Chapter to Sponsor Acclaimed ‘Will Write For Food’ Program
In 2009, SPJ South Florida took a risk by sponsoring the inaugural Will Write For Food program. Held during our Region 3 Conference in Hollywood, the program took students who traveled from across the state and put them in the COSAC Homeless Shelter newsroom where the Homeless Voice is produced. Students wrote, recorded, edited, copy- edited, and designed an entire issue of the second-largest homeless newspaper in the country. See what they did last year.
Now beginning its third year, nearly half the board will be serving as advisers of the program while our chapter will also sponsor. Read below what they have to say about Will Write For Food….
Last year I helped two sophomore journalism students from University of Central Florida dress as if they were homeless. Residents of the COSAC shelter gave them ripped shirts and dirty tennis shoes and told them to go rub dirt in their hair and faces. They jumped in the back of a pickup truck with a staff photographer and I drove them to a street in downtown Fort Lauderdale. On one corner, Jessica begged for money with a cardboard sign and on the other, Hannah, sold the Homeless Voice while donning a bright orange shelter vest. As Ashley clicked away in the back of the truck, I drove in circles around the two girls. Watching the reactions of drivers as they passed by was incredible. Even more moving for me was helping Jessica and Hannah reflect and write about their life-changing experiences. The students were all phenomenal ― the girls wrote two amazing stories and our photographer’s stunning shots went on to win a national SPJ award. Now that’s what I call a badass assignment.
In the past two years, watching the students interact with the homeless has been an exciting and eye-opening experience for both the staff and the residents at the COSAC shelter ― it’s something you just can’t describe in words. I believe the “third time’s a charm” theory, and this year’s program will be incredible. So join us, if you dare.
SPJ South Florida Pro Executive Vice President
It’s not like anything you can imagine ― the smells, the sights, the people. Putting out a newspaper from a homeless shelter in 36 hours is as real as journalism gets. One of my favorite parts of Will Write for Food is watching the student journalists go into the shelter for the first time and eat alongside the shelter residents. Neither group knows what to make of the other, but somehow they find something to talk about. This program is all about stepping out of your comfort zone and into someone else’s. Last year, a student took that idea to the extreme as she spent an entire day with one of the shelter’s most cantankerous but beloved residents. Everyone in the shelter thought she was a nut for sitting in the hall with this guy for six straight hours when he was making fun of her and telling her to go away. But between his breaths from an oxygen mask and a cigarette she got to know the real guy behind the rough exterior. Not only did she write a kick-ass story, but, as she describes it, she got to talk with “someone extraordinary.”
My first year at Will Write For Food I was a writer and tour guide. While surveying students in the cafeteria during dinner, I saw a young man in my peripherals shuffling in his seat to see the television at the front of the room. I apologized and moved out of the way, thinking it was one of our students eating quickly to return to reporting. He then got my attention. “So what are you all doing here?” he asked. I turned to him, shocked. It wasn’t a student. It was Patrick, a 23 year-old kid who lived in the shelter. I pulled out my notebook right then and interviewed him while he continued to eat his spaghetti. He doesn’t know that our conversation changed my life forever.
SPJ South Florida Pro Vice President of Programs
The first year of Will Write For Food, I served as copy desk chief and played it safe. I didn’t venture beyond our makeshift office, didn’t get to know the shelter or any of its residents. I still got a great clip ― what college student can say she’s copy edited an entire issue of a monthly newspaper herself? ― but that’s about all I got out of the experience.
Last year, I covered the residents of what’s known as “the psych room,” home to the shelter’s mentally ill residents ― who live with illnesses like schizophrenia. Its barrenness contrasts with the homeliness of the shelter’s other bedrooms. It’s poorly illuminated because they yell at you if you turn the lights on. It smells like a mix of feces and Lysol. No one enters except the men who live there and the occasional staff member, but I spent a day there. I listened to their stories. I got to know the men whom the rest of the residents ignore and avoid. And I got a lot more than any clip or classroom could ever give me.
A homeless wedding. Imagine the balls it takes to hold your shit together when you are one of the few souls alive to witness the union of two shelter residents whose lives converged and bonded in the most horrific of circumstances. The interviews. My god, the interviews. To know a love so deep was still capable of existing amidst disease, addiction and filth. It’s an experience that touches me deeply to this day.
The sound bites I collected are more than just filler, more than just quotes. They are vivid recollections of personal strife, loneliness, and the reality of finding peace and solace in another human being who has known your pain and was still able to help you feel accepted. This isn’t something I’ll ever experience again. This year, at the 3rd annual event, I expect nothing more than another bone rattling experience, a life-altering connection, that burn in my body that reminds me of just how alive I am. It’s going to be amazing. Do you want to miss out on this?
2010 Staff Testimonials
Apply now: Click here to read more about the program and how to join the staff.