There was an early morning gathering at one of the bagel places near my home. I noticed them every Sunday morning and each week, a small group of people chose to meet up at an early hour, just to connect, just to talk, or better yet, maybe they met up to hit the reset button. Come Monday, they were ready to deal with the week and all that comes with it.
It’s always been amazing to me the way a connection between friends can sort out the crazy madness and help us settle the nerves. This is what friends do. This is more than a social connection. This is when you find the right people to speak with. Maybe this is what that Sunday morning group at the bagel place was all about. What I liked most about the idea is there was no pressure to talk or say anything at all. No, this was simply about friends gathering, which leads me up to now.
I was invited to speak in a homeless shelter in Northern New Jersey. I had never been to a shelter before. I had no idea what the shelter would look like nor did I know what the people would look like. For the record, none of my assumptions were correct.
I was introduced as a specialist who was deployed in opiate overdose programs. I was nervous to say the least but then again, I’m always nervous in front of a crowd. Same as I had no idea what I would think about them, I had no idea what they would think about me.
Would they even care what I had to say?
Would they listen?
Would they roll their eyes at me?
I made a decision to speak plainly and openly. I offered them a heartfelt introduction to what I do, why and what I’d like to see happen. I told a short rendition of my personal story to qualify and then I offered them a “Thank you” for allowing me the time to speak.
They applauded. Some even stood.
Management took note of this. They asked if I would come back or if I would be interested in running a group, which of course, I took advantage of as an opportunity to improve my skills.
I sat with one of the guests at the shelter. She mentioned that she related to parts of my story and appreciated the whole scene.
Then she told me, “Do you know why everyone clapped?”
I answered, “No.”
“It’s because you spoke to us like we were human.”
The guest explained, “You didn’t talk to us like we were homeless or sick. You just talked. And that’s why people clapped for you.”
After my visit, the director of the shelter asked me if I had any ideas for a group. And I did.
I chose to do an early Sunday morning group where people could get together and talk. Of course, I had to achieve some of the goals the shelter was looking for.
But more, I was able to create a place within a place that allowed people to find a sense of psychological safety, which empowered them to find housing and open up to the next chapter of their lives.
I was asked to come up with a name for this group. And like the old cartoon where a lightbulb turns on above the head, it came to me. “We can call it Breakfast with Benny.”
And so it went. Breakfast with Benny met every Sunday morning from 8:30 to 9:30. In fairness, nothing ever went as scheduled and I never left on time. I cannot say that every group went smoothly. There were challenges and mistakes and things I would never do again. But more, at least for some people, there was a place to go and speak and laugh or find an answer to an internal question.
I saw people fail themselves and exit the shelter in unfortunate ways. I know that some of the people in the shelter were taken out in an ambulance. But more, I know that there were some who found a new way of living. There were people who had nothing and learned to have something.
After about a year, there was a change in the program. The time changed because there was another Breakfast with Benny across the street in the county jail’s drug rehabilitation program. Again, with the same premise in mind, we gathered together and talked and thought about the possible strategies to create change and find a new direction for ourselves.
After the jail, I went over to the shelter again. But eventually, the shelter ran its course and it was time for me to find a new venue, which I did.
Covid changed a lot of our interactions but Breakfast with Benny is still alive and going in a small room in a Northern New Jersey town.
Essentially, that group of people who met up on early Sunday mornings at the bagel place in my old neighborhood inspired me to create a connection; to provide a sense of interpersonal connectivity between friends, to meet up so we can laugh, talk for a while and hit the reset button before the crazy madness of Monday mornings.
Life is a crazy thing. But somehow, we have to find the secret to endure. We have to find the best possible way to navigate through this crazy world and at the end of the day, we can come to the constructive conclusion and say, “I gave it everything I had.” Sustainability starts with self-care. This starts with the safety of a good support system. And on Sunday mornings, personal sustainability starts with a few friends getting together with a cup of coffee.
The group is small. And as for the food . . .
Well, have you ever heard of hot chocolate lasagna?
Yeah, we do that at Breakfast with Benny too.
I wish the people from the bagel place knew what they inspired.
I wish the people from the shelter and the other programs knew what they mean to me.
It’s amazing what connections do.
It’s amazing how friendships can influence and impact our life.
It’s amazing how all of this changed mine , , ,
And here I am now…