by | Feb 25, 2009 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

It was a graduation. It was June. The ceiling fans spun overhead and the microphone squeaked when a young woman began to speak.

“Before I came here,” she said, “I was a student. …”

She paused. The crowd listened patiently, some fanning themselves against the heat.

“I was a student addicted to cocaine and marijuana. And I was an alcoholic. …”

Many nodded.

“My attendance decreased. I had no self-esteem. … I was just a lost soul. …”

More nods. A yell of encouragement.

“Today, I have the tools to lead a successful, productive, sober life. …”


“I have a 4.0 grade-point average, I have perfect attendance, and my self-esteem has skyrocketed. …”

The crowd roared. Some jumped to their feet. The young woman smiled proudly.

It was a graduation. It was June. But this was not high school or college. This was an afternoon last week at the Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries, a shelter, the school of hard knocks. The graduates had lasted 90 days in a treatment program, or five to nine months in treatment and vocational training, or two years of transitional housing with hopes of a place of their own.

All, at one point, had been homeless.

Small steps, large change

One after another they came forward, dressed nicely or dressed as nicely as they could. Although there was no formal diploma, you would never have missed it. Each of the graduates, some young, some old, some old before their time, took the microphone and said his or her name proudly. Some added “praise Jesus” or “praise be to God.” They shook hands with a few dignitaries.

There was no pomp and circumstance. But there was a choir and an organ player. There were no scholarships awarded. But there were trays of food, which no one took for granted. And while no valedictorian was chosen based on grade-point average, several people did tell their stories.

One man pointed to an open door that led outside and remembered a time when “I stayed on the third floor” of an abandoned building “right out there” across the street.

“That was my winter house, and my summer home,” he said.

Today, he has a real place.

And a job as a chef.

Such a small distance.

And all the distance in the world.

Finding those who were lost

Although this time of year we celebrate our young people’s achievements – graduation parties, special trips – we should remember that for many, education is a day-by-day challenge, and getting straight is as big a deal as getting good grades.

The Detroit Rescue Mission Ministries – just one of many wonderful organizations dedicated to helping our homeless get back on track – provides 87,000 nights of shelter every year for people with no place to go.

Think about that figure. Eighty-seven thousand. That’s nearly 240 people a night who have to sleep in a bed that is not their own, being handed blankets, pillows, a bar of soap, a warm meal. And that’s just one organization.

Perhaps you say, “Why don’t they get a job?”

Have you checked our economy lately?

Besides, before you can work, you need skills, before you get skills, you need a basic education, and before you can do any of that, you have to be free of drugs, alcohol or other dependencies that can cripple you. It’s easy, too easy, to see our homeless as bad people who are lost. It’s harder to see them as good people who have lost their way.

But to sit in the audience of last week’s graduation is to know the latter is the better approach. It’s true, not many of the folks stepping through the aisles of chairs knew much about calculus. And none had written a dissertation.

But they survived things that have killed others, and they made a choice to improve, to find work, to earn a room of their own.

And I don’t think I’ve seen a more moving graduation in my life.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or To help, call the DRMM at 313-993-4700 or go to


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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