Sunday, January 21, 2018

That's a Wrap on Year One

This post comes very, very late and for that I apologize. The end of my service year in Boise was busy and difficult and bright all at once. But backing up, after my last post my community and I had many great adventures before departing from Boise. For my birthday in May we took a trip to Stanley, ID and found hot springs to use with beautiful views of the Sawtooth Mountains. Later in May I took my first trip home since August to see my friends graduate from Stonehill College. It was a wonderful reunion, and I made it a surprise for all of my friends. I then got to spend time at home in Vermont. In June we celebrated Pride in Boise with parades, stands, and general support for the LGBTQ community. We took a few hikes together to Table Rock, an iconic hike in Boise, and watched the sun set over Boise on many nights, especially at the end of the year. We finally visited the Old Penitentiary, another iconic point in Boise, towards the end of the year. We saw the natural sand dunes and attempted to slide down them on sleds. We ate at the Basque Market, wandered the Saturday markets as much as we could, saw Hamlet performed by the only female lead who performed as Hamlet in the country at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival. We went backpacking for four days in the Sawtooth Mountains with our support people in July. This was a great opportunity and a wonderful chance for reflection on the year. It was also something I never thought I would be able to do, and conquering that hike, that trip, felt like one of my greatest accomplishments to date. We made a collage together with pictures from the year and all of our adventures together that we hung in the house, as it is a tradition for JV communities to do. We hosted one last potluck at the end of the year with all of our support people and friends from Boise. We thanked them for all they did for us throughout the year. I was fortunate to have my mom fly out to see my placement and to see Boise in my last days of service. We got to see the markets, Stanley, and Sun Valley, ID. These last adventures and last goodbyes were things I will cherish for the rest of my life.
                At service, everyone seemed to be dreading the end of my service year; most of all me. I found out in March that I was placed for another JV year in Yakima, WA, but knowing the placement and city did not make this time of transition easier. There were many unknowns in my future and the only thing I knew for sure at the time was that I would miss the shelter, all the people I had grown to know and love, and Boise. As the end approached I made sure to tell people I was leaving, to try and make it clear that I would not be back after July 28th, and that there was a great new JV who would add her own flair to the position. I said many goodbyes and I said goodbye to some people several times, as there was no way of knowing if people who return from day to day. The last few days were tough, as the end did not feel real, yet I knew it was coming. It did not feel like the end of a school year, when there is usually a certain feeling of closure. This was simply another week at service, but yet very different. On my last day I received many gifts, hugs, affirmations, and even cake. I gave a short speech, interrupted by many tears, in which I told everyone how grateful I was that they let me into their lives, that they took me in, and that they taught me so much throughout the course of the year. I truly was leaving as a different person than when I started in the position. I told staff throughout the year how grateful I was that this position found me, as I did not know I needed to be there until I was. I looked around a room full of guests on that last day who may not know how much they have changed my life and how they will stay in my memory for a lifetime. There were many more tears and hugs as the day ended and I was given cards full of guests’ best wishes for me as I moved on. Walking out the door and leaving my keys behind that day was one of the hardest things I have done. I won’t sugar coat my experience, it had its tough, truly difficult days. But at the end of the day, I grew from those tough experiences and learned from every person I met at the shelter. I saw a light in every guest, no matter their background, and I will always be grateful for that light and positivity that each person presented in their own way. I will always remember seeing more light than darkness.
                When I left the shelter on that last day and was walking to the house one last time, I ran into a guest I knew well. We hugged and I told him how grateful I was to see him, as it was my last day. He echoed that message, as he said he didn’t know it was officially my last day. We said our goodbyes, him with his sense of humor shining through as always, and we went in our opposite directions. Only a week later I found out that one guest who I knew well passed away quite tragically, and then a week after that I found out that this guest who I happened to see on my walk home also passed away. Both were found, separately, floating in bodies of water. This was some of the most difficult news I’ve ever heard. I was devastated that they had died and even more distraught that I could not be among people who had known them and attend their memorial service at the shelter. As I was transitioning into a new year of service, my heart was still with those in Boise who were going through this difficult time. It was difficult to find closure when their deaths are still a mystery and when I could not attend the memorial service. I did write something that was shared at the memorial service, which is below. It does not feel like it does justice to who they were, but it was what I kept coming back to about them.
“When I heard the news about Kevin, then about Ruben, I had many thoughts racing through my mind. Mostly, I was thinking about how I had just seen both of them before I left and how, even now, I cannot believe they are gone. This news has been shocking and difficult to bear and all I want is to be with the community of Corpus Christi House, to be with the people who knew Kevin and Ruben well. I saw Kevin almost every day at Corpus, especially as he sat in the lobby recovering from his accident in the spring. I gave him his mail each day and we would make small talk. I appreciated his curiosity about other people and his ability to try and try again when he knew he had room to grow. Kevin and I pushed each other to be better and as I grew I saw him change in certain ways as well. It was so promising to see the progress he had made. 
Even though I didn’t see Ruben as often, he left quite the mark on my life. He was always smiling and joking with me wherever I ran into him and he always had something witty to say. He was honest, blunt, and so full of life. He seemed to brighten any room he was in. He certainly had his struggles, as many of us face difficult times, but I admired his ability to be genuine with what he was up against. I remember meeting Ruben on one of my first days at Corpus and feeling so welcomed by him. I ran into him outside Corpus on my last day and he gave me a big hug and we wished each other well, still using the humor I knew and loved. He was a friendly face, someone I loved to run into at Corpus, as so many of you are. It is difficult being away from Corpus, knowing I won’t see Kevin or Ruben again, and not being there with all of you through this time. Know that I think of you all every day, that my life has been made better by everyone I’ve known at Corpus, and that you have the community of Corpus Christi House to lean on in this difficult time. Thank you for letting me share these memories.”
Just a couple months later, I was told that one of the volunteers at the shelter who I worked closely with for many months also recently passed away. She was a student at the local university getting her degree in social work. She was twenty-nine when she passed away. This news also came as a shock. It is incredible how many people touch our lives and we don’t always stop to realize how much they mean to us. I looked forward to Tuesday afternoons in the kitchen because I got to see her and two other volunteers who I liked talking with very much. It is not every day you stop to say how much you learn from those around you, how much you appreciate them, how much they have changed you for the better. To everyone involved, they were just Tuesday afternoons. I’ve learned in her passing to cherish the simple Tuesday afternoons, and every day, a little more. I’ve learned to say “thank you,” more often and to let those around me know that I appreciate them because they actively make my life what it is. I’ve learned, again, that we never know how much time we have with someone and even if they are not someone who we live with or a family member, our lives are touched by their presence. I cannot express the gratitude I have for being able to know this volunteer. I can only hope she knows how much she meant to the community of the shelter and to the greater community.

