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Bethany Wesley, Forum News Service, Published June 15 2013

Living among homeless eye-opening for NDSU student, Bemidji native

BEMIDJI, Minn. – Nicholas Conner was staying at a North Dakota homeless shelter when he met a man with a guitar.

“(He) was playing right there, just going at it,” Conner said. “I asked him if he knew any AC/DC, and I went over and sang with him.”

It was one of many encounters the teen experienced during 10 days of living homeless in Fargo.

“It was very eye-opening,” said Conner, a Bemidji native back home for the summer from North Dakota State University. “I heard a lot of stories, but that wasn’t the real reason I did it. I did it to learn how I can respond to those stories in a way that would help them, whether it be by just listening or giving them food.”

Conner spent one night in his car and seven nights at the New Life Center, sleeping alongside 67 others in bunk beds.

“I definitely learned so much from this,” Conner said. “I can’t even begin to describe how much pain I saw there – and also community.”

Those 10 days contributed to a remarkable first year on the NDSU campus for Conner, who entered college planning to pursue engineering but instead felt called to the ministry.

“I’m going to go to seminary” after graduating from NDSU, Conner said decisively. “I want to keep on giving.”

‘Incredible conversations’

A sociology class offered students extra credit for volunteering: one point for each hour of service up to 10 points. Conner called The Salvation Army.

“I ended up loving it,” he said. “I had some pretty incredible conversations with the homeless people there and some of the poor people there. I just decided that I wanted to empathize with them.”

So he embarked on a two-day project, Homeless and Hungry, a program in which participants live temporarily as a homeless person, first fasting for 30 hours and then spending the night in a cardboard box.

“I found that it wasn’t the greatest representation of homelessness,” Conner said. “You have the assurance that the next night you’ll have a roof over your head and you’ll have a meal.”

Meanwhile, Conner, who founded a Bible study in his third week on campus, collaborated with some of those members to establish a new student organization. Hands and Feet is a faith-based service organization that promotes volunteerism throughout the community.

“It’s a lot more than that,” said Conner, NDSU’s first-ever first-semester freshman to establish a student organization. “We want to help people become better leaders, and we want to help people to learn a different lifestyle and to just learn what some people have to deal with.

“It’s not specifically targeted toward homelessness, but that’s a big part of it.”

Hands and Feet, which has about 20 active members, conducts service-learning projects every two weeks.

One project was hosting a Super Bowl party for homeless men at the New Life Center.

‘They’re people, just like you and me’

Conner, who had long ago fulfilled the maximum extra credit for class, continued to volunteer weekly at The Salvation Army.

In November, he went to visit James Bofferding, a Hands and Feet co-founder also from Bemidji, with a Bible in hand, and together they prayed as Conner committed himself to spending 10 days homeless during winter break.

The first night, Conner heard of a church offering shelter. He was pleased to discover there were open beds, but he didn’t know he first had to obtain a “green slip” from Churches United, and it wasn’t possible to obtain one at the door.

“She turned me away,” Conner said.

He spent the first night sleeping in his car. The next seven nights were spent in the homeless shelter, sleeping dorm-style with dozens of others.

“I knew there were a lot (of homeless people), but I didn’t know the conditions they lived in,” Conner said. “I didn’t know them by name (before) and just getting to know them by name was far different. ... They’re people, just like you and me.”

There were all ages of men and women and many families, including one family, seven kids with their single mom, a woman seemingly pregnant again. One night, Conner was awakened by a man screaming, apparently suffering from post-traumatic stress and experiencing some type of visions.

“I felt guilty,” he said about returning home.

‘Expect me in seminary’

As the spring semester started, Conner felt drawn to sharing his experience. He spoke to several classes and was selected to be a featured speaker at TEDx NDSU.

“I wanted to share (the experience) with people, to get them to be a little more aware of what homelessness is like,” he said.

Conner declared a new major – management communication – and committed to working toward becoming a pastor.

“I got the call when we on a retreat, a men’s retreat,” he said. “That night, I had a dream that I was standing in front of a church and preaching.”

He made his decision. The next morning, Conner publicly declared his intentions before the group.

“You can expect me in seminary in a couple of years,” he told them.

‘I’m really enjoying this’

Conner juggled a full class load each semester while also serving as president of Hands and Feet and a dorm president, leading the Bible study group and continuing to volunteer at The Salvation Army.

“I just overcommitted last year,” he said. “But I would do it all over again because it definitely helped me become a better leader.”

Through his dorm presidency, he joined NDSU’s Residence Hall Association and attended regional conferences through the Midwest Affiliate of College and University Residence Halls.

In fact, MACURH, with residence hall associations in Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska and North and South Dakota, named Conner the recipient of its First Year Experience Award for the region.

Conner said he plans to be just as busy, if not busier, this coming school year, planning to increase Hands and Feet’s presence on campus and in the community.

He also plans to double his Salvation Army volunteering time.

“I really enjoying this,” he said. “I want to keep on giving.”