In case you were wondering, the internet is filled with all sorts of things that can bring a person down or worse, make one feel hopeless. The company now known as Meta have faced criticism for their Facebook and Instagram apps that have given rise to pettiness, jealousy, and division. If you’re a teenage girl, you could add body shaming to my small and nowhere near endless list. Still, one can find hope and good stories that can inspire and lift you up.
I don’t know when the idea came, but when I started KNOWvember I had no idea or any intention to be like the Instagram page Humans Of New York (@humansofny), which was created by Brandon Stanton to showcase the beauty in ordinary people in his community. His page, unlike mine, has 11.5 million followers which tells me there is a need out there. We are all just humans. Like the people found and featured online, we are all ordinary people capable of doing extraordinary things. Every day.
One such person is Kevin Livingston, the founder of 100 Suits. This is how he tells his own story @humansofny Insta: “I still have the original flyer that I made: 100 suits for 100 gang members. At the time I was working as a bank teller. My manager allowed me to put a collection box in the lobby. People donated so many suits that I had to move them to the staff closet. I got written up for that, so I moved them all to my bedroom. Nothing in there but a bed and 100 suits. We handed all of them out that very first day. I brought a suit rack to her all the kids hang out on the corner. I gave each kid a haircut: lineup, fade, I can do it all. Then afterword I would fit him for a suit.”
That is how it began. This is how hope is born daily. And faith is returned, if only to a small place in the world where most hope and faith seemed to have faded. That was 2011. I am al most positive that Mr. Livingston had no idea that four years later his vision and heart would become an official 501(c)3 non-profit simply known as 100 Suits. Ten years later, they are still turning lives around one suit at a time.
While this story is about Kevin Livingston, it reminds me of a woman who came into the church that I served. She and her husband had been living in their car after their moving truck caught on fire. They lost everything in that disaster. Not just their clothes, but also their documents and identification. I was used to being “hustled” by people looking for handouts. And truth be told, it never bothered me. But there was something about these two that I just loved. They had hope.
Working with a organization that helped unhoused people, I was able to get them a week stay in a very cheap hotel. While she was happy for that, what she really wanted was a job. She was smart, articulate, and kind. (She wore a wig because she lost her hair from chemo treatments as a little girl).
What was stopping her from finding a job, in a town that had very little to offer, was she only had the clothes on her back. A violet-colored sweat suit, the only thing she could find in her size and price range at Goodwill. That wasn’t going to cut it.
Before I began calling parishioners for donations the church secretary came in, unknowingly, and said, “XXX just dropped off her mom’s clothes. I put them in the storage room.” The woman whose funeral I had just officiated was the same size as this woman. With a room to shower, and a new wardrobe, this wonderful woman got a job the next day.
Kevin Livingston’s story is this same story. Only it happens every day with him. “ I take a young man without any hope, and put him in a suit jacket, and a tie. He’s going to change his opinion of himself. He’s going to feel like his CEO of the world.”
It really doesn’t take much to give someone some hope, or to restore their faith, or to build both in them if they never had it before. “I brought along one of those cheap $10 mirrors. I showed him his reflection. Then I had sent him straight to the job development person. I had no idea what I was doing.”
His story reminds me of the extraordinary things ordinary people can do, if only we take the time to get to know others, learn their story, and offer to help wherever possible. “I had no clue what it would grow to be. Over the last 10 years we’ve given out 50,000. Whenever a man needs a fresh start, 100 Suits is there with a suit.”
Over the years, they have expanded their services; partnering with the prison and parole systems to assist people as they transition out of incarceration. They also provide leadership and job training. And they work to address “socio-economic issues as well as injustice issues with its community involvement and activism, making positive changes in the lives of men and women in the New York City area. These solutions help those individuals get to a place of economic freedom help to reduce recidivism rates.”
This place reminds me of Homeboy Industries out here in Los Angeles; a program created by one of my heroes, Fr. Greg Boyle, to help gang-members get off the streets with employment opportunities. It’s amazing how a person’s life can be change and transformed because someone takes the chance to love them and care for them. This isn’t always easy.
Livingston has had his own struggles along the way. He recalls, “There was an entire month in 2016 when I was homeless. Every night I slept in my car, in the parking lot of JFK. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone. But I kept doing what I do. Each morning I’d wash up in the bathroom of the travel center. I put on a black pants, and a $5 black T-shirt. And I drove to work. I kept a single suit jacket behind my desk. First thing in the morning and slip it on, and I get a boost. No matter what was going on. No matter how low I felt. When I slipped on that jacket, for a moment I felt like CEO of the world.”
Livingston didn’t let that get him down, nor did it make him throw in the towel. He persevered and as of today has extended the organization’s reach into the community to include 100 Soups, to address the food insecurity issues among seniors and the most vulnerable in their communities. Meals are cooked and delivered by men and women who were formerly incarcerated.
As Charlene Rhinehart put in her interview with Livingston, which was featured in Black Enterprise, “Children, young men, and men of color need to see people like themselves represented in a positive light by “ordinary” people. Furthermore, it provides a framework for them to understand that dreams coupled with hard work lead to success and empowerment. It speaks to possibility, demonstrates hope, and has the capacity to spur someone else to pursue their dreams despite the lack of initial support.”
With two offices now serving Brooklyn and Queens, 100 Suits lives up to their mission “to help underprivileged men and women improve their role in society build dignity and self-esteem, foster self-sufficiency, dispel stereotypes, and promote community involvement in order to build each other up.”
This is what I think it means to be an ordinary person doing extraordinary things in the world. We are all superheroes, but not everyone has a suit to prove it.
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”