I have found it unsettlingly ironic that I came into this new year as a JV in Yakima, WA to serve in the area of end of life care and, while none of my patients have passed yet, many people from my past have. I would like to say that these losses have been a great learning opportunity and that I can move on without any trouble. The reality is that these losses will stay with me, as the people that have been lost had a big impact on my life. It has been difficult missing their memorials and not being with the people who knew them well. It feels as if it does not do them justice to say I’ve learned something from them and I am moving on. The reality continues to be that I have to take one day at a time and do the best I can along the way. Everything in Yakima has been going very well. I plan to continue to make the best of this year. I am putting to use everything I learned last year and the important lessons I took away from that position and the people I met there. Thanks to all of you who have shared this journey with me- I could not have done it without you all!

The three photos above are from our backpacking trip in the Sawtooth Mountains in July 2017

A photo from our last day together in Boise

My last day of service

Two photos of my community in Yakima, WA for the 2017-2018 service year

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Spring is Here

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and April 26th is Denim Day- Ask me about Denim Day! 

Shoshone Falls- Very windy, but truly beautiful! 

The State House the day before St. Patrick's Day! (There were people lining the streets taking pictures!)

About to get on the road for our trip to Yakima, WA

The sunrise on my walks to service 

March and April have flown by, as has this year. There has been a lot going on as the winter has turned to spring here in Boise. My community and I went to Yakima, WA for St. Patrick’s Day. We got to see a lot of other JV communities there and we had a great time seeing a new city. The farmers market has opened up again for the season in Downtown Boise and we have greatly enjoyed spending Saturdays there. We saw Shoshone Falls, which is called “The Niagara Falls of the West,” at the highest water level it’s been in a few decades. It was a beautiful sight on a sunny day with many rainbows over the falls. Boise has had record snowfall over the winter and a lot of rain this spring, which has led to a lot of flooding along the river. There is a biking/walking trail which runs along the main river running through Boise, which has been shut down due to flooding. This has been a big deal for the community and an inconvenience for so many. We are all waiting for the flooding to subside, but the rain keeps coming. We are taking in every sunny day as it comes this spring!
                This spring has been full of wonderful opportunities to partake in. In late March my community, along with all other AmeriCorps members in the area, were invited to an event hosted by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) where the mayor signed a document supporting national and community service, especially highlighting the service that has been done in Idaho. At my placement we held a gathering for our volunteers, of which we have more than eighty, where they all had a chance to meet and talk with each other. Many of our volunteers are from different shifts and don’t get to see those from other shifts very often. We had a panel of mental health workers and housing specialists who explained about different disorders, addictions, and experiences to be aware of in order to be the best volunteers they could be for our guests. The gathering was successful in many ways and was well received.
                In April we were made aware of the fifth death this year among our guests. There have been guests who have passed of cancer, car accidents, other illnesses, and one who was killed by the police. This was a big story in Boise surrounded by a lot of controversy and opinions. This guest was named Ben Barnes. I regularly sorted and received his mail for him. He was a quiet man who always carried a very large backpack with a fishing pole. He usually ate at the shelter, but he didn’t stay overnight at any shelters. He camped, fished, and hunted as necessary to survive. On the day he died he was in the foothills surrounding Boise. There was an incident that occurred and for some reason he shot a dog on a hiking trail. Why he did this we may never know. When police arrived he shot at them and, in turn, he was shot and killed. Investigators came to my placement after this happened and asked about his belongings, his family, and any information we had about him. As I said, he was a quiet man and while he did talk with us, we did not know about his family situation. After a national notice went out that investigators were looking for family, they were finally located in the South. His family went through a difficult time after Ben’s death, as did many in the shelter. People were heartbroken and left confused, wondering how this could have happened. We reached out to his family, telling them that we knew who he was before this event. We knew him before he was labeled “Homeless Shooter” by many newspapers in the local area. We knew him as a quiet man who meant no harm. We held a memorial for Ben in our facility, which many guests attended. It is always important, no matter who the guest was or how long they had been at the shelter, to hold a memorial for a guest who has passed. As our Mission’s Coordinator put it, it lets everyone there know that they will be remembered when they pass, which is a valid concern for many without families or connections outside the shelter. I have many mixed feelings about everything that happened, as it was very sudden and unexpected. Ben was gentle and did kind things for people. During the winter we had a lock and hinges that kept freezing and they were difficult to get open each day. He greased the hinges and would work at the lock for me before I needed to use the door. He would quietly mention to be careful with the door, as the hinges had been greased. He was not looking for recognition for the deed, but just wanted to let me know so I wouldn’t get hurt. He did small acts of kindness and looked out for others in this way: guests, volunteers, and staff. It is difficult to believe he was capable of this amount of harm. Marc, the Mission’s Coordinator at my placement, wrote an article about Ben which reflected how we knew him. That article is attached below.
                I have had the privilege this month of attending two meetings of a women’s group that happens weekly. This group is put on by case managers for the overnight shelter located directly behind to my placement. Both of the meetings were about domestic violence, which is the leading cause of homelessness among women and children. There were many women present who told about the violence they have endured and the violence they have tried to keep their children away from. There were many women who had been homeless for years because of these situations. Many women had turned to drugs and/or alcohol to cope with the trauma they had endured, and many had their children taken from them at some point. Witnessing the raw emotion and honest stories from these women who I see almost every day was really difficult. Imagining them in these situations made my heart ache for them, more than it already did. I feel grateful to get to know them in this way and for them to let me see that part of themselves. I think about these situations often and how far too many people experience domestic violence and sexual assault. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and there have been great efforts nationwide to share stories like the ones I have heard and to support prevention efforts as well as supportive services to assist survivors.
                I also had the opportunity very recently to shadow case managers at the overnight shelter where many guests who use our services stay. I helped out some while I was there, doing some intakes and connecting with guests, as well as observing the procedures and protocol of the shelter’s operations. As the guests entered the shelter and saw me there, the reactions were priceless. They couldn’t believe I wanted to see where they lived, as they put it. They were excited to show me around and that I could see where they stayed. Many were happy to see me but confused as to why I was there, but I gained a lot of perspective and understanding in seeing where guests spent the other half of their time. There were a few new guests who had to be checked in and I was fortunate enough to do a few intakes while I was there. There was a man who was renting a house with a friend and he had just found out that the friend had been spending their rent money on drugs. He has a college degree and he can’t find work right now. This was his first time in a shelter. Another man didn’t have anywhere else to turn and he told me he needed work. He had no other resources and no one to turn to. I left the shelter at the end of the night when everyone was going to sleep. Outside, the world was still going on in just the way it usually does: cars driving by, people walking on the sidewalks, the lights in people’s homes going out as they turn in, but my perspective had changed. There were many guests who genuinely thanked me for being there. This baffled me at the time, but it truly mattered to them, and to me. It made a difference in what I do every day.
                Recently, time has been flying by. I am somehow three-quarters of the way through my year of service and that just seems so odd to me, and to the guests I serve, as some of them are getting nervous for the end of my time there as well. I am so grateful for all of the experiences I have had this year, even on the difficult days, and it will be really weird to leave at the end of the year. Just last week the former Jesuit Volunteer in my position came back to visit after almost nine months since she left. Seeing her visit was wonderful and heartwarming, but also strange knowing that will be me visiting in the same way in the future. While she was there on a Friday afternoon there was an ambulance called for a guest who was short of breath and having heart issues and the police came by when another guest caused issues in the back of our facility. There’s an interesting dynamic with anyone who has served at a shelter, and she understood everything that was happening. She and all of the Jesuit Volunteers from last year came to Boise for a reunion, which was so nice to see and to be a part of. Community is a very unique part of the service we do and it makes service so much better knowing I can come home to people who know what I’m going through. Service is difficult, but it’s the little things that make everything so much better. Thanks to them and to everyone else in my life for continued support throughout this year. I appreciate everything you all do for me and for those I serve. 

