Orientation: Building a Foundation for Your Service Year

Sidney Axtell (Hood River ’17-19) has committed to serving another year as a JV AmeriCorps member in Hood River, Oregon. Below she reflects on lessons learned her first year serving at Mid Valley Elementary School and how the essential skills taught at JVC Northwest’s Orientation enabled her to serve well, even if it didn’t seem like that way at first.

Each year, the Jesuit Volunteer Corps (JVC) Northwest AmeriCorps program gathers together the entire cohort of Jesuit Volunteer (JV) AmeriCorps members for a week-long orientation. I will admit, this initially appeared to be a superficially useless endeavor given that JVs serve in five different states across the Pacific Northwest in over one hundred vastly different positions. From service placements in healthcare and education to community gardens and domestic violence shelters, the diversity of placements within JVC Northwest is staggering.

Heading into a year of AmeriCorps service at an elementary school, I wondered where the workshops on child psychology or behavior management were, at the same time the person next to me wondered where the workshop on the proper steps to take when faced with a call to their service placement’s suicide hotline. There were none. As a second year JV this year, I now understand that we first needed to form new foundations before we could begin to fit the unique contours of our own individual placements. We needed the social and emotional competencies necessary to serve.

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Jesuit Volunteers discuss topics pertaining to service during JVC Northwest’s Orientation. JVs gathered for 5 days of learning, community bonding, and AmeriCorps training at Camp Adams in Molalla, Oregon

While my service placement provided the hard skills necessary for the duties assigned to me, JVC Northwest’s orientation prepared my heart for the year ahead. When I would sit down with a child who had just hit another child, I remembered the workshop that related people to icebergs. There are the surface identities that are easily visible, but even a five-year-old has an unfathomably deep collection of beneath-the-surface identities that inform their actions. When interacting with students who I knew had immensely difficult home lives or histories of abuse, I recalled the workshop that talked about the importance of creating security in a child’s life, security that comes when they know that you love and accept them for who they are.

As I begin my second year as a Jesuit Volunteer AmeriCorps member, I know that this year will likely again be part skill, but mostly heart. I also know that my heart is ready for it, thanks to the week-long Orientation where I learned about intercultural communication, conflict resolution, and community engagement tools. And when the going gets tough during my AmeriCorps service this year, as it inevitably will, I have over a hundred fellow Jesuit Volunteers, all in different placements but facing similar challenges, to turn to for support.

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Sidney Axtell (farthest right) with her Hood River community mates during Orientation.

 

Where a Kid Can Be a Kid: Creating Safe Spaces for Homeless Youth in Oregon

Monica Keenan is a second year Jesuit Volunteer AmeriCorps member who has served in the Aloha, Oregon community this year. Part of her role included assisting homeless youth at a shelter in Portland. Losing one’s housing is stressful for anyone, but especially for a child. Recognizing this, Monica created spaces for their students to process the loss of stability and to be a kid again.

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Monica Keenan, a Jesuit Volunteer in our Aloha community, served homeless youth at the Community Action Family Shelter in Hillsboro, Oregon.

Starting a new school year can be hard; starting a new school year while being homeless is even harder. In Washington County, 2,393 students were homeless in the 2016-2017 school year. This has increased 30% from the recession in 2008.[1]. At the Community Action Family Shelter in Hillsboro, a suburb of Portland, Oregon, there is a space for students to process this difficult life experience. The Children’s Program Sensory room, also known as the Calm Down room by program participants, serves as a space where a child can thrive by regaining autonomy amidst the chaos in their lives. Started in July of 2017 by former Jesuit Volunteer AmeriCorps Member Hannah Eby, the space has become popular among children in the shelter program. The children in the shelter have been experiencing the chaos of homelessness, so the Sensory Room is a space that can help them connect with their five senses and calm themselves when they are feeling stressed. Filled with toys, lights, and seating that is specifically designed to engage a child’s five senses, the room helps children regain some autonomy in their lives and allows them access to a safe space to process their emotions when life is overwhelming.

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The sensory room allows space for homeless youth to process their life circumstances and experiences through engaging their five senses.

