I began to volunteer at the Jason Roberts Challenger League two years ago. On my first day, I vividly remember being very apprehensive about the next hour and a half.  You see, while I did have experience working with kids—I had worked at the YMCA the two summers prior—I did not have experience interacting with children with special needs, and it intimidated me.
Autism spectrum disorder, or ASD, is a developmental disability that can significantly impact the social, communicative and behavioral skills of the autistic person. In 2014, the Autism Society conducted a study that shows that about 1% of people around the world, 3.5 million of which live in America, are on this spectrum.
Down syndrome, otherwise known as trisomy 21, is a genetic disorder caused by having a partial or complete extra copy of chromosome 21, resulting in one more chromosome than is usually found in our genetic code.  According to a study done in 2008 by the CDC, around 1 in every 1,200 people in the U.S. had Down syndrome. 
Both disorders are serious, life-altering disabilities that drastically change the lives of children and their families.  Now imagine being told that your child is being diagnosed with DS-ASD: both Down syndrome and autism.
This is the reality of many of the families that sign their kids up for the Jason Roberts Challenger League. The JRCL is a baseball league that services children with special needs, and gives them a place where they have the opportunity to be active, have fun and feel welcomed.
Now I know I’m not alone in this feeling.  Often, we look at people with autism and Down syndrome and other disabilities, and we see something that scares us, because they’re us, but not “us.” Sometimes they don’t have some of the core abilities that make humans so unique, like speech.  They can put us on edge, just like the depths of the deep blue ocean or the vacuum of space: an irrational fear of something that is so close to us, yet so unknown.
But it shouldn’t be that way.
I know now because I have spent a significant amount of time around people with these special needs, that they are some of the easiest people to interact with on the planet.  As an example, this spring one of the kids asked me when my birthday was, and I told him: June 28, 2002.  He asked me, “So you’re turning 17?” and I said “Yes, yes I am,” and he wished me a happy birthday as we were about to start the game.  An hour later, as the game ends and I’m beginning to walk away from the field, five or six other kids came up to me and wished me a happy birthday, because they were either told it was my birthday or overheard the original conversation.  When I said thank you, they all started grinning, and one of them even offered me a hug.  
The amount of joy they got out of simply being kind to someone was—and is every time I witness one of these acts of pure kindness—heartwarming.  They are caring, funny and kind, and just as deserving of our respect, time and understanding as the rest of humanity. The only problem is, they often require a lot more of these things than an average person.
The position I hold as a volunteer at the JRCL is a special “buddy.” I work with kids that need people to support them.  At the JRCL, there are all sorts of levels of special needs. Some of the kids have high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome and do not need to be heavily supported, whereas some of the kids with more severe cases are non-verbal, meaning they cannot speak and instead communicate with sounds and gestures.
Additionally, when describing them as “kids,” I don’t necessarily mean that they are still under the age of eighteen—which many of them are—but many of them aren’t.  This year is the league’s 25th year, and a few of the kids have been there for all 25 years.  Some of them are well beyond their teen years, but every single person there in a baseball uniform acts like a kid, which is one of the reasons that raising and supporting a child with severe autism or down syndrome it’s a lifelong commitment for parents. 
It may be very time-consuming, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less rewarding.  In that same Autism Society study, they found that in the U.S., the average lifespan cost to support someone with an intellectual disability is $2.4 million, whereas it’s just under half that for someone without an intellectual disability.  This is especially startling when you realize that the average life expectancy for someone with autism is significantly lower than those without an intellectual disability.  The British Journal of Psychiatry recently found that in Sweden, the average life expectancy for those with autism sits at around 40-54 years of age depending on the severity of their ASD diagnosis, opposed to the normal 70 years for the general population.
However, not all cases of autism are as severe as the cases of the kids I work with at the JRCL.  Autism is a spectrum, meaning that the range of how impacted the person is, varies greatly and many people who are on the spectrum you wouldn’t know they were upon meeting them.  I have several friends with Asperger’s syndrome or high-functioning autism, and they are some of my closest friends and some of the brightest people I know.
That being said, what is the main issue?  It has to do with the societal view of who is normal, and the stigma that comes with being “different.”  There’s no arguing that autism and Down syndrome make those who have them different from most people who don’t, but that isn’t a bad thing. They have things taken from them, but the stuff that was taken away gets redistributed somewhere else.  A kid with autism who has poor social skills may be extremely gifted intellectually or have a particular set of skills that serves them well in mathematics, or memorization.  For example, one of the things I’ve found out is that all of the kids I’ve worked with have lost their innate sense of bias: they look at a person, and they see a person, without harboring preconceived notions or judgments.  No more, no less.  If you’re a human, they treat you as such.
