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!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Serving with an Open Heart

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 Jessica Arias, University of Redlands

For our community service we visited the Waterman Nursing Center here in San Bernardino, Ca. My fellow students from the University of Redlands put on various activities for the elders. We made valentine cards, some played card games, and we also had nail painting for the old ladies. It was a lot of fun!

Jessica spends time with the residents of Waterman Nursing Home.
This was actually our third time visiting the Waterman Nursing Center as a group. I was really excited to see familiar faces from previous occasions. What is so significant about our service at the Center is that we are able to experience Jesus’ presence just by being there and sharing time. It’s quite a humbling experience. Sometimes it may be hard to communicate with some of the residents because of their health condition, but that doesn’t mean that there is no connection. On the contrary, I feel like there is a greater connection that goes beyond the superficial level. I don't really know how to explain this.

I say this because there is this particular lady who I always see. She loves to get her nails done and her favorite color is red. Every time I see her I get the chance to spend some time with her and do her nails. On this day, since we had the opportunity to make valentine cards I decided to make her a card, and as I was making her the card she was telling me how she recognized me when I said my name and that she was really happy to see me again. This was significant to me because it reassures that there is a special connection even though we may not say much. For example, sometime it is hard for me to understand what she is saying so we may just exchange a few words and smiles and not really have much conversation but, I can still feel joy and love just by being there with her. When she told me that my presence was appreciated, it was reassuring to know that she felt the same way. It’s truly a blessing to visit these people. I think it is amazing how we can all experience God's presence (love) through service. They may not all be that same experiences but, you can definitely see God through them.

Service to me means having an open heart to serve others in whatever their needs are, and it can be as simple as sharing time with the elders.   

Jessica is a sophomore studying at the University of Redlands. She also plays a leadership role in her campus ministry, serving as a Campus Recruitment Associate through CVN's partnership with Catholic Extension. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

Healthy Futures for Wounded Veterans: Project INVEST and CVN AmeriCorps

By: Mark Mann, Summit Institute Program Director

CVN AmeriCorps members, Sean Busse and
Danielle Goldman, play wheelchair basketball with
Project INVEST participants.
The Summit Institute partners with Texas Woman’s University to place students as CVN AmeriCorps members serving through adapted physical education initiatives. One such initiative is Project INVEST (Injured Veterans Entering Sports Training).

Project INVEST was founded in 2012 as a response to the growing needs of veterans in the Denton, Texas area. The goal of the program is to “...offer a variety of individual and group programs for servicemen and women and their families. These programs are designed to improve and promote overall well-being and independence resulting from a physically active lifestyle.” (

Studies from the U.S. Department ofVeterans Affairs show that adaptive sports help to reduce stress as well as dependency on pain and depression medication. They also promote independence and achievement in education and employment, thereby helping veterans through the difficult transition back into civilian life.

Last year, Captain Norma Cabanas of the North Texas Army Reserve Unit wished to start a Warrior Games program to engage local wounded veterans in the U.S. Paralympic games. Captain Cabanas called on the expertise of Summit Institute for guidance and assistance. Answering this call for help, CVN AmeriCorps members at the Summit Institute stepped up to coach participants in how to play paralympic sports such as goalball, sitting volleyball and wheelchair soccer.

Summit Institute AmeriCorps member, Krystal Paul, has really enjoyed her time serving with the Warrior Games initiative. She said, "Working with veterans who are disabled has truly been an inspiration to me. Through all adversity they prevail, teaching us that life goes on as normal regardless of our appearance."  

One veteran who has benefited greatly from the leadership of CVN AmeriCorps members at Project INVEST is retired Army combat medic Clint Musgrove. He says, "All thumbs up, I really see how the application of these programs is helping us. Before getting involved here, I didn't know there were games or activities like this. This has been a really great experience." 

In total, CVN Americorps members have served nearly 500 servicemen and women through Project INVEST and the Warrior Games. It has been a rich and rewarding experience for CVN AmeriCorps members and warriors alike. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Celebrating Healthy Futures Month: How a CVN AmeriCorps Member transformed primary care in West Baltimore

By: Julie McCracken, CVN AmeriCorps Alum through Bon Secours Volunteer Ministry

Julie McCracken joined CVN AmeriCorps trough BonSecours Volunteer Ministry in September of 2012.  Julie was assigned a brand new position on Bon Secours Baltimore Hospital.  Her service was intended to help more of the hospital’s recently discharged patients become connected to a primary care physician.  Keep reading to find out what happened...

My first few days tackling the follow up appointment system at Bon Secours Hospital were just a little hectic. When I started, follow up appointments were not consistently made, and of the appointments made, it was lucky if more than 10% were kept. If you’re unfamiliar with the importance of a hospital follow up, it’s a key step in keeping an eye on the health of discharged patients. In the community of West Baltimore, it’s also a huge part of keeping discharged patients from returning to the hospital and getting readmitted for the same initial (and usually chronic) illness. Bon Secours was facing a rather circular problem: patients required so much help from social work that there wasn’t enough time to get them a check up with a primary care provider. Not having this kind of follow up led to the inevitable readmission of the same patients. 

At first, I would swing between thinking I wouldn’t make any change and sometimes feeling that I could easily double or triple the numbers. Over the course of October, I had made nearly 15 appointments at the hospital’s free clinic before the first appointment was kept. But at that point, even one appointment kept felt like a huge achievement! 

By the end of that first full month, I had also gained some understanding of the barriers that kept an attendance rate of 10%. Instead of relying on the patients in need to call the hospital’s free transportation, I began setting it up myself. I also made sure to clarify that the appointment would be free and that they would be seen regardless of insurance. By December, I had recorded 20% attendance. In January, it shot up to 50%! Over the next five months, attendance averaged out to about 30%. The numbers from before I arrived had tripled! Looking back on this year, and seeing the number of people that put themselves into regular primary care instead of regular hospital admissions, I am excited and hopeful about future changes in healthcare.

Bon Secours CVN AmeriCorps Members gather for a healthy snack.
Julie is now working at a retirement home for physically and mentally disabled adults in Durham, NC, while taking some classes to prepare for medical school.  Inspired by her experience in Baltimore, Julie is interested in understanding how primary care works across different social barriers.  After attending graduate school, Julie hopes to become a primary care provider and work towards a more inclusive and effective primary care system.