Wednesday, September 9, 2009

A Worthy Cause

By Mark W. Danielson

A recent People magazine I was thumbing through at a doctor’s office carried a story about a noteworthy organization that concerns every author and reader. The Oasis Coalition “seeks to support, empower, and give voice to the homeless and poor of Boston.” They do this through a book club, now in its 10th month, which began with an unlikely friendship between two men from different worlds: Peter Resnik, a high-powered lawyer on his way to work, and Rob, a homeless man guarding a friend’s shopping cart on Boston Common. The Bostom Globe’s Jenna Russell best describes this coalition in the following paraphrased story: (The complete version is available at

This book club has proved its power to reach homeless people and build their confidence. Emboldened by its success, Ron Tibbetts, a Beacon Hill church deacon and longtime homeless outreach worker, has launched plans to replicate it. His new nonprofit group, the Oasis Coalition, aims to establish dozens of small social groups citywide, filling the gaps left by large, institutional programs that offer the homeless food and shelter but little or no personal connection.
When talk flows at the book club, the dynamic that emerges is pure and powerful. The members are equals, linked by what they read and respected for their insights. Their discussions, held at Swedenborgian Church on the Hill, are both a stimulus and a respite for people used to staying focused on survival - where to sleep and how to stay dry - rather than the themes and symbols of fiction.

To Peter Resnik, the downtown lawyer on his way to work, the homeless people he saw on the Common did not become real all at once. He talked to Rob and Rob’s friend Chris for months - often, in the beginning, about basketball - before he saw them as friends, and worked up the courage to ask whether they wanted to get off the streets.
The lawyer says he wasn’t on a philanthropic mission. He struggles to explain what it was that drew his interest. But day after day, talking with Rob and Rob’s friend, what he found was not what he expected. The homeless men kept up-to-date on sports and current events. They looked after each other, and watched out for others on the streets. And Rob, he discovered - Rob liked to read.

Resnik brought him a copy of “Water for Elephants,’’ a novel set during the Great Depression, about a veterinary student who joins a traveling circus. Then he brought him “The Kite Runner.’’ Standing on the Common, they talked about the books. And, there the idea for the book club was born.

Resnik buys the books, Rob makes the coffee, and Tibbetts leads the discussions and recruits readers, toting extra volumes in his backpack when he roams the streets. Because their lives are unstable, the roster of participants is always changing. The club has included people staying in shelters and with friends, and others given rooms through city or state programs. The number has ranged from four or five to a dozen.

For Rob, the unexpected friendship he forged on the Common has been transformative. When Resnik learned that an old traffic ticket had blocked his homeless friend from getting a room through the city, he drove him to a court in Palmer, where he represented him pro bono and resolved the case. Because of that kindness, Rob is off the streets. He has found a part-time job as a church custodian and volunteers his time serving meals to homeless people.
Resnik, meanwhile, is helping to raise money to replicate the book club.

“You can walk by somebody who you know is going to ask you for a buck, but if you know their name, you can’t walk by,’’ the lawyer said. “You can’t sleep comfortably if someone you know is sleeping outside.’’

Jenna Russell can be reached at

I will be donating seven copies of each my books to this organization and hope other authors will do the same. If you're not an author, then how about donating some of your best sellers that are just gathering dust? If everyone does this, there should be enough duplicate books to make this work. With winter fast approaching, it’s even more important that these people have a sense of worth. Books can be mailed to The Oasis Coalition of Boston, c/o Ron Tibbetts, 140 Bowdoin St., Boston, MA 02108


Ben Small said...

Good idea. Thanks.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Wonderful program, Mark. I'll send some books as well. I sent a box of books last year to a rehab center in West Virginia and received some heartwarming letters.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks Jean, Ben. I'm hopeful that this program will spread to other cities. The Commons is a beautiful park, and most large cities have similar parks where this program could work. I can't take any credit for any of this, though -- I'm just a willing participant like everyone else.

Cynde L. Hammond said...

Great article, Mark!
This is to let you all know that I have given your blog a BLOG AWARD. Please go and check it out at my blog right here.
See you soon...
Cynde's Got The Write Stuff

Beth Terrell said...

Mark, that does sound like a worthy cause. I'll also send along seven of mine (once I get the final version).

Cynde, thank you. What a kind gesture.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Cynde, thank you for recognizing Murerous Musings. All six of us do our best to provide interesting topics.

Beth, thank you for your participation. The more books the better -- and if you've watched the video on The Oasis Coalition's web site, you can see that these folks read and discuss every word.

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