Most of us aren’t accustomed to working with this group of people, and so we feel nervous when we encounter them. I know I certainly was before I started working at the JRCL. But I do think the time and effort that goes into getting to know this absolutely incredible group of people is worth it.
It brightens my day every time I go to that baseball diamond because I know that whatever little bit of happiness I bring to their lives, is impacting someone who may not have much else.
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As I approached Ginger Exchange, I was shocked by the outer appearance of the restaurant. The restaurant resides on Huntington Ave and looks slightly dead, to be honest. There were scratches on the colorless poles outside, and the area it’s located in is slightly dirty so it wasn’t helping the already lackluster appearance of the store. But I walked inside and was in complete awe. 
The inside of the restaurant was beautiful. The first thing I noticed was all the red paintings on the walls. The next thing I noticed was the bar, which is the star of the show at Ginger Exchange. There are rows and rows and rows of alcohol--probably housing every type of alcohol that exists. Now, of course, I wasn’t incredibly drawn to the bar, but my parents were definitely happy. Suddenly, leaving the comforting walls of our home wasn’t so bad after all. 
We were then greeted by a man who accompanied us to a table and gave us menus. At the time of our arrival, there was a decent amount of people in the restaurant. It wasn’t too packed, but it also wasn’t empty enough to give us an uncomfortable vibe. Light music played in the background, and I felt so at ease. The environment was calm, and I didn’t feel like I had to be too fancy, or too quiet; it was just right.
I didn’t really focus too much on how my parents were feeling because they were simply there for my protection and to pay. Anyway, after we had come to the conclusion of what we wanted to eat, our waiter came back.  He politely asked if we wanted anything to drink. I ordered a water-- very unorthodox for me, but I wasn’t feeling anything sweet. I could see my parents eyeing the bar, but they both settled for some water as well. Then we ordered our food. I got Chicken Teriyaki, Bao Baos, Soy Garlic Chicken, and Pork Fried Dumplings. 
Maybe it was my hunger getting the best of me, but it felt like hours until our food arrived, which was odd because there weren’t more than four tables of people in the restaurant. The food eventually came and I was ready to dive in. Now, I’m no Gordon Ramsey, but the presentation was amazing. The food was plated nicely and it almost made my $30 meal worth it. I ate a little bit of everything at once.
First, I had some of the pork fried dumplings. They had a nice crispiness to them and they were soft on the inside. The pork meat had such a powerful flavor, but in a good way. I can’t exactly find the words to describe the flavor of the dumplings. All I can say is that whatever they put into it was working. I couldn’t get enough. I kept dipping them into the lightly salted soy sauce even though I didn’t think it added to the already delicious flavor.
The soy garlic chicken was probably my least favorite thing I ate there. Initially, it was absolute perfection. The garlic was very faint and not overpowering at all. There wasn’t actually any “soy” it was more of a sweet taste, which was overpowering. Despite this, it still tasted really good. After the first one, I moved on to the second. That’s when my opinion on the chicken took a turn for the worse. The sweetness had become too much and the garlic suddenly wasn’t so faint. It was as if they were both competing with each other. Their oh-so-drastic flavors didn’t mesh anymore. It tasted like I poured a pound of sugar in my mouth then decided to eat raw garlic. To make matters worse, the chicken started tasting a little odd. It didn’t have the same freshness the first piece had. It almost gave me the sense that it was frozen chicken that they had deep fried and slapped some of the sugar garlic, I mean soy garlic sauce, on there. 
The chicken teriyaki tasted like traditional chicken teriyaki. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to discredit the flavor, because it was really good, but it didn’t exceed my expectations. I can’t dock points for the portion size because I only chose the four piece. But the pieces were relatively large so it felt like I had way more. 
Finally, the Bao Baos. These, other than the dumplings, were the best thing that I ever had in my life. The bread was so fluffy it was like an explosion of clouds in my mouth--or more realistically--it felt like what cotton candy looks like, but it didn’t quite melt the same way. The Bao Baos were the only portion that I could see being an issue if you eat a lot or like getting your money’s worth because they only give you three. However, I would like to point out that they were incredibly filling, as I ended up eating one of them and was full. 
Overall, I would recommend going to Ginger Exchange in Symphony. The food was tasty, the people were friendly, and the inside environment made up for the outside’s shabby appearance.