Chris* was one child who used the Calm Down Room for this purpose. Every bit your typical seven year old, Chris was having a hard time with his adjustment into first grade. He loved being creative, playing with Legos, and learning new games. But Chris’s mischievous nature typically ended in some form of reprimand at school and at home. The week before his family was expected to leave the shelter was exceptionally difficult for Chris. He got into trouble at school, and on the bus, as well as when he arrived home (presumably for getting into so much trouble throughout the day).

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Homeless youth use lamps, noise machines, textured fabrics, and other items in the sensory room when life is overwhelming.

When he came to the Children’s Program, he immediately ran into the Calm Down room. After giving him some time in the space alone, we talked about how Chris was feeling. Once Chris heard, “It’s okay to be upset, angry, or sad. Feelings aren’t bad; you can feel the way you feel,” he flipped on a light and noise maker, went to the sensory chair, and started to cry. When he was ready, Chris calmly returned to the group and exhibited many positive behaviors for the rest of the afternoon. The Sensory Room gave Chris the opportunity to experience his emotions in a safe, controlled environment. In the Sensory Room, and the Children’s Program in general, Chris was able to be a regular first grader again, and escape the weight of homelessness he carried.

Chris is not alone. Over fifty children have come through the shelter within the last 12 months, each of them having experienced the trauma of homelessness differently. As a Jesuit Volunteer AmeriCorps Member, my role is to build capacity for the organization I serve and I see how my presence makes a difference to these kids every day. Whether that is through breakthrough emotional developments or just walking through the front door to be bombarded with the question of “When do we get to come with you?”  I am honored to serve at the Community Action Family Shelter, as it provides a safe, structured environment that allows children experiencing homelessness the space to be kids again. This can help the children process and relieve their stress and ultimately help the rest of the family do the same. While I can’t solve every problem these children are facing, I can be present to help as they build their own resilience and relieve some of their stress through fun, safe, and enriching activities.

*Name changed to honor confidentiality.

[1] https://www.co.washington.or.us/Housing/EndHomelessness/upload/2017-Homeless-Assessment-Report_Year-9-of-10-Year-Plan.pdf

 

Pumped for Produce: Stories of Connecting Families with Fresh Food

Over the past year, Melissa Mardo has been serving as a JV AmeriCorps member in Spokane with Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington. Focusing on food access, her tales of cooking, teaching, and interacting with youth weren’t quite what she had initially envisioned when she began her service.

At Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington (Spokane), my JV AmeriCorps service is within the Food For All program. As a Community Food Resources Specialist, we aim to build better access to healthy, affordable food for vulnerable families by connecting them to the fruits of our local food system. Some of the ways I help connect families is with our produce delivery, since the food grown on our own 12,000 square foot farm is given to Catholic Charities Housing Communities. In addition, plant starts from our Buy-One Supply-One plant sale are donated to housing communities and local community gardens.

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Catholic Charities’ 12,000 square foot garden supplies residents with fresh produce.

I was able to spend time this year in Food For All’s greenhouse. After the annual plant sale, the next two weeks involved donating flowers and vegetable starts to Catholic Charities Housing Units and various community garden sites. I assisted with a planting event at a Catholic Charities Housing Unit whose primary residents are suffering from chronic homelessness. The residents were beyond excited for the cherry tomato plants and one person decided to test out the pumpkin plant in her two new garden beds. I talked with one woman who decided to try the abundantly-producing sungold tomatoes: her reasoning was that if people from the next-door homeless shelter were to enjoy some from her plant, she would still have some tomatoes leftover. She knew what it meant to be hungry so she remained optimistic while preparing her two new garden beds, even if there would be some uninvited visitors.  It is so easy for many of us to find excuses not to garden. “I’m tired” or “I don’t have time” are common refrains from many of us, yet knowing about probable plant destruction did not stop these residents from filling all 20 garden beds full with plant starts.

 

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Food prepared by children at the Hutton Settlement. Here, Melissa taught residents about healthy snack and dessert options.

During my time in Spokane, I was also able to visit Hutton Settlement, a children’s home, to bake squash bars for their culinary class. My initial assumption that children would disdain vegetables appeared to be true. As each child entered the room and heard we were using squash to create a dessert, they scrunched up their noses, stuck out their tongues, and whined, “Ewww.” I knew when I was younger I would have had the same reaction, but what surprised me is that every child was still willing to try the food. While initially hesitant about a vegetable-based “dessert,” being involved with the process made them invested in the outcome and they were ultimately curious to try these mysterious squash bars.

