A stranger’s act of kindness restored hope, and changed a life
After nearly a decade of struggling with drug addiction, Megan Cohen turned her life around. At 28, she leads The Grace Project, helping those who are unhoused and needing help in Philadelphia. Episode 2 of the "People Making a Difference" podcast.
The Grace Project is the story of one woman’s journey of redemption and hope, and a developing quest to “pay forward.” Megan Cohen emerged from nearly a decade of drug addiction thanks in part to the kindness of strangers. A year into sobriety, she started giving back. First, it was to help those living on the streets of Philadelphia. But her generosity continues to sprout wings. She recently started the “Give a Little Hope” program for children in her community dealing with poverty, illness, or a parent’s addiction. “I didn't want The Grace Project to only be about addiction. I wanted it to be about hope,” she says. “Because my story is not one about addiction. It’s about hope and the power that hope can have, and when it’s restored in you, what it can do.”
Megan Cohen: I didn’t want The Grace Project to only be about addiction. I wanted it to be about hope. Because my story is not one about addiction. It’s about hope and the power that hope can have, and when it’s restored in you, what it can do – [bring] hope and faith.
Dave Scott: That’s Megan Cohen, founder of The Grace Project in Warrington, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Philadelphia. And as you listen to excerpts of our conversation, you’ll see that this is a story about a woman’s personal journey of redemption and generosity and a quest to pay it forward.
Welcome to People Making a Difference, a podcast about people who are step by step making a better world.
I’m Dave Scott.
Megan Cohen: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Dave Scott: Meg was a good student, played sports, had friends, but in high school she started partying, first using alcohol then a few pills, because, [as] she told me, she thought she was too smart to get hooked. But the path to addiction is often a slippery slope and a familiar one for families caught in what has become a national opioid epidemic. And by the time she was 26, she’d been in and out of 71 rehab centers. And in jail four times, mostly for theft. She’d lived homeless in the streets of Miami, Detroit, Palm Springs, and the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, which is the biggest outdoor drug market on the East Coast.
But there was a turning point about two years ago. She was the recipient of small acts of kindness by complete strangers. So I started by asking her about those acts of kindness and why they touched her.
Megan Cohen: When total strangers, you know, reminded me that I was still a person, the impact that it had, it kind of restored hope in me.
I was at the point where I didn’t think I could ever live a different life. I’d been in so many treatment centers, in and out of jail, homeless all over the place, and was at the point where my family, rightfully so, didn’t really want much to do with me.
There were a lot of people that I encountered when I was out there, but the last one was a woman that ended up taking me into her house. And that’s something I always tell people: I don’t recommend taking somebody – who is in the state of mind that I was in – into your home, the way that she did. But for me, that was what I needed at the time. And, the connection that we had – because there was a language barrier there – just through a woman who is translating. Then, we went into the house, just the two of us, and she let me take a shower, gave me clean clothes, and gave me food. And before I left, we just looked into each other’s eyes and both of us started crying, and she didn’t know me from a can of paint.
I never talked to this woman before in my life and we couldn’t use words to communicate. But that kind of said it all. And I looked at that as my God moment. And that’s when I started opening up to the fact that there was something watching over me and maybe I’m meant for more. And maybe, let’s just give this one more chance.
And I called my mom and told her she could come pick me up and she turned me in to jail that night. And that was the start of my journey to actually finding recovery.
Dave Scott: Wow. So what did you mean when you said, “that was my God moment”?
Megan Cohen: I was never really a religious person. I wasn’t brought up religious, not spiritual, or anything along those lines, but there was no denying that there was something or someone watching over me. I should be dead at this point, the amount of times that I’ve overdosed or been in situations that I shouldn’t have been able to get out of, and I was able to get out of. There was definitely something looking out.
And then when this happened, I was in an abandoned house, right before I walked out and encountered this woman. When my back was against the wall and I had nobody else to turn to, and I was just by myself, out in the streets, all of a sudden I started praying. I would just be begging God: “Show me a sign that my life is meant for more. Show me that this isn’t what it’s going to be, or just take me. Intervene in some way because I can’t do this anymore.”
And I walked out of that house after saying exactly that, and the woman came up to me. This lady doesn’t even know me. It just seemed like it was a direct answer to my prayers.
Then, looking at everything else that had happened in my life: So many times where – I call my higher power God – God was present in my life. The situations that I had been in that, in my eyes, he helped me get out of it. I couldn’t be resistant to it anymore.
Dave Scott: So after that God moment, Meg calls her mom to come pick her up – knowing that her mom would legally and morally have to turn her into the police. Meg had outstanding warrants for her arrest. Meg serves two months in jail, then a drug-court judge decides to give her one more shot at turning around her life and sends her to a rehab program instead of the Pennsylvania state prison.
