A Feast for Homeless People: If you barbecue, will they come?

There’s nothing that’ll inspire a dog to break his verbal leash like the smell of meat on a barbecue.

“Tawny! Come! COME!” I yelled. It was futile. My dog flew from the trail we were walking. He dashed a hundred or so yards across the park toward fragrant smoke arising from a barbecue grill. I chased after him, mentally rehearsing the profound apologies I would utter to the guy at the grill. By the time I got there, the chef was ready for me, waving a hotdog on the end of his fork. 

“Is it okay to give it to him?” he asked eagerly. 

“Only a small part,” I answered. “He has a delicate digestive system.”

The barbecuer, clean-cut, middle-aged, was by now petting and scratching Tawny as I surveyed the picnic area: two tables covered with all the right stuff from pickles to potato chips, but no one else around. The grill was loaded with hotdogs, chicken, ribs. A package of hamburger waited its turn. I wondered if he was preparing the feast for the high school baseball team practicing at the far end of the park.

“Who’re you cooking for?” I asked.

“Homeless people,” he said, looking me directly in the eye as he offered a paper plate with a chicken thigh, drenched in barbecue sauce.

I declined the plate but said, “My name’s Mary,” as I sat down at one of the tables. I needed to learn more. “Brandon,” he responded. 

“We have something in common,” I tried as a conversation starter. “I cook for the homeless shelter in Okanogan a couple times a week when it’s open in winter.” He was neither interested nor impressed. 

Our conversation took off in other directions, mostly odd and circuitous. At one point Brandon insisted we switch places because the barbecue smoke was blowing in my face. Ultimately I learned that he’d been released from jail that morning. He’d spent a couple hundred bucks on the picnic fare. I saw no vehicle nearby and wondered how he carted all that food — plus charcoal briquets — from the grocery store, a half-mile away on the other side of the river.

“Where do you live?” I asked.

“Wherever I am.” Okayyyyy.

“How are homeless people going to know you have all this food for them?”

“It worked last year.”

By this time Brandon was indeed getting worried that people weren’t showing up. I accepted the chicken thigh.

“Got any napkins?” as I licked my sauce-covered fingers. That’s the one item Brandon hadn’t thought of. He raced off to the porta potties around the corner in search of paper towels, but came back empty-handed. I wiped my fingers on the back of the paper plate, which he then took from me and neatly tossed into the garbage can. He started filling a grocery bag with a jar of pickles, an orange, the package of hamburger meat — a doggy bag, so to speak, for me to take home. I demurred; he pleaded.

“I don’t want to waste this!” he said, waving his arm at the cornucopia of food.

“Look. You can take all the stuff you haven’t opened yet to the food bank — the pickles, the potato chips, the can of cashew nuts …”

“Naw. I’ve been drinking. I don’t drink and drive,” he said solemnly. I hadn’t smelled alcohol (who could with all the barbecue aroma?) but noted a case of beer on the other table.

“Where are you going to sleep tonight?” He shrugged in a way that said it wasn’t an issue.

As I stood to leave, we compromised. I accepted an orange and a rib for Tawny — to eat later. In a sense, I brought Brandon home with me, too. He was on my mind all that evening. I remembered the many times I’ve witnessed how kind and generous people who are homeless can be with each other. I’m not suggesting that privation leads to saintliness. Yet there’s that basic human need for community, for connection. We meet that need by sharing. 

The next day I checked the picnic area. It was cleaned up. No sign of Brandon or his feast — other than one dried-up chicken thigh forgotten on the barbecue. Wherever Brandon is, I guess he’s home.

Everybody’s Business

  • Imagine a water bottle that measures your hydration level as you sip.
  • Imagine cell phone batteries that recharge off your body heat.
  • Imagine an ear piece that projects a hologram so you can read a book or watch a movie hands-free.

If you’re seventeen, these are the kinds of technological wonders you can dream up. They’re the kinds of things I was invited to invest in (virtually) during Business Week. Every year high school juniors from our two neighboring towns (Okanogan and Omak, WA) are excused from their regular class schedule for five days to sample what’s ahead for them in the realm of free enterprise. 

