I had been a business major in college and my first job after graduation was in an elite training program at an insurance company in New York City. There were only about a dozen of us, and we were slated to become the future presidents and vice presidents of the company. I found an apartment off of Park Avenue. I thought I had it made.
And then one day I talked to a college friend who was working at Covenant House, a nonprofit that sheltered homeless and runaway teens. They were looking for volunteers to help out during the evenings. I told her I'd go over, play basketball and hand out sandwiches one night a week.
Every Tuesday, I'd change out of my business suit, put on jeans, sneakers and a sweatshirt, and take the subway uptown to spend a few hours at Covenant House. After a few weeks, I started to get to know the kids there. Most had grown up in extremely difficult circumstances, surrounded by unemployment, addiction and crime. I met people like Tony, a 19-year-old who had spent his entire childhood being shuttled from one institution to another — his mother had left him and his siblings in Harlem when she moved to North Carolina.
Working with these kids, hearing their stories and seeing them cling to the prospect of a positive future despite everything they had endured made me question my carefully planned career path. Helping a $6 billion-dollar company become a $7 billion-dollar company started to seem much less important.
So I quit my job, left my apartment, and gave my car to my brother and my suits to the Salvation Army. Covenant House had a residence for full-time volunteers who committed to stay for at least one year; I moved in. They assigned me to work on a floor with 40 teenage males who were there because they had nowhere else to live.
My friends thought I was nuts. I'm sure more than a few of my coworkers did, too. But I felt like this was my calling. I didn't really know what I was doing, and they gave me very little training. But I learned as I went along; 32 years later, I'm still learning.
Believe it or not, I'm still in touch with Tony. He was at my wedding, and I was there when his girlfriend gave birth to their daughter — in fact, Tony asked me to be her godfather. My wife and I were able to help her get into one of the city's best charter schools.
I'm very glad I took my friend up on her request to volunteer. That once-a-week commitment turned out to be a lifelong passion.