Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Beyond the Statistics

Amor de Hermanas - Sisterly Love, Amanda and Diana*
By Amanda Ceraldi, Franciscan Mission Service 

From the first day I met her, Diana* captured a piece of my heart. I’m not sure if it was her wide-eyed smile and precious dimples, her joyful belly laugh, or the way she called me “Miss” because she couldn’t properly pronounce my name, but she instantly captivated me. Diana brought a special light to my second grade English class. She was timid at first, but it didn’t take long until her excitement to learn took over.  There was something unique about Diana. I didn’t know what it was at first, but I was eager to understand and love her more to find out.  

Guatemala ranks fourth in the world among malnourished children. With 1 out of 2 children in Guatemala being chronically malnourished and nearly 3 out of 4 children in indigenous communities, it is hard not to be shocked by these statistics. When I first arrived in Guatemala these statistics didn’t really mean anything to me—they were overwhelming, but they were merely numbers. These numbers were a frustration with Guatemala’s infrastructure and they were a reminder of the work that needs to be done for the poor and marginalized.   

I had done research on malnutrition in Guatemala before my arrival. I had heard stories about how malnutrition effects childhood development.  I knew that lack of proper nutrition in the first few years of life has a great effect on a child’s ability to learn later in life. I understood how it would be more difficult for a child to advance in life, both mentally and emotionally, if they didn’t have access to the necessary nutrients to help their brains and bodies develop. But during my time at Orfanato Valle de los Angeles, a boarding school for poor and marginalized children who come from areas of Guatemala plagued with violence, abuse, and malnutrition, these numbers ceased to be a shock, a frustration, or a reminder. These numbers had a face. These numbers had a name. These numbers were my student, Diana. Suddenly, those statistics were directly impacting my call to mission.      

The more time I spent with Diana the more I began to notice what separated her from the other students in class. Diana would yell out answers, not unlike her classmates, but she would become angry and hit herself if she didn’t know the correct answer. She would pace back and forth in frustration if she colored outside of the lines during an activity. She would often punch or kick other students when they would laugh at her for talking to herself. I began to see the other kids in my class isolating themselves from Diana. She was often left without a partner during class activities, her classmates called her names, and it didn’t take much for her to storm away and cry in the corner.  

Like nearly 50% of the children born in Guatemala, Diana was born into such poverty that her family couldn’t properly take care of her. Because of this, and more reasons than I will ever know, Diana was abandoned and forced to overcome something way outside of her control in her young life. But upon her arrival at Valle de los Angeles, Diana was met with love and opportunity for her future. Like all of our 215 students, Diana was seen by our nurses, doctors, and nutritionists to ensure that she was growing, developing, and overcoming her malnourishment. She was given the opportunity to meet with our school psychologist to deal with the effects of her malnutrition. She was given a tutor to help her advance in her classes. But most of all, Diana was given love, care and hope.   

One of the greatest things I’m learning during my time on mission is the power of ministry of presence and accompaniment. Diana taught me how to love and accompany in new ways. I learned how to adjust my lesson plans and teaching style to meet Diana’s needs in my classroom. I learned what would cause Diana’s anger and frustration in my class and how to help her work through her emotions. I learned that loving can simply be the action of opening your arms for a hug. I learned that sometimes, in order to love and accompany another person, all you need to do is be there. Diana taught me that our capacity to grow and to love goes beyond the statistics.    

*Name Changed

Amanda is currently volunteering with Franciscan Mission Service. To find out more about this program, please click here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Christ in Disguise: Bon Secours Volunteers Reflect on the Corporal Works of Mercy

“The Corporal Works of Mercy are found in the teachings of Jesus and give us a model for how we should treat all others, as if they were Christ in disguise.” 
~United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

 The above description of the Corporal Works of Mercy reminds us that Christ lives within all of creation, unifying every living being. When we experience this sacred reality, we come to understand our actions as a means by which we may bring healing and wholeness to the Body of Christ. As our Bon Secours Ministry Volunteers practice the Corporal Works of Mercy through their service, they develop a deeper appreciation for the web of relationships which connects each of them in both an intimate and a personal way to all those they meet in their daily lives. In the reflections below, the BSVM volunteers share encounters which illustrate this growth. It is in the act of responding to their neighbor’s hunger and thirst for dignity through the Corporal Works of Mercy that our volunteers meet Christ in service. 
~ Olivia Steback, Program Manager, Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry

Feed the Hungry and Give Drink to the Thirsty
By Gerard Ondrey

When I bring a patient a container of apple juice or a pack of graham crackers, it often doesn’t register in my mind as a significant action.  After all, most patients get three meals a day while in the hospital, something many of them do not receive outside the care of Bon Secours Baltimore Hospital.  However, during my year of service I have come to realize the importance of these gestures lies not in their magnitude, but in the greater recognition of the human dignity these acts symbolize.

