Nancy finds happiness volunteering at Crosswalk

by Nicholas Deshais (The Inlander)

It’s Friday afternoon and Nancy Daly is ready for anything. That anything includes the barbecue out back already in the works, with burgers courtesy of Unity Church. Or a night of movies with whatever kids stop by—it’s only 4 pm, and already a couple of teenagers have rooted in front of the TV, watching an action flick. Or maybe a massive hearts tournament, even though that probably won’t happen. That card game has fallen out of favor with the homeless kids at Crosswalk.

But it hasn’t with Daly. Her easy smile slips a little when she mentions the once-popular Friday night hearts competition, a tiny mourning for a favorite memory. Still, Daly—slight, redhaired and not shy, exactly, just wary of attention—is more than ready for the night. She’s actually excited—even after 13 years of volunteering at the homeless teen shelter. Even considering that the shelter serves more than a thousand kids every year—some staying years, some weeks and some for just one brief night.

She’s ready for the night, probably, because the kids aren’t. They come from broken families, from parents who either abused them or abused drugs. They seek shelter because they want to kill themselves and have left everything behind—their parents, their homes, their schools. But, really, the only reason they come to Crosswalk is because they have nowhere else to go. And there, still there, is Nancy.

“We try to get to know the kids,” Daly says, employing her habit of avoiding talking about just herself. “It’s tough. They don’t trust a lot of people. … Sometimes the kids won’t talk to you for months.”

Warm and inviting, with the slightest sense of vulnerability that makes you want to hug her for no particular reason, Daly feels right at home in the shelter, like she’s a built-in part of the place. On her left forearm, she’s forever marked herself with the shelter’s logo: the word CROSS is tattooed above WALK, the O a shining sun and the A the form of a house.

Strolling past the front desk, where everyone signs in, Daly heads to the back. Neat piles of board games line some shelves and white-doored Murphy beds still hide away…Leonard, now 19 and earning his GED at Crosswalk’s day classes, walks in from the summer heat. He stayed at the shelter between the ages 13 and 18. “You can say anything to her,” he says of Daly. She walks by and he grabs her and hugs her, to which she asks, suspiciously, “What are you up to?”

After surveying the place, Daly’s ready to get to work making sure the kids get something to eat and are entertained for the night. Her love of the place is clear. Her affection for the kids is unquestionable. But how does she keep coming back, after all those long hours, week after week, year after year?

“Oh, I don’t know. Chocolate and coffee,” she says, laughing, deflecting the question and guarding the true target of whatever motivates her to help the most vulnerable and disadvantaged of children. Finally, as if just discovering it herself, she says she loves to take the teenagers to do pretty normal things, like ice skating or even messing with Play-Doh, and just watch. “Their eyes light up. They’ve never done these things, things we all took for granted. …

It just makes your heart feel happy.”

This article was written by Nicholas Deshais and axppeared, along with the above photo, in the Inlander’s annual Philanthropy issue.