When one Chandler teenager imagined her Sweet 16 birthday, she imagined spending it the same way she has spent many Sundays in the past seven years — with the homeless friends she served in the parking lot in downtown Phoenix.
“Ever since I was about nine, I really wanted to do this for my Sweet 16,” said Taliah Ellis, a Chandler High School honors student and varsity athlete. “Coming down here and seeing all these faces that would be familiar; I always saw them as friends.”
Taliah’s mother, Christine Ellis, always imagined a traditional debutante ball for her daughter, which is common in her native Haiti; she compared the formal gathering’s relevance to a quinceañera or a bat mitzvah.
But as a child, Taliah began to imagine of sharing her birthday celebration with the homeless she has known for years.
“She always wanted to do it, one day we were driving down there and we were talking about what else we could do (to help them),” Christine said of the idea of helping out.
So while the teen had a big, traditional bash to celebrate her birthday, she also extended the party to Sunday morning with the friends that she’s known since she was a little girl.
Years ago, Ellis’ church began delivering sack lunches to homeless in Phoenix, hoping to create a friendship between the two groups. Expanding from the first 25 lunches to serving about 400 every weekend now, the weekly service moments have greatly impacted the family.
“What happened to me was that when I came back home it changed my whole life,” Christine said about her first experience serving the homeless. “Growing up in Haiti, to then see the same thing going on here... I never really faced that because I moved in a different circle. We have a pretty good life. It was in your face and this is what is happening here. I couldn’t walk away from it. I felt like God was calling me there.”
For the first few years, then-9-year-old Taliah served the sugar that goes in the coffee.
“Then I was upgraded to the powdered mix,” she said with a laugh. “I usually do it every Sunday, unless they have enough volunteers. Then I help out with the doughnuts.”
But last Sunday’s meal was of fried chicken, green beans, potato salad with cake and doughnuts for dessert, provided by Hospice of the West, a company owned by a family friend, and doughnuts from The Doughnut Peddler in Mesa.
This time, instead of being filtered through the lines quickly, they were able to sit down and enjoy the meal together, Taliah said.
So while Taliah did have her picture-perfect debutante ball on Saturday at the San Marcos Hotel, complete with a pink-silver pageant-worthy gown, she and several of her friends woke up early to go downtown.
“I’ve brought some of my friends down there (before),” she said. “They’re always astonished by how many people are down there.”
Despite the large numbers, Taliah has come to know a few of them and recognize most of them, she said.
“There is one man who always tells me, ‘I used to remember you when you were this little,” she said. “He used to work for my mom. It always reminds me that it can be the slightest little thing that can put you off track. It can be the lowest day that can make you slip off your track.”
With that mindset, Christine believes it’s important for Taliah and her friends to see what can happen if you stop making positive choices in your life.
“Normally when they come for the first time, they are very quiet,” she said. “I try to get them to relate to what happened here. Number one, no one woke up and said that they were going to be homeless.”
A spiral can begin when you lose your job or can’t afford medications, she explained. Often times, young volunteers are those who are at risk of making the same mistakes as the homeless men and women the group serves.
“I turn it into a positive thing for them,” she explained. “We instruct them and put them in the forefront, to handout food and look them in the eye.”
It also is the one day a week the men and get the chance to choose something, Christine said.
“We ask them what they like, we don’t just hand it to them,” she said.
Rather than handing them a cup of coffee, they are asked if they want sugar or other sweeteners in their Sunday joe — which is why Taliah is responsible for the coffee powder.
“They don’t have a choice: where they eat, where they sleep or anything,” she said. “But that particular morning, they have a choice about what’s in their coffee.”
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