The patients I encounter, many of whom struggle with poverty, homelessness, drug addiction, and other afflictions which contribute to their marginalization from mainstream society, are not used to being waited on or served. On the other hand, I am accustomed to going out to restaurants with family or friends, people taking my order, cooking my food, filling up my drink glass, and removing my dishes when I am done.  When offering a patient a snack, I don’t quite have the selection of a five-star restaurant to choose from, but when I am asking a question as simple as, “Would you prefer apple, cranberry, or orange juice?”  I feel I am embodying the ways in which I have been served. “Waiting” on patients, taking their “orders”, bringing them food, and clearing things away when they are done, feel like true acts of mercy. I am showing them that I find them important by honoring their requests and responding in a full and prompt manner.

In my mind, this is what it means to live out the Corporal Works of Mercy of feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty. In the above scenarios, the acts are not important because the people I am serving are in danger of starving to death in that moment, but because of the dynamic they represent; seeing and honoring Christ’s presence in all people elicits the desire to serve. 

Shelter the Homeless
By Alex Yeo

Through my ministry in the emergency room I have been able to work with many of the homeless men and women who reside in our community. These individuals come to the hospital seeking medical care and assistance with their social problems. My role, when I first meet them, is to ensure that their non-medical needs are addressed. One of the main organizations the hospital partners with is Healthcare for the Homeless, a nonprofit that provides medical care and social service assistance. With their aid, I have been able to provide patients the support and resources needed to help them transition out of homelessness. 

Visit the Sick
By Mackenzie Buss

Our volunteer community has been fortunate enough to avoid sickness so far (thank you Lord!) but, every day at the hospital, we work with those from the greater West Baltimore community who are ill. In my experience, it is often the sickest patients who are the most difficult to 'be present to'. All of our renal patients have a lot going on in their lives, from physical ailments, comorbidities, and actual disability to the myriad social problems that living in an impoverished neighborhood presents. In spite of the massive obstacles that all our patients face, there is still a huge range in energy levels and general overall health. The chipper, friendly, energetic patients are often the easiest to build relationships with. At first, I was daunted by the prospect of talking to the older, quieter, sicker renal patients. As I have grown and learned with Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry this year, I have come to understand that our service isn't necessarily about entertaining patients, solving little problems, or even listening to them. It's about being there for them with your whole soul.

That is the mentality that empowered me to smile a bit and sit down next to one of our elderly, quiet, very sick nursing home patients. Sometimes, I'll hold her hand or say something that I am thinking of, but mostly I just sit there beside her. It's really a silent visit, a moment of being present to one of my sisters in Christ in the only way I know how - to just be together. I don't have much else to offer her, but something about those tiny moments, no matter how small and simple, just feels right. It's like a little slice of the Holy Spirit is there in right relationship with us as we sit and simply be together. 

Visit Prisoners
By Elizabeth Modde

It is not unusual to pass a man or woman walking down the hallway in handcuffs, flanked by two security guards. Bon Secours Hospital in Baltimore ministers to patients from the Department of Corrections. In fact, some patients admitted to St. Martin's Hall Inpatient Unit will be discharged to the police. Seeing these patients, shackled to their beds, I find myself trying to imagine what they must be feeling. Some are visibly anxious. With a small idea of the dehumanization that can be experienced in prison, I feel privileged to extend warmth and kindness to our prisoners at the hospital. Recognizing basic humanity and dignity, of both patients and the guards in their rooms, can be as simple as smiling and offering a cup of water. 

Bury the Dead
By Alex Yeo

In the ER, you rarely get the opportunity to develop a lasting relationship with a patient. There is a very specific process: triage, treat, and either discharge or admit to the inpatient floor. The focus is on efficiency not casual conversation. Regardless, many of the patients that come to the ER frequently are often too intoxicated or incapacitated to engage in conversation. This year, however, I had the privilege of meeting a patient, let us call him David, who had developed a lasting relationship with the ER staff.

