Thursday, April 24, 2014

Swimming toward a Healthy Future at Misericordia Home

By: Caitlin Morneau, AmeriCorps Program Assistant

In the middle of Chicago is a campus of 18 buildings on 31 acres of land. On it sits Misericordia Home, an organization that “supports individuals with developmental disabilities in maximizing their level of independence and self-determination with an environment that fosters spirituality, dignity, respect and enhancement of quality of life”.

Misericordia Home has been responding to the needs of children and adults through residential, educational and medical services since 1921. Inspired by the example of other full-time, faith-based service programs in the Chicago area, Residential Administrator, Joe Ferarra, sought to create an AmeriCorps program at his place of work and turned to Catholic Volunteer Network.

This year Misericordia Home hosts five CVN  AmeriCorps members who serve in areas of therapy, direct care and fitness. Joe described to me that physical fitness is especially important to individuals with developmental disabilities. Joe explained, "[Our residents] struggle with healthy food choices and portion control. This leads to chronic heath issues just like the general population.  We face obesity as a huge issue with our residents and our AmeriCorps members in the fitness roles really are able to provide the direct one on one support our residents need to be successful and see results, which make them want to do more- to be healthier and live longer happier lives!"  

He also told me that for many years Misericordia Home had a fitness room and pool, but lacked the capacity to formalize a fitness program for their residents. AmeriCorps members Katie Komale and Debbie Gleason have taken charge of creating regular exercise routines for residents of all abilities.

Debbie and a Misericordia Home resident
using specialized fitness equipment.
Debbie serves in the gym, coaching residents as they use equipment that was designed and donated especially with the residents’ needs in mind.  She says “We all know that there are many benefits to being fit and this is especially true for the population we serve. I believe exercise not only improves overall health, but it also helps reduce negative behaviors and thoughts. I have witnessed this with residents who have struggled with depression and then come to work out with us.  After coming to the fitness center on a regular basis they are more upbeat and social. Feeling good about how they look and being encouraged to meet new goals is a real benefit for those who lack a certain amount of self-esteem. There is a lot of congratulating going on in the fitness room and the feeling is incredible when I get to see how proud the residents are of all their work and the results!”

Through fitness activities, these young women gain keen insights into the lives of those that they serve. Debbie told me that, … not everyone responds the same way, and in fitness we have to tune in to what motivates each one of our clients and determine which equipment may be best for that individual.  For a lot of our folks, music by specific artists helps; others like to have a one-on-one workout with staff, with all attention focused on them; still others prefer to dance; and some have to get on every machine or circuit for their work out to be complete. Finding what works for each resident has been very rewarding since it helps me get to know each of them on a more personal level.

One activity that both members loved to talk about was swimming. Katie was a competitive swimmer herself and spends every Wednesday morning in the pool with three ladies. She explained,These women used to swim often when they were younger, but have spent less and less time in the pool as they have grown older.  Having been a swimmer my whole life and a lifeguard for eight years, I am extremely comfortable in the water and I think that really helps the ladies feel comfortable in the water as well.  Collaboratively, we have come up with multiple fun games to play in the pool that all three ladies enjoy.  Everyone gets in a good workout (even me) without even realizing it is a workout.  I find myself looking forward to Wednesday mornings because I love seeing how excited the ladies are to get in the pool and play.”

Beyond the joy that all participants find in their fitness routines, Katie is keenly aware of the affect that her service has on the residents, as well as the affect that they have on her. “Knowing that if I had not done this program and got these ladies in the pool and moving they would not be improving their health, not only by exercising but also by increasing their happiness, I know God has chosen the best possible plan for me.  I know that years from now these Wednesday mornings with the ladies will have a huge impact on me and I would not change that for the world.”

Thank you Debbie, Katie and all Misericordia Home CVN AmeriCorps members for your commitment to healthy futures!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Giving and Receiving: Gaining the strength to serve through the Eucharist

Catholic Volunteer Network, in partnership with Catholic Extension, is hosting Days of Service and Reflection all across the country in the dioceses where our Campus Recruitment Associates serve. As these events take place, we will share reflections from students who participate.

Reflection by Matt Christiaens, Carroll College
Service at Carroll College is very community based.  Carroll is especially blessed to have the support of many community members who are always being asked for donations to fund various activities.  For this reason, we students think it is very important to remember all that the community has done when we plan any service.  