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The first time I met Sally I was a 4-and-a-half-year-old immigrant who did not speak English. She was my babysitter and despite my origin, she was always persistent and demanding because she only wanted the best from me. Usually when she is babysitting she is the most unique person out of the crowd, even though she is swarmed by kids, dogs, teenagers and babies. She has dark sandy hair, multicolored clothes, zany glasses, different colored stockings usually matched with strange wooly socks and finally a nice pair of clogs. Her personality is so unique that even she makes fun of herself, thus her many nicknames, such as the Wicked Witch of the West, from the Wizard of Oz or Barbie.
This unique lifestyle she holds is full of humor, strictness and also something easy to love. She is charismatic and alongside her regular jobs as a fundraiser, caterer and neighborhood babysitter she is also a teacher and a very good one at that. She taught me a lot, like how to spell and use grammar, proper mannerisms, and the power of good old negotiation. In total, Sally was the real deal. Her motto is, “You can always wear a suit and tie but you’re never fully dressed without a smile!”
A story that I find funny with Sally happened when I was little, maybe seven or eight. It was after wine time, meaning she had already had her glass of dark red wine, and she was relaxed but that not sedated.
I was sitting down waiting for the food to be ready. Sally and I were talking about trains. When I was talking I hadn’t realized that my elbows were on the table and also didn’t know that it was rude.
She told me once sternly, “Daniel, don’t put your elbows on my table.” 
I thought it was funny and did it again and again, thinking no disciplinary action was going to happen. Who disciplines people for putting their elbows on the table in the 21st century? All I can tell you is that Sally does.
She told me, “If you do that again, I will throw your food out the window.” 
I laughed and did it again thinking little of it.Then almost like the north wind with the gust of her hand, she grabbed the plate, opened the window and threw the plate out, almost like she had done this to kids many times. 
Then she defiantly said, “And you thought Sally was playing.” 
To me it was a catastrophe because who is crazy enough to do this? What happens if the plate hit someone? That is just what I asked.  
Unexpectedly, she said comically, “Then my mission is accomplished. You learned not to put your elbows on the table and the person outside who got hit knows not to cross in front of Sally’s house again.” 
If you go outside in the North End and you ask someone who has grown up there, there is a high chance that they know Sally. Looking at how locals treat her is like watching how people treat grasshopper in “A Bugs Life.” She does eccentric things a lot and everyone turns their heads because no one doubts the ways of the good old Witch of the West.
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Do you remember your first encounter with a homeless person? For those who are not among the 100 million Americans living near or below the poverty line, it was likely an upsetting and discomforting moment. The hallmark cardboard sign probably had a tragic story scrawled on it, telling of the other mouths to feed, the strike of a disaster that started it all, or the hunger that has pushed them to begging. A coffee cup, maybe, placed before them, waiting in vain to be filled with the offerings of strangers. All of these things are likely to have been there, but to push that jab of pity out of your mind, you probably turned away uncomfortably and refocused your attention on more pleasant matters as you walked away. 
Human beings are inherently sympathetic, and for those not accustomed to witnessing such reduced circumstances of life, seeing that kind of suffering first hand can be jarring. A form of immediate relief from this discomfort lies within the empty cup in front of you, an easy and accessible outlet for your sympathies. Yet somehow, it is rarely striking enough to make someone crack open their wallet. Despite the obvious course of action, most will inevitably hurry away with a guilty weight in their stomach. Why? Perhaps, these people actually sparing a moment to engage in kindness is an admission and acknowledgment that their suffering is real and that it exists in our society today.
Recently, I’ve found myself thinking about the terrible hardship faced by a great number of our population, and how overlooked their plights have become. Among the wide array of hot topics in today’s national debate, caring for the poor and bringing them out of poverty is almost never discussed; the greatest number of American citizens is the middle class, and so that is where politicians focus. But their priority should not just be the rich and the middle class. It should be every American and every major difficult they face: majority, or minority. 
There are perceptions that America does not face extreme poverty, and in many ways, that does feel true. According to the New York Times, numbers show that the poorest 5 percent of Americans are still richer than 68 percent of the world’s population. Additionally, only 15 percent of American citizens live below our government’s defined poverty line. And, we already have plenty of systems in place to help the poor, right? Plus, if the poor really wanted to, surely they would lift themselves out of poverty. 
After taking many of these statistics and popular views into account, many of my worries were soothed. Maybe this wasn’t as big a problem as I’d thought; maybe, this isn’t even a big enough issue to actually write about. But then, I dug a little deeper. The situation for our nation’s poor is more complex than people see, more important than the data above had me believe, and contrary to many of the callous perceptions held toward the poor—this is still an issue that required my attention, and everyone else’s. 
