On a brilliant, sunny September morning—a minor miracle, as the forecast had predicted heavy rain—the Duke and Duchess of Sussex arrived at P.S. 123’s playground in Harlem. A group of fourth and fifth graders greeted them. They stood in a formal straight line at first, but that formality fast fell away as they chatted eagerly with the pair about a mural they’d made. Meghan peppered them with praise—“Beautiful!, oh, I love that!”—as they pointed out their colored paper flowers and ladybugs. Soon there were hugs, even tears.
Then the couple walked over to a turfed outdoor reading room filled with second graders. Harry plopped down next to them on a leaf-shaped cushion. Meghan, dressed in a maroon suit, took a seat facing the class with her children’s book, The Bench, in hand. “I wrote this when we just had our little boy, and I haven’t read it to any other kids but you,” she told them.
She then read from The Bench—“This is your bench/Where you’ll witness great joy/From here you will rest/See the growth of our boy.”
“It’s really about—who is the person in your life who is so special to you? Where is the place you find to be your happy place?” she said. “I’d love to hear from you.”
Hands shot up. Some with answers—“My brother at my nana’s house!” Others, with requests: One boy just wanted to know if he could have his own copy of The Bench.
Harry, meanwhile, gently encouraged shyer students to participate (“Shout it out!” he told one girl, after she whispered her response to him.)
P.S. 123 has students from 12 area shelters—five of them are for temporary housing, and seven house women and children who have experienced domestic abuse. Through their foundation, Archewell, Meghan and Harry stocked P.S. 123’s pantry with free cleaning and hygiene products from Procter & Gamble. They also donated a washer and dryer so students can wash their uniforms, as well as two garden boxes filled with fresh vegetables and herbs. The Duchess also partnered with Graham Windham, a family services nonprofit founded in 1806 by Eliza Hamilton, to put several reading nooks in public schools across the city.
Then it was off to Melba’s, the beloved Harlem restaurant known for their chicken and eggnog waffles. They also pledged to donate $25,000 to the Black woman-owned restaurant.
Friday was day two of the couple’s trip to New York City, which culminated with a Saturday appearance at the Global Citizen Festival, the concert that advocates for COVID-19 vaccine distribution to countries in need. Earlier, on Thursday, they paid their respects at the 9/11 Memorial alongside Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Kathy Hochul.
It feels funny calling it a “trip” rather than a “tour,” the usual parlance for multi-day, public appearances by working members of the royal family. But since Meghan and Harry are no longer officially part of The Firm, trip, visit, outing it is—and will be for the foreseeable future.
Let’s talk about that foreseeable future, actually: The Duke and Duchess of Sussex stepped back from full-time roles in the royal family in January 2020, and spoke of a “next chapter.” Two months later, the global pandemic hit. Lockdowns lingered for 18 months, and the couple couldn’t exactly turn a public page.
Now that society is slowly re-opening, however, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are visibly starting to do so. Many of their appearances resemble what they did in the U.K.—paying respects at memorials, meeting with elected leaders, visiting at-risk and vulnerable people, a mix of both raising awareness and donating funds. But some of it is different—they were also spotted enjoying a night out at the Carlyle hotel’s famed Bemelmans Bar. They can, after all, make their own schedule.
While the Windsor family has a long, storied history of service backed by the centuries-old institution of the monarchy, the Sussexes are charting their own, crown-less course as altruistic servants. There is no Buckingham Palace blueprint to draw from, and for Harry and Meghan maybe it’s better that way. “Thank you for coming to Harlem!” a woman yelled from outside the playground fence.
Originally Appeared on Vogue