Friday, June 27, 2014

Pages and Pages

Jess (right) having fun with a client
Savannah is a beautiful city, full of old southern charm and history.  The tourism industry in Savannah booms each year, especially during the spring and summer months. During this time millions of people visit the picturesque Downtown squares, River Street, and Tybee Island to see the large oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, the water sparkling off of the Savannah River, and Atlantic Ocean. The crowds pack the parks with picnic lunches, children, and dogs. The city comes alive at nighttime, full of revelers and fun.  This is the Savannah most people see during their short stay in “The Hostess City.”
               The Savannah I see every day is not so beautifully tinged.  I see the homeless men who sleep on the steps of City Hall.  I see the public housing units, crime-ridden with little police intervention, located two blocks from the expensive restaurants laden with well-dressed, beautiful people.  I see the men and women twisting palm leaves into flowers and crosses, peddling them to the couples and families meandering along River Street.  I continually look into the faces of the people, looking for the differences, trying to understand how their lives diverged so much.  Drugs, alcohol, familial instability, poor work ethics, government hand-outs, lack of education – the reasons that are given for viewing people who are impoverished as less than human.   What I strive to hear, though, is how similar we all are.  Every day at St. Mary’s Community Center I am face-to-face with the very same men and women and children who live each day in poverty. I laugh with them, cry with them, thank them for their help, am thanked for my help, talk about consequential and inconsequential things, and form bonds and relationships. 

               I have come to the conclusion that the overall prevailing mission of our Community Center, while not written on pamphlets or scrolled across the double doors, is to treat each person as a human being. I’m aware this sounds simple and idealistic and entirely too broad to make any practical, community-wide changes.  But I think that may actually be the point.  After being continually treated as a statistic, a number, a nameless and faceless member of some poorly-run system, wouldn’t it feel great to have someone look at you and respond, person-to-person?  To make someone feel human again is not a trivial matter; society has become so desensitized to people living in poverty that we can walk by someone sleeping on the steps of a downtown building at 3 A.M. without looking back at them because it’s ‘normal.’  I could tell all the stories in the world about my past year, but it would take pages and pages to tell each individual’s story.  I cannot tell one solitary story in hopes that my year, what I have seen and done, will be encompassed by it; every single day comes with its own stories.  I am just grateful that there are people who still willfully share their stories with others, and I hope that we all start to listen.

Jess Atkinson - St. Mary's Community Center - Savannah, GA

Monday, June 9, 2014

Simple Act of Kindness

        Every Friday I serve as the liaison and Spanish translator for the gentle chair yoga and meditation class offered specifically for the elderly diagnosed with arthritis.  Each time we meet, the class is tailored to meet the needs of the participants.  A woman who looked to be in her late fifties and had never attended this class before showed up one day and sat quietly and patiently waiting for class to begin.  As class started, the instructor welcomed this new participant to class and asked the usual opening question to everyone: “Is there anyone here experiencing some pain today?” and this new lady immediately raised her hand.  This simple question allowed her to open up about all of her chronic pain, both physical and emotional, and gave her the space to describe in detail, her miserable life, according to her.  With the other frequent participants in class, the yoga/meditation instructor willingly dedicated the whole class to suit this new participants needs, and the other participants keenly tried to assist her as well.  This woman continued talking about her past, which caused her to cry and remark that nothing, nobody and no doctor, could cure her pain.  The deepest pain seemed to be her feeling of loneliness.  I felt a sort of pain and sorrow as I translated her story to the instructor whose Spanish is very limited, realizing that this lady felt hopeless.  Her story was heartbreaking as she had been dealing with these feelings for such a long time.  When the one-hour of class had passed and class was dismissed, the instructor and I stayed with this woman and concluded that she needed more help than what was within our capacity.  It became apparent that she needed to see a professional mental health provider because she presented various symptoms of depression.  As I tried to console her, she started to tear up even more and after a fit of weeping, she finally found her words again and said to me: “Thank you for listening to my story… to what I had to say; no one has ever sat with me and listened to me for such a long time, thank you, young lady, thank you very much.”  The woman gave me a hug and left the room with the instructor to see one of our social workers to get her the help that she needed.  I was left standing there thinking to myself how much my presence meant to her.  Although it did not seem like she was listening to a word we were telling her, I discovered that she was absorbing everything.  Did I really say the magical words to get this lady to feel better and cure her depression? Not quite; all I did this afternoon was listen with compassion and respond gently.  I was reminded on this day that the simplest acts of kindness can make a big difference to others, even when we think that we are not making a difference, we may be doing more that we give ourselves credit for.

