Helping the homeless between classes
Mother of a hero
His eyes are getting bigger by the minute. He’s clutching the game controller so tightly that it looks like it might break at any moment. ‘I think he’d crawl into the television if he could’, says first-year law student Stephanie van der Sluis (28).
‘GOOAAL!’, Joël (5) suddenly yells. He sprints around the living room table in triumph, his arms raised. ‘He’s so invested’, Stephanie says, laughing.
Joël isn’t just invested in his Playstation; Stephanie’s son is just as committed to things in the ‘real world’.
Last month, he met a homeless man for the first time. ‘We were walking through the city centre’, says Stephanie. ‘Joël saw him sitting there and said hi. We made some small talk, gave him some change, and continued on our way.
But, Joël went all quiet.’ On the car ride home, the boy looked thoughtful. His mother asked him what was going on. ‘Who was that man?’ ‘I was like, here we go.’
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What does homeless mean? Does it mean that man doesn’t have a home? Does he have food? Or money? All Stephanie could do was answer her child’s questions as best she could. ‘There’s no point lying, because he’ll notice immediately. And if I don’t explain it to him, he’ll just keep thinking about it.’
But Joël wasn’t satisfied with the answers. ‘Mum, can I talk to you for a minute?’ he asked a few nights later. He asked if he could use his savings to buy homeless people a house.
Mum, can I talk to you for a minute?
‘I was so touched’ says Stephanie. The idea was adorable of course, but his savings weren’t enough to buy anyone a house.
‘We started brainstorming about what else homeless people might need’, she says. They settled on the idea of helping them find a hot meal. ‘They only have warm food once or twice a month, and that’s if they’re lucky. We decided to see how we could feed the homeless some hot meals.’
Stephanie knew about Stichting Straatwijs, an institute working with homeless people in Groningen, and gave them a call.
She suggested co-operating with a restaurant, and the foundation could hand out meal vouchers. ‘We thought HEMA might be interested in working together..’ After a meeting with an enthusiastic regional manager, mother and son went to the HEMA branch in the Herestraat to work out the plans.
‘Now we collect money which Straatwijs uses to buy meal vouchers for a fixed price. The homeless people can use them to get a plate of pasta or some stamppot at HEMA.’
Figuring all this out while she was also busy with assignments, laundry, cleaning, and caring for three children was quite the challenge for Stephanie.
‘I’ve got three boys’, says Stephanie, who lives in a terrace house in the Groningen neighbourhood of Hoogkerk with her boyfriend Michael. Her eyes light up when she talks about her children. ‘Whenever I tell people in class that I’ve got kids, they are really surprised’, she says, laughing. Three children and studying full-time: ten years ago, she had no idea this would be her life now. But her kids are the reason she decided to start studying law.
I started in grammar school but ended up at one of the lowest educational levels
‘I was twenty-three when Joël, the oldest, was born. I basically had my whole life in order. I had a job, a house, a car.’ But she felt that she could do more.
‘I messed up during high school. I started at grammar school but ended up graduating from one of the Netherland’s lowest educational levels. I just wasn’t focused on school at all.’ She was, as she puts it, a ‘wilful, messed up teenager’.
After some insisting, she describes some of her ‘messed up behaviour’. ‘I was thirteen and my mother had a little Topos moped. One night my parents left me home alone to attend a birthday party and I got the moped out of the shed.’
She happily ventured off in the direction of Friesland, until she ran out of gas in the middle of nowhere, in the dark. ‘Crying, I called up someone I knew who lived close by. He came to get me and I spent the night there. He did call my parents, of course.
She laughs about it now. And she doesn’t regret any of her adventures. ‘Sure, I was pretty wild, but I’m not sorry. The things I did made me the person I am today.’ That person is a 28-year-old woman who know what she wants and isn’t afraid to work hard for that.
‘Two months after Joël was born I started legal vocational training. She’d study after she had put Joël to bed at night and graduated in less than three years. ‘I was on a roll, so I decided to continue to a university of applied sciences. I wanted to pass my propaedeutic phase in a year and then move on to a research university.’ When she got pregnant with her second son, she did not let parenthood distract her.
‘Four weeks after I gave birth to him, I was back at the Hanze.’ Six weeks later, she turned out to be pregnant with her third child. ‘What can I say?’ she says, laughing. ‘It’s not like I planned it.’
A third child couldn’t dissuade her from continuing her studies, either. ‘In fact, they’re the reason I keep going.’ Now that she’s studying at the RUG, she needs all the motivation she can get. ‘Vocational training and the applied sciences stuff was so easy, but this university is so different. I really had to get used to how much work it is.’
Stage of life
But she keeps going, day after day. Her fellow students don’t always understand. ‘They’re at a completely different stage of life. When I was eighteen, I was all about having fun too, so I get that they’re confused.’ And it’s not like she doesn’t miss going out. ‘I’d love to have a night on the town every once in a while.’ But she’s not bitter or jealous.
When I was eighteen, I was all about having fun, too
She says this is because of her parents. ‘My father really pushed people to achieve their goals. We’d fight over that sometimes, but I’m just like him, really.’ Her mother also taught her the value of hard work from when she was little. ‘She always says that hard work pays off. And she’s right.’
While Stephanie doesn’t mind putting in the hours, she does miss having a friend to work alongside. ‘I’d love to meet someone who’s doing what I do, but I haven’t made any friends yet.’
Nevertheless, Stephanie really enjoys family life, as well. ‘Joël used his own pocket money to put down the first twenty-five euro for the meal vouchers’, she says proudly. Despite the challenges she faces at university, she wouldn’t want to miss her eldest son’s philanthropy for the world.
Eight-four people so far have contributed to Joël’s campaign. Would you like to donate? Go to the Stichting Straatwijs website. The deadline is June 30.