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Progress, Protests, and Purpose

The Women's March at the State House in Boise, Idaho was a success with huge crowds, even during a snow storm. We peacefully made our voices heard and marched in solidarity with people across the country. 

Fr. Grubb visited us while our program coordinator was in Boise. The last time we saw him was at orientation in August, so it was a great reunion! 

Almost all of our support families came together while our program coordinator was in Boise. We love these gatherings where we can all catch up with one another. 

The JVs from Woodburn, OR visited in late February. We had a great time showing them around Boise. We took this photo in the State House. 

The Boise community on the last day of retreat, featuring hummus we were gifted!

     These past couple months have been very busy and a whirlwind of trips, visits, and learning opportunities. This post won’t do any justice to the experiences I have had recently. In February we had the opportunity to host our program coordinator for our community in Boise, which was great. Our program coordinator is a wonderful support system for us and they have all sorts of resources for JVs. His role in February was to facilitate reflections and get our thoughts in order about reaching the six month mark of our service. While our program coordinator was here we had opportunities to reflect and reminisce about the past six months as well as look forward to what might come next and what we want to do and see in these last six months. I’m in awe that we are already so far into our year. I think we’re in a good place. Someone once told me that it takes about four months to feel like you really have a grasp on a new position. By six months, I feel comfortable at my service site and I feel like I have a good idea about various social justice areas and about the guests we serve each day. While there is always more to learn, knowing the local resources and exactly what to do in certain situations gives me a lot of comfort. Our program coordinator told us he once heard it said that the first six months of service are for learning and the last six months are for reflecting and giving. This seems to be pretty accurate.
     We had the opportunity to see Chinese acrobats at a local performance while our program coordinator was in Boise and had a priest, who was a former JV and a speaker at orientation, visit our community at that time. We had attended the Women’s March in Boise a couple weeks prior and felt very connected to people around the country asking for the chance to be heard. This was an important time for us, as the march made history. We hosted the Woodburn, OR JV’s in Boise in February. It was so much fun showing them around the city and hearing their perspectives on our temporary home.
     Almost directly after our program coordinator visited Boise, our community drove to Northeastern Washington for our second retreat of the year. This retreat was focused around social and ecological justice and allowed us all to reflect on service so far and how far we’ve all come from the beginning of the year. It was nice to have a larger focus on many different areas of social justice throughout the weekend. We reflected on our experience with the factors that make up who we are; the privileges, the disadvantages, and more. We explored intersectionality as it relates to ourselves personally and as it relates to those we serve. We had opportunities to talk with people from different locales around the Northwest, different social justice areas, and different perspectives and experiences. The retreat was rewarding and inspiring, but also a lot to think through. I’m so glad we have the opportunity to embark on retreats throughout the year.
     After the retreat, the next day, my community mate and I went to the Serve Idaho Conference for two days. The first day was involved AmeriCorps members who served around the state of Idaho. The second day was the general conference. The general conference was focused on The Time, Treasures, and Talents of Older Adults. Each day, there were wonderful speakers who talked about the experiences as AmeriCorps members and about the experiences of elderly volunteers and their value to all organizations. My organization is run mostly by volunteers, most of them retired, with only one paid employee, so volunteer coordinating is very important. I am in that role this year and I love it. Finding new ways to connect with and schedule volunteers through this conference has been wonderful. I wrote an article for my program reflecting on the conference, and that is below.

