Fall Break Immersion Trip Reflection: Victor in New Orleans

In the spring semester of my junior year as an undergrad I remember watching a new show that had just premiered on MTV called “The Buried Life.” The show is a reality documentary series that follows 4 friends who travel across North America as they try to complete a list of 100 things they wanted to before they die. For every item that they cross off of their list, they help a random stranger achieve one of their dreams and encourage them to complete their own lists. I instantly fell in love with the show and could not wait for each week’s episode. There was one episode in particular that I still remember to this day because it absolutely ripped my heart out.

The group of guys travel to New Orleans where they meet a girl named Queen. In 2005 when Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, Queen’s world was torn apart when she found out that both her mom and her dad had died as a result of the storm. In the chaos that ensued in the following weeks and months after the storm had passed, thousands of people were displaced all over the country, including Queen’s parents. Queen’s mom was transferred to Colorado where she was buried.

Because she was working to piece her life back together, and because of the lack of available funds, Queen was never able to go visit her mom’s grave. “The Buried Life” worked at a local restaurant in New Orleans and used the tips they earned to buy Queen a plane ticket to go to Denver. The episode concludes with two of the guys arriving with Queen at the graveyard where her mother is buried. Queen finally finds the grave and just crumples to the floor and proceeds to sob on her mother’s grave as she says, “I miss you, mom.”

(This intro to the show includes a few seconds of Queen’s story) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GrzWS7fNq74

Here we are, 8 years after the storm, and New Orleans as a whole is still trying to recuperate. During our tour of the city we took a drive to the 9th ward, one of the neighborhoods most heavily impacted by the flooding. Many of the houses still lay vacant, abandoned by their previous occupants who were too overwhelmed by the recovery process, choosing instead to move to another area of city or to leave the city altogether. It was truly heartbreaking to imagine having to leave a city that I have called home for my entire life and no being able to go back. People work so hard to start a family and create a life for themselves in a community, and so many of the people in New Orleans had that literally washed away in a single, tragic day.

Even though hurricane Katrina was such a catastrophic event, there were so many great things that came out it. Community members joined forced to rebuild the city that they called home. Support from all over poured in to assist with this effort. One of those organizations was the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit started in 2006 that helps rebuild homes damaged by the storm. http://www.stbernardproject.org/about-us/

During our service time we got to paint the exterior of the house and assist with various construction tasks around the property. Our site supervisor, Molly, talked to us about the history of organization and the type of people that they help. She said that about 65% of the people who they assist were scammed by contractors who would promise cheap labor and then leave town as soon as they got the cash they were after. As if it wasn’t bad enough losing their home, they also got scammed out of the only money they had to rebuild. I was so infuriated by this and could not believe that anyone would do that. The SBP is doing so much good in the area though and I’m so glad that people are getting to benefit from their work. I’m so excited to see what the house that we worked on ends up looking like.

At our second service site we worked at a community garden that’s part of the regional chapter of ARC in New Orleans. ARC is an organization that works with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. During our debriefing it dawned on me how unfairly we treat adults with disabilities. We treat so many of them like children and assume that they can’t do anything for themselves. I really liked the fact that ARC provides them the opportunity to get out of the house and to learn life skills that they can use in the future.

The fact that our site leader had such a personal connection to the work that she was doing, was really inspiring. The love that she has for her son (who has Down syndrome) was beyond heartwarming. I still tear up every single time I think about the story she told us about the joy that her son gets from talking to his older sister on the phone every day. She said that he calls her every day, usually in the morning when she’s sleeping. One day he called her and when she answered he said, “Hi sis, I know you’re sleeping, but I just wanted to call you and tell you that I love you.” I still don’t know why, but that just hit me so hard. It stuck with me all day and I kept crying just thinking about it.

On the last day we were there we had a meeting with the Young Leadership Council of New Orleans. http://ylcnola.org/. The organization is a nonprofit that works on developing leadership throughout the city through community projects. How I understood it is that it’s basically a nonprofit that helps others start their own nonprofit. The model that they use to help different groups get started up is really interesting and it’s not something I have seen before. So many people (including me) have all these ideas for groups or projects that they would like to start, but they simply don’t have the resources and help that they need to make those ideas become a reality. What I learned from them as well is that it doesn’t always have to be a huge project in order to make a difference in the community. It’s more about finding out what the community needs and what you can do to satisfy that need.

Overall, this was one of the best weeks I’ve ever had. On top of getting to explore a new city and community, I got to learn a lot about the other people who went on the trip. Nothing makes you bond more than drooling on each other in a van for 17 hours and throwing shampoo and body wash over the community shower stalls all the while belting out songs. One thing for sure is that, this is a week I’ll never forget.