 

Throughout this year, I’ve loved meeting so many kids that love their vegetables. I run a kid’s booth at a farmer’s market where each week we offer a new activity related to exercise or nutrition and the children can earn $2 to spend at the market if they participate in the activity. The coupon is valid for fruits, vegetables, plant starts, or herbs. Each week the kids tell me they are excited to buy carrots or strawberries. Recently, a mother shared with me that the reason they visit the market each week is because her three kids are begging to do the new activity. While she talked with me, the kids debated whether to pool their money to buy radishes or each purchase a plant-start to add to their home garden. Since the children earn their own $2, they are excited to go shopping and buy a vegetable for themselves. The program allows us to empower children to use their money for fresh fruit and vegetables and feel included at farmer’s markets.

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Melissa works the KERNEL booth at a farmer’s market. Children are able to learn about companion planting and can take a basil plant home.

Whether it is trying a new food or starting a garden bed for the first time, I have witnessed everyone’s willingness to try this year. And I think we all can use some of that openness. It was easy to make assumptions entering into this service year. I wrongly thought that people would be uninterested in kale, rainbow chard, or turnips. This year, the places I deliver produce to and the parenting classes I coordinate have all requested that I bring more vegetables and fresh fruit. My JV AmeriCorps service at Food For All makes it possible for anyone to access more fruits and vegetables, thus increasing healthy food options throughout the community.    

 

 

 

 

Developing Compassion and Dismantling Stereotypes

In our latest AmeriCorps blog, JV AmeriCorps member Elizabeth Quinones (Gresham, OR ’17-18) shares how developing compassion and dismantling stereotypes are key parts of her service assisting clients experiencing homelessness and providing high school and college students experiential learning opportunities at JOIN. Read more about Elizabeth’s experience below.

As I unlocked the door to JOIN’s Dayspace at 10:00 am after a cold and rainy night, a rush of clients power-walked in to seek warmth, sign up to be first on the shower list, and grab a cup of coffee after a cold night of sleeping outside. I welcomed new clients and said my usual “what’s up” to our regulars, but this morning one interaction struck me.

“Hey man, what’s up? It’s good to see ya!” I said. His face lit up. “Well hey, it’s good to be seen.” I just stood there. My heart sank a little bit, and I gave a forced smile as I tried to process what he meant.

I began thinking about some of my favorite interactions with clients during my service year. When I was having a heart-to-heart with a client who suddenly hugged me so hard she lifted me off the ground and started spinning me around the Dayspace in bliss (I’ll admit, I totally let down my boundaries, but it felt right). When I got to jam out to *NSYNC with a client during cleanup hour as we happily danced while mopping and sweeping. How jokingly reading daily horoscopes with one client is our way of bonding and engaging in discussion. These are usually interactions similar to those I’d have with my friends from home.

In my JV AmeriCorps position as Immersion Coordinator at JOIN, my role is twofold. This unique position not only gives me the ability and autonomy to get to know folks experiencing homelessness, but also gives me the opportunity to share their beauty and strength with high school and college students through experiential learning opportunities. JOIN supports folks experiencing homelessness in countless ways, from street outreach and housing services to providing basic services in our Dayspace like showers, mail, computers, snacks, etc. The interconnected nature of my position allows me to spend half my time in our Dayspace building relationships with folks and assisting in providing basic services. The other half is spent facilitating immersions for high school and college groups by educating them about homelessness and poverty through conversations and relationships.

At JOIN, we believe the best way to learn about homelessness is to ask the people experiencing it. This is exactly why 25 years ago JOIN was founded initially to provide experiential learning “immersions” for students to learn about homelessness through conversation, relationship building, and service. Immersions can last from a school day to an entire week and are rooted in the values of solidarity and simple living.

Immersions require students to have courage to confront their own personal stereotypes and fears by directly interacting with folks experiencing homelessness. It’s easy to watch videos or read articles about this issue, but it’s hard to actually meet people living outside, hear their stories, and not question your prior judgements. Hearing about how someone has a college degree but tragically got into a messy health situation or how someone first became homeless while still employed makes you think.