Serve Idaho: Reflections on Inclusion
     When I started in my placement this year at my placement, I naturally began coordinating the seventy-five volunteers that help the shelter operate smoothly. There is one paid employee at the organization and everyone else is a volunteer. I enjoy this aspect of the organization and I truly see the community giving everything they have- time, a listening ear, in-kind donations- every day to assist those in need. Most of the volunteers are retired and over fifty years old. I did not pay much attention to this fact when I started in my position, I just knew I enjoyed talking with the volunteers, getting to know them and getting to know their perspective on the organization.
     One of my goals for this year has been to conquer the task of volunteer coordinating. For anyone who has been in a similar position, they know that this task is not always easy. Luckily, we have many committed, wonderful volunteers who are ready to take on any extra tasks, and we appreciate them so much for that quality. The Serve Idaho Conference this year focused on post-retirement age volunteers and their immense value to the organizations to which they serve. I learned a lot about recruiting older volunteers and about how to create a welcoming and inclusive environment to which they would be inclined to continue volunteering. I learned that not everyone is immersed in the world of nonprofits and therefore may be hesitant to volunteer, as they don’t necessarily know their place or how they are needed in the community. The most beneficial aspect of the conference was hearing directly from older volunteers who currently devote their time to serving the community. They discussed their experiences in volunteering; the good, the bad, and the mediocre. They shared their knowledge as volunteers, which was valued by all present. They said they wanted to feel heard, valued, and to understand the vision of the organization. They wanted to feel like an important part of the operation of the organization. They wanted consistency and organization. They wanted to be a part of a positive change in the community. All of these points seem fairly minimal, but when staff at an organization put this all together, volunteers can feel more valued and substantial, therefore creating an environment where they want to stay and contribute their skills.
     Since starting in my position, I have made a point to spend time with the volunteers and get to know them as well as those we serve. This has been important to me because every now and then someone will surprise you. I am always curious why someone wants to volunteer, what has drawn them to the shelter, and any talents they may have to improve the organization. There is one volunteer who was supervising computer use and enjoyed it, but seemed like he had more to gain from the experience. Upon further discussion, we found that he is a skilled musician. Now there is a music program once a week for our guests to participate in, which has proven to be a therapeutic and positive program.
     The speakers at the conference reminded me how important it is to connect with every person I encounter at service, those I directly serve include the volunteers I serve beside. At the day of the conference dedicated to AmeriCorps members, I was reminded that the service done by all AmeriCorps members is vastly different and incredibly important. While we all serve in different roles, we are all volunteers working together to create a community that cares for those who often go unheard and overlooked. Meeting volunteers from all branches of AmeriCorps, including Senior Corps volunteers, was a highlight of the conference. People devoting their time to service at all ages and coming from all backgrounds is inspiring. I have taken these experiences with me to my service site and I hope to keep these important messages with me throughout the remainder of the year, gaining as much from volunteers of all ages as I can.

     The transition from February to March at service has been a noticeable one. In February it was still winter and still very busy at my service site with people wanting to get out of the cold each day. It has slowly started to warm up in March, which is wonderful, and people are slowly dispersing. More are sleeping outside and spending time in the parks. A few highlights from the past couple months have been having a guest remain regulated on meds and off of illegal substances. There were a few bumps in the road, but this guest is persistent in their recovery. Another guest got housing, yet another is going to in April after six years in shelters. There is a little girl who comes to check mail with her father and she recently got a haircut. She seemed sullen, but I made a big deal of her haircut, telling her how wonderful she looked. She smiled and said a genuine thank you. She said her class was picking on her that week because of her haircut. My supervisor and I had to pull a man off of the sidewalk as other guests told us he was close to rolling into the road. He had laid down, drunk, and was close to falling into traffic. This was off of our property, not technically our problem, but we both went to make sure this guest was safe and was able to move away from the curb. This is one of my favorite moments recently, as odd as that may sound. I think it shows the lengths we go to for guests and it truly brings a new challenge every day when so many people we care about are out on the streets being hurt, hurting themselves, and the least we could do is move this man in from the curb. There is another guest who was recently released from jail. He was around all the time before he went in. When he got out he had a case worker who got him housing, payee services, and stability on medications. Within three days he lost his housing, was off his medications, and the organization that provided case management was shut down. This does not usually happen, at least not so fast. I was blown away. He is in the exact same position he started in before he went to jail, which is what we see a lot. So quickly he was thrust back into the shelters and he returned to his old routine, so that if I don’t think about the past couple months, it’s as if he picked up right where he left off exactly, as many do.
     These past couple months have been packed with many wonderful and simultaneously heartbreaking experiences. I am fortunate to be of service in this way, I would not trade the difficult times for anything, as it has shaped my perspective in these past seven months. I can’t believe the year is flying by so quickly and I am trying to take in everything I can while I am here. Thank you all for all of the support and guidance you have given to me throughout these past seven months, I truly appreciate it. 

