell her. It was a few weeks
before she would eat a full dinner. “This is good,” she teased, “but I bet the
food is even better in Italy.”
As our vegetarian
meal program began to pick up steam, our students began to “wake up” during
mealtimes. Those who were prone to drift off or send texts during workshops
began to gather around the slow cooker to find out what was in it and how it
was being prepared. Students asked questions about vegetarianism, cooking
techniques, and the varieties of vegetables and spices in the pot.
We invited students
to contemplate their relationship with food. We asked them, How does your body feel when you eat at the
shelter? What do you wish for most at mealtimes? “A home-cooked meal” was
the answer we expected, but what they actually said was much more powerful.
Some students admitted that mealtimes at the shelter provoked “intense
loneliness.” One student said she longed “to eat slowly, rather than wolf down
my food and run into my room.” A group of youths said they wanted to “talk—you
know, really talk” to someone during mealtimes. Jada suggested that we recreate
the Thanksgiving meal in Eat, Pray, Love by giving thanks in turn—even when it
wasn’t a holiday. Homeless youth, we learned, are starved for both meaning and
This fall, we
expanded our food program. Reciprocity now offers the largest vegetarian meal
program for homeless teenagers and young adults in the country. We are
determined to serve food and inspiration, in equal parts, to youth in crisis.
To address the inner hunger our students feel, we designed a ritual inspired by
Jada’s obsession with Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir: After taking a seat at the
Reciprocity farmhouse table, our students reflect on something for which they
are grateful. That might mean giving thanks for a cot at an emergency shelter,
or even expressing gratitude for the profound experience of being homeless.
In my line of work,
compassion can feel like a strong ache. I hear about a homeless youth’s pain
and I want to do something to make it better, so the ache will go away. But the
Buddha taught that compassion should be more than a fleeting impulse. We have
to keep returning to the well of suffering and drink deeply from it. A year
ago, my work at Reciprocity was about trying to fix tiny bits of suffering. Now
I am learning to uncover suffering layer by layer and remain open-hearted, even
as I see that suffering has no end. Sitting with my students’ hunger, I have
learned that it was more vast and complex than I had imagined. But instead of feeling
depressed and overwhelmed, I tried to use this view to inspire a more expansive
Now mealtimes at the Reciprocity Foundation have become
opportunities to nourish and rejuvenate homeless youths’ distracted minds and
broken hearts. Last week, I listened to Jada giving thanks—not because she’d
accomplished her dream of gorging herself in Italy but for her life right here,
in a New York City shelter. After giving thanks, she turned to another student,
and they began to talk openly and honestly about their lives. Their eyes
glistened with hope. At that point, even if the food were to run out, I knew
that it would be okay. Our students would still leave our center feeling full.
Taz Tagore is cofounder of the Reciprocity Foundation and has spent nearly
twenty years volunteering at youth shelters and working with homeless youth in
the U.S., Canada, and India. She lives in New York City, where she tries hard
to practice meditation amid the sound of jackhammers, her homeless students’
phones ringing, and her five-year-old daughter’s endless stream of knock-knock
Photo: Selassie Samuel