Responding to Natural Disaster at St. Lawrence Island

In our latest AmeriCorps blog, former JV AmeriCorps member Steven Fisher (Anchorage, AK ’16-17), who served at the American Red Cross of Alaska, shares his experience serving clients affected by the natural disaster that struck St. Lawrence Island.

On January 4, Alaska Dispatch News released notice of a Bering Sea storm that struck the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island. Ocean surges, 75 mph hurricane winds, and blizzards damaged buildings and downed the phone lines in Savoonga.

Steven assessing damage with local Savoonga resident

A few days later, the Fairbanks Disaster Program Manager and I departed from Anchorage to reach Savoonga to assess the extent of damage, overall impact, weather conditions, and demographics of Savoonga as a disaster-affected community. Two staff members from Emergency Management from the State of Alaska arrived a day earlier, and we worked together in a coordinated effort.

Mayor Myron Kingeekuk immediately met us upon landing in Savoonga. We dropped off our bags at the old VPSO (Village Public Safety Officer) office and, without pause, began to gather information. We met with the school that sheltered residents during the storm. We learned that the wind had tossed and upturned four wheelers as people rode to the school for shelter. With low stocks of food at the store, shelter residents depended on staff food for families resting in the gym.

The next day and a half involved us slipping over the ice visiting each home in Savoonga. To accurately and consistently record the damage on each dwelling, we spoke with someone from each home and wrote their information on a chart and map, scribbling “heat lost in home” or “75% roofing off house.” For one home, a 16-foot wall had been torn off. With most dwellings having at least exterior damage, we assessed 22 homes had endured significant structural damage and one home had been completely destroyed with no repairs feasible.

We observed the damage of each home, but more importantly, listened to the stories of families who weathered the storm, filled with awe at their resilience and their focus on the safety of others. Nobody was hurt in the storm. More people expressed concerns for the homes of their parents and their grandparents than their own. One father offered to snowmobile me back to homes where people had gone hunting for the day. A table of elders deliberated over how this would burden the lack of subsistence food from melted ice. Rather than encountering stories of distress or exasperation, I encountered a community with the stimulus to rebuild and face the ambiguous reality of what’s next.

After sharing our findings with our Red Cross of Alaska colleagues and division leaders, we opened relief operations for those whose homes were most impacted by the storm; in total, we provided assistance to 127 individuals on our last night in Savoonga. This served as immediate assistance before Emergency Management could present their assessment to the Disaster Policy Cabinet, where the Governor could declare a state disaster. This occurred on February 1st.

That night, news hit that a few boats had hunted a whale. Kids would ask if we’d heard about the whale as they rushed to the coast. Our counterparts in Emergency Management and I huddled together until 5:00 AM with everyone from Savoonga telling stories as we watched trucks haul a 200-ft bowhead whale onto the beach. Where the storm brought loss, the whale brought hope, regaining of control, nourishment, and well-being.

Steven and FJV Sam Johnson (Anchorage, AK ’15-16)

For the next month after I left Savoonga, a team of volunteer caseworkers and me followed up with families to see how they were doing and where we could provide further assistance. The Fairbanks Disaster Program Manager kept in touch with the school to offer shelter training to both school staff and Savoonga residents in the coming months.

Since my time in Savoonga, new disasters emerged and different communities welcomed me throughout Alaska. A few months after the disaster, Alaska Dispatch published an article focused on Savoonga. This time it was not about a storm, but rather a community celebration: the anniversary of Savoonga’s first landed whale 45 years ago. I smiled seeing the photos of familiar faces singing, praying, and eating muktuk from bowhead whale. Missing everybody I had met, I gave thanks for everybody’s safety.

Providing Safe Space for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

JV AmeriCorps member Hannah Eby (Aloha, OR ’16-17) served with Community Action at the Hillsboro Family Shelter. In our latest AmeriCorps blog, Hannah reflects on her service year and her role in assisting children and teens experiencing homelessness.

The JVC Northwest AmeriCorps Program makes it possible for the Family Shelter in Hillsboro to have a Children’s Specialist, a role through which I helped make the shelter a safe space for children and teens to process their situation, get homework support, and have fun time to just be kids. There are a couple  stories that stick out in my mind which demonstrate the impact of this JV AmeriCorps placement.