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Witnessing Change

December was full of the joy of the holidays and simultaneous heartbreak. This month was really busy between accepting constant donations, meeting everyday needs, filling in for volunteers who had holiday plans, and staying open seven days a week for three weeks straight. It was an exhausting and fulfilling month. As the days grew shorter, I saw light elsewhere throughout the holidays.
                After deciding at the November board meeting that new men’s showers were definitely needed in the day shelter (there are at least ten showers per day in the two showers per bathroom), the process started in early December. It only took a little over a day to complete one shower, and during this process I received a call in the office from a woman who wanted to donate for specific projects, preferably larger projects, as she wanted to donate about five thousand dollars. I instantly thought of the showers and how they were much needed, but would put the day shelter a little over budget for the year. This was unlike anything I had encountered- a need met almost instantly. She was willing to work with us on these showers and was even willing to put in two new women’s showers after seeing the quotes from the contractors. As I was still in shock from all of this, I told the founder of this good news. He wasn’t surprised at all. There’s an incredible way things fall out of the sky for both staff and guests at the day shelter- if we are incredibly low on food, it magically arrives before a meal. If we are low on mugs, they arrive as the last one is being taken for coffee. Witnessing this sort of support and timeliness is something you can’t really believe until you see it. I thought staff was being overly casual when I started this year, saying things like “our needs have a way of being met around here.” Turns out, it’s true for the most part. Things seem to work out and when they do, I’m still in awe.
                As the winter rolled around in Boise, the colder weather meant more worry, more donations, more illness, and more work. In early December staff made the decision to stay open until 5pm, an extra half hour, as needed to keep people inside for as long as we could. The gratitude of the guests confirmed that this was the right decision. Even as the temperatures dropped and the snow settled in the foothills, people still slept in their cars, on the streets, and, as I learned from talking with some guests, in empty laundry rooms and vacant areas of certain buildings. There is one guest who slept outside in the cold temperatures of later December and came in after a hospital visit with confirmed frostbite on five of his fingers. He would lose at least four of those fingers, if not all five, in surgery in a couple of months. First he would have to go back for more diagnostic tests. As he was telling me this I didn’t ask why he had slept outside, as there are many reasons why people can’t or won’t enter into overnight shelters, but I instead thought about how one night could instantly take away half of his fingers. I was very aware for the rest of the day exactly how much I used my fingers and how different life would be without the use of them. This man came back the next day, very embarrassed, and asked if I could tie his shoes. With the nerve damage from the frostbite he couldn’t use his fingers to tie his shoes. I joked with him that I am always amazed at everything I do in my position on a daily basis- things like tying shoes, which I never would have thought of as part of the job. The truth was, I was extremely humbled sitting there, seeing the exhaustion and anguish on his face, and doing the simplest of tasks for him. He asked to borrow a marker to write a sign and I asked if he needed help writing it, as I had the time to do so. He nodded and I asked what he would like me to write. He said, “Broke with frostbite. Please help.” I wrote it out, thinking just how accurate it was and wondering if anyone would stop to help him out.
                Flying signs is a way of life for some guests, while others don’t participate at all. Either way, everyone has their opinion about it. There is a sense of discomfort about seeing someone flying a sign- the guests are very aware when people feel uncomfortable by the sight of them. It’s a weird mixture of helplessness, guilt, and sorrow seeing someone asking for a strangers help. I’ve thought a lot about the whole concept of flying signs and wondering how to encounter people who are. Of course, now, I know most of the people flying signs around town personally, so I usually just say hello and converse with them. One guest had a conversation with me one day about how humiliating it was to fly a sign. He said he felt such shame, knowing how uncomfortable people were by the sight of him. He said a lot of people turn away and wouldn’t even look at him or his sign. He said these interactions, if you could call them that, make him feel insignificant. He asked how he could feel any worth when others don’t even acknowledge him. Thinking about it on a larger scale, though, I know some people want restrictions on the money they give. They think, “Don’t use this for drugs, alcohol, or any momentary pleasures. Save it, use it towards housing and food. Maybe some shoes.” But the fact is that it’s difficult to put restrictions on cash. Giving a gift means not controlling how the gift is used, and that requires a certain amount of trust- trust in the ability for others, even strangers, to make their own decisions about what they need most to get by. I recently watched a documentary about homelessness and the woman filming asked a man flying a sign what he used his money for, implying the money he got from flying a sign. He asked her, in turn, what she used her money for. I liked this point a lot. People often feel they have a right to know what their money is being used for or what the poor are putting their money towards, where in reality finances are usually very private matters. If someone asked me about the details of my bank account, I would be taken aback. So little of people’s lives are private when they are homeless. Some are forced to have payees making financial decisions for them, forced to be passed by on the streets and stared at, share a room with thirty to fifty other people in a shelter, never having full quiet to sleep, being elbow to elbow in the day shelter where there never seems to be enough seating, especially in the mornings. People can get very irritated over lack of personal space, which is completely understandable. What is frustrating is that this usually leads to yelling and violence, aggression that comes from feeling smothered by others who most likely feel the same way.
                We held a card-writing session for guests in mid-December. This was an opportunity to use donated Christmas cards to write to family, friends, and anyone else guests wanted to connect with over the holiday season. Inevitably, staff, especially the founder, received cards from guests. He was talking with me about it one day, saying he wished people wouldn’t waste the cards by writing to him at Christmas, someone they see at least a few times a week. I saw his point, but I also mentioned that means they probably don’t have anyone else to write to. He saw my point and we hung the cards up in the office and around the facility.
                There were a lot of guests who are very sick in these winter months. Because some hold off on seeing a doctor or going to the hospital when they are sick, their cold or flu can quickly turn into pneumonia, bronchitis, or something more serious. There was a man found on a street corner earlier in the month unconscious. Another guest called paramedics and he has been in the hospital ever since, recovering from pneumonia, frostbite, and a few other complications. His fiancĂ©, another guest, has kept us updated about his recovery, and we are hoping for the best even though things weren’t looking good. There’s another, older man who I visited in the hospital who has lung cancer. He was on oxygen constantly and when he ran out, which happened once, we had to call paramedics to come with emergency oxygen for him. He’s doing well in the hospital, putting on weight despite going through chemo, and basking in the fact that he has a quiet room all to himself where he can watch movies he loves all day long. Seeing how happy he was to be in the hospital made me sad, as that’s a place not a lot of people want to be, but he thinks of it as a really great environment to be in, despite the pain from his illness. His memory is starting to go more now and he will eventually be put in long term care until he passes away. There have been some guests who visit him and care for him, but the hospital is out of the way and it’s difficult to get there on the bus. There are so many barriers and not a lot we can do, so I try to be there, especially around Christmas.
                For those who do pass without a home, there is a national event called The Longest Night where people who passed while experiencing homelessness are honored and remembered by those who loved and cared about them. There were ten names of people experiencing homelessness and three of advocates who passed last year, some very recently. There was a vigil held outside of the day shelter on the evening of December 21st. We read each of their names, said something about each and gave the opportunity for everyone present to speak if they wished, and had a meal together afterwards. The service was heartfelt, raw, emotional, and beautiful. It was nice to know that all across the country others were being honored in the same way.
                During my time at the day shelter I’ve learned not to take things too personally. Every day at service is very different and I can never expect anyone to treat me in exactly the same way each day. There are days when some guests love me and want to talk with me all day, a few days later those same guests could be quiet or yelling at me for something that happened. It’s an unpredictable environment. When I first started in August, there was a guest who was causing problems left and right and since we never actually saw her causing these problems, we only heard about the aftermath, we could never do anything except sit with her, talk with her, and ask her to please try and do better for everyone’s sanity (not in those exact words). A couple months ago she stopped using and slowly got clean with help from religion, a counselor, and her doctor. She has slowly changed over the last few months and I’ve seen her transform into a troublemaker who screamed at me daily with personal, emotionally charged attacks to someone who says to me over and over as I walk by “I’m doing good! I’m being good! I appreciate you!” Now during this transitional period, I would get reports from other guests that she was arguing with guests or instigating fights and I would go to check on her and she would repeat her mantra “I’m doing good!” in between yelling at other guests. I had to tell her that while she had been doing well, this was not a good moment. I told her I knew she was capable of better things than what she was currently involved in and I asked her to walk away from situations more times than I can count. Eventually, the process so slow I didn’t even realize it was happening, she really was behaving well. I was completely impressed with her, and I told her that. She had a really bad day one day when she couldn’t go to meet with her counselor, she had coffee spilled all down her back by accident, she had orange juice thrown at her at lunch, and after her third shower and change of clothes that day she was exhausted from crying and feeling terribly about everything that had happened. The staff and I told her “you had a really, really bad day. Tomorrow will be better.” For the rest of the afternoon, every time I walked passed her she smiled and said “tomorrow will be better!” I think of this resilience and positivity on my most difficult days. The true highlight for me, though, was when an older guest with memory loss was anxious and didn’t know how to get to the overnight shelter at the end of the day a few days before Christmas. I was looking around for someone heading that way who could wait with him to enter the shelter and help him through the check-in process. I asked a couple of people, but they either weren’t staying there or didn’t want to take him. Understandably, it was a lot to handle. I was about ready to walk him over myself when she looked up at me and asked what I was looking for. I told her, and she quickly offered to take him. I explained to the man that she would take him to the shelter and help him to check in. He agreed, making sure he knew what he should be doing, and she looped her arm in his and said “Okay, we can do this, let’s go now.” She informed me she would walk slowly so he wouldn’t feel rushed. I watched as they walked away, just taking in the kindness she had grown to possess. Not a lot of people could come full circle in this way and I feel privileged to experience something so profound. I’ve learned that, frustrating as it is, there can’t be a set number of chances for someone to make a change in their life. This woman might have tried to get clean countless times before and for some reason, this time, the fall of 2016, it’s sticking. She had been asked to leave before, she has gotten on people’s nerves countless times, she has manipulated situations and people, and even so, if everyone had given up on her she wouldn’t be where she is today. I think that’s pretty important.