Fast forward, one year later, Meg is in recovery, still sober. She’s got a job and that’s when, after a conversation with her mom, she starts The Grace Project. Every Thursday night, Meg and other volunteers go to the streets of Philadelphia to hand out food and water, clothing, and hygiene kits. Essentially, she’s going back to the same places where she lived on the streets. The Grace Project has been going on now for about a year, but I asked Meg how it got started.
Megan Cohen: So it’s actually kind of crazy how it all happened. So, basically the night that my mom came and got me, I had asked her to bring out some water and food for the people that were out there, and she did.
When she saw the reaction that the people had out there, when she brought the food, that did something for her and it felt good for me. And I had said to my mom, not even necessarily believing that it was true, but “one day I’m going to come back out here, and I’m going to do something good and I’m going to give back.”
I don’t know if I really meant that. I knew that I wanted to, but I still wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to turn my life around. So when COVID hit, my mom texted me and she was, “Hey, if I were to go bring food out to Kensington, what areas would I go to?”
“You’re crazy. If you think you’re going out there without me... You don’t know the area like I do. I’m going to go with you. I’ll make a post on Facebook.” And, I made this post and the post took off and a bunch of people wanted to get involved and people wanted to donate.
I wanted the integrity of it to be protected because I felt it could go so much further than what we were already doing. So I was saving up to move out of a recovery house at the time, and I used the money that I was saving up to file all the paperwork to become incorporated, to protect the integrity of The Grace Project.
So I had to come up with a name. I remember going back and forth about it for days. The recovery house owner, I was on the phone with her because we were really close at this point. I was managing the house. And we’re like, “What can we do? Should it be like an acronym?” And she says, “Well, I always liked the idea of grace.” And I was like, “I do too, because like I’ve been shown grace in my life.”
Even the life that I have today, I look at that as God’s grace, because I don’t necessarily deserve it. So first it was going to be Grateful, Recovering Addicts, Caring for Each other. But again, I had this bigger vision. I didn’t want The Grace Project to only be about Kensington or only be about addiction. I wanted it to be about hope, because my story is not one about addiction. It’s about hope and the power that hope can have. And when it’s restored in you, what it can do: Hope and faith.
Eventually I ended up just taking out the acronym completely and leaving it as grace. So now it’s just specifically “The Grace Project.” The name is very fitting because it’s all about acts of kindness – for people that for whatever reason have lost hope in their lives.
Dave Scott: Beautiful. I love it. I was on your website and I saw that you’ve got T-shirts and hoodies and things like that. And on the back of the T-shirts it says, “Hope dealer,” which I think is very clever, but it’s also a tall promise. What have you learned about dealing hope?
Megan Cohen: I would say, honestly, the best thing that I have to offer is my own personal story, because my own story is [about] hitting that complete rock bottom and feeling what it’s like to feel complete hopelessness and then having that restored.
So all that I can do – and that my volunteers can do – is bring a message to people that your life can get better. That’s really what it’s all about: It’s showing people kindness. It’s showing them that they’re still cared about.
Dave Scott: And given that perspective that you can bring, when you have a conversation with someone on the street, do you feel like they’re listening? Going back to Meg of five years ago, when you’re talking to somebody, do you think “they’re not listening, they’re not ready?” How do you gauge where they are in that journey and whether they’re willing to be helped?
Megan Cohen: Honestly, I try not to gauge it. They might not say, “Hey, I want to go to treatment.” But if they’re not ready, then, they’re not ready.
Again, all we can do is try to plant those seeds. And it can be frustrating. Sometimes, I just want to shake people: “Your life can be so much better. You’re wasting it out here.” But it’s their process. Again, all I can do is try to plant a little bit of hope and see what comes from it.
But we have gotten some people into treatment. We’ve even had some of our volunteers go out and speak in treatment centers. One of them had somebody come up to him, and he recognized [him] from going out on a Thursday and talking to him and giving him food. So, you know, it definitely makes an impact.
It’s just being patient and not getting discouraged because most of the people out there, they’re not ready. I always have to tell my volunteers before we go out, “You’re going to want to save everyone, especially when you have a conversation with somebody out there and you can see that they’re a genuine person, and that they can be so much more. It hurts sometimes because you just want to make them go [into treatment]. But we can’t do that. We can’t do that. We can just be available when they’re ready and bring a message out there.” And that’s it.
Dave Scott: What advice would you give to the family of someone struggling with addiction? Now, your relationships are good [with your family]. But over the last 10 years, when you were on this journey, there were some difficult times between you and your family. If you were giving advice to another family, who’s wrestling with the challenge of watching a child or a sibling become addicted to drugs, what would you say?