Hannah created a sensory room for children as a Capacity Building Project

One three-year-old boy in particular showed signs of chronic stress and trauma upon his arrival to the shelter. Whenever staff would walk near his room, he would cry and ask if we were taking his room away. He didn’t know how to play with the other kids, avoided people, and became aggressive over even the smallest disturbance. Sometimes he would build houses and violently destroy them over and over, becoming very upset and clearly processing previous trauma. However, because the shelter had a Children’s Specialist, I was able to work with him specifically on processing his feelings and building safe relationships. Every day, we would start with a comforting routine, gradually introducing him to more interactive play with me and the other children during Toddler Time. Parent-Child Playtime was an opportunity for me to encourage new ways of bonding between him and his parents. By the end of his stay, the three-year-old was happier, knew how to control his aggressive behavior, and felt comfortable with staff and the other children. His parents often brought him back to visit me and other staff, and he was always very excited and happy to see us, demonstrating his growing ability to form healthy relationships.

Hannah (second from left) and her Aloha community mates

Another story that sticks with me is about a 17-year-old girl who loved music. She had grown up playing violin, but when she and her mom started living in a car, she was no longer able to play music. Over time, she forgot how to read music and therefore couldn’t join the orchestra at her school. However, when they moved into the shelter, I was able to set aside some time each day to play music with her and re-teach her how to read music. Not only did she improve enough to be able to join her school orchestra, but her confidence soared. Her mother, who also seemed to lack confidence and struggled with mental health issues, was inspired by her daughter’s improvement and asked to learn ukulele from me. I taught her ukulele, and she often told me that her half-hour ukulele sessions were the best part of her day and gave her something to look forward to. They worked together to learn a holiday song together on violin and ukulele, and this provided family bonding and pride. They eventually moved into housing and visited to say that they continued playing music and that it was an important part of their lives.

These are only two of countless stories that come to mind when reflecting over my AmeriCorps year. Without the JVC Northwest AmeriCorps Program, the Family Shelter would not have someone working specifically with the kids to provide for their needs and help them feel confident and connected to others. This JVC Northwest AmeriCorps role is absolutely vital for children and teens processing various traumatic experiences associated with homelessness.

Red Cross JVs Deployed to Texas

As part of Hurricane Harvey relief efforts, Red Cross is sending volunteers from across the country to help in Texas. Two JV AmeriCorps members are some of those being deployed: Ella Keenan, serving in Anchorage, and Carly Jenkinson, serving in Juneau.

Ella and Carly are currently in Beaumont, Texas, 80 miles east of Houston, where they’ll be for two weeks. Their role is with the Mobile ERV (emergency response vehicles) as part of “search and feed” efforts. Here’s a short update from them.

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“We are assigned distinctive zones to serve: lower-income, displaced, and those who were most affected by flooding (many had at least around 5-10 feet of water that destroyed their homes). We bring them food, water, and supplies.

Many people share their stories of devastation with us, which makes our job very emotional, but extremely pivotal. Many live without food and electricity momentarily, some houses still under water. Water is not potable, as e.coli is a constant concern. As we drive down each road, the ones we can access, people are out working hard to get their houses back to livable conditions: the streets are lined with destroyed furniture, appliances, dry wall, insulation, and various cherished belongings. 17-18_JVsInService_Ella Keenan Carly Jenkinson Beaumont TX support flood

There is still so much need, and will be for months to come, and YOU can help! American Red Cross is always looking for more volunteers- please come join the team! We are here for you, Texas.” -Carly and Ella

Many organizations are in great need of volunteers and support; learn what you can do with the Corporation for National and Community Service on their Hurricane Harvey response page.

Restoring Dignity through Open Mic Night

JV AmeriCorps member Scott Woodward (Spokane, WA ’16-17) serves as the Operations Specialist with Catholic Charities of Spokane in Washington. In our latest blog, Scott describes the Open Mic Night project he started, which provides patrons at the homeless shelter opportunities to express themselves creatively and allow their voices to be heard.

