Imagine you are driving through the business district of Los Angeles. Skyscrapers paint the landscape, wealthy business executives drive beautiful, exotic cars down the streets and the corporate world is operating in a seamlessly American fashion. Everything seems flawless and picturesque, the way bustling city life is imagined by many.
Suddenly, you cross into the Central City East area of downtown known as Skid Row. Here you discover tent-lined, litter-filled streets. These tents belong to thousands of homeless people — people that are openly urinating and abusing drugs. The air itself has changed scents and you can taste the foul, tart stench.
Sadly, this mental image is, in fact, a reality. N.C. State redshirt senior tight end Asa Watson faced this reality during the summer of 2011 when he traveled there with Athletes in Action, a sports missions group at N.C. State that is geared toward athletes.
Athletes in Action chapters from around the nation travel to Los Angeles each summer for a three-week mission. The athletes break up and go to five different sites around the city to help out at different nonprofits.
Watson was assigned to Skid Row, a location that is estimated to have as many as over 5,000 homeless inhabitants in about four square miles. This area lies just across from a bustling, thriving city.
“It’s like you’re in a third world country,” Watson said. “It’s so crazy. I literally felt like I was in another country and just the next block over, you’re in the business district.”
Watson solemnly described the scene that he witnessed during his time in Los Angeles, but he was able to find the silver lining while pondering on his trip.
“It’s just a devastating place,” he said. “But at the same time, you see people who just love life and love God. People that are more passionate about life than anyone you’ll ever meet. While there was so much bad things and devastation, you still saw hope and you saw people that were trying to change their lives.”
It is in that depiction that Watson clearly displayed his passion for helping others, something he has been doing for a long time.
Watson was raised by parents that were keen on volunteering and helping others. His father was a pastor, so Watson was introduced to ministry-related community service activities from a young age. Likewise, his mother volunteered her time to help those less fortunate or to assist at her son’s school.
When he was in eighth grade, Watson traveled to Belize on his first mission trip. He has since been on several mission trips to various locations and has found a love for helping others.
Watson is very close in his Christian faith and he cites his love of Jesus Christ for the main motivation behind his volunteer work. “Christ always set aside time to feed homeless people, heal the blind, heal the sick and just visit with people,” Watson said. “As a Christian, we’re called, out of expression of our love for Christ, to reach out to other people.”
It was that spirit that eventually led him to Los Angeles in 2011 and brought him back earlier this year. Watson spent his spring break participating in the Urban Project’s one-week program in L.A. This time, he was assigned to the community of Compton.
He spent much of his time cleaning up a local playground doing what he described as “yard work.” When he began his duty, he was upset that he was not able to directly interact with the people he was there to help. Soon enough, he realized that even the small tasks he was performing impacted the lives of people in the neighborhood as they would walk by and thank him for the work he was doing.
“At the end of [my first] trip, I felt kind of depressed because I couldn’t really help the people,” Watson said. “But going back this year kind of made a conclusion to that. Because I realized that there is only so much that you can do. Really, it’s taught me that we can never really see the big picture that God is doing,” Watson said.
As Watson’s college career winds down, he said he is coming to the realization that his time is running out. But he is using his time the best way he can, staying active in the Raleigh community. On Fridays, he volunteers with Athletes in Action downtown in Moore Square, providing hot meals for free to the homeless.
“The things I do may not have a huge impact,” Watson said, “but if it’s just one small thing to change one person’s life, then that’s enough.”