by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Austin Edwards was 9 years old when I met him — and he looked like a football player even then: stocky and strong.
I was a volunteer at Community LINC in Kansas City, Missouri — a transitional program for homeless families to which Austin’s mom had just been admitted.
I ran the Tuesday evening children’s group. And the first time Austin walked into my room, I was trying to control the mayhem created by a rowdy bunch of elementary-school-aged kids.
They were out of school for the day and full of energy, producing a loud cacophony I expected this new boy to join in on.
But Austin surprised me.
I will never forget the way he stood looking around the room like a disgruntled grandpa in a child’s body.
He walked quietly to the far corner, sat down at a table alone and pulled a worn notebook out from under his arm.
He put the notebook on the table, bowed his head within two inches of it, curled his left hand around a stubby pencil and started sketching with quick, furtive movements.
Within seconds, he was oblivious to everything but that notebook and pencil, cocooned in his own world, pouring his imagination out on that paper.
I remember thinking to myself, “This kid will never play football.”
Like a truck driver doing ballet, Austin is always the last person you expect to have the sweet, gentle demeanor that is second nature to him, to be an artist.
I soon learned that art was his coping mechanism in a world that often seemed out of control. It was his gift from God, keeping him grounded, no matter what happened to him or around him.
When I met Austin, he liked to ask people what superpower they wanted. Then he would draw them as an anime figure displaying that power.
His drawing would be in perfect perspective, even though he didn’t know the meaning of the word.
Austin has progressed remarkably since then. Last fall, he was one of only a few selected students featured in a juried art show on Missouri Western’s campus in St. Joseph, Missouri.
This spring, he graduated from the School of Arts with a degree in illustration.
I am honored to say I played a small part in his life. The part he played in mine is beyond measure.
It would require a book to tell Austin’s story, but I hope I can share enough here to convey how important simple relationships can be.
He and his mother eventually got a home in the urban core through Habitat for Humanity, and his mother found work that enabled her to meet her family’s basic needs. But it was never easy, and she battled many difficulties over the years, including cancer.
I stayed close to Austin, attending his school functions and helping celebrate his little milestones. We would often go to lunch or dinner, grab a coffee, visit the art gallery or hang out at a park.
When he was ready for high school, with financial help, Austin was able to attend Bishop Miege in Roeland Park.
This Catholic community truly embraced him — though they were disappointed he didn’t want to play football.
From his time at Bishop Miege, I can give you a little window into Austin’s determination to succeed.
Every day, his mom would drop him off at school early in the morning on her way to work.
After school, Austin would take the city bus home. That meant walking several blocks with a backpack full of heavy books and waiting for a bus; riding a first bus and then transferring to another; waiting again, then taking the second bus as far as he could; and then finally walking the rest of the way home.
This took Austin two hours, and he did it every day, in heat and rain and snow, because he wanted that education.
Every Tuesday evening, Austin would come with me to Community LINC, where he volunteered in the same homeless program he was part of years before.
He worked every summer, saving his money for college. Once in college, he worked nights in the residence hall, studied when he could and attended classes during the day.
In all the years I’ve known Austin, I have never once heard him complain about his situation.
I love this kid and I’m very proud of what he’s become. I think I played a little part in encouraging him and helping him along the way.
Without me, he would have succeeded, but not as easily.
And I would be so much poorer without him in my life.
The average age of a homeless person is 9 — the age Austin was when I met him.
There are hundreds of Austins throughout our archdiocese, waiting for someone to take a small interest in them, to make them want to succeed.
They are Christ waiting for you to reach out to them; they are the heart of God waiting to reach out to you.