This photo makes me queasy.
And not just because it shows a woman having a seizure. That was two weekends ago, and I’m still not sure the photo should’ve been shot at all.
Of course, I’m not too torn up about it, or I wouldn’t have just posted it.
The woman is a resident at the Homeless Voice Shelter in Hollywood, Florida. Her seizure happened only minutes after 21 college journalists arrived for dinner. They were the staff for Will Write For Food, an annual program that lets students run the nation’s second-largest homeless newspaper over Labor Day weekend.
As they ate with residents in the windowless cafeteria – chicken breast, mashed potatoes, green beans, and baked beans – the woman was seizing outside the shelter’s front door only a few feet away.
One of the student photographers ran outside and burned frames.
Emily Evans was queasy, too.
Evans is the news editor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s newspaper. She admitted to me…
The weeks leading up to WWFF13, I was really struggling with the idea that I would be attending this program and taking advantage of the misfortunes of others for my own benefit. I was very much conflicted with the idea of exploiting the homeless at the shelter.
I told Evans and all the students…
You’re not better than they are. You’re just better off than they are.
So is Will Write For Food exploiting the homeless? Only if the students want it to. Because with one exception, I refuse to tell them what to do. And that’s proven as controversial as photos like the one atop this post.
Adults are always queasy about WWFF.
They’re shocked that the students decide everything that happens both in print and online. The dozen advisers truly advise.
Every year, at least one student cries – either at what they see in the shelter or from the stress of churning out so much journalism in 36 mostly sleepless hours.
They argue with each other on deadline, they suffer manic episodes of self-doubt, and they slam their fists in frustration on the folding tables in our makeshift newsroom (a storage space cleaned out for the weekend).
Over the years, an SPJ president has told me this program is “too unstructured” to be educational, and professors have told me it’s “too brutal” on the delicate psyches of fragile college students. This year, a father refused to let his sophomore daughter come to WWFF13 – only hours before it began.
Yet we always get 2-3 times more applicants than we can fit. So we must be doing something right by doing nothing at all.
To quote Emily Evans again, who echoes what I hear from many WWFF alumni…
I want to be a respected person who’s taken seriously, and I think most of the students at WWFF13 wanted something similar. But how can we achieve that if we aren’t challenged? How can I be the person I want when I’m babied through everything? I can’t be shielded and then expect those around me to trust me to make the right decision. The advisers at WWFF13 let us make our own decisions and our own mistakes. I was and I am so incredibly grateful to be taken seriously and treated like an adult. I’ve never been more proud of my work, and I’ve never been so impressed with the people I worked with.
“In the end,” Evans says, “it was all about telling a story.”
Read her story and those of her fellow WWFF13ers on their hastily built website. And here’s a story about their stories, shot by WWFF12 alum Dylan Bouscher…
The only rule I insist the students follow? “Wash your hands.” Or they could contract MRSA.
While that’s another reason for adults to hate WWFF, no one’s gotten sick yet. But there’s always next year. If you’re still gonna be a college student on Labor Day 2014, piss off an old person by applying here.