                During early December I was fortunate enough to visit with extended family and my mother in Colorado. That was my Christmas, as I spent Thanksgiving and Christmas day at the shelter this year. For New Year’s Eve there were JV’s from Washington who visited to see the Potato Drop in Boise- we got to check that off of our bucket lists for this year! I’m so grateful to everyone who has supported me through the holidays and made my first Christmas away from home so warm and memorable. Happy Holidays from Boise! 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Happy Holidays!

November has come and gone so quickly. We started the month by driving eight hours each way to the JVC Northwest fall retreat in Loon Lake, Washington. The retreat was centered on community and featured a lot of good knowledge about how to live better in and appreciate community. The retreat was on a beautiful lake, as pictured, and we had a lot of time to relax after about three months of service.

The weekend after retreat, my dad visited Boise for the weekend. We got to do touristy things downtown, then we went to Cascade, ID for a day. Pictures can’t do justice to the beauty of the drive and of the lake once we arrived. On his last day here, my dad came to service with me and I got to show him around the shelter and introduce him to guests who were there that day. It was nice to see the shelter through his eyes and to get a fresh perspective on what I’ve been doing for the past few months. Sharing Boise with him was definitely a highlight this month!

At the shelter, we have been preparing for colder weather and for Thanksgiving. Donations of warmer clothes, hand warmers, and lots of food have been coming in regularly. We are having an extremely warm fall here, which I am grateful for because it means that the guests got another month or so of warmer weather to stay outside in, if that is what they have to do. Shelters in the area are filling up as the weather changes and the day shelter I serve at fills up every morning with people wanting to get out of the cold. When the shelter is so full with people that many have to stand as they cannot find a seat, people get hostile and agitated with one another. This means there are sometimes arguments and fights that break out when people cannot get enough space from one another. This doesn’t happen too often, but it’s why de-escalation is so important. I am always learning so much from the volunteers and staff I have the privilege to serve with each day who have been volunteering for years. Something I can’t help taking away from this experience is that one never stops learning and that many situations don’t have a clear-cut solution, which makes things difficult but worth taking time to help with.  

Thanksgiving at the shelter was like any other day, but with lots of food and a few more decorations. One volunteer worked all week to make seven turkeys and a lot of sides to feed about one hundred guests. The rest of my community came to help set up and serve the meal, as they had the day off from service. The day went well, but it felt like any other day. This is not surprising, as for the guests it was like any other day. My community and I had Thanksgiving dinner with one of our support families, which was really nice. The next day we went to the Christmas Tree Lighting in downtown Boise. This event of coming together with others was much needed after a busy couple of weeks. I am grateful for so much during this holiday season and I hope that everyone else can experience some joy at this time of the year.

This blog does not reflect the views and beliefs of JVC Northwest or my service site. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Looking Past Labels