Sometimes the most important takeaway from immersion experiences is developing compassion and dismantling our own stereotypes. Realizing that folks who live outside are people who have truly fallen on hard times. They are people. People with stories and interests just like you. People who never would have thought they’d end up in this position. People who show overwhelming resilience and love even when they feel invisible in society. They are not bums, addicts, or criminals. They are people first.

Seven months into my JV AmeriCorps experience. I realized my impact goes beyond the day-to-day handing out socks, serving food, checking mail, or leading immersion experiences. I am at JOIN to remind our folks that they should be and are allowed to be treated like people again – no matter how many others in our community put their heads down and choose to pretend they don’t exist while walking around downtown Portland.

It doesn’t matter what someone did five years ago or even five minutes before he/she walks into JOIN. JOIN is a place for second chances, being met where you are in life, and about “being seen” and acknowledged for who you are.

Preserving Life Lessons and Memories of Loved Ones

In our latest AmeriCorps blog, JV AmeriCorps member Sheryl Cherian (Aloha, OR ’17-18) shares her experience interviewing hospice patients to capture the memories and lessons of their lives through her capacity building project called On Living. Read more about Sheryl’s experience below.

Six months ago, I moved from my hometown of Chicago, IL to the Pacific Northwest to begin a year of service through the JVC Northwest AmeriCorps Program, my first full-time position after graduating from the University of Notre Dame last May. With the help of gut instincts and a strong support system, I committed to spending one year serving as the Immigrant Community Outreach Coordinator/Hospice Volunteer at Care Partners Hospice & Palliative Care, a community-based nonprofit located in Hillsboro, Oregon. I was to reside with four other Jesuit Volunteers (JVs), learning together how to live out the program’s core values: community, social & ecological justice, spirituality/reflection and simple living. I will admit that although I had recited my post-graduate plans dozens of times since committing, I had little conception of what my new, long-winded title really meant—nor any idea just how much this year of hospice service would bring me life.

As a Hospice Volunteer at Care Partners, I have the gift of spending many of my days learning from the special wisdom of those close to death. When I am not engaged in immigrant community outreach, I spend my weeks driving around the Portland area providing companionship and respite care for my caseload of 5-6 patients, as well as their caregivers and families. During these visits, my patients often smile through my mediocre ukulele playing, and we often simply sit and enjoy each other’s company while their caregivers take a much needed break.  I have sat with people four times my age who radiate more life than anyone I know, who contain multitudes of stories and deep complexity, and who so clearly still have the need to be heard, to be seen, and to be loved. In watching and working with families, I have noticed that while nothing can prevent grief, there is healing in the acceptance that your loved one lived until the very end. There is comfort in realizing that if she or he met the process with acceptance, maybe you could, too.

JV AmeriCorps member Sheryl (right) with her Supervisor Jennifer

Inspiration from these hospice volunteering experiences and the National Public Radio StoryCorps podcast led to the idea for my first capacity building project, a story-collection initiative called “On Living.” Essentially, I facilitate audio interviews between any of our patients and their loved ones who are interested, including those to whom I am assigned as a Hospice Volunteer. The process involves family members/friends gathering in a circle with the patient, speaking into a high-quality podcasting microphone, and having a conversation based on their questions and curiosities about the patient’s life, memories, lessons and any other topic they have chosen together. The product is a beautiful conversation, and I edit the recordings for fluidity and transfer them onto a CD. The recordings allow families to preserve the stories, in their loved one’s own voice, for generations. If the participants choose, their “On Living” story can also be published anonymously on the Care Partners website and social media pages.

Since the project’s inception, I have worked with families to adapt the general framework to their needs. For instance, one family desired weekly recording sessions. In another example, the eleven-year-old daughter of a very young patient who died on our service wanted to record her own memories of her dad. I have also translated the information sheet for our families who prefer to speak Spanish. In these ways, “On Living” has become a broad launching point for intimate conversations about love and loss, and because every patient is different, every story looks different, too. Also, because Care Partners is a community-based non-profit hospice, our goal is to capture the abundance and diversity of these stories, and to be able to provide something meaningful for families and friends to hold even after the loss of their loved one. I have been humbled by the healing powers of voice, of story-telling, and of gathering in what is assuredly one of the most difficult times for these families. “On Living” is just one way we can help create the space for this kind of sharing, which happens anyway, as my hospice volunteering experience has made clear.

