Bluefield, VA – Following a semester of hard work, most college students look forward to a well-deserved break as they head home for the holidays. However, for BU senior and student-athlete Elishia Peña, the winter break meant working to help those who don’t have a place to call home.
A native of Sweetwater, TN, Peña graduated from Midway High school and received her Associate’s degree from Hiwassee College. She transferred to Bluefield University and became a member of the women’s soccer team. While at home, Peña played soccer in the Knoxville, TN area and noticed the number of homeless people in the city. As Peña grew in her relationship with God during her junior year, she felt the call to serve the homeless in her Tennessee community.
According to knoxvilletn.gov, roughly 800 people in Knoxville are experiencing homelessness, with 75.6% considered sheltered and 24.4% unsheltered. Of those, about 22% are chronically homeless.
“I went through all of my clothes,” shared Peña. “I had three full bags, so I drove through Knoxville and found a place that was heavily populated with homeless people.”
While passing out clothes, she had the opportunity to hear others’ stories. “One man was a veteran,” shared Peña. “When he came back, he had no family, friends, or a place to live. He had PTSD, and it was hard for him to get a job, especially with no clean clothes or a place to shower.”
The stories of these individuals touched Peña. “After doing this the first time, I went to my car and cried,” said Peña. “I realized how much God has blessed me in my life and how often I take things for granted such as a bed, a toothbrush, clothes, or even socks.”
Peña then saved every penny from her job to buy supplies to make care bags with socks, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hair care, and more. “When I gave them to people, I would smile and say, “God loves you” or “I hope this can help.” I also had the opportunity to see how they lived. Most of them lived in tents under the bridge, while others had straps tied together for shelter. I prayed how I could help and bring more impact.”
Peña decided to create a Facebook group called ‘Faith for the Future.’ “I posted some things I recently did, and people became interested. I then started to take donations for supplies and was surprised by how many people were interested in helping.”
Along with her mom, cousin, and several donors, Peña collected hygiene products, clothing, medicine, 120 blankets, and spent 8 hours making 200 muffins to hand out during their next drop-off.
“There was a man during this trip that asked why we do this,” said Peña. “I told him that it was all because of God, and He had sent me there to help.”
Peña recalled another man to who she gave the last pair of gloves and gave her a charm bracelet in return.
“I realized this man had nothing and gave me probably one of the nicest things he owned,” said Peña. “Even if I am the only sign of God they ever see in their life, I want them to know that He is there. This has nothing to do with me but everything to do with Him.”
Through her compassion for others, Peña exemplifies BU’s mission of servant leadership. As defined by Robert K. Greenleaf, “Servant leadership is being a servant first, letting the natural feeling to serve others come first, and then through conscious choice bringing one to aspire to lead. This manifests itself in that the servant leader makes sure that other people’s highest needs are being served.”
“It shows the kindness in her heart for others,” said Katie Morton, BU head women’s soccer coach. “In a season where it is so easy to think about ourselves or finding the perfect gift, she stepped out and served the needs of those in her community.”
Peña plans to make more trips soon and is accepting clothing and monetary donations. If you are interested in helping in this journey, follow the ‘Faith for the Future’ Facebook page for more information.
Peña will graduate with her Bachelor of Science in psychology and human services this spring and plans to work with Child Protective Services. She hopes to continue growing her organization to give hope and share faith with those in need.
“My definition of a servant leader is someone who is selfless,” said Peña. “Someone who wants to help others and make a difference, not for the satisfaction of themselves, but who does it purely because it’s the right thing to do.”