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.

Peter Fink Wallace Medical Concern

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.

17-18_PeterFink_Gresham_Community

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.

MLK Day of Service 2018

On January 15, 2018, people across the country engaged in service to their communities to commemorate the 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, our JV AmeriCorps members included! Below are just a few snapshots of our JV AmeriCorps members’ service activities on MLK Day of Service 2018.

Juneau JVs served up sandwiches and smiles at The Glory Hole shelter and care center

Alaska – JV AmeriCorps members in Juneau served at the Glory Hole shelter and care center where they handed out sandwiches in the soup kitchen. Our Bethel JV AmeriCorps members sorted, organized, and transported donations to Tundra Women’s Coalition’s new thrift shop location. In Anchorage, members participated in a range of activities within the community: members provided fