(from a student in my AMH2020 online summer class)
The semester began just as any other had.
As an employee of the State of Florida using the tuition assistance program, I was left to choose from the courses with seats left open following the general enrollment period. As was typical, my selections were limited and the courses required for my degree that were also offered as “online only” were rapidly narrowing. Upon searching the options, the dreaded AMH2020, (follow-up to 2010, the one and only course in which I received less than an A) reared its ugly head. The choices of professor were Dr. Powers and Dr. Soldani-Lemon. Although Dr. Powers is quite qualified, he led the afore mentioned class in which I did not fare well, therefore I chose the only alternative. The course outline seemed simple and the assignments appeared completely doable in the allotted time; all but one. Dr. Soldani required, as a condition of ten percent of the grade, a secret mission, one that would require active participation and potential monetary contribution. As a full time employee with a career that requires travel, a father of two, and a small business owner, I thought “who has time for this?” and “how can anyone require such a feat as a condition of grading for a course that is supposed to be ‘online”? I struggled with the concept, among other factors, but reluctantly made the effort to comply anyway.
As a veteran of the US Army, I found Dr. Soldani’s Thursday night Veterans’ Village Dinner to be the most appealing and achievable. Time is a luxury that I do not often possess. I juggled appointments and opportunities to serve and was able to settle on the evening of June 18. The assignment was to provide, bring and serve a dish for up to forty people from the posted menu theme. The theme was Cuban. My course selection was dessert. Although not exclusively Cuban, I decided on banana pudding. After all, banana pudding is a universally acceptable dessert option. On the evening before the dinner, I prepared five nine by thirteen trays of homemade(ish) banana pudding. The next day (dinner day) I carried to work, enough dessert to feed a small army. As my work day neared its end, I made preparations to make my way over to the “Village”. Considering I had no clue where I was going, I left a bit early. I managed to arrive at the Village about thirty minutes early. My first reaction was somewhere along the lines of “am I in the right place?” and “what am I doing in this part of town?” I must admit I was a bit nervous about some of the “characters” I witnessed strolling about. I observed some of what I know now to be residents move about the property, stopping to socialize with other residents. Emily was the second student to arrive. We sat and chatted for a few minutes when a resident approached. Emily asked about the location of the dinner and, although the gentleman was unsure as to what she was referring, he led us to a second floor apartment that had been converted to a community activity center. As we brought in our groceries for the dinner, Dr. Soldani arrived. Now this was a pleasant surprise. Dr. Soldani was not some stiff, strict professor type with a stick up. well you get the point. Her aura was that of the average, down to earth, fun loving, lay-person with a heart for people in need. One could tell Dr. Soldani was not handed a successful life on a silver platter. She cared for others as if she’d walked in their shoes. She greeted everyone who crossed her path with a decorative box filled with pretty rocks, each symbolic of a positive element of success. The stone that selected me was said to be symbolic of change. Each of the resident veterans was invited to reach into the box and each that did was selected by their stone, representing such concepts as love, change, prosperity, and strength. Some of the veterans sincerely appreciated the gesture while others seemed to be taken by surprise and some even responded with rude comments, by which Dr. Soldani was not fazed. She continued to distribute the rocks with sincere joy.
Other students arrived amongst the residents. This event was slowly evolving from a dreaded “lest get it over with” event to a tolerable comingling of complete strangers. Dinner soon ensued. The buffet of delicious treats included curry chicken, black beans and rice (which is excellent together with the curry chicken), arroz con pollo, chips with Cuban dip, Cuban bread, pastelitos con mango, guava and queso (thank you Anaisis for these delicious treats), and of course the banana pudding. As food was served and residents departed to consume the bounty, the line appeared motionless. For every departure, there appeared another arrival. As we served, we conversed amongst each other as students and with the veterans as they passed though. It quickly became evident just how appreciated these dinners were. The residents, it turns out, are military veterans who have reached the bottom. They were homeless, jobless and struggling with sickness, hunger, addiction, and mental concerns brought on by war experiences. The program allows, for a period of time, a place to live and eat and programs to aid in job placement and training, allowing them to get back on their feet. These veterans are typically accustomed to being shunned by the general public and considered a burden to society. Those having experienced previous dinners arrived with jubilant expectation, almost akin to a child on Christmas morning. They seemed to look to Dr. Soldani as a mother or a saint provider. Each veteran that passed through graciously thanked each of the students for participating.
Although many veterans passed through, a few decided to stay and break bread with us students. One in particular (his name escapes me) completed his meal and took to the piano. His playlist was random and singing somewhat off key, but his performance commanded collaboration. His joy and exhilaration compelled others around him to participate. The whole room seemed to break into song. Other residents joined first. As the music continued, students began to join. Dr. Soldani, who proclaimed to never sing publicly, even joined the chorus. At one point I even found myself belting out a note or two. Eventually, we were all laughing and singing and just having the best time, as if we were in a room full of family without a care in the world. Later in the evening, as the non-resident attendees began to filter out one by one, I said my good-byes and departed, leaving a room still roaring with music and laughter.
As I reflect upon this experience, I realize that with my hectic lifestyle I, like so many others in today’s busy world, tend to forget those less fortunate. Veterans who have selflessly served their country are often looked upon as bums and vagrants. So many of them need nothing more than a helpful hand to lift them up, an ear to listen or someone just to let them know they matter. I also realized that we tend to neglect our social responsibility to interact with people outside of our normal routines. More often today than ever before people stick to their routines, especially the older and busier they become. Society suffers tremendously from a lack of physical contact and face to face social interaction. This assignment I was initially so reluctant to participate in has renewed a desire in me to help others in even the littlest of ways. I have also been reminded to make time to break from tradition and out of my comfort zone to meet and interact with complete strangers from time to time to let them know they matter. You never know when a simple “hello” may just be the kind word someone needs to decide good over bad.Soldani, for this experience and this opportunity to make a difference in some lives. I am better having met you and have met some other amazing people along this journey. Thank you, Dr.