It’s a wonderful feeling when life is on track, and everything seems to be going your way. However, we sometimes forget that our lives can change in a matter of minutes.
Life did tragically change for Dona’e Albert when her house burned to the ground on Valentine’s Day in 2013. Fortunately, she and her mother both escaped the fire along with their animals.
With only the ruined clothes on their back, they had to brave this new life that they did not ask for. “It really opened my eyes. I realized people don’t always have everything they need and how hard it was to start with nothing at all. No house, no clothes, not even the clothes we were wearing,” says Albert.
Luckily, the people of Wheeling are eager to help when disasters like this occur in town. “If it weren’t for Dottie [Albert’s dance teacher] and everyone at Park, my mom and I could still be on the streets,” she explains.
Not every person who experiences such trauma would take the situation and learn from it the way Albert did. Since the event that completely changed her life, she has dedicated her time to helping those experiencing homelessness.
“I knew there was nothing I could do to permanently fix the problem, but if I could put a Band-Aide on it, at least for now, that would be helpful.”
As a nursing student at Wheeling Jesuit University, Albert spends most of her time working at Wheeling Hospital, guiding her school’s newly formed dance team and creating homeless outreach projects throughout the year.
“I don’t sleep much,” Albert laughs. With such a busy life, Albert is thankful for her school, the hospital and other organizations that have contributed to her outreach.
“It’s really nice that when you give people the opportunity to do something, they jump on it. I think they just need to be given the chance.”
Once Albert began her college education, she realized how much her opportunities had grown. During the winter of her freshman year, she began her dedication to helping those in need.
“I just decided freshman year toward the winter because I kept seeing people outside, and it really bothered me that they were out in the cold,” she explains. This sparked the idea for her first project.
Albert has organized “Share the Warmth” for four years now. The project entails collecting scarves from the community and hanging posters to spread the word. She then takes the scarves to collection sites such as Catholic Charities, banks and other spots so that people in need can pick them up.
“My mom and I made Christmas cards for every scarf. We had almost 800 the first year,” she says.
Not only does she create these projects on her own, but her dance team is also known for their contribution to our community. The girls on the Wheeling Jesuit dance team give the children at Laughlin Memorial Chapel in East Wheeling dance lessons.
WORKING TOWARD GROWTH
“I want to make ‘Spread the Love’ not just a Wheeling thing,” Albert says. She is in the beginning stages of creating her own non-profit to expand her outreach. The non-profit will help her reach more of the community to give them the opportunity to be involved as well as help her make connections. With being in school, working two jobs and leading the Jesuit dance team, Albert is very limited with what she can do.
Another one of her goals is to write a book about her life experiences and the outreach that she does. She is currently in the writing process.
Over the past year, Albert has taken the time to educate herself on the homelessness in other major cities. Through her school, she participated in a “Pittsburgh Plunge,” where she discovered the numerous homeless outreach programs in the city.
“A big theme they were talking about in Pittsburgh is there’s enough of everything in this world for people that need it, the only problem is getting it there,” she explains. “If you can find a way to distribute what’s needed to the people who need it, that could solve a really big problem.”
In October, Albert participated in a homeless immersion in the nation’s capital. I got dropped off in Washington, D.C., and spent 48 hours homeless on the street,” she says.
“We had our own personal story to tell people why we were there,” and Albert used the memory of when her house burnt down to explain to the people why she was there.
However, her story didn’t result in endless support from her community, but in her own survival on the city streets.
Albert had been conscious of the homeless lifestyle, but she learned the extremities from this trip.
“I never realized how bad your feet would hurt. You have to walk an hour and a half to get to the soup kitchen that had breakfast, and then you’d have to walk until lunchtime to get to the place that served lunch,” says Albert.
One of the people she met on the trip called this “purposeless walking.”
“He said he was like a zombie walking with no purpose and just living between destinations with nothing in between,” she points out.
In our community, East Wheeling provides the most for people who are experiencing homelessness; however, for people who can’t make it to this area, it is a bigger struggle. Providing a better distribution of necessities could help with the issue. Albert is working toward finding different locations for the items she supplies, to make them more available.
Albert expresses her gratitude for the people in her life who have helped her. Another one of her projects was “Sock it to Poverty.” Here, she worked with Wheeling Hospital to provide socks for people who need them. As she began working at the hospital, she noticed that the used socks were collected and thrown away once a patient leaves.
“I went to HR and said, ‘this really bothers me that we’re wasting all of this when there are people who need it.’ They said they would track what regulations there were and maybe they could change that. And they did.” Now, “The hospital cleans and sanitizes them, and I go pick them up every week. I get like six bags of these socks,” Albert says.
Because homeless people constantly are on their feet walking to different areas, they suffer from horrible ulcers and infection. Albert is helping to correct this major issue with this project.
Albert created another project called, “Spread the Love,” which she is considering as the title of her non-profit. “They [Wheeling Hospital] partnered with me again giving me 400 Chapsticks, combs, shampoos and little Band-Aide kits,” she says.
Wheeling Jesuit also helped with this project. Professor John Whitehead, who leads the underclassman honors college, asked Albert if he could have any of the students help. She gladly accepted, and they “set up an assembly line in one of the classrooms with the objects for the blessing bags. One person would take a bag, go down the line and fill them up. They were able to help me fill 500 bags that day.”
“I feel like it’s always teachers and schools that have been reaching out and been connecting with me — my second-grade teacher, my college, the chair of the nursing department (Mary Ann Cap),” Albert says. She has received continuous support over the years.
EVERYONE HAS A STORY
“I heard this saying once, ‘everyone is one paycheck away from being homeless,’ and that is really true, especially in this area. There is such a deficit of essential things,” she says. There are many stereotypes about people who experience homelessness, but Albert explains, “It’s not because of the typical reasons people assume.” Albert has worked with these people for years now. “I know most of these people by name, and I know their stories. A lot of them didn’t become homeless because of drugs and alcohol.”
She explains how she knows a man who was in the circus. “He ended up in Oregon where the circus dispersed, so he didn’t have a job or way to get back to where he came from. He has been homeless for 30 years.”
Because we live in a world that is so quick to judge, people often do not stop to think about these people as human beings. Albert believes that “learning peoples’ names is a good start.”
Albert is working to get more people involved in her outreach projects and making it easier for the community to help. “Not a lot of people want to do face-to-face interaction with the community. I don’t know if it’s fear or ignorance, but if we could get these people in the community to meet those experiencing homelessness it could really change it.”
Right now, Albert is working on a new project. She would like to provide homeless people with haircuts and assistance with creating resumés.
“A lot of the people that are trying to get jobs are being declined because they don’t have the right clothes or skills to make a resume or things to put on the resume,” she explains. Albert mentioned learning how to cut hair herself and setting up an area where people could easily visit.
Albert sees the devastating fire that left her with nothing as a blessing. “You’re never the same after that. Where you started out in life is completely gone.”
Even though it was not easy for her and her family, she still says, “It really changes your mindset, which I think is something I needed. I realized that not everyone has the opportunities that you do; people really have to work for what they have.”
• Adelaide Estep is a recent graduate of West Virginia University where she studied English and public relations. While waiting for graduate school next fall, she is residing in her hometown of Wheeling and writing for Weelunk. She is also an instructor at Oglebay Institute School of Dance where she took classes through her childhood. Some of her passions include music, performing and writing.