Fall Break Service Trip Reflection: Kelsey in West Virginia

Up until my service trip to West Virginia, I had only ever read or heard about the kind of poverty I encountered on my trip. As Sister Pat put it, generational poverty has a unique culture of acceptance with a mindset of hopelessness. We passed miles and miles of small homes that were falling apart, grown over, windows broken, and roofs partially caved in. We saw a mountain top literally removed from the surface of the earth, leaving exposed rock where thousands of years of wildlife once existed. We talked to individuals who fell innocently into devastating and violent addictions to prescription drugs due to work-related injuries and improper pain management. We learned the hold mining industries have on the community, offering high paying salaries in an economy where jobs are scarce and the dangers of mining is worth the risks and health sacrifices.

With destruction existing in every facet of their lives, I never thought West Virginia could also hold such beauty and heroism. Thinking about the nature, history, music and traditions of Appalachia still gives me goose bumps. We drove throughout southern and central West Virginia, needing no more than the beautiful Appalachian mountains in autumn to keeps us entertained. West Virginians have an incredible appreciation for Appalachia and a history of unyielding devotion to their families and community. If there is one story of WV’s history I will always remember, it is one that Tom Breiding shared about the term “redneck.” Men unionizing against oppressive coal companies wore red handkerchiefs around their neck to symbolize their unity. Although the red handkerchiefs were once a symbol of solidarity and justice, it has been popularized to refer to uneducated, poor, and conservative “hicks” by the very people the unionizers were standing against. We also had the privilege of visiting heroic women in West Virginia. We met a 21 year old single mom of a two year old (child genius) and 3 month old. Despite coming from an abusive relationship and a poor family, she works hard each day, working towards an accounting degree so she can own her own home one day—a feat most women in the area do not expect themselves to do. Her persevering strength is an inspirational spark of hope for others in the community.

While we were exposed to some of the tragedies in West Viriginia, we had the privilege of meeting its beautiful people, dancing to its music, and learning from its experiences.

Service Trip Reflection: Sarah Carnes in Montgomery

Is anyone ever truly prepared for the experience of a lifetime? I wasn’t. That’s for sure.

As we pulled up to the Lorraine Hotel in Memphis, it all began sinking in. This, this was where Martin Luther King was shot. I walked up the stairs. I looked in the window of Room 306. This was his room. That was his bed. Yet, when I looked down at the ground, it all suddenly became very real. I was standing exactly where he was shot… At that moment, I could see him standing there. I could see the bullet pierce his chest. I could see him lying in front of me. We hadn’t even made it to Montgomery, but my life was changing.

I love kids. Maybe it’s because of the energy. Maybe it’s because of the freedom. Maybe it’s because I am one. In any case, when I was told I’d be working in a school, I was ecstatic.

However, what should’ve been an incredible day quickly plummeted into a torturous afternoon.

Aaron came in late. He’d missed the first part of the lesson because he’d needed to have a test read to him. His face was hardened. He was scowling. He drug his feet all the way to his desk. Finally, he sat down.

When his peers began pestering him, he retaliated.

Completely disregarding his classmates’ behavior, the teacher barked, “Aaron, stop messing around and get to work!”

He glared at her. Taking out a sheet of paper, he slowly began taking notes. His note-taking gradually stopped.

Again, his teacher reproached him. And again, he made a halfhearted attempt to work.

I couldn’t help but watch him. As he turned around to talk to the boy behind him, he was quickly scolded, “Aaron, come back here and sit by me!”

He stood up. There were daggers in his eyes. His peers stared…

“Everybody stop staring at me!” His eyes met mine. His face broke and the daggers fell. He looked down.

Aaron took his things back to the teacher’s desk and began taking notes.

If you could’ve seen this kid’s face break, your heart would’ve burst into a thousand pieces…I couldn’t handle it. I began drowning in my own emotions. At that point I realized something very important: your heart must be broken in order to be reformed.

I began examining myself. Do I write people off according to a certain stereotype as opposed to seeing the whole person? Am I quick to judge the actions of my neighbor? Do I love others as I love myself?

The Civil Rights Movement itself may be history, but it also remains history-in-the-making. Though we’ve made great bounds in the right direction, we have miles to go. Yet, our future is bright.

I could see it in the 8th grader who cleared the bathroom for a couple of potty-dancing preschoolers. I could see it in the four year old boy who took it upon himself to make absolutely certain that every single child in his class had something to drink after recess. I could see it in the way they praised God through every word they sang in church.

“Smile first… I’ve never seen an icicle that hasn’t eventually melted.”

After all, it all begins with small things because eventually, the small things become big things.