Creative expression: something most people don’t consider when they think of homelessness, but something I believe to be essential to the mission of House of Charity. House of Charity is a homeless shelter in Spokane, Washington that I have the privilege to serve as a JV AmeriCorps member this year.

One of the key tenets of House of Charity’s mission is restoring the dignity of those who are experiencing homelessness. To me, dignity is not just being able to walk through the doors and be treated like a person; dignity is also being able to show the world your voice and to have that voice be heard and validated. Because of this, I implemented the project Open Mic Night at House of Charity, which serves as a great way for our patrons to be heard. Think about it: if you don’t have any money, anywhere to sleep, and you live in a city that judges you for carrying everything you own on your back, where would you be able to sing your song? Where would you be able to hear your friends sing?

The House of Charity Open Mic provides a space for our clients to express their creative side. For a few hours every first Thursday of the month, the dining room of House of Charity transforms into a stage for patrons to show off their musical, artistic, poetic, comedic, or any other type of creative talent. By allowing our patrons to have a space to express themselves creatively, we give them an experience outside the typical one at a homeless shelter. Instead of our clients simply surviving, they will be allowed to be themselves, and most importantly, will be allowed to be heard.

The first night we had an Open Mic, I was a bit nervous, as it can be difficult to spread the word about programming events in the homeless community in Spokane. I was right to be nervous as it seemed like not too many people were expecting the event. Despite this, there were still people interested in performing. A few people performed their favorite songs, one patron performed an original piece  he wrote, and another patron performed stand-up comedy. Since the first event, there have been two other open mics, and I have been privileged to see some wonderful talent within the population of patrons at the House of Charity.

This month, the patrons of House of Charity were regaled with some guitar work by a patron, pictured below, as well as some acapella singing. My favorite part of the night was seeing a guest star jump up and start dancing along to the performers. It’s never a dull moment at the House of Charity. Another great moment at the most recent Open Mic event was a conversation I had with a patron who just ate dinner and watched the performers. She thanked me for the open mic, stating that “music is healing,” which is something I knew, but had a lot more impact coming from a person staying there.

Our clients feel like House of Charity not only gives them a place to survive, but a place to be themselves and to thrive. A space to be creative is essential in establishing a dignified environment, which is what House of Charity strives to be. The experience of running an open mic will stay with me: it’s been an honor and a privilege to give people an opportunity to have their voices heard.

Pathways for Healing: Serving Children Experiencing Trauma

JV AmeriCorps member Cat Cassidy (Missoula, MT ’16-17) serves as the YWCA Children’s Empowerment and Violence Prevention Specialist with the YWCA in Missoula, Montana. In our latest blog, Cat describes the capacity building project she designed and implemented into her program in response to the needs of the children she advocates for as secondary survivors of abuse.

When I officially committed to a year of service with the YWCA of Missoula, I foresaw several opportunities serving as a Children’s Empowerment and Violence Prevention Specialist. The YWCA serves primary and secondary survivors of domestic violence. My role as a children’s advocate is to provide a safe environment for children to heal and develop through therapeutic play activities. Each day I volunteer with the YWCA’s domestic violence shelter, I experience the multifaceted ways in which trauma effects childhood development and behavior. Children within domestic violence circumstances experience a major transition leaving their homes and entering into a shelter. Their worlds are turned upside-down, and my desire is to help their transition go as smoothly as possible.

This year, I designed welcome packets for each child upon their arrival into our shelter. Throughout my experience at the YWCA, I have noticed that in domestic violence situations, the majority of the attention is placed solely on the primary survivors, commonly mothers, who have been the direct receiver of the abuse. Because of this, children as secondary survivors are often set to the side and not given the same attention and care. Witnessing this first-hand, my idea was to create a tangible item to be given to the children upon their arrival into shelter to show them they are thought of and cared for from the moment they arrive. Knowing that their needs vary between ages, I created three templates for three different age groups. Each packet contains an introduction to the children’s advocates at the shelter, guidelines to be followed during the child’s stay, feeling charts in which children can identify their emotions as well as be given tools of how to healthily express them, therapeutic coloring pages, and information about respect and healthy friendships/relationships. In addition to the welcome packet, each child also receives a blanket, a pillow, or a stuffed animal of their choosing to keep with them throughout their stay and take with them after they leave the shelter.

