Wednesday, April 30, 2014

AmeriCorps Member gets his hands dirty in service

By: Caitlin Morneau

When Jarrett Steffen arrived at Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper in the fall of 2013, he did not have a background in environmental studies, but he had a heart for service, a desire to learn and a natural talent for working with people. As a Buffalo native, he was familiar with the Buffalo and Niagara River ecosystems and how these waterways impacted the lives of the surrounding community. After studying philosophy at SUNY Buffalo and then beginning graduate school at Chicago Theological Union, his faith motivated him to take a break from his studies and get his hands dirty in service. Drawn back to his home state, Jarrett became an AmeriCorps member with Catholic Charities Service Corps. 

Jarrett’s service site, Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, is a “community-based organization dedicated to protecting the quality and quantity of water, while connecting people to water.” ( Riverkeeper provides direct charity by acting as a voice for not only the natural ecosystems and all their inhabitants, but for the citizens who have the right to clean water and an accessible waterfront. 

As Community Outreach and Education Specialist, Jarrett is responsible for engaging, training and working with volunteers for shoreline cleanups, habitat restoration, removing invasive plant species and other volunteer events for Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper.  He also assists with the environmental justice program focusing on education and community outreach to impoverished communities that are disproportionately affected by multiple environmental harms and risks. Specifically, he focuses on educating refugee and immigrant communities, on the harms and risks of eating contaminated fish caught in local waterways.

Jarrett and his site supervisor, Robbyn
In order to educate others about the surrounding environment, Jarrett dove in head-first to soak up as much information as he could about the needs and resources in the area. Guiding him along the way was his site supervisor, Robbyn Drake. Robbyn served herself as an AmeriCorps VISTA member at Riverkeeper over 12 years ago, so she was thrilled when Catholic Charities Service Corps approached her about placing an AmeriCorps member there this year. When asked how the year was going, Robbyn said “Great! I’m very impressed. Jarrett loves working with people and has great communication skills. He has a lot of grace and calmness, which you need when working with a lot of different kinds of people.” 

In addition to overseeing education programs, Jarrett is the leading force behind recruiting and mobilizing local volunteers for city-wide clean up events. This past Saturday, Riverkeeper hosted its annual Spring Clean Up, for which Jarrett coordinated over 1,500 volunteers at 41 different sites throughout the Buffalo Niagara region. Jarrett ensured that volunteers were trained in planting trees, maintaining gardens and removing invasive species. Approximately 20 tons of trash were removed and 80 new trees were planted!

Afterward, Jarrett reflected, “I saw people become more connected to the environment and the people they were working with. It was a great event and I felt very accomplished for being able to coordinate something this big that had such an impact on our region. ” Buffalo, New York, is surely a safer and cleaner place to live because of the AmeriCorps service of Jarrett Steffen. 
Jarrett (far right) and a group of volunteers at the Spring Clean Up.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Tending the Earth, Spreading God's Love

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 Ethan Guffey, University of Arkansas

As a large University, students at the University of Arkansas have many opportunities to get involved serving the community. Specifically through our campus ministry at St. Thomas Aquinas University Parish, we have a monthly volunteer day for about the 30-40 students called "Service Saturday."

There are usually three different service opportunities from which students may choose, and we always try to shuffle in a few new ones so that people can branch out a little more. Some of the ones we've done multiple times in the past include picking up litter at local parks around Fayetteville, cleaning classrooms at elementary schools as part of the Head Start program, gardening at Tricycle Farms, cooking and serving meals for 7 Hills Homeless Shelter, cleaning kennels and playing with animals at the Human Society, and volunteering at the Fayetteville Public Library.

Ethan serves his community of Fayetteville, Arkansas.
On a recent service day, I went with a group of fifteen students to do some work at Tricycle Farm, a sustainable farm in Fayetteville that helps provide food for some of it's lower income residents. On this Service Saturday we spread some would chips to help redirect water away from undesired areas, while another group turned the compost.

Once that was finished (we were able to move through projects quickly because God had graced us with a larger number of people) we began moving a pile of brush to make room for some potatoes that are soon to be planted. We also spent about an hour at the first annual Fayetteville Seed Exchange, which promoted local residents planting their own gardens.

We had two other groups serving that Saturday. One group cleaned the oven in the kitchen at St. Thomas before heading to Planned Parenthood in Fayetteville to pray as part of the 40 Days for Life. Another group picked up litter and spread mulch at Walker Park.

Michael, one of our volunteers, truly relishes in this type of work because he is very passionate about sustainability. He has planted a small garden at St. Thomas and began a compost pile. Michael loved the Seed Exchange and I'm pretty sure he talked to everyone he could while he was there. He also picked up a bag full of seeds to grow in our garden at St. Thomas, and I'm sure we will have plenty for the coming season. For the four years I have known Michael, I have seen his passion for taking care of the Earth that God has given us, and through him I can see Christ's love for us.
University of Arkansas students demonstrate their
strong commitment to service.

I enjoyed working at Tricycle Farm this past Service Saturday. I have volunteered there a few time over the years with St. Thomas, and there's always something new for us to do. It's also amazing to watch it expand as it has these past few years, because the larger it grows the more people it can benefit. Also the owner is breaking ground by getting more people in the community involved, which can be seen by the first annual Fayetteville Seed Exchange.

I think it is important for the Catholic community in Fayetteville to support people like this who are helping the lower income residents of the community at large. Service is selflessly giving of time and effort to spread Christ's love by example. As Catholics we believe it is necessary to do good works to complement our faith in Jesus. 

Ethan Guffey serves as a Campus Recruitment Associate for the University of Arkansas, a program sponsored by Catholic Volunteer Network and Catholic Extension. 

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!