Wednesday, February 22, 2017

An Oasis Within the Chaos

By Kassandra Villarreal, Good Shepherd Volunteers

Kassandra and fellow Good Shepherd Volunteer Allie exploring Los Angeles
It’s so great to be back at the Good Shepherd Shelter after the 3-week long holiday vacation. Although it’s been a cold and rainy start to 2017 here in Los Angeles, that only means that we are slowly but surely exiting our 5-year long drought! The rain has never been my favorite thing but I definitely appreciate it at the moment.

I’m about halfway finished with my year of service through Good Shepherd Volunteers at the Good Shepherd Shelter in Los Angeles and I honestly cannot believe how the weeks fly by when you love what you do! The Good Shepherd Shelter is a year-long residential shelter where women with children who are fleeing domestic violence get the chance to physically, spiritually and mentally heal. The shelter has a trauma-informed on-site school for children ages 0-10 and a Learning Center where the mothers receive yoga, cardio, nutrition, parenting, ESL, GED, advanced career prep, typing, math, life skills, DV therapy, and art therapy classes.  I have several different roles at the shelter: I am a toddler classroom teacher with Ms. Sally, I teach ESL, math, typing, life skills to the mothers in addition to translation in the Learning Center with Ms. Lara, I coordinate the afternoon homework club for the children with Ms. Allie (my fellow GSV-er) and lastly, every Thursday I work with DART (Domestic Abuse Response Team) as an advocate at the LAPD West LA division station.

Although at times it can be a bit demanding, I love that I get to work with everyone who we serve at the shelter! The toddlers at the shelter are the cutest and so incredibly bright. At the moment, Ms. Sally and I are pushing them to learn their colors and letters. We have one toddler who we believe is ready to move on to T-K at the school, so that should happen in the next month or so. Another one of our toddlers is almost ready but her mother is still not 100% on board so we are going to have to work on getting her on board because her child is almost ready for the next step. The rest of the little ones have some time to go but they are such a joy to teach. They are guaranteed to put a smile on anyone’s face!

From the Toddlers’ classroom, I go to the mothers’ classroom in the Learning Center with Ms. Lara who is the Learning Center Coordinator. I started off my year of service in the Learning Center doing something I had never done professionally before; translating for a Codependency class with a therapist. Every Wednesday for about 10 weeks, I would translate this important topic in domestic violence for the mothers. Although it wasn’t an easy task, I am so happy I did it because I have gained so much from it. I got to learn about a different area of domestic violence that I had not learned about before and on top of that, I got to learn a lot about our mothers’ individual DV stories. The women at the Good Shepherd Shelter are such incredible women and I look up to them in terms of strength and resilience. Many of them have experienced homelessness, violence or verbal abuse because of the DV and somehow still had the strength to get up from that and ask for help. Although translating for the Codependency class was probably one of the harder things I’ve done mentally, it was so rewarding for me to understand where our women were coming from.

Another task I have in the Learning Center is to teach basic beginning ESL to some our Spanish-speaking mothers. I currently have two students; one is at the beginner level and the other is in between beginner and intermediate. This semester Ms. Lara and I thought it would be a great idea to start them both on the Rosetta Stone program for English, and so far, it has been going super well. I have been helping them a bit with it, and so far it looks like they have learned a lot through my ESL class which is so exciting! One of my ESL mothers/students, who is at the beginner’s level, said she was on the bus with her sons one day and could understand that they were conspiring to throw trash out of the bus’s window. When she told her sons not to do that, they were so surprised that she could understand them. She was so proud of herself and when she told me I was so proud of her too! It’s the simple stories that put a smile on my face and reassure me that what I am doing is worth it.

In addition to the ESL class I teach, on Fridays Ms. Lara and I teach computers/typing and math to the mothers. I consider this as more of a relaxed day for the moms because we touch up on a lot of skills that the moms really have fun with. In the computers segment, they are currently working on the Mavis Beacon typing program where they learn to correctly and quickly type. Even though some of the mothers came in with no typing/computer background, they have made so much progress from when they first started. In the math segment, we review some basic skills like addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, decimals, fractions, and percentages. The math is great for the mothers because not only is it a way in which we can teach and support them in helping their children with homework but also a great job skill to have. The mothers really enjoy this time and many of them have said that it is therapeutic and helps with their healing process. Since Fridays are more relaxed, we end the day with some fun games with the mothers. Two Fridays ago, we decided to play kickball outside on the lawn and rather than have teams, Ms. Lara and I decided to just have us all rotate from position to position. It turned out to be a great idea because rather than worry about the score, the mothers just had fun playing outside in the beautiful post-rain sunny weather.