Megan Cohen: If it’s in the early stages, intervention in any way possible, whether that’s getting them the education or pushing somebody to go to treatment before it gets out of control. Any of those early interventions. That’s huge because once it continues to progress, it gets harder and harder. That’s the point that I got to.
Then on the other end of it, when things are bad, the best thing that my mom did was finally telling me I didn’t have the option of coming back home to her house. Not giving me money, not enabling me in any way, no matter what story I told her. Because I used to come up with the most off the wall stories to try to get money out of her, get her to let me come home. She had to put her foot down because she had to stop depriving me of [finding] my bottom, if that makes sense.
I had to hit that bottom. But in reality, me being under her roof wasn’t keeping me from using and it was making it a little bit easier for me to think that things were under control while I was under her roof. Whereas, when she kicked me out, that unmanageability was screaming in my face every day: “This is not OK. We’re not OK, right now.”
So I would say the biggest thing, it’s hard, but not enabling. Like I said, my family wasn’t really talking to me. But they made it very clear that they were there when I wanted help. So they let me know that I was loved. I was aware that they loved me and I was aware that they were there when I was done doing the things that I was doing. But they weren’t going to sit on the sidelines and watch me kill myself anymore. They were done with that. “I love you. I’m here to help you, but I’m not going to enable you anymore.” And then I reached my bottom quicker.
Dave Scott: So, you’ve been in rehab. You tried to get off drugs like 70 times at this point. What happened on that 71st attempt that was so different?
Megan Cohen: I think it was honestly, it was just the fact that there was so much evidence in front of me that my way didn’t work. I had somebody years back say to me, “Stop trying to outsmart the program and stop trying to outsmart my disease.” For so long part of why I couldn’t get it was because I kept trying to do it my way, for me to run the show, and [I was] not having faith in something bigger than myself. And I wish that I realized that sooner.
I wasn’t open to it. I really thought that, “there’s no way that this little powder or this little crack rock is more powerful than I am.” It didn’t work out, and with so many attempts, it was just clear as day. And I always say, “I wish I stopped trying to outsmart it a lot sooner because I can’t imagine where my life would be today if I wasn’t so stubborn.”
Dave Scott: I’m thinking back to the first story you told us, where you were a recipient of an act of kindness. This one woman brought you in and gave you a shower – the stranger did. It seems that you’ve come full circle. You are now the stranger offering kindness in Kensington. So, how has The Grace Project transformed you over the past year?
Megan Cohen: I would say, honestly, it keeps it fresh for me: Going out there and being reminded of where I came from and what I got out of. There’s not really words to describe the feeling that I get when somebody does want to get help, what that does. It fills my cup up. Spiritually, it fills my cup up. Your life is actually great compared to what it was and compared to what these other people are going through.
On the other end of that, [I’m] trying to be the person that tries to pull them out of that or, at least, make them feel a little bit better – whether it’s temporary or really completely pulls them out of it. Just doing something to make them feel better.
And it’s been a learning process. Nonprofits, there’s a lot that goes into it that I didn’t know. Like I said, I didn’t plan for it and I work full-time and I’m in school. So there’s so much that I still have to learn and I’m still figuring it out. But it’s really showed me that I’m capable of anything that I put my mind to.
If we put our minds to something and we put our full effort into it, we can do it. That’s been something that’s really been great that I’ve gotten out of The Grace Project. And, valuing myself more and realizing that I can do it.
Dave Scott: I don’t know if you heard it, but I was impressed when Meg began her Grace Project, and the donations started to flow, that she wanted the project to have integrity. That meant setting up a proper nonprofit, registering it, and creating a governing board and a treasurer. This is still a baby nonprofit, barely a year old. And while it was born out of Meg’s recovery and a desire to give back, she’s got a bigger vision. As she says, “to grow beyond helping addicts.” She recently started the “Give a Little Hope’’ program for children dealing with poverty, illness or parental addiction. And Meg and her board are looking at other ideas, such as supporting other “good Samaritans” in the community.
To learn more about her efforts, go to the website: www.teamgraceproject.org.
And here’s this week’s challenge: Commit an act of kindness to a stranger.
It doesn’t have to be a grand gesture, like bringing a person who is homeless into your home for a shower. It can be something modest, such as letting a stranger go ahead of you in line, or lending a helping hand, or paying it forward at Starbucks. Then, tell me how it went: Call me at (617) 450-2410 and leave me a voice message about what happened. That’s (617) 450-2410.
Thanks for listening to People Making a Difference, a podcast about people – like you – who are, step-by-step, making a better world.
This podcast was produced by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2021