David, admittedly, was not the most pleasant patient to work with; a homeless alcoholic he had been cycling through the ER for over twenty years. I was always impressed that despite how frustrating it was for the staff to see him constantly return to the hospital, they were able to retain hope for his future. He was always given a place to rest out of the cold, a warm meal, and often times new clothes. The ER staff was his family. Their relationship may have begun begrudgingly but was now one of love and concern.  When David passed away this winter, the mood in the ER was one of sadness and relief. Knowing that he had moved on to a better place brought solace to those who had worked with him.

Being one of the last people to work with him, I was given the task of organizing his memorial service. Visiting the different departments of the hospital to raise publicity about the service, I was amazed at how many people in the hospital knew of him or had stories about caring for him. The hospital staff had given him many resources and much love, but he also gave back to us. During those difficult and frustrating moments of caring for him, he taught us how to love and to be patient; how to look past one’s impulsive judgments and tap into a deeper desire to care for one another as members of God’s creation. For those lessons we are eternally grateful and his presence will be greatly missed. 

Give Alms to the Poor
By Nicole Odlum

Through my ministry, I had the privilege to deliver Christmas gift bags to the many seniors I visit every month for blood pressure screenings. Around Christmastime each year, women from local Baltimore churches donate gift bags filled with simple personal hygiene products, laundry and dish detergent, and hand-knit scarves. For many of the residents, this may be the only Christmas present they receive. When I told them they could keep the entire bag of gifts, the look on their faces was humbling. The gratitude and appreciation they expressed was inspiring; this simple, unexpected gift bag brought them so much joy. One woman actually came back down from her apartment after leaving with her gift bag to thank us again for the things we gave her. That was an extremely powerful moment for me, because I realized how much these simple items, items most people consider a necessity, meant to the seniors. 

Pope Francis writes that, “Mercy is the force that reawakens us to new life and instills in us the courage to look to the future with hope.”  Please continue to remember our volunteers in your prayers as they take Pope Francis’ words to heart and strive to courageously live lives of mercy and hope. 

To learn more about Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry, please click here

Monday, May 2, 2016

Justice in Education

By Mary Arczynski, Colorado Vincentian Volunteer

In school I discovered my passion for improving our societal structures, but by my senior year, I felt dissatisfied with pure discussion and felt a pull to act, to “do” something about all of the societal injustices that I was learning about. Especially in my economics courses, many discussions on the right policies for social safety nets, for Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, etc. seemed so overwhelming in terms of my inability to help everyone. So many of these programs feel like putting a Band-Aid on a deep wound that needs stitches, stitches that no one is willing or able to pay for. Learning about injustice, and not knowing how to help the marginalized, many times left me with a deep feeling of despair. This study led me to my passion for education equality. The more I studied economics, the more I realized the self-agency that improving the education or “worker’s skill” of a person that knowledge and experience provides.

There are many factors that play into the education of a child outside of the public institution of school—to include supportive parents or guardians, presence or lack-thereof of traumatic events in childhood, safety, nutrition, the amount of education received by a child’s parents, etc, and arguably those are factors that society does not have to “pay for” in terms of education. But, when you really think about it, education is everything when it comes to preventing a deep wound from ever forming so that a Band-Aid never has to be used in the first place, and school systems are not equal in terms of funding, nor are they equitable. Education is supposed to give everyone a chance and in addition, when done correctly, it gives people the awareness to advocate for themselves. A beneficial education allows the marginalized to improve their situations and to become contributing members of society who can interact with pride and mutual self-respect.

Education is what turns anger, violence and despair towards a situation into a burning hope for something better. Truly, think of the first time you learned to read a word, your first book and your first scholarly essay that opened a portal into an entirely new perspective on life. An education allows an individual to do that many times over during the course of ONE day. Imagine the impact of a successful countrywide educational structure on our country. One in which each student and school had adequate staffing, textbooks, technology and opportunity.

Anyone working in a profession that directly advocates for the marginalized knows that many social justice issues are intertwined. One cannot talk about education injustice without talking about poverty, and one cannot talk about poverty without talking about racial injustice. But, I truly believe that the first pragmatic step to long-term positive improvement of the many social justice issues in our country begins with providing equitable education to children. 

Mary Arczynski is a graduate of James Madison University with a dual degree in English and Economics. She is currently volunteering with the Colorado Vincentian Volunteers. 

This post is part of our new Justice Matters series, in which volunteers reflect on the social justice issues that have become an important part of their service experience.