            This has connected to my overall experience here in New York, as I have been put out of my comfort zone and have been forced to pay attention to details that I have never paid any mind in the past.  It has caused me to think specifically on the little acts of kindness that can fit in my everyday life.  Like sharing a smile with a stranger on the subway where many people crush into the train each day; where everyone is afraid to speak to each other or simply say “Hi,” “Good morning,” or simply make eye contact.  Sometimes, I get a smile back but more often I dont, but I still like to see the reaction on peoples faces and I wonder if they’re thinking that Im crazy.  I feel satisfied when I succeed in getting a smile back.  At work, I greet participants with a smile and try to show my compassion for them with simple statements, questions, or comments.  Most people would agree that you do not necessarily need to tell someone “I love you” or “I like you” to let them know how much you care about them.  You can genuinely say, for instance, “the other day I was thinking about you,” “did you make it safe?,” “I miss you,” “I saw this and I thought about you,” “how did it go today?,” “good night, take care.”  I have noticed how simple words like these can tell how much you care about someone and can make a big difference in someones life.  I have learned, and I am still learning, so much about myself this year and much of my learning has come from my community members.  They have been great teachers this year and I will always be thankful with each and every one of them for being part of the process in helping me discover my own faith.  As we all learn how to live and pass on the
Angelica (maroon jacket) at staff retreat
spirit of mercy together, we also deepen our empathy for the people we serve.  I will always look back to this experience, and connect to the powerful reason of why I decided to go on this journey.

Angelica Perez - Mercy Center  Bronx, NY

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Invaluable Service

Alison (second from left) working at the coffee shop
At Clean & Sober, we are in the middle of very exciting times. This week we are opening our TurnAround Coffee House, a non-profit coffee shop that we hope will help fund our mission and get our name out into the community. The coffee shop will be run by volunteers. Businesses in our community have really stepped up to help us get the coffee shop off the ground. I feel so lucky to have been a Mercy Volunteer during this opening. Not only have I learned all about being a barista, I’ve gotten to meet so many wonderful volunteers and donors in the Sacramento community.

One individual whom I’ve gotten to know very well is our Coffee House Coordinator, Crystal. Crystal is an Alumna of Clean & Sober and is truly a great example of what this program can accomplish. After going through Clean & Sober, she has been reunited with her son, remains in service to other alcoholics and addicts, and now runs our coffee shop with confidence and enthusiasm. I really can’t express how wonderful it has been to work alongside her and get to know her. She is definitely a reminder that organizations like Clean & Sober provide an invaluable service to our communities, and I am very grateful to have been a part of that service. 

Alison Taylor '13 - Clean and Sober - Sacramento, CA

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

A Real Page-Turner

Andrew ’13 (back row, 3rd from the right) 
posing for a picture with his after school class.
I am a big fan of obscure and seldom known holidays that fall throughout the year. Just ask my roommates and they’ll tell you just how “obscure” I am. I brought one such holiday to my after school program and they seemed to rather appreciate my quaintness. The particular holiday was also close to a similar holiday, Caldecott Award Day. Still I thought it was a day worth celebrating so I paired it with the World Read Aloud Day. The books we would be reading that day aloud would all be Caldecott Award winners. If you’re unfamiliar with what the Caldecott Award is, it’s awarded for only the most distinguished American picture books for children. Many Caldecott Award winning books are often turned into movies such as: Jumanji, Polar Express and Where the Wild Things Are. To my chagrin many of the children had never read these books, but only watched the movies. That’s just backwards! Granted that the movies in this case offer more story and details than these children's books can, but nonetheless I believe it is essential to read these books as they are classic examples of American Literature. So I printed out Where the Wild Things Are and Polar Express and my 6-8th grade class took turns reading it aloud to a couple of younger children while showing the pictures in the book. It was actually my student’s initiative to do this specifically with younger kids so I welcomed the proactive thinking and happily obliged. Later on in the day I explained what the significance of the Caldecott Award is and the criteria that has to be met to win it and a few of the previous most famous and recognizable winners. Then as an artistic exercise I had them design their very own awards and asked them to come up with a name of the award, criteria for how to win the award and then design what the award should look like using the vast arts and crafts supplies at my disposal. What I got in return was some really creative and well thought out awards and their imagination/creativity coming to life. Awards like: The Flappy Bird Award, The King's Crown Award, The Book Worm Award and the Reading Rainbow Award. Their designs and prototypes were awe-inspiring to me as they took it very seriously while having some fun in the process creating new awards to be handed out. They then proceeded to give their awards to books in our library that fit their criteria, forever claiming the prestigious award.
          Throughout my year of service I have had many sleepless nights and long days of preparation in order to deliver quality educational enrichment to these children that experience a lack of anything close to resembling quality in their schools that just churn out homework and state tests. From what they have told me, school has changed a great deal since when I was in their shoes. That’s a shame that school is no longer a place for them to have fun while learning but a place where they’re pressured and stressed out to pass rigorous state tests for funding. Not once this year have I regretted missing out on sleep (I’m a night owl) or working the long hours because I thoroughly enjoy what I do and the activities I plan. My attention to details and meticulousness in planning daily lessons is fun to me. I want each lesson I plan to reach every student in some way and engage them in ways that they aren't engaged at school. I know I am delivering on my promise to these children because of how happy they are when they come in, how many of them come back day after day and how interested they are in wondering what they’ll learn today.       
            In closing, you might be asking yourself "how do I know I am doing well on my delivery of educational enrichment activities?" Once, I took a few days of personal time off. I came back the following week and they popped their heads into the classroom to see if I was there. Sure enough, I was and they yelled up the stairs, “He’s back!” and ran in and told me that I am not allowed any more vacations. The one thing they said they missed the most when I wasn't there… was the Cool Facts and This Day In History excerpts I find and write out daily for them on the board. Sometimes it the littlest things in life that bring the simplest joys in children and I couldn't be more content with that!

