How far can you go with determination at $25?

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 9, 2008

“Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream,” by Adam Shepard. SB Press. 235 pp. $13.95.
By Cindy Murphy
For the Salisbury Post
Is the American Dream still alive? Can one man pull himself out of poverty through hard work and persistence?
Those are the questions Adam Shepard set out to answer. He chronicled his search in “Scratch Beginnings: Me, $25, and the Search for the American Dream.” The result is a fascinating, often funny and enlightening look at American society from the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
Shepard randomly selected Charleston, S.C., for his base in his search for the American Dream. He took just $25, an 8-by-10 tarp, a sleeping bag, an empty gym bag and the clothes on his back.
The project was supposed to determine whether someone could build a life from scratch in modern American society. Shepard set his goals before he boarded the train for Charleston: “I have 365 days to become free of the realities of homelessness and become a ‘regular’ member of society. After one year, for my project to be considered successful, I have to possess an operable automobile, live in a furnished apartment (alone or with a roommate), have $2,500 in cash, and most importantly, I have to be in a position in which I can continue to improve my circumstances either by going to school or starting my own business.”
In order to complete the project, Shepard has to leave his family behind in Raleigh, and avoid using his college education or any contacts from his previous life. When the train deposits Shepard in Charleston, the adventure begins.
Since the train is late, Shepard has to search for the homeless shelter in the dark. He eventually finds Crisis Ministries, but he learns that they have already closed for the evening. A passing police officer helps him get inside the shelter. The first night opens Shepard’s eyes to a whole other world.
The shelter becomes home to Shepard until he can afford rent. At first he takes various jobs as a day laborer. He quickly realizes that permanent employment is a key part of the climb out of homelessness. But getting a job is not as easy as he thought it would be. He discovers that the search for a job is much more difficult when you are living at a homeless shelter. With a bit of luck and a lot of determination, he lands a job as a mover.
Shepard eventually climbs out of poverty. But he faces numerous setbacks and challenges along the way. With each setback, he seems to gain even more determination to succeed in this project. Shepard freely admits that this was just a socioeconomic experiment for him. At the end of a year, he was going to go back to his middle-class life in Raleigh.
The fact that Shepard succeeds is not really surprising. He started the project with determination and a willingness to work hard. The amazing part is how quickly he succeeded. According to the goals he initially set for himself, he actually could have completed the project in just under six months. Despite his success, Shepard chooses to stay in Charleston and see how much he can accomplish in one year. He ends his experiment abruptly in April when he returns home due to a family crisis.
Shepard tells his story in a smooth, conversational style. He depicts many of his fellow residents at Crisis Ministries with dignity and humor. They are people to him, rather than just research subjects. His mental image of a shelter where “everybody would be old, hairy, and smelly” changed quickly when he met the people at Crisis Ministries. Over time, Shepard forms friendships with a number of the residents. Many of them are looking for the same thing: a chance to break out of poverty.
Shepard does speak with a great deal of pride about his accomplishments. More importantly, he realizes that he probably would not have achieved the same type of success if his experiment had taken place outside of the United States.
In the epilogue, Shepard offers a few of his own ideas regarding poverty in America. His ideas are interesting and well-researched. Shepard also offers ideas for individuals who want to help. Most of his solutions are simple, such as volunteering in your community.”Scratch Beginnings” is an inspiring look at the modern American Dream. In the course of a year, Shepard starts from scratch and builds a life for himself. He also discovers what life is really like on the lower rungs of the economic ladder. Unlike other books in this genre, “Scratch Beginnings” offers facts and a sense of hope regarding poverty in America. It will also make you think about your own life and appreciate what you have.
Cindy Murphy loves to read.