I'm starting this post with some pictures from our trip to Woodburn and Portland, OR. Tons of fun to be tourists for a weekend! I took the picture of the sunrise right outside my service site. Some of the guests and I stood outside for a few minutes just taking in the beauty of that day.      
Last weekend the Boise JV community traveled a total of sixteen hours to visit the JV community in Woodburn, OR. We were able to see Woodburn and we got to see some highlights in Portland on Saturday as well. We went to the Saturday market, Voodoo Donuts, Powell’s Books, and just wandered around the city. I’ve always heard great things about Portland and now I have actually been there, which is really surreal. Community life has been going well and I think we’ve all settled in well to life in Boise.
                Service has been interesting this month in many ways. In the first part of the month things were much slower than usual because some guests who receive pay at that time get hotel rooms or alternatives to shelters when they have the funds to do so. Having funds available also means potential drug or alcohol consumption, occasionally excessively so. At the beginning of the month there weren’t too many people in our eating area, but when I heard shouting I went to check what was going on. There was a man who I see on a regular basis who was slurring, spitting, and yelling at anyone who looked his way. This was very unusual behavior for this man. I tried to calm him down in order to allow him to stay for the rest of the afternoon, but he was so intoxicated that he wasn’t hearing reason and I had to ask him to leave for the rest of the day. As I got him out of the door, another man was making rude comments to other guests so I asked him what was going on. He could barely keep his head up and his only response to my questions was to repeat everything I was saying. Eventually he made rude comments and it was obvious that he was very intoxicated, so I asked him to leave for the rest of the day as well. These things happen in threes, of course, so as I went back to the office I saw that a couple had camped out (literally) with blankets, pillows, and the rest of their belongings in front of our office window. We do not allow people to sleep on our property at night and we never allow people to sleep in front of the building, where this couple was. I went out and asked them to move (politely) and the man could not have been angrier. I heard insults that day I didn’t even know existed, but they moved their things and went on their way within a few minutes. The thing is, I can understand their frustration. I was frustrated right there with them, but I was also doing what my position requires because I have to be fair and provide a safe environment for the guests. When the man wasn’t swearing, he was saying that they had tried to camp in the alley and were told to leave, they tried in the parks too and were asked to move. These situations are frustrating because while the police and business owners are usually pretty forgiving with loitering, sleeping is another situation entirely. We encourage people to utilize the shelters in the area, but if anyone has been kicked out, is excessively using drugs or alcohol, or does not agree with or want to follow the rules at the shelters, they may either not want to go to the shelters or may not be allowed back, at least for the time being. This is a tough position for anyone to be in and there are so many reasons why someone could end up in these situations. We try to be as helpful as we can be but at a certain point there isn’t much we can do immediately.
                On my walks back to the house after service I usually chat with anyone flying a sign down the street from my placement as I wait for the traffic lights to change. Just a few days ago I asked a man about his sign, which said he is a veteran and that he’s died twice, but he’s survived that and become homeless. Guest's signs are always a conversation starter. He told me it’s all true and I said that I believe him, which is one of the most calming things I can say to guests when they are upset or telling me anything, really. He proceeded to slur his words and stumble, almost into the road. When I told him to sit he said he was fine, but when I insisted, he tried to sit down on the curb and fell into the road. I jumped out to stop oncoming traffic and to pull him back to the curb. When he finally got there I called 911 because this man was a danger to himself as he couldn’t stand on his own. While I was on the phone explaining the situation, a woman held out a dollar bill from her car window and the man fell in the road again trying to get to that bill. I was helping him up again while explaining the situation to the police and I brought him to a safe, grassy area. I waited until I saw the police coming to leave. The weird part about all of this was that the thing I felt the worst about in this situation was calling the police. That may have been irrational, but as I’ve been working with the guests, hearing their stories, and hearing about their relationships and past history with the police, I didn’t want to be the one to bring the police to a person who has potentially experienced trauma involving the police or brought the police to someone with a potential record. Long story short, I was very worried about this man after an already long, stressful day. When I saw him the next morning sitting outside of my placement with no memory of the day before, saying hello to me as I walked into service, I was so relieved. I don’t know what the outcome was except that he was okay and wasn’t in jail the next day, and he doesn’t remember anything either. I was told I did the right thing, but it is so much more complicated than that. It is difficult to see clearly in those gray areas where I have power to involve the police or have them protecting me in certain situations, but knowing this is a privilege in these situations and in our society. The police try to work with and protect our guests as much as they possibly can, but there are so many gray areas and that makes their jobs difficult.
                My placement has been part of a program with the local university for years. This program allows students enrolled in undergraduate social work classes to volunteer for a set number of hours at our site, if they choose, while other students from the same classes volunteer at other sites. This volunteering allows the students to interact with our guests, gain perspective for their course, and it provides my placement with more volunteers for a certain amount of time. One of these students asked to interview me for a paper he is writing about homelessness in Boise. Most of the questions were pretty straight forward and it tested my knowledge of the housing situation in Boise and how much I have learned about it in the past couple months. Then he asked, as staff at my placement, how I keep motivated to volunteer for forty hours a week. I am used to being asked this by volunteers, especially the ones from the university who are about my age, but I usually brush it off and say it seemed like this path chose me. But when I was asked directly in a setting where an answer was expected, it really made me think. The guests keep telling me that I’ve remained positive throughout my time so far at my placement, which I guess I take as a compliment, but it’s been a goal of mine to see the positivity in each interaction I have and it’s usually not difficult to do. I take time for self-care and I look forward to the wide variety of things I do each day at service. I never know what the next day will bring and interactions with guests, both joyful and trying at times, keep me motivated to move forward each day and serve in whatever way is needed.  I guess it’s difficult to explain, and some people don’t understand, but even in the trying times there are so many positive experiences I have witnessed and been a part of so far that I can’t imagine not moving forward. My motivation comes from the happiness guests experience when they get a piece of mail they have been waiting for, when they can use the phone or the internet for something important to them, when my placement can pay the copay for a prescription they need. There are so many reasons why making a small difference matters so much.
                This student also asked what I would say about homelessness if I had the whole world’s attention for a minute. (These were not easy questions, by the way.) I said I would try to break stereotypes. I would ask for everyone to look past labels, such as “homeless,” “felon,” “addicted,” “mentally ill.” These labels have prevented guests from getting housing. There are wonderful programs that work with people experiencing homelessness to help renters look past these labels, but sometimes it’s not enough. There are people who were incarcerated over thirty years ago who cannot get into housing because of that period in their lives. There is a woman who has her master’s degree and who has traveled the world, but is flying a sign because things haven’t turned back around in her life. These labels and stereotypes are preventing growth and are preventing other people from getting to know the people behind the labels they are forced to carry with them. So if I could request anything from you all reading this blog, it’s to look past the labels people are forced to carry. Without volunteering at my placement I don’t know if I could have looked past some things, but getting to know people as people, without prior knowledge of their labels, has shown me that we can’t be so quick to judge. To think I would have been joking around about sports with an ex-felon, or interacting daily with people who are mentally ill and who have so much to offer to the world, people who are addicted to drugs, some wanting assistance for their addiction and some who do not right now, but who, overall, stay positive and keep me smiling at service. It’s amazing what can happen when stereotypes are broken long enough to see the individuals behind them. 
Thank you all for your endless support in my journey.

This blog do not reflect the views and beliefs of JVC Northwest or my service site. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Becoming Aware

This month has been full of highs and lows as I continue to adjust to full time service and living in the Northwest. I have had days when service has left me feeling helpless and mostly hopeless, when I feel like I am not making a difference. There have been days when I have felt truly homesick for my home state and for the college which has become a second home for me over the past three years. Days like these are always tough, but my community and the people I serve remind me each day why I am here and why I know I can continue to make the most of this year.