After the pandemic hiatus, Business Week returned this year. I was happy to again be invited to help as a judge and “investor.” During a brief training session for judges, facilitator Chris Loftis had me nearly in tears as he described what this year’s students had missed during pandemic isolation.

“These kids have lost something,” he concluded. “We’re going to give it back to them.” The “we” is our local community. While school district sponsorship is essential, professional educators are largely absent. Pretty much all the adults are volunteers. Many are giving up a full week of work; others are retirees willing to revisit the world of work. Area businesses throw in financial support to cover the $14,000 cost. 

Students are sorted into “companies” to dream up product lines, assign corporate responsibilities, determine quality standards and work ethics, and develop marketing strategies. Sounds kind of dull, frankly, but a computer program makes it more like a game. Based on the kids’ decisions, the computer churns out two years worth of various reports like sales volumes, profit and loss, and stock value. Just as in real life, the reports produce cheers and/or teeth-gnashing. By the end of the week, the kids are excited to show off their work for a spirited IPO (initial public offering). The students aren’t graded individually, but they’re rewarded as corporate teams with stock sales. All play money, of course.

I’m not necessarily a cheerleader for capitalism, but it’s the system we live and work under. Within our system there’s space for kindness and community building — if we so choose. Business Week does. The kids experience teaming up with otherwise rivals. Ordinarily the two schools are each other’s No. 1 athletic opponent. Here, students are purposely mixed — about a dozen in each company. Some years ago one of my grandsons who participated in Business Week concluded with surprise that kids from the other school had some pretty acceptable qualities after all.

Every student has a place and a role. Inclusion and participation are highly valued and required. As we judges visited the companies, we were introduced to each student by name and their individual responsibility within the company. At week’s end, every student receives a certificate awarding a college credit — something pretty amazing for a lot of these rural kids who never consider the possibility of college.

Despite pandemic disruption, teens’ resilience was vividly on display. They’d put behind them not only Covid isolation, but inevitable setbacks from the week’s taste of business life.

“Life is more than dollars and cents,” teaches Loftis. “Life is about failure … and then you get back up.”

Getting back up was part of the week’s adventure for several companies. “509 Electronics” got into trouble with the public after marketing a low-quality product, explained their CEO. After the company decided against a recall, the public (via computer program) raised a fuss. The company apologized, offered a recall and changed its manufacturer. The lesson, said the CEO: “Don’t rely on people you don’t know.”

As a consumer of a certain age, I was smitten by another company, but as a potential investor, not so  much. “Design, Love, Virtue” had chosen to target elderly consumers. They’d done admirable research into their market audience, coming up with a simple-to-use flip phone that promised a crisp speaker, easy-to-read screen and (hallelujah!) ultra-responsive tech support. They acknowledged making “hard decisions” along the way, opting for strategies that would benefit the environment, their customers and employees. Their product was so popular, they ran out. “You never want to do that,” a fellow judge muttered out of their hearing. Flooded with back orders, they watched their stock tank. Undaunted, they were promising skeptical investors a rosy comeback. I sympathetically put in a few bucks — no more than I could afford to lose.

Business Week got its start in the 1970s as a residential summer program — something like cheerleader or basketball camp — at Central Washington University (then state college). The residential program has since spread to college and university campuses in eleven states plus Poland and Italy. Yet only a handful of school districts make it available on a local basis to all students. While the residential programs offer full scholarships, it’s still unlikely that very many of our local kids could afford a week off from summer jobs to attend. Or would even feel motivated.

 One reason the in-school program is less than popular with educators, I’m told, is that teachers are under pressure to prepare students for standardized tests. Giving up a full week away from “teaching to the test” is asking too much.

I don’t know if our students’ test scores are remarkably above or below the norm. I could research it, I suppose. But I’m satisfied with what I saw kids take away from Business Week — a few of life’s lessons that can’t be measured on any test other than life itself.