As a campus we made the decision a year ago to complete one day of service per semester to give back to our community.  Since then, with the help of Catholic Volunteer Network and Catholic Extension, we have expanded this desire to twice a semester, and next year we want to increase to once a month service days.  One major reason we hope to add to the number of days is because of the amount of student participation we have involved in service! 

 Last semester Carroll Students combined for just under 35,000 hours of service, and in our last service day sponsored by Catholic Volunteer Network and Catholic Extension we had 75 students participate which was also during a very large snowstorm. Some projects students served for on our day of service were collecting toiletries for a women’s shelter, serving meals at the homeless shelter, visiting the elderly, cleaning a single mother’s shelter, and various organizational work for Good Samaritan Ministries.     

My day of service began with Mass because reflection is necessary for us to accomplish what God truly intend our work to accomplish.  We must first receive God’s love through the Eucharist, thus, filling our hearts, then in order to keep God’s love we must give it in service to others, emptying all that we have been given.  Through service, more room is created in our hearts for His love to enter again. The more we serve the sooner this cycle becomes a continuous flow of giving and receiving.   

For this reason I, along with many Carroll Students attend Mass before serving.  Mass reminds us of the great “Why” of our lives because God loves man our purpose is to love Him back.  This cycle makes even the most tedious of jobs meaningful because we have oriented our lives to the “Why.” My day of service was filled with scrubbing the walls of a women’s shelter for pregnant teens. That is all I did for five straight hours, and though I would have preferred to work with people in a more direct way, God gave me everything that was necessary for me to fulfill the giving of His graces in service at that moment.  I am always surprised how I am affected after serving because it is never how I expected.  God’s gifts always exceed our expectations.   

Service is direct participation in God’s creation in which we allow God to break into our hearts because we are open to giving without expecting anything in return.  This is what it means to me to serve and this is why I find it necessary to serve whenever possible.    

Matt serves as a Campus Recruitment Associate, through Catholic Volunteer Network and Catholic Extension. His role is to help Carroll College further expand it's service outreach and encourage more students to get involved.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

“Watersheducation”: Protecting the Future of Commencement Bay through Youth Stewardship

By: Karen Gogins, CVN AmeriCorps Member with Lutheran Volunteer Corps

Our waters are threatened by polluted runoff washing down our rivers and streams into Puget Sound.  The polluted water - carrying phosphorus, nitrates, fecal coliform and oil and grease - harms marine life, disrupts native ecosystems and poses health dangers to people.  Unfortunately, students don’t learn about this in their science classes.

Currently, there are not adequate environmental education opportunities for youth to become engaged in watershed issues or to feel empowered to make positive changes. Environmental education for most youth is limited to classroom textbooks.  Young people need to experience actual environmental stewardship work in the field so they can understand the impact we have on our environment.  

There are nonprofits that have strong stewardship programs for youth in this area; however they only serve a small number of students due to limited resources. Students in under-served communities have no opportunity for experiencing environmental science in the field or to see how small changes in their life can make a big difference in water quality. Hands-on education is vital for developing an understanding of the environment and developing a passion to protect our bay now and in the future. Through hands-on science, I am motivating and preparing future leaders who will steer the direction the health of our bay takes in the future.

Third grade students learn how to prevent polluted runoff
with Enviroscape, a watershed model that allows them to
simulate pollution using chocolate sauce and sprinkles.
I am serving as a CVN AmeriCorps member in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps at Citizens for a Healthy Bay, a small nonprofit in Tacoma, Washington. Our mission is to represent and engage citizens in the cleanup, restoration and protection of Commencement Bay, a part of Puget Sound, the surrounding waters and our natural habitat. As the Outreach and Education Coordinator, I have gotten the opportunity to be involved with several exciting educational stewardship programs.
Working as a team with CHB staff, I run environmental education programs that extend far beyond the classroom. Students learn about concepts such as wetland ecosystems and the importance of clean water, and then use what they have learned in the field. Hands-on projects like planting native plants, removing invasive plants, sampling for water quality and measuring macroinvertebrate populations, helps to solidify their understanding of the role that natural habitat plays in improving their community’s water quality and in enhancing wildlife.
Middle school students plant native trees
at a local wetland habitat restoration site.

I am passionate about incorporating watershed and pollution prevention education in school curriculum, because it leads to collective change in our treatment of the environment as well as equitable access to hands-on environmental science education, including its inherent academic benefits and job skills.