In the second half of the year, I am focusing on the sustainability of the project after  my service year concludes. I will be implementing training guides for the next JV AmeriCorps member and Care Partners’ large cohort of hospice volunteers, for whom I am organizing a half-day training in the spring. Recently, a generous donation from one participant family has also helped support the expansion of the project.

JV AmeriCorps member Sheryl (far right) with her Aloha community mates

Overall, my observations thus far have taught me that death is as sacred as birth; that end-of-life work involves the family as well as the patient; that hospice is about living well in the days remaining more than dying itself; and that in this healthcare field, compassion and socio-emotional support blend with medical, nursing, and social work practice in profound ways, including ways which help the patient feel like a person again. Most of all, my time in hospice has reminded me that we are all human beings—we exist with limits, but we can live with abundance, no matter our circumstances and the time we have left. In some ways, awareness of the proximity of death seems to invite more meaning-making in life. I hope that “On Living” can be a part of this natural process for many more patients and community members to come.

I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with such meaningful work at my young age, and I recognize that the lessons I am learning here in hospice will only be reiterated as I myself grow, age and, eventually, die, hopefully with abundance of love and support I have now witnessed surrounding many of my patients.

AmeriCorps Week: Addressing Food Security at Wallace Medical Concern

Through JV AmeriCorps member Peter Fink’s (’17-18 Gresham, OR) experience serving as Community Health Specialist, he has learned that food insecurity greatly affects his patients’ health and well-being. Wanting to better understand and respond to this issue, Peter focused a recent project on designing and implementing a workflow to more efficiently track and address food insecurity for patients at Wallace Medical Concern. Read his story below.

As an American Studies and PreMed major in college, I have always been interested in the intersection between society and health; clearly, the social and physical environments we construct have profound impacts on our health and well-being. Toward the end of my senior year of college, I decided to apply for a deferral for medical school in order to get more “boots on the ground” experience in healthcare and learn more about these social and physical environments before I hit the books. I wanted to gain a better understanding of our complicated insurance system, improve my competency in Spanish, and get experience interacting with the many social determinants of health. This led me to apply for the JV AmeriCorps Community Health Specialist position at the Wallace Medical Concern, a federally-qualified health center in one of Eastern Portland’s poorest neighborhoods.

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JV AmeriCorps member Peter Fink and his Co-Worker Suzana

My time serving at Wallace Medical Concern has certainly highlighted for me that promoting health extends far outside the doctor’s office. Specifically, one of the most basic factors in people’s day-to-day health is simply having enough healthy food to eat. Food insecurity has wide ranging impacts on patients’ overall well-being, causing problems like malnourishment, chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, job insecurity, and behavioral health issues. In Oregon, 1 in 7 of our neighbors is food insecure; that is, you are more likely to meet someone who is food insecure than you are likely to meet someone who is left-handed. Right from the beginning of my service here, I knew I wanted to make a contribution toward addressing food security in our patient population, as I felt it was a feasible way to address more complicated issues we see more “upstream” from the problems themselves.

Thanks to great support from my Gresham community mates and  supervisor, I was able to do a lot of research on how other clinics have most successfully tracked and addressed food security for their patients. Using advice from online resources, the Oregon Food Bank, and other local clinics, I helped create a workflow that involves different types of employees in our clinic and is both feasible to implement and effective in practice.

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Peter and his Gresham JV community

Essentially, whereas before we entered the names of food-insecure patients into an Excel spreadsheet to cold-call, we now have our medical providers enter this information directly into our electronic medical records and do a warm hand-off referral to me directly after the patient’s medical visit to discuss food resources. I can then use the geographic information system I made using free online software to identify which food pantry in the area is the closest, best option for the patient to access. In addition, I can also refer them to contacts we have at other agencies to apply for SNAP benefits and discuss how to cook and prepare more nutritious meals.

Though it’s easy for me, as an inexperienced 23 year old, to get daunted by grand ideals like “promoting for human dignity,” I have come to see that starting with the basics– in this case, simply addressing the very basic need for food as a prerequisite for a flourishing and dignified life— can lead to encouraging results and deep fulfillment.  Although this new food tracking workflow is nothing grandiose, I am excited about its prospects for helping patients both economically and physically, and promoting dignity on a most fundamental and practical level.

AmeriCorps Week: Providing Transitional Shelter through Tiny Houses

This AmeriCorps Week, we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps service throughout the Northwest. In our latest AmeriCorps blog, JV AmeriCorps member Christina Estimé discusses her service providing transitional shelter for those experiencing homelessness as the Tiny House Village and Essential Needs Coordinator at the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in Seattle, Wash.

“I’m with the tiny houses.” That is the elevator pitch I find myself giving these days, which is usually followed by an excited shriek of “Oh wow! How cool! I’ve always wanted to live in a tiny house!” I have practiced my response to this reaction over and over again and have finally boiled it down to a kind smile and a clarification that the tiny houses I work with are not of the HGTV variety but rather transitional shelter for those experiencing homelessness. Then, I patiently watch as their expression fades from eager interest to a fading look of guilt and sympathy.

I serve with the Low Income Housing Institute as the Tiny House and Essential Needs Coordinator. We provide transitional shelter for those experiencing homelessness, including single men, single women, couples, families, and those with pets. We are the step in between coming off the street and permanent housing. Many people have been experiencing homelessness chronically and for them, going from living outdoors for a long period of time is even more destabilizing than staying unhoused. Many people can’t get shelter – even overnight – because they are a couple, or they are in a family, and many shelters don’t allow pets. All of these scenarios represent the population that the Tiny House Program provides transitional housing for. We provide a stable, safe, and dignified community for those that need a home base.

Before the 2015 City of Seattle Sanctioned Encampment ordinance was passed, those that were experiencing homelessness and camping were setting up their tents and belongings all throughout the city of Seattle wherever there was a clear, dry spot. That included many areas not meant for human habitation. Many of the people experiencing homelessness just need a home base to either reintegrate into the system (including things such as getting an ID, getting their social security card, having an address so that they can apply for a job or housing, etc.). Some people are gainfully employed but can’t afford the current housing costs of Seattle. Some people just need to be stable long enough to reconnect with their families and move on.

Although our model is working, it can feel as though we are fighting an unwinnable battle at times. It will never be the case that we provide a tiny house to all those currently experiencing homelessness tonight. LIHI and our partners, Nickelsville and SHARE, currently operate six encampments providing shelter to over 300 people. The current number of those experiencing homelessness on any given night in Seattle is estimated to be around 11,000 people, according to the 2017 Point in Time Count. There is no speed at which we can realistically source and build tiny houses fast enough, nor can the city provide a place to build these villages fast enough. Although this will be a long road, we can continue to do our best and provide a community to those that cross our path.

Two of our camps’ “leases” were up in the fall and winter, and we have recently successfully moved one of them and we are currently in the process of moving the other. The fall was all about the Interbay move. The first sanctioned encampment LIHI partnered with was set up with only tents and one shed that served to house security. Part of the move required the transition from all tents to all tiny houses. Our team had about four work parties and went through a lot of stress trying to get everything up and running before the camp finally moved on November 16. This past week, we had to do a routine unit check on the fire safety of the tiny houses. We hadn’t had the chance to visit the camp since late December, and we had the chance to catch the residents on a regular Tuesday morning. The residents were incredibly proud and excited to show off their houses. As we walked up they were more than happy to let us check their units and show what they have done to make them their own. There was a sense of home and community at the camp, and that day it truly dawned on me what these encampments were all about.

I wish more people understood how familiar the stories of those experiencing homelessness are. Many people hold strong biases and opinions about those experiencing homelessness. Having had the incredible opportunity to be immersed in this cause as much as I have been, has not only granted me compassion for those that I serve, but an incredible lens through which I shall now and forever more deeply analyze this issue. Homelessness is a result of several different factors, none of which include laziness or lack of motivation. Those that are experiencing homelessness are some of the strongest, most hopeful, and bravest humans I have ever had the chance to encounter. A lot of them are broken, yes, but we are all broken. Some of us just have the privilege and opportunity to be held, to be safe, and warm in our brokenness. I wish everyone would see that we all deserve housing, yes, but also kindness. I have put faces and names to this city’s homelessness crisis and the message is loud and clear: those living in the outdoors are our neighbors and we should strive to be good to each other. Whether with a smile or volunteering your time, we should all extend the table a little more to our neighbors.