Hugs Help Reporter Embrace A New Beat

Eric Sheptock i i

Eric Sheptock, a homeless blogger, was the giver of one of the many hugs NPR's Pam Fessler has gotten on her new beat. Katie Hayes/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Katie Hayes/NPR
Eric Sheptock

Eric Sheptock, a homeless blogger, was the giver of one of the many hugs NPR's Pam Fessler has gotten on her new beat.

Katie Hayes/NPR
Pam Fessler i i

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty and philanthropy. She's produced stories on homelessness, hunger and the impact of the recession on the nation's less fortunate. Jacques Coughlin hide caption

itoggle caption Jacques Coughlin
Pam Fessler

Pam Fessler is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where she covers poverty and philanthropy. She's produced stories on homelessness, hunger and the impact of the recession on the nation's less fortunate.

Jacques Coughlin

NPR correspondent Pam Fessler recently switched from reporting about homeland security to covering poverty — and that's involved many changes. But she says one has been especially striking.

The first time I noticed it was at the end of an interview with a shy teenage boy in Baltimore. His name was Cortasz Steele and he was from one of the city's toughest high schools. He was telling me how much he liked working as a volunteer with other kids at the city's teen court.

"Everybody needs somebody to talk to. We go through a lot when we go home and then come to teen court — and, like, they just needed somebody to talk to," he said.

When he and I finished talking, I stuck out my hand to shake his, as I usually do. But instead, Steele approached awkwardly, put his arms around my shoulders and gave me a big, warm hug.

Now, that never happened when I covered homeland security! But on the poverty beat, hugging seems fairly routine. The divorced mother of two in Harlem whom I profiled? She gave me a big hug. The community organizer in Columbus, Ohio? Big hug.

And then there were the women from a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. I spent hours with them as they prepared for an inaugural ball last January.

Even I pitched in at one point, helping with zippers and bra straps, as they struggled into their gowns. How could there not be a couple of hugs after that?

And then there was Eric Sheptock, the homeless blogger whom I profiled. We agreed to meet at a local library. When he walked in, I recognized him from his Web site. So I went over and stuck out my hand. Sheptock gave me a hug. I recently asked him why he did that — and why so many others I interview these days do, too. He thinks people are just grateful to have someone who'll listen to them.

"The homeless and the poor are so used to not being heard. So when someone does want to hear their story, then they're very appreciative of that," he said.

And I must admit, I'm a little appreciative, too. When I first came to Washington to report on the government, I quickly realized that everyone I talked to was paid to talk to me. Lobbyists, government officials, congressional aides — dealing with the media was part of their jobs. I missed talking with regular people, who more often than not speak from the heart, especially when they're at a vulnerable time in their lives.

I recently asked Paulette Palmer, a Baltimore woman who'd been in and out of homelessness, if she had anything to add at the end of our interview about health care.

"I just thank you for your time to come in and talk to us," she said, "to find out what's really going on with us personally. You know, I really appreciate it. Thank you so much."

And with that, another hug.

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