So far, my experience as a Good Shepherd Volunteer at the Good Shepherd Shelter has been sublime. I never have the exact words to describe how amazing this place is and how much I love what I do, but what I can say is that this place is an oasis within the chaos. Not only is it an oasis in terms of how it’s hidden within the chaos of the city of Los Angeles, but also because of the meaning it has for the families we serve. For our mothers and their children, the Good Shepherd shelter is their home and refuge. Although the mothers arrive at the Good Shepherd Shelter from domestic violence experiences that have stripped them of who they are, once they finish the program they leave as empowered confident women ready to pursue independent life with their children. I am honored to be part of such a remarkable and empowering program.

Just love,
Kassandra Villarreal
Good Shepherd Shelter
Los Angeles Community 16-17

This blog originally appeared on the Good Shepherd Volunteers blog, and is reposted here with permission.

To find out more about Good Shepherd Volunteers, please visit their website by clicking here.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Bloom Where You're Planted

By Katherine Maloney, Dominican Volunteer

“Bloom where you’re planted” is a phrase that no teenager with a lot of angst wants to hear. Yet, looking back, my mom was right - as she often is - about the necessity of and the joy that comes from immersing yourself in wherever it is that you are, rather than resenting that place. At age 16, I wanted nothing more than to be far from Long Island and New York. Fast-forward to age 22, and now I can’t imagine where I would rather be. My time in Dominican Volunteers has given me an enriched and renewed appreciation for the amazing city and state that I grew up in.

It’s no secret that I moved the smallest distance for my service year. While some volunteers moved across the country, I did not. On a good day, I can drive across just two counties from my parents’ home to my new community in the Bronx in about 45 minutes. By public transportation, I would cross four counties, take one Long Island Railroad Train, the 1, 2 or 3 subway line up one stop to 42nd St, then the S or the 7 to Grand Central, and then the 6 all the way to the end, and end up in my community in about two hours. At my ministry site, I’m about 21 miles from my parents’ house, and my community is roughly 19 miles from where I grew up. I may be close to home, but the past few months have been a world of difference that I never could have expected.

Katt speaking at the Migration and
Immigration Conference
Growing up in New York, one would think that I would have at least visited the United Nations once in my life, yet I had not! I wouldn’t have been able to find the UN if I was walking around Manhattan, and I certainly did not understand even a fraction of the work that goes on there every day. Yet here I am, every day being transported around the world without ever having to leave midtown Manhattan, learning about situations and conflicts that seem so distant yet are inextricably tied to our collective human condition and global narrative. Every day I attempt to be hope for people with whom I may never come in contact, living in conditions that I can hardly imagine. Every day I enter what is often a bulwark of bureaucracy, and every day I leave not having solved all of the world’s problems, but having hopefully provided the tools to both policymakers and ordinary citizens to get more engaged, be more aware, and make changes that reflect the human faces behind the world’s crises.

I am so often reminded of the immense privilege that I have to be from the United States. I would imagine that many of my fellow volunteers are realizing how fortunate they were to grow up in the families or areas that they did, and I am realizing that as well, but the awareness of my privilege as an American has never been so stark. Worldwide, there are roughly one billion people who live on less than $1USD per day. Approximately 800 million people are suffering from lack of food security.  In many countries, girls and women still do not have adequate access to education, and around 15 million girls per year enter into a child marriage. There are people dealing with little to no infrastructure, corrupt regimes, lack of clean water, and tremendous income inequality. Every person, at every corner of the
Katt with the President Mahama of Ghana
globe, is facing the difficult challenge of global warming and climate change, and how to mitigate these risks. However, for some in Small Island Developing States, the reality is that with rising sea levels, thousands of people might very quickly find themselves quite literally stranded on desert islands, without homes and without land to live, farm, or build businesses on. While difficult economic and social problems persist in our own country, we are guaranteed certain securities by our government and are often afforded opportunities that those in other countries do not have access to. Across the globe, there are people coping with realities beyond my wildest imagination, and yet every day I seek to represent them in the Dominican Leadership Conference advocacy space. Every day I “show up” for people who cannot do so for themselves. What a true and immense privilege, honor, and responsibility this is, and how lucky I feel every day that Dominican Volunteers has afforded me it.

Community life has also been an experience unlike any other. First and foremost, I am living in the Bronx. When people mention “the Bronx,” images of the era of the “burning Bronx” in the 1980s are conjured. There is a certain nervousness with which people approach the Bronx. I myself, despite living on Long Island for the majority of my life, had only driven through the Bronx, and never made an effort to explore it. I had been missing out on so much! Not only is the Bronx the largest of the city’s five boroughs, it is also the most diverse, with over 200 cultures represented. There are distinctly Italian sections of the Bronx, there are Caribbean sections, Latin American, Irish – any culture that one can imagine is likely represented here. High in the Northeast corner of the Bronx, a stone’s throw from Westchester County, is my home at Our Lady of Assumption Church, where I have been able to grow in my faith and learn valuable life lessons from women who have seen and done it all. From sharing stories about growing up in the Bronx, to deep and thought-provoking discussions on poverty or the true nature of what it means to be “pro-life,” my community has shown me the beauty of life well lived in pursuit of the truth, and has taught me lessons that I know will stick with me long after the year is over.  

