Today my volunteering odyssey brought me to St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, where The Bridge held a training meeting for new vendors. The Bridge is Memphis’ first street paper – it is a monthly paper sold by the homeless or those struggling to not become homeless. Its content is produced by the homeless or formerly homeless, and contributors are paid for their articles and artwork. The Bridge was founded this past March by students at Rhodes College, some of whom also provide additional content for the paper. Each month, the vendors are given 20 free copies of The Bridge, and they can buy additional copies for 25 cents per copy, and issues sell for $1 a copy. Vendors are given incentives for buying additional copies to sell, aside from the profit margin. Depending on the additional number of copies they buy, they receive free bus passes, a canvas bag or a snazzy vest with The Bridge logo on it. The vendors are also given 10 free copies of The Bridge for each friend of theirs they refer to The Bridge who becomes a new vendor. Vendors are given cards with all the essential information about The Bridge to pass on to friends so that they can become vendors too.
St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral, not to be confused with St. Mary’s Catholic Church where I helped out in the soup kitchen on Monday, is a beautiful neo-gothic structure with gorgeous stained-glass windows that reminded me of the many medieval churches I visited during my time living in England. I passed through cathedral itself, admiring the architectural features, on my way to the Parish Hall, where The Bridge holds its training meetings.
The interior of St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral.
On my arrival, I met some of the staff behind The Bridge: James, Monique and Shiven. After helping set up tables and chairs, I sat at a table by the doors to the hall and greeted new vendors as they arrived. I had them give me their name, took their photograph for their badge, and had them answer some questions for a demographic survey. Today we had four new vendors show up for the training session, and I am told that attendance is usually in the single digits. The training meetings happen every Thursday at St. Mary’s Episcopal Cathedral at 1 o’clock.
After getting the names and photographs of everyone, the new vendors were given their training briefing by Roderick, one of the writers for The Bridge who himself endured a decade of homelessness. Roderick explained how The Bridge works and gave some advice on how to be an effective and successful vendor. After Roderick’s briefing, the new vendors were asked to practice their sales pitch on each other. When their practice session was over, I helped distribute copies of The Bridge to the new vendors and returning vendors, keeping track of how many copies each vendor received and any incentives they are owed on a handy Google Docs spreadsheet designed by Shiven.
Michael Garcia helps out The Bridge.
Although they may be in similar circumstances, there was a stark contrast between the vendors I met volunteering for The Bridge and the people I encountered at the soup kitchen, and I don’t know if it was simply the context. The people at the soup kitchen were quiet and solemn. The vendors for The Bridge were very lively, talkative, and eager to tell me their stories. It might be that I had more opportunity to interact with the vendors at The Bridge. One of the new vendors, Margaret, was very inquisitive about how The Bridge works and how she could become a successful vendor. Some of the returning vendors, particularly Mila and Ron, impressed me with their enthusiasm and entrepreneurial vision. Mila had the bright idea to gain commissions from any advertisers she brings to The Bridge. Tony tried very hard to get additional copies of The Bridge for free.
I was particularly affected by a returning vendor named Ron Butler. If I met him somewhere else, I might not have guessed that he was homeless. We had a lengthy conversation together. He told me how his past employment at The Commercial Appeal and the Tri-State Defender is providing valuable experience working for The Bridge. I also learned that he is a musician who loves classical and jazz, he performed in a military band, and while serving in the military he was stationed in Germany. So we had a moment of mutual appreciation for living in Europe. We even exchanged a few words in German. Ron seems to be on his way to getting his life sorted out, and I really hope he succeeds.
One of the aims of The Bridge is to help change society’s perception of the homeless, and my experience there today has definitely changed my perspective. Although I already knew this, I saw first-hand that people become homeless for a variety of reasons. The vendors I met today are motivated to work hard to improve their situation and The Bridge is providing an excellent opportunity for them to do so.
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