–Sarah Carnes

Service Trip Reflection: Madi Felipe at White Rose

What is service? I found myself thinking this upon my return from my Spring Break “Service” Trip. I kept looking back at my week and tried to determine what services I provided. I never fed the homeless, built a house, or tutored kids. Did I serve? Yes? Maybe? Honestly, at first I didn’t know. But then I started thinking about my experiences with my group and the people at our host site, the White Rose. We shared laughs and knowledge, food prep and clean up duties, floor space and house work. We were together, we were whole. We listened and spoke with intention. We created a safe space where all of us felt comfortable sharing opposing, contradictory, and scattered thoughts and feelings. We served each other. By becoming vulnerable and open we were able to be honestly present physically, mentally, and emotionally for each other. No one needed a hand out, no one needed food or clothes or shelter, but we did need love, acceptance, and community. We provided each other with the support that allowed ourselves to be so truly authentic that we could connect with ourselves, and each other, on a deeper level.
I realize now that those actions were my forms of service. Being a supporter and friend IS an act of service. Just staying in the room talking to the people on meal prep or dishes; asking questions about themselves so time could go more quickly and create a more pleasurable environment, IS a way of serving them. There might not be a physical reminder of the service I provided, but there is a profound change within the people I interacted with, as well as inside myself, that proves to me how much my presence and openness mattered to this experience.
I learned so much this past week about myself, but I know that would not have been possible without the service of the people around me. Their authenticity and intensity was contagious. I was there to serve them, but in the end I would say they served me much more than I them.
I want to send my gratitude to the coordinators of the trips, my wonderful White Rosers, and all the people I came in contact with in Chicago. Through learning this new definition of service, I have come to the conclusion that I can dedicate my life to the service of others without changing any of my future goals. Service is a mindset and attitude just as much as it is an action. Motivation matters, and I plan to use my motivation to live as a servant of humanity.

-Madi Felipe

Photo Friday: Sarah Meets Detroit

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Photo taken by Ben Stevinson of  Sarah Peraud who wrote the following reflection on her Spring Break trip to Detroit.

I had the absolute privilege to spend my spring break in Detroit with 5 amazing people living with the Daughters of Charity and exploring different service sites.

Detroit is terrifying. Everywhere we drove we saw houses burned down. We saw people living, selling drugs, surviving on the streets. There was a lot of darkness, a lot of pain.  God was very hard to find.

But, I discovered Detroit is possibly the most hopeful place in the world.

Detroit used to be motor city, a city built on machines and industry. That was quickly taken away. Detroit was stripped. The bones of the city stand as testament to a world and industry that sucked out their marrow and then turned away.

There are no more factories. There are no shiny new cars rolling out from shiny warehouses and factories.

It is the people that make Detroit now. When I met those people, God became evident. When I opened my heart to loving God became inevitable.

I met a boy who, although homeless, just graduated high school wants to go to college and law school and move back to fight for Detroit. I met a child who wants to study fashion and who has the voice of the old Mo-Town greats. I met two homeless teenagers who had found love in each other. I heard an ex-addict talk about the power of poetry. I head volunteers speak with the utmost respect and welcome to the people who walked through their soup kitchen lines.  I saw grafitti everywhere, testament to artists still willing to put their name, their art, their mark on this city.

Repeatedly, after telling us about the cold and destitute situations they were dedicating their lives to people would say, “But things are looking up.”

“Detoit is a phoenix rising.”

“Detroit is a diamond in the rough.”

Over and over again, I heard, “We are a diamond in the rough.”

Detroit is a diamond in the rough. The rough is tougher than most, darker, thicker than most. There is certainly a lot of work to be done, and we are nowhere near finished. But hope is easy to find when the diamonds shine this bright.

I cannot wait to go back.

White Rose Catholic Worker House

I never thought I’d be living off of food recovered from dumpsters but for the last week of my life, this is exactly what I was living off of. Welcome to the White Rose Catholic worker, a place where nothing is wasted, not even human waste; that’s what the compost toilet is for. These Catholic workers are dedicated to the environment, non-violence, non-torture, and peacemaking. They spend their days holding vigils against Guantanamo bay and spend their nights together in community eating a mix of the food that they have dumpstered that day and the food that they have grown on their organic farm. There are six Catholic workers who live at the White Rose. Most do not have jobs. The two that do, work part time at universities researching and teaching. The other four refuse to work so that they won’t be forced to pay war taxes. They refuse to work so that they will have more time to take action in their community. They take action against the school of the Americas, against the torture at Guantanamo bay, against the deportation of immigrants, and against NATO and the G8, just to name a few. These Catholic workers don’t live a mainstream life. They work on an organic farm by day and organize a free market by night. They welcome guests into their home by day and fast from energy by night. They do scripture by day and have round table discussions and open community meals by night.

Living in this intentional community with these six Catholic workers for an entire week has caused me to realize how much I must change about my own life. The life that they live, though it shocked me at first, is the way that I would like to live my own life. Being in this community has inspired me to take small steps; to walk and bike wherever I can, to fast from energy and technology as much as I can, to grow my own small garden, to stand up for what I believe in even if there are risks involved. Living with these Catholic workers has given me hope; hope for a better tomorrow. Change can and will happen. They are making it happen in their own community and we can make it happen in ours.

-Chelsea Ensor