The Struggle Bus

It was 12:30 in the afternoon, and with Shawntell as my guide, we struck out for our assignment, designed by OpenDoors Program Director Joseph Jamison. He titled it “The Struggle Bus.” Our mission was to start at the downtown public transit station and figure out how we’d get to work if we worked at the Ingles on Haywood Road. Further complicating our task, we first needed to find work shoes…for ten dollars or less.  

Why did we bother doing this?

At OpenDoors, we believe that to build a strong and more compassionate community, it’s important to walk (or ride) a mile in other people’s shoes. Many people living in Asheville, especially children, don’t have adequate transportation options. They have a limited ability to get places on time, without a Herculean effort. Having resources like a car or friends who can give you a ride is something most people take for granted. But for many, reliable transportation is a daily obstacle to employment, attending the best schools, accessing healthcare, and securing healthy food.

OpenDoors addresses this chronic problem and creates more equity and equal opportunity, by helping our students access adequate transportation and higher education. In order to reach this goal, we help develop necessary social networks of volunteers who offer transportation. With these expanded resources, students can make sustainable life decisions that, in the end, help them break the cycle of persistent poverty.  

Over the past decade, Shawntell’s family has taught me an enormous amount about the challenges under-resourced families deal with, and this made her the perfect partner for our bus excursion scenario. Her family is cyclically homeless, which means they often double-up in other people’s apartments, stay out of town temporarily, or move into a cheap motel. Some family members sleep in their cars, if they are fortunate enough to have one.

The day was hot as we headed out. We discussed real public transit scenarios, like carrying armloads of groceries with small kids in toe, or dealing with physical limitations like many of the other riders we saw. Thunderstorms were brewing, so we’d have to watch the weather carefully, including the availability of sheltered bus stops.

We walked into the Family Dollar Store and lucked-out, finding $8 shoes.  We took a photo of the price tag to send to Joseph to show mission accomplished. Shawntell smiled broadly and we headed out the door to find Ingles. We had easily succeeded with shoes, but hadn’t eaten lunch. If we stretched the scenario to it’s reality, we’d have only $2 to get something to eat before a long Ingles shift, but would need a dollar to get back home on the bus, unless we had a monthly pass. That would mean skipping lunch or buying something inadequate for just a buck. 

We heard thunder and decided we’d walk until we found a covered stop. We were a little tired, plenty hot, and had just crossed the busy intersection of Haywood and Interstate 26 when we realized there weren’t many bus stops, especially sheltered ones, on our route. That’s despite the fact that we were near two public schools, a pharmacy, tons of stores and other possible employers, plus abundant residential neighborhoods and several churches.

The buses still weren’t coming by. We were laughing a little less and our backs and feet hurt, even though we hadn’t actually been working at Ingles all afternoon. We finally found a bus stop, but it had no bench for us to sit and rest. The sign at the stop said to text a number to see when the next bus was to arrive, but the instructions didn’t work for us on either of our phones. Shawntell confidently phoned the transit station and asked for the status of our bus, but the transit employee estimated it was 30 minutes away because of traffic. The clouds above us were looking increasingly ominous, and I threatened to call an Uber.

Shawntell patiently reminded me that we had to continue our mission without alternative options, just like our OpenDoors’ families do. Bus riders are often without smartphones, dataplans, iTunes accounts, credit cards, or cab fare to give them an Uber option. If this was a real-life scenario, we would have been late for work. In other scenarios we would have been late for our children getting off the bus, or late for our doctors’ appointment that took months to schedule.

Finally the bus arrived, and we gratefully climbed aboard. We found our staff-mates back at the Coxe Avenue station. They had missed their scenario’s doctor’s appointment on Hendersonville Road, but had succeeded in buying some easy to prepare food at the Hot Spot convenience store. They were now dangerously close to missing their 3pm goal to pick up their kids from the school bus in Hillcrest. But we had to cut this make-believe scenario short…so they could rush to their cars to pick up their own kids in real life.

The OpenDoors staff encourages you to try riding our city buses.  Call me at 828-777-1135 and we can even connect you with an experienced student guide, or you can run an errand of your own with a friend or with your favorite teen, and see how using public transportation in Asheville fits for you.

When you walk – or in this case, ride –  in someone else’s shoes, it engages you in your shared community. You learn new things in new ways that make you more compassionate and aware. That makes Asheville a stronger, more cohesive, and more wonderful  place to live and work.

By: Jen Ramming