So, yes, bloom where you are planted. In my case, it could be that I am challenged to consider the plight of migrants and refugees in the morning, and then asked to consider what role women should have in peace negotiations in the afternoon. It has involved helping to plan a forum, volunteering for the International Day of the Girl Child Summit, drafting a proposal for an event on indigenous women in agriculture, writing statements for a social development commission, taking an active role on six NGO committees, collaborating with great people, and being tasked with professional responsibilities that I never thought would be possible as a recent graduate.  It has involved cooking for my community, which I was terrified of doing. It has involved waking up at 5:50AM for prayer, which seemed daunting at first, but has carried many personal rewards as well as strengthened my relationship with my community. It has involved finding a new home in an unexpected place, but still being so close to the home I’ve known since childhood. It’s involved giving a place I was ready to leave a second glance, and definitely not regretting it at all. It has involved traveling around the world without ever leaving New York, and it’s involved being in a center of global diplomacy every day, but returning to my quiet corner of suburbia every night.

It’s been about five months since I formally said “yes” to the Dominican Volunteers journey at our Orientation Retreat. While I don’t know what the rest of the year will hold, or what the future beyond this year of Dominican Volunteers looks like, I have learned that having faith in the fact that all things happen as they are meant to, I will never be disappointed, and will always be in for a new adventure, even if that adventure is just 20 miles away from Long Island.

This post first appeared on Dominican Volunteers USA blog, Disputatio. Reposted here with permission. To learn more about Dominican Volunteers USA, please click here.  

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Little Reminders

By Jenette Vogt, Christian Appalachian Project Volunteer

It's funny how God can work in your life sometimes. Just when you think you are starting to figure things out, he opens up all of these other paths and opportunities. Usually they are good surprises. Most of the time they just make me roll my eyes and laugh. But most importantly they remind me that I am not and can not be in complete control of my life. I think God likes to send these reminders that he is still there and that he has these plans for my life. Great plans that will bring me true happiness as long as I am willing to follow and trust in him.
When I first came down to my prospective volunteer interview at CAP, God hit me with one of those reminders. First off, I wasn't sure if I really wanted to give up my first year out of college to serve in this community in Kentucky. Most of my friends were moving on to graduate school or their first job. Was I willing to give all that up? That question was quickly answered. My prospective interviews went great, almost too great!
First I interviewed with the Home Repair Program. The only reason I was interested in this program is because I knew nothing about construction and building things. Once, I tried building a night stand and my father ended up taking the entire thing apart because it wasn't square. Apparently only having two of the legs touch the ground at the same time is a problem. I went into my housing interview not expecting much. Boy was I surprised and in a good way! I had the opportunity to go to a job site and work for the day. I LOVED it.
When I got back to the volunteer house that evening, I remember calling my mom in a panic. I wasn't supposed to like the Home Repair Program that much! Before the interviews I already had my mind made up that I was going to volunteer with the Summer Camp Program so I could be a camp counselor. I knew I would enjoy working at a summer camp. I interviewed for the Camp AJ position the next morning and that interview was better than I expected it to be as well. I had the chance to eat lunch with a few of CAP's employees, and we ended up singing camp songs while making lunch. I am not a super outgoing person so the fact that I sang a song called "Bessie the Heifer" during lunch was a big deal to me. I knew that I would love camp and that I would be happy working as the Camp AJ volunteer.
On my way home, I called my mom to tell her about another great interview. She had me give her a run down of the positives and negatives of both programs. One huge negative for the camp position was the in school work at four of the local schools. I was an elementary education major for a few semesters in college, and I did NOT want to be back in the classroom. I knew that teaching was not my calling, and I could learn so much more in the housing program. Plus, the housing program works longer days so they get Fridays off in the summer!
This is when God sent me one of his little reminders. Eventually it hit me that this year of service was not about me. I wasn't going to serve in Kentucky for myself, so why would I pick a program based on what I wanted for myself? The pro/con list had to go. I waited for about a week to see how I would feel and I could not get the Camp program out of my head along with the thought of all of the little kids that I would have the chance to work with. So what if I was going to be in a classroom for most of the year? God had opened up one of these opportunities that would make me happy. I only had to listen.
So I did. I have been a Camp AJ volunteer for the past four months. While there are days that it can be rough to be in a classroom with 20 third graders, I wouldn't want to be anywhere else! Working in the schools has been wonderful. The students have brought me more joy and laughter than I could have ever imagined.

Jenette is an AmeriCorps Camp Educator/Summer Camp Counselor living in the Jackson Volunteer House. She is a 2016 graduate of Eastern Illinois University. 
Christian Appalachian Project’s mission is building hope, transforming lives, and sharing Christ’s love through service in Appalachia. To learn more about the volunteer opportunities they offer, please click here. This post first appeared on CAP's blog.