Samuel grew up in a tough neighborhood, but life at home was even tougher. The third of 14 children, he struggled with poverty, abuse and emotional distance from his family. When he left home at 18, his bottled-up anger ultimately led to some bad decisions that triggered a cycle of homelessness.
Although he was jobless and living in shelters, it was important for him to keep his dignity. Samuel avoided telling friends he was struggling, and he wasn’t in touch with family members. He was isolated and simply trying to survive. When he began to look for work, he found the job hunt nearly impossible without a home – or a phone. It was at this critical point that he stumbled on a life-changing opportunity: Community Voice Mail (CVM).
“Normally, you don’t recognize the value of something until afterwards,” said Samuel. “But then I didn’t have a phone, so I knew how important it was and I used it right away.”
Samuel put his CVM number on his résumé and gave it out to potential employers when he applied for jobs. A CVM number looks like any other local number, so no one knew about his personal situation. Employers would call and leave messages, and Samuel would call back – often using courtesy phones in hospitals or social service agencies.
“They just thought it was my phone. That saved me from shame,” he said. “That gave me the feeling that I was a normal guy. This was one less problem I had to deal with. There’s no way I could have done it without CVM.”
According to Samuel, one of the most underrated aspects of phones is their ability to bring people together. This simple fact was borne out as soon as Samuel got his CVM number; his family was finally able to call him. “My sister, who I didn’t speak to for years, all of a sudden left me a message on that phone. I kept the message for more than a year.”
As a society, we often focus on the immediate concerns of food and shelter, but Samuel believes CVM offers something equally vital: human contact. “When you feed someone, you’re keeping them alive. When you’re communicating with them, you’re giving them hope – and a chance.”
For Samuel, CVM provided this human touch through its Broadcast Messaging service, where he got news about job fairs, housing opportunities and other relevant information. And, because the CVM messages always came from the same friendly voice, Samuel reflected, it felt like someone cared about him. “It was almost like having an activist on your side.”
That voice also told Samuel there were a lot of people out there just like him – that he was not alone. He was able to connect with people in similar situations, who were dealing with the same issues he faced. CVM gave him the ability and the encouragement he needed to seek help and move forward.
Today, Samuel is a youth counselor. He uses his past experience and the wisdom he’s gained to help other young people overcome the challenges of homelessness and despair. He cheers when kids achieve “baby steps,” and always tries to be that voice of hope that was so vital to him. “I quickly recognized that I felt better when I was helping someone,” he said. “I think that’s the key.”
(Editor’s note: Thanks to our friends at CVM National for gathering this story! Samuel got his voice mailbox through Seattle Community Voice Mail, which is a program of Solid Ground. The national office, which is headquartered in Seattle, supports CVM systems in communities across the country.)