I was sixteen the first time I walked into a homeless shelter, and I was sure it was an accident. I was looking for a student art show, not broken youth. But a voice within told me to stick around. There was something here for me. I spent the afternoon talking with the youth, and found that we had much in common. I was the adolescent child of parents who fled their home country overnight and found shelter in Canada. I too felt lost, disconnected and unsure of how to express myself in the world.
When my suffering met the youth’s suffering, my heart opened. I spent the next decade raising awareness and funds for homeless youth. The work was helping others, but it was also changing me. I was learning to lead others and to express myself. I was also developing insight into my real purpose in the world.
As my desire to serve deepened, the more frustration I felt with the homeless sector. Homeless youth are not just materially impoverished; often, their spirits have been broken by sexual abuse, neglect, prostitution, trauma, isolation and physical violence. Where were the organizations addressing the spiritual needs of homeless youth?
In my late twenties, I began to experiment with Buddhist practice. As I learned to become still and look within, what I found surprised me. For me, contemplative practice was the natural gateway to social entrepreneurship. In my heart, I yearned to serve homeless youth in a completely new way. In 2004, Adam Bucko and I co-founded the Reciprocity Foundation, to meet the “inner” and “outer” needs of homeless youth.
Seven years later, our organization has touched nearly 1,000 homeless youth with programs that enable youth to heal, to find their purpose and to trust their inner voice through yoga, meditation, holistic counseling and spiritual retreat. Once the youth learn how to surf their inner seas and to begin the healing process, we help connect their inner wisdom to the outer world. When youth are ready, we help them apply to college, find independent housing, cultivate professional skills and start careers in media, education, social activism or anything else that moves them.
The youth in our program have blossomed into mature, wise and talented human beings. Their work in the world varies widely—one of our students Isis King was the first transgender contestant on America’s Next Top Model and now speaking out to break down barriers around sexual identity. Seven of our students made a film that was nominated for an Emmy award in 2011. One is a media activist for PBS. Others are top designers, marketers, writers, stylists and social activists.
In November 2011, the Reciprocity Foundation opened the first-ever holistic center for homeless youth in America. Looking back now, my first visit to a homeless shelter no longer feels like an accident. I was meant to be a lost, sixteen-year-old wandering the streets of Toronto. Because when I opened the door to that homeless shelter, I actually opened the door to my heart. And when I connected my heart’s purpose with spiritual practice, I discovered an innovative way of serving youth that has led to extraordinary outcomes.
Taz Tagore is the co-founder of the Reciprocity Foundation and a writer and teacher. She has contributed to the Shambhala Times, Beliefnet.com, Intent.com, the Interdependence Project and more. Taz has spent nearly twenty years volunteering at youth shelters and working with homeless youth in the U.S., Canada and India. She has been featured on countless television programs and newspaper articles for her work with homeless youth.