One of the most important elements of my position is the active engagement of all kinds of citizens, including those that are historically under-served. Students who engage in restoration, water testing and pollution prevention activities will be inspired to continue learning about their responsibilities as stewards of their environment.  As they grow to be adults, they will have a lifelong appreciation for the benefits of clean water and natural habitat and they will continue to take action to protect these resources.

Students collect water samples from the Puyallup River
and test for dissolved oxygen, an important indicator
for the health of aquatic life.
One of my accomplishments this year has been expanding CHB’s educational capacity beyond environmental science by creating and implementing a watershed-wide environmental art and poetry contest designed to promote environmental literacy through the arts and place-based education. Science is an important avenue for instilling a sense of stewardship in youth, but the arts are just as powerful and often forgotten.

My AmeriCorps service with Citizens for a Healthy Bay has been deeply rewarding. My position is intellectually stimulating and allows me to use my background in Environmental Studies and Anthropology and experience with environmental education in a summer camp setting.  I have gotten to be involved in all aspects of environmental education from planning to implementation and evaluation, and have gained firsthand experience with how an environmental nonprofit functions.

Pulling a water sample for class analysis and trying not to fall in!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

CVN AmeriCorps members turn a food desert into a thriving community garden

By Mo Copeland, PULSE AmeriCorps Program Director

PLUSE Garden Coordinators Lydia Yoder
and Leah Thill. (Photo: James Souder)
In the fall of 2012, four gun-related incidents occurred within the 2 block radius of a vacant lot in the Garfield community of Pittsburgh, PA. Two were fatal, killing a 23 year-old man and a 17 year-old innocent bystander. Furthermore, Garfield is a food desert, where 40.6% of households live below the poverty line. Due to lack of transportation, many residents have to shop at convenience stores where there is no option to buy produce.  When they do make it to a bigger grocery store, sometimes they still cannot buy produce because it is too expensive and doesn’t have a long shelf life.  Unwilling to see these trends continue, Garfield residents got creative with how to transform these vacant plots of land, with two urban farmers leading the way. Now, the neighborhood of Garfield is quietly becoming a local food mecca.

When CVN AmeriCorps members serving with PULSE (PittsburghUrban Leadership Service Experience) moved into their Garfield home in July of 2013, they understood that while it is great to observe experienced farmers, getting your hands dirty is often the best way to learn. Shortly after arriving, they helped clear land behind their house and to create the Kincaid Street Community Garden, a place where AmeriCorps members and and their neighbors to dig in the dirt and grow their own food side by side.

Since the debut season, the community garden has grown. Last summer, 18 raised beds were tended by 13 families and a dozen children. This year, the gardeners plan to build 20 more beds to allow more residents of Garfield the opportunity to grow their own food. With the coming expansion, AmeriCorps members plan to create a space for children to collectively care for the “Discovery Garden”, an edible garden for kids only. Roughly 1,250 children live in the neighborhood of Garfield (39.9% of the population). The education that AmeriCorps members provide at the garden will teach children about the importance of fresh and healthy food. It will include vibrant and aromatic plants and flowers to attract beneficial insects and pollinators for the whole garden, to teach the important role that bugs play in growing our food.

This spring is extremely busy for PULSE’s Garden Coordinators and CVN AmeriCorps members Leah Thill and Lydia Yoder. They have scheduled a number of days for local volunteers and gardeners to build additional garden beds, exchange seeds and prepare soil for growing. They are working closely with the Garfield Community Action Team to make it all happen, with support from the local Community Development Corporation and, of course, from PULSE.

CVN AmeriCorps members and the Garfield community work together to clear a vacant lot.
Thill describes the Kincaid Street Community Garden as “an opportunity to be self-sufficient as a community.” Experienced gardeners grow vegetables beside new gardeners, sharing knowledge and best practices, until everyone is a seasoned gardener. The formerly overgrown lots where the garden now grows were eye sores to the surrounding neighborhood. Yoder appreciates “the satisfaction of taking that first step of clearing a vacant lot” and how that can immediately make a neighborhood feel more safe and inviting.

Even though Garfield is technically a “food desert” with no grocery store in the neighborhood, it is now an oasis for fresh, healthy, low cost produce. Through the community garden, PULSE AmeriCorps members empower residents to grow their own food, educate children about nutrition and engage and strengthen the community as a whole. Plus, meeting some new friends in the process allows for a fun time for all!