True: knowing that America’s poorest 5 percent is still well-off relative to the rest of the world makes poverty feel like less of a problem, but those numbers do not mean the poor should not be a priority. According to the UN, 18 million Americans are living in extreme poverty, and regardless of the rest of the world’s status, that is still an issue. A 15 percent rate of poverty seems like a small number, except that 15 percent means 49 million people. 
Government benefits can help, but there are other programs and systems in place which counteract these by making the poor even poorer, an article for the Heritage Foundation explains. Though surveys show that half of “non poor” Americans believe poverty is at the fault of the poor themselves for not doing enough, there is much to suggest this is simply not true. The cruel belief that being poor in money results from being poor in character still exists, and I have always found it horrifying to hear about. The poor should not be held responsible for the extreme circumstances they live in.
Let’s talk about why this is wrong. First, there is a glaring discrepancy to be accounted for in the demographics of the poor. While 76 percent of America is white, white people make up only 12.3 percent of the poor. What could explain this? Possibly the well-known cycle of oppression, discrimination and lack of opportunities offered to people of color in this country? Dating back to slavery, the government has implemented programs that institutionalized racism and helped promote prejudices against people of color, like the war on drugs. Consequently, the government's actions have created an adverse reality for people of color. Most people aren’t poor for lack of trying. Many are poor, and remain poor in part because they’ve had the odds stacked against them since the moment they were born without pale skin.
It can be unpleasant to talk about this kind of suffering: suffering that cannot be pinned on one single person, suffering that is real and widespread. But, we cannot let the grim circumstances of the impoverished allow them to be ignored altogether. In the eyes of many on the street, the homeless are nothing more than part of the background. But when it comes to the national debate, political battleground, or the concerns of our government, they should not, and can not be a part of the background. If we are to remain faithful to our most fundamental values as a nation, then we ensure all Americans are prioritized and cared for. Although indifference to the poor is widespread and easy to exercise-- don’t. Ignorance is indeed bliss, but not for the ones depending on you to hear them.
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Michelle Wu
I was escorted by City Councilor Michelle Wu’s media manager, Cassie, to a hallway surrounded by offices. There, Wu showed me to a somewhat large room, pushed a chair out from one of the rows, and sat down across from me. I could clearly tell she was very down to earth, as she sat by me like we were two friends talking. And it really felt that way.
Wu has been an active city councilor for six years now. She is from Chicago, Illinois where her parents owned a small business. From there, she journeyed to Boston for college, where she attended Harvard Law School (and, fun fact, was a former student of Sen. Elizabeth Warren). In 2012, she was elected to city council, and as of 2016, is the president of the council.
However, she didn’t really have much of a relationship with public speaking before then. “I’m not naturally very outgoing or loud and never met anyone in politics. I think a lot of what I work on now, it just comes from the sense that I want to help you.”
As for Wu’s road to success, the journey was not easy. From her mother battling mental illness to having to raise her siblings to working at the family business, her life was constantly in motion. But, defying all odds, she graduated as valedictorian from Barrington High School, which led her to Harvard Law School and in the long run her election to the council. 
Wu has proven countless times that she regards community engagement highly. “It's the most important part of being a counselor and trying to make a change,” she says. “What I have learned over my time in government is that you can write laws that change the policies on the books. But unless you're connecting with communities on those issues and empowering people to advocate and then implement the solution, you're not actually changing much.”
As important as it is, community engagement is only the beginning of Wu’s struggles when it comes to Boston’s problems. Currently, Wu is working on getting people active in the Boston Community, such as protesting the new MBTA prices.
“[R]ight now, the traffic is so bad around Boston almost any time of day, any day of the week, that we should be trying to get as many cars off the road and people onto the T as possible.” 
Going back to community engagement, she explains, “we are trying to engage riders. Let people know they can have a voice it's not hopeless and here is very specific things that you can ask for.” 
Her focus on Boston’s problems span far past the MBTA. “I focus on three big issues: income inequality, racial disparities and climate change.” She assures me that the way to solve this problem is yet again the engagement with the affected community. 
“The way to fix all of those three is what we were just talking about; getting people involved to implement the changes that they are already making in their part of the city,” she explains. “[A]lso certain communities in Boston have a much harder time getting to where they need to go, and often the neighborhoods are of the working class and color.”
Once we finished up, she led me out where a man was waiting for her. After we said our goodbyes, she left with him to possibly and probably engage more people in their communities. Although most of Wu’s current and public political standings were presented in our interview, there is much more to her than what met this interview’s eyes. With a promising future in politics and supporting base that is only growing, more and more Bostonians are becoming confident in her capabilities as a city councilor. 
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