                   Andrew James - Mercy Center - Bronx, NY

Monday, March 31, 2014

Feels Like Home

Jocelyn '13 (bottom center) with community
members at Kerry Weber's '04 Book Signing
            “If this was your first apartment, would you take it?” a client asked me as I checked inside her soon-to-be closets to make sure the floors were properly tiled. We had previously been checking plumbing, outlets for electricity, window guards for protections, and appliances. Her question stunned me. I had been so wrapped up in ensuring that the apartment was up to standards that I had forgotten this was the beginning of this girl’s new life outside of foster care. A place to call her own; a milestone I had yet to accomplish for myself and here I was, viewing it as a task—assisting clients with their apartment viewings—to be learned and eventually completed on my own. I paused to collect my thoughts and she continued, “I just doesn't feel homey.” On this, we agreed. It was stark and the atmosphere of the building is somewhat lonely as you’re never sure of your neighbors. I swallowed the pit of fear I felt for this adolescent girl and her two children as she viewed and later accepted her best housing option—NYCHA apartments, affectionately known as “the projects.”
            “No apartment is going to feel like home until you've had a chance to make it your own,” I replied. “Let’s figure out if you’re allowed to paint. I’m sure you are.” I followed her to the building manager who was examining the kitchen with MercyFirst’s Housing Specialist. The client asked and the manager assured her that once she signed the lease, though technically she’d be renting, the apartment was hers to do with what she wants, aside from obtaining an air conditioner without permission and removing the window guards because the manager “doesn't want any babies thrown out the window.” This was a light comment, one to be laughed at, but it still reflected an everyday portrait of life in the projects. A baby being tossed or at least threatened to be tossed out the window was not all together unlikely, though, I’m hopeful that it is a rare occurrence. We had had a taste of this rough culture when we were welcomed in the elevator by a neighbor snickering, “all I’m going to say is...this is the projects.”

            In the end, this client accepted the apartment and went on to confirm her furniture order at a store down the street. Her sisters accompanied us to the store and kept the client’s energy and excitement up. Her older sister continually reassured her that it’s just a place to live and that if she minded her business and no one else’s she would be just fine. To say this experience was bittersweet would be an extremely watered down version of my surge of emotions. I was excited for her. She had been shifted from home to home for God knows how long and now she would finally have a place to call home; one she could decorate how she likes. I just couldn't ignore the fact that home for her was now in a dodgy building in which she doesn't have only  herself to look after but her children as well. It was a concrete example of an ever-evolving system. This young girl should and does feel lucky that she has this opportunity (the alternative being living in shelter or the streets with her children being taken from her). The next step, though, needs to be creating safer apartments and low-income housing for all residents, especially since these residents include newly emancipated, single, young mothers with no stable resources. 

Jocelyn Elderton - MercyFirst - New York, NY

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Stepping Out of My “Comfort Zone”

Kim (upper right) with her community and
  a Forest Gump impersonator in Savannah, GA.
   “¿Habla español?”  (Do you speak Spanish?).  I hear this phrase daily at the clinic, as our Hispanic population of patients is rapidly increasing.  “Hablo un poquito de español” (I speak a little Spanish) is my usual response.  Upon my arrival in Savannah, I had to quickly refine my Spanish-speaking skills, in order to meet the needs of this growing population.  While I studied Spanish in school, I’ve realized that conversing with classmates or a professor doesn’t quite compare to speaking a secondary language in the clinical setting.  A lesson I’ve learned through my encounters at Good Samaritan Clinic is this- the best way to learn a language is to simply become immersed in the culture. 
   Some days when there isn’t an available interpreter, I am the primary person who speaks with these patients.  In the beginning days at the clinic, I would feel nervous when I heard someone call me over to speak Spanish.  I quickly realized that this is truly a blessing in disguise because it is during these times that I am challenged to use my Spanish to serve others.  I become a source of communication for these individuals and therefore assist them in their desire to seek medical care.  I push aside my fears and make my best attempt to converse with these patients; sometimes I am fairly successful, while other times it proves to be a little more difficult.  If I am struggling to articulate a certain word or phrase, I take a step back and try to rephrase it.  Whether I am on the phone or speaking Spanish in person, I want to make sure that I help these patients to the best of my ability.  Most of the patients are appreciative of my attempts to speak Spanish.  Of course, there are times I find myself feeling rather exasperated or I’ll realize that a patient seems frustrated with me; I’ve learned to make the best of these situations when they occur, as they simply encourage me to work even harder.
   When I respond that I speak a little Spanish, some of the patients will share with me that they speak a little English.  In these moments, it allows me to see that despite our cultural differences, we are fairly similar.  We have a mutual understanding of how it feels to struggle with expressing our thoughts in a language different from our own and we strive to communicate with each other as effectively as possible.  At this point, patients recognize me from previous encounters and recall that I can speak Spanish.  When they walk into the clinic, they often initiate conversations with me.  I cannot describe how truly heartwarming it is to realize that these patients have accepted me as a person they can communicate with at Good Samaritan Clinic.  My Spanish has greatly improved over these past few months, but I must acknowledge that there is always room for improvement.
   I look forward to the day when my response to the question “Do you speak Spanish?” changes to “Yes, I do speak Spanish” because I know with additional practice I can increase my fluency of this language; thereby continuing to address the needs of our patients who face the challenges of language barriers every day. 

Kim Esposito - Good Samaritan Clinic - Savannah, GA

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Present in this Moment

Christelle with hygiene bags for clients
Before embarking on one of the most memorable journeys of my life as a Mercy Volunteer, I began to ponder how I wanted to impact the community I was going to serve. In my mind I saw the bigger picture of my service. I thought about all the change and all the wonderful things that I would accomplish with my fellow volunteers. Even though I thought about the grand vision I had for my time, I did not know what to expect. The only thought I had for certain was that I loved working with people and that I wanted to help individuals in whatever capacity I could.  Francis House Center has given me that opportunity! Working with individuals from my co-workers to the clients that I serve, it has been a memorable experience thus far.  Being here and being present in this moment without any inhibitions or distractions, I have had the privilege to be witness to what humanity, compassion and love really means. There are many moments I wish I could share, but I will share one that is as much present in my mind as it is in my heart.
Before the start of the new school year, we collected over 200 backpacks for children from pre-k up to 12th grade.  We prepared the backpacks so that every child would be able to receive school supplies such as: pencils, calculators, protractors, notebooks, binders, tissues, hand sanitizer and so much more.  I called many families and told them that Francis House would love to bless them with a backpack and that all they would have to do was provide verification and come in to pick them up at the office.
 On the pickup day one woman caught my attention.  She was very quiet and looked nervous when she walked in.  I greeted her at the door and welcomed her into the office.  I asked her what registering number she had and asked for her verification.  As I was preparing her paperwork she broke down and started to cry.  She said, “You have no idea how much this means to me! I had no idea how I was going to get my children supplies and backpacks for school.  All of the kids at school were teasing them because they did not have any supplies like they did.”  I comforted the woman and told her that Francis House is always willing to help as best as possible. I gave her a tissue to wipe away her tears and went into storage to get the backpacks.  When I came out I handed her the bags, she grabbed them, gave me the biggest hug and said “this is a moment that I will never forget, thank you!”
Christelle out front of Francis House
 I have only been at FHC for three months and I have gained so much experience and insight by working with people here on a daily basis. I have learned that a simple hello shows the embrace of hospitality, that treating everyone with justice gives them dignity, that a comforting word means being merciful and that a hug and the thought of children being able to have the tools for education means a service fulfilled.

 Each person comes in with a different life story that changes my thoughts and perceptions about life.  Every day I come into work with a different mindset because no individual that I serve is the same.  Most times we come into work thinking that we will be helping clients that day, when in reality the clients are the ones that help us; and that is what The Francis House Center is all about! 

Christelle Patrice - Francis House - Sacramento, CA