As I wrote in my last post, one of the highlights in my day is my walk to service, not only because I am fortunate enough to see the sun rise over the mountains as I walk down the hill in the mornings, but also because I get to say hello to some of our guests in the park where they have stayed the night before. These interactions were always positive and it gave me a chance to talk with the guests outside of a busy environment where I don’t usually have a lot of time to simply say hello and ask how they’re doing.

At the start of this month, the guests were no longer visible in the park. For a few mornings I looked and saw no one at the tables where there used to be small groups of guests gathered. When one of these guests finally came into the office I asked where they had been. They said they still saw me walking to service each morning, but they had been asked by the police to move back in the park to a spot that wasn’t by the road. I didn’t have to ask the guest why this was. This interaction has been on my mind ever since. The guests were asked to move to locations in the park where they wouldn’t be as visible- where they wouldn’t be noticed. I have heard that the city receives complaints that people experiencing homelessness are visible, that they cause disturbances on occasion, and other such comments. The fact that these guests were explicitly asked not to be seen deeply saddens me. Since they were asked to move by the police they would be at risk to receive a ticket if they did not oblige; at least this is my understanding of the situation. This happens frequently at the skate park, which is a popular hangout right down the street from my service site. People are ticketed for sleeping on the streets, in their cars, disturbing the peace, etc. and when they can’t pay off the ticket (which they usually are not capable of doing) they are taken to jail after a certain period of time. When I walk by the park each morning now I see the empty space where the tables full of guests used to be. I will never again see parks in the same way. I used to think of parks as a place where there were trees, paths, events, maybe some ponds. A place where kids could learn to ride bikes and where people exercise. I still see them in this way, but now I also see a place some call home. I see past the trees at the entrance of the beautiful park and I see what they’re trying to hide: the people that some don’t want us to see. This is a tough reality to face and one I wrestle with each day.

I talked to a man every day on my walk home from service who would sit by a stop sign with a cardboard sign asking for money. This man is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. He would chat with me about the local news, ask me about my day, and tell me to make sure I walked home safely, as he said the drivers in the city didn’t pay enough attention. This man went missing for a week and a half or so and turned up again asking for clothing from our clothing room. When I asked where he had been he said he had just gotten out of jail. When I said I was sorry to hear that he told me “no, it’s a good thing! Now I have a clean record again because I’ve done my time!” This mindset is a new one to me for sure. Things I never would have thought of as positive I’m being forced realized I must have been mistaken about because to some of our guests they truly seem like positivity, light, and hope.

It hit me at full force one day, when I was hearing another story of how someone had become newly homeless and needed our services, that they were relying on me in that moment. I know that my position involves assisting people experiencing homelessness directly and that many people rely on our services each day, but in that moment (and many moments since) I was very aware that the person sitting across from me was relying on me and my knowledge to get her and her family through the day. This is a privilege each day to be able to interact with people with a vast array of life experiences. It is a lot to process, though, that I have to make decisions, find resources, and assist people with tasks I never thought I would have to know about. A few times a week new guests come into the office and say “I just got out of prison for X number of weeks/months/years and I don’t have anything.” Each time I take a minute to process what that would be like: reentering the world with nothing but some clothes.

One day, a man came into the office and he was very intoxicated. He admitted that he had been drinking that morning but wanted to go to detox to get help for his addiction to alcohol. This seemed like a reasonable request to me, but it was also my first time receiving this specific request. My supervisor and I called the local police department to ask for suggestions as to what to do in this situation, as the guest was, as I mentioned, very intoxicated. The officer we spoke with told us that there wasn’t anything that could be done until the guest sobered up. The officer told the guest that he needed to stop drinking and then seek help getting sober. This didn’t seem to add up to me. We then called a local detox center where the woman who was conducting the guest’s pre-screening to get him admitted to the program asked the guest to hand me the phone. The woman told me that the man was incredibly intoxicated (which I was aware of) and told me that they couldn’t perform a screening or admit him when he was intoxicated. I asked her what to do in this situation. She told me that he needed to get sober and then make an appointment for a screening, at which point they would determine whether he would be eligible for the program. This process couldn’t be started until the next week. I asked what to do in the meantime, for any other resources she could refer me to. There was nothing to do and nowhere to go. I found myself trying to regurgitate this information to this man, slumped in front of me, weary with nowhere to go. I wondered how he was supposed to get sober on his own when he said he had been drinking heavily since the age of seventeen. He was seeking help for a reason and there was none to give him. I gave him water and told him to stay near the day shelter so he could get sober. He didn’t feel like he could attend the AA meetings held at our facility at that time, which I offered information about. He thanked me for taking the time to assist him (which got us nowhere) and he wandered off for the day. I have only seen him a handful of times since. I couldn’t believe how long it took me to go in circles and come up without an answer. I felt absolutely helpless with someone relying on me for an answer and I felt terrible coming up short. This happens fairly often: we can’t fund a full bus ticket for someone trying to leave town, we can’t find a location someone is trying to get to, we can’t provide funds for a lost ID because this is the second one they lost in a short period of time. There’s a lot we can’t do, but there’s also a lot we can do. It’s easy to focus on our shortcomings and to take these home with us. It’s much harder to be satisfied in all that we offer to others.

I am working on being satisfied with all I can do in a day’s time. I am working on understanding the situations that have brought guests to us. I am trying my best to remain positive, even on a few days per month when this is a difficult task. How I react to situations is my own choice and how others react is theirs. This is a tough concept, but it is a relevant one each day. There was one day this month where a guest became so angry that we ran out of sandwiches to serve and just had pasta left (from our donated food supply) that he took pasta that I served him, threw it across the counter, knocked over various things on the counter, and stormed out while yelling. A line of about sixty guests saw this and as I went on serving the long line of guests, many guests from the line told me how rude the guest was, how good the pasta was, and that I was doing a good job that day. This is how service goes on a good day: there can be guests who cause disturbances, who are affected by drugs or alcohol, who cannot control themselves for reasons unknown to volunteers, who have experiences where it is just the last straw, and even through frustrating experiences, there are guests who are so gracious, kind, and appreciative that I know what I am doing each day has a purpose. This is a balance I am continuing to adjust to each day at service.

Thank you again to everyone who continues to read through my thoughts here each month. I hope you all can gain something from these interactions I’m discussing, as I know they are changing me in so many ways. I will continue to update this blog at least monthly.

This blog do not reflect the views and beliefs of JVC Northwest or my service site.