Day has turned to night and Pedro Neto is making his way to the South Orange train station. It is a trip he often makes, but rarely ever to actually step foot on the train platform. His purpose for being there is far greater.
He rounds Cottage Street and makes the turn onto South Orange Avenue. His schedule is overflowing with commitments from being a key member of the men’s soccer team to his demands with classes, but Neto finds time for the people that call the humble benches of the train station their beds.
“Every time, before I go, I just think by myself a little bit, I make my prayer,” Neto said. “And then, I go with my heart open, to only help them. I don’t have anything other in my mind.”
As a 14-year-old, Neto was already living in the academy of his youth soccer team, away from his family for most of the week. The early independence came with a mix of positives and negatives, as did the city he called home, São Paulo.
“São Paulo is just…gigantic,” Neto said. “[In] São Paulo there is everything; there is a lot of everything. Everything I can tell you, if I say business, there is a lot of business, people, there is a lot of people, homeless, there is a lot of homeless.”
Neto has never been afraid of the homeless, and any reservations he may have had about reaching out with them were squashed by a social mobilization program that he took part in while in São Paulo. After participating in the outreach in Brazil, Neto – who was at the time a student-athlete at Seton Hall – believed he could enact a similar effort in his adopted community of South Orange.
“So, I had the idea, and then I brought the idea here,” Neto said. “And I wanted to start and I tried to talk to some people, but it didn’t work. I knew, how…not dangerous, but I know that there is a lot of people that would just avoid going to the streets at night; there is a lot of things that goes behind, that can happen.”
The turning point came when Neto collaborated with some of his teammates on the men’s soccer team, including fellow Brazilians Felipe Hideki and Gabriel Viola, in addition to Colombian Juan Camilo Abella. With care-packages of toothpaste and deodorant, in addition to donuts, sandwiches and bottles of water, Neto and Hideki traveled down for their first visit.
“The first time we went over there, they didn’t receive us that well,” Neto said. “We went over there and we said, ‘Hey, excuse me, we have some sandwiches, we have some water, we have some food, would you like to accept?’ And then, obviously the first reaction is, ‘No.’ But then, we also had a donut or something, and everyone was like, maybe a donut. And then they think like, ‘Why is this guy offering me all this stuff?’ So, they end up asking, ‘Why do you want to give that to me?’ And then you have the opportunity to explain [to] them what you want to do.”
If Neto’s first visit came with pushback, his second visit came with puzzlement, as the people who were there could not believe that a Seton Hall student-athlete, with little time or money to offer, was walking through the door with food in his hands, seemingly no better place to be and a smile on his face.
“You go for the second time, and you offer again, and they are like, ‘Are you serious, the same guy came over here and offered me this thing again?’” Neto said. “So, the next time they ask you, like, ‘Ok, I want to know, what’s going on? Are you doing this for credit or for money or for whatever?’ And then you explain it, and all it is, it’s always a party. Every time I go, I spend hours in there. It’s so fun, I love it.”
The one person Neto has spent the most time with at the South Orange station is a man named Terry, who claims to have been a custodian at Seton Hall roughly 25 years ago. At first glance, Terry seems content, bopping along to the music in his earphones on the part of the upstairs bench nearest to the platform door. It is no wonder that the first time Neto went to the train station, he did not actually realize Terry was one of the homeless people.
“The first time I went, I talked to his brother, who lives over there as well, and I didn’t know Terry was one of them, so I skipped him,” Neto said. “And in the second time, I offered the sandwich for a different guy, and he was behind me, and he called me. He was like, ‘Hey man, what do you have over there?’ And I was like, ‘Sandwich, water, do you want to accept? And he was like, ‘Yeah, let me get one.’”
Each person has their own unique story and Terry is no different. He claims to have a place to go home to, but that place is a worse situation than living at the train station. According to him, he chooses homelessness over constant concern for his life.
“I have a place if I want to go home,” Terry said. “I don’t have to be here, I choose to be here, because, the neighborhood I was living in was hell.”
Once Neto realized Terry was not waiting for a train in his usual spot by the door, the two became close, sharing hours of conversation each visit about topics ranging from racism, to religion, to Martin Luther King Jr.
“Pedro’s got a beautiful heart,” Terry said. “He’s trying to tell about God, this that and the other. When I got to really get into him, the idea just hatched. I don’t know where it came from. But, he said, ‘I’d like to pay it forward.’ He wants the world to recognize. So, he was like, ‘How would you like the world to recognize about the homeless?’”
What came of that was the official establishment of “Pay it Forward – NJ,” the organization which Neto hopes to use to help homeless people, not only at the South Orange station, but at Newark Broad Street and Orange Station as well.
“Even though [South Orange] is the one we love so much, and we care so much because our community is right next to us, and it was the first one, there is a lot of people that want to participate, but, it’s not good to bring too many people to a place where there are not many people that need to be helped, because, otherwise they feel like they were an animal in the zoo,” Neto said.
“Like, you brought 50 people around five of them; they feel like you’re bringing people just to see them. Obviously, we want to help as many people as we can. And therefore, going to different stations for us will be amazing, and it is the next goal.”
When Neto goes to the South Orange Station, he acts out of the goodness of his heart. He does not act for monetary gain, nor does he do what he does for attention; his agreement to speak out about it only came after Terry and his teammates convinced him to do so.
There is one thing, though, that Neto asks for from each person on every visit. It is a gift they give back to him that is more meaningful than the money he spends on them or the time he spends with them. That gift is a smile.
“My main goal is to always leave with a smile,” Neto said. “I want to see a smile on their face; and this is something that is funny, because, every time I leave, I’m like, ‘Alright, I want to see the smile,’ and, they always end up smiling. And, that’s, I guess, the payment.”
James Justice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JamesJusticeIII.