When I first began handing out the welcome packets, the word spread like wildfire. Once one child obtained a welcome packet, mothers began asking me about them even before I had a chance to meet their children. One young girl in the shelter expressed that she was very excited to receive her welcome packet, especially when paired with the little stuffed animal she picked out. Now, the young girl brings the stuffed animal almost everywhere with her. We often engage in therapeutic coloring activities together with the coloring pages in her packet.  Also, we have had incredible success with the feeling chart, which allows the young girl to identify her emotions and allows me to better my advocacy when knowing how she is feeling or what she is thinking about during the time we spend together. The packets are a wonderful resource for getting to know the children I am serving better.

Cat (middle) with her Missoula community mates

I believe these welcome packets have contributed a positive improvement for children entering into shelter. Not only do the packets affirm the children and their experience, they also provide materials for building the bridge of communication between the child and their parent as well as between the child and the children’s advocates. The welcome packets open up discussions about emotions and provide resources for navigating through complicated feelings. The packets will not be a success for every child who enters into shelter given the varying needs of each child. However, the welcome packets are a starting point, a step in the process of better advocating for and empowering children who have witnessed domestic violence.

The children I serve are the most resilient little souls I have ever encountered. I have learned from them, and I have grown from my experiences with them. They hold within them an abundance of hope, an overflowing river of love, and an ocean wide yearning for understanding and connection. These children desire to know that they are validated, that they are important, and that they are cared for. My hope for this project is that it will allow these children to feel valued as well as inspire other avenues of support for children experiencing trauma so that we can eventually break the cycle of abuse altogether.Save

Volunteer Nurse: A Year of Resistance and Radical Love

JV AmeriCorps member Mary Franz (Boise, ID ’16-17) serves as the Registered Nurse and Outreach Coordinator with Terry Reilly in Boise, Idaho. In our latest AmeriCorps blog, Mary shares her experience discovering the type of nurse she wants to be as she is called to serve, to heal, to advocate, to listen, and to love.

The expectations surrounding a new nurse involve being initiated via night shifts, charting every move you make, and being “devoured” by your elders. There is also the notion that the only “real nurses” are those that work in critical care. This is the standard by which nurses judge each other and are judged in turn. In fact, when you graduate from nursing school, everyone asks you the same question: “Which unit do you want to work on?”

Trying to answer this question throughout my last semester of college, I always found my responses insufficient for two reasons: 1. Not all nurses work on a hospital unit. 2. Nurses do not work for any particular hospital or unit, they serve patients. Service is at the very foundation of who we are as a profession. We are called to serve, to heal, to advocate, to listen, and to love. Those actions are not limited to the hospital; we can accomplish them anywhere.

In resistance to this narrow question, I would ask, “What if I don’t want to be a hospital nurse? What if no unit particularly peaks my interest? What if I don’t want to work the night shift?!”

Hush, you’re a new graduate. You have to gain experience and pay your dues. No one will want to hire you if you haven’t spent time in the hospital.

These pressures from the nursing world were almost too strong to oppose when I graduated last May. My heart screamed “RESIST!” as I scanned the job openings page on the websites for big-name hospitals and medical research centers. Those were the only destinations I could see at the end of the wooded path forged by the new-grad nurses before me, with the lumbering walls of trees on either side asking, “What unit do you want to work on?”

“RESIST!” my heart persisted. I listened. Last May, I stood at the entrance of that path and defiantly turned the other way.

“You’re going to be a volunteer?” questioned onlookers as I packed my bag to become a nurse at a small clinic in Idaho. The idea that I would turn down a hospital position, job stability, and a $50,000/year pay check made me a radical. As a matter of fact, “radical” was exactly the title I wanted to hold when I joined the nursing profession.

Maneuvering through nursing school, I quickly became aware of the enormous injustices in the healthcare system. I saw patients spin through the revolving door of the psychiatric unit and individuals experiencing homelessness sent away into the glacial cold. I witnessed the poor and the vulnerable receive substandard care once providers discovered they arrived without insurance. I interacted with nurses who had become jaded by the flawed systems in place; they no longer felt like they had the power to make change.

In the midst of these ongoing challenges, I found the warm embrace of Public Health. Reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains early on in my education, I was swept away by the radical love of Dr. Paul Farmer:

If you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.

Mary Franz (left) with her Boise community mates

It’s a radical notion to walk even an hour to visit a patient. It’s radical to resist the benefits of a hospital nursing position.  It’s radical to think that a nurse can be more than just a bedside caregiver. As I stood in awe of revolutionaries like Farmer, I became more aware of the nurse I wanted to be. I wanted to be a radical. I wanted to be a resistor. I wanted to work for social justice, not a paycheck. Naturally, those desires led me to be a volunteer.

Today, I serve as a public health nurse through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest AmeriCorps Program at a non-profit, Terry Reilly, which provides access to affordable health care for vulnerable and marginalized people in Boise and  surrounding cities. As a JV AmeriCorps member, I serve a variety of community members including immigrants, refugees, homeless, and low-income families. The majority of my patients do not have health insurance and are receiving primary health care from our organization at a significantly discounted rate.

In comparing my time in the hospital and in the community, I’ve noticed distinct differences in my role as a caregiver. As a public health nurse, I create visions for the long-term health of patients and communities. My goal is not to stabilize or to discharge. It is to empower individuals and communities to make meaningful change and give them the tools and the resources to do so. With this goal, I face extreme challenges because the patients and populations I serve experience disadvantage in ways I am still discovering.

In the United States, gaps in the federally-funded healthcare insurance system and lack of access to affordable private coverage for the working poor have left millions of residents, citizens and non-citizens, without access to health care. When individuals don’t have access to or can’t afford quality health care, many preventable chronic and life-threatening illnesses go undiagnosed and untreated.

“RESIST!” my heart continues screaming. But how do I respond?

For me, these last few months have transformed the word “resistance.” It now suggests something resilient and enduring instead of stubborn and short-lived. I am inspired by the ongoing efforts to resist decisions that disregard the dignity of each individual, that treat healthcare as a commodity and not a human right. It’s not enough that my service as a public health nurse opposes the tradition of new-grad nurses entering the hospital. It ultimately needs to respond in resistance to oppressions and injustices facing vulnerable populations. I must remember to not only undo the damage that prejudiced systems perpetuate, but to build something simultaneously. I have to join the collective counter force of both public health and hospital nurses who are serving, healing, listening, and advocating in the midst of uncertainty. I must continue to love.

Real love is radical because it cannot be earned or unearned. It is connected to inherent dignity – to the idea that everyone matters equally. It is invincible because it is determined to thrive no matter what walls are in place, no matter what scarcity demagogues design, no matter what fear they try to sow. Radical love must persist at the center of a nurse’s resistance. It is the driving force to which we accept the night shift, pay our dues, and become a volunteer. Radical love for our patients, our service and commitment to them despite all opposition, distinguishes our profession.

So, what if we asked different questions of new-grad nurses? What if, instead of pushing them to the hospital, we asked, “Which patient population do you want to serve?” Along with this question, what if we challenged new-grad nurses to consider the type of nurse they want to be? “Will you be a resistor? Will you be a radical?” But most importantly, in moments when patients feel hopeless and afflicted, when forces of injustice seem almost too strong, “How will you show love?”

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AmeriCorps Week: Impact Stories!

In honor of AmeriCorps Week, we wanted to share the impact our JV AmeriCorps members are making on the communities they serve! Around 120 of our JV AmeriCorps members are completing two or more capacity building projects throughout this service year. These projects address organizational gaps and enhance the quality and scope of services to address local priorities, primarily in the areas of homelessness, domestic violence, and at-risk youth, as well as disaster/emergency services, the environment, mental and behavioral health, disability, legal services, and others.

JV AmeriCorps member Brian Thurow (Hays, MT ’15-16, Juneau, AK ’16-17) serves as the JCAP Program Specialist at Aiding Women in Abuse & Rape Emergencies (AWARE), Inc. Below is a description of his capacity building project,  Men Choose Respect Curriculum Implementation.

“My capacity building project involves the implementation of a new curriculum for the Juneau Choice and Accountability Program (JCAP), a state-certified Batterer Intervention Program operated by AWARE. JCAP is transitioning away from a crisis intervention program model to a more prevention-oriented program model. In an effort to better suit the needs of our participants and our community at large, JCAP will be implementing an adapted version of the Men Choose Respect curriculum.

There is a need for a curriculum that aims for systemic, community-based change to end men’s violence against women, rather than an intervention-based curriculum that addresses the violence after it has been perpetrated. The implementation of the new curriculum will be a permanent structural change to the Juneau Choice and Accountability Program. Once the new curriculum is adapted, and the new contracts and paperwork created, the resources needed to facilitate the program will be available to any new staff.”

JV AmeriCorps member Dawn Thomas (Wenatchee WA ’16-17) serves as the Community Outreach Specialist & Healthy Lifestyles Educator at Columbia Valley Community Health (CVCH). Dawn’s capacity building project is called Retinal Eye Exam Flow.

“My project involved creating a flow for eye exams and communicating that flow to Primary Care Physicians, Medical Assistants, Radiology, and members of the patient services team. At the outset of this project, the percentages of CVCH’s diabetic patients that were not receiving annual retinal eye exams were fairly high. The process I helped create will hopefully begin to lower that number, by increasing communication about eye exam availability between providers and the radiology department. Establishing a process for same-day retinal exams is important for CVCH as we move forward in attempting to reach short and long-term goals for quality whole-person care for diabetic patients.

Dawn Thomas (middle) with her Wenatchee community mates

I have been able to be the point person for communicating about the schedule and helping to develop a flow that works well in order to get patients seen for their eye exams. I also conducted eye exams in the month of December, and will begin conducting them again in March onward, helping for me to see the “on the ground” work of planning, conducting, and completing these eye exams. We established a flow for same-day eye exams, getting radiology more comfortable with doing walk-ins of these just as they do for other types of exams.”

JV AmeriCorps member Tricia Tyson (Yakima, WA ’16-17) serves at the Yakima Neighborhood Health Services. Her capacity building project is called Depot Job Match.

JV AmeriCorps members Tricia Tyson (right) and Aleina Tanabe

“I planned, designed and implemented a new program to connect individuals experiencing homelessness in Yakima with employment opportunities. I meet with clients and identify barriers for employment, obtain Social Security and ID cards, and identify employment-related programs that would interest clients. I created the infrastructure for a sustainable project to hire the most vulnerable homeless in a temporary, transitional employment program in order to lay the groundwork for future employment. I find this project uniquely benefits my clients as they feel a sense of empowerment and increased self-respect as a result of working, increasing mental health and overall well-being. Fundamentally, it helps transition clients off the street and into housing by providing them a routine and source of income.”

JV AmeriCorps member Joy Macatangay (Aloha, OR ’16-17) is the Children’s Activities Coordinator for Monika’s House Shelter/Domestic Violence Resource Center. Her capacity building project is called Creation and Implementation of Trauma Informed Structure into Kid’s Club.

“A trauma informed curriculum and positive reinforcement system for Kid’s Club was developed and implemented with the Children’s Advocate at Monika’s House. The Domestic Violence Resource Center works with individuals who have experienced vast trauma in their lives. Monika’s House tries to be as trauma informed as possible and this includes the aspect of consistency.

The curriculum and positive reinforcement system were necessary in order to provide consistency for the kids. A binder has been created containing the curriculum and positive reinforcement system for Kid’s Club. It includes directions explaining the rules to go through with the kids at the beginning of each Kid’s Club, how to perform an appropriate time out, an explanation of the positive reinforcement system, the time line for Kid’s Club, and a wide variety of activities that whoever is implementing Kid’s Club can go through and choose from.

With these directions, Kid’s Club can be executed easily in the future. The program has become more trauma informed in order to better serve the clients staying at Monika’s House. It has also been improved to be more organized and clear about the proper procedures for everything with the curriculum and clear instructions outlined in the Kid’s Club binder. Because of this, the Kid’s program is running a lot smoother.”

These impact snapshots are just a few examples of the amazing service our JV AmeriCorps members provide their organizations and the communities in which they live and serve. We are proud of the hard work and determination our JV AmeriCorps members showcase each and every day. Thank you to all AmeriCorps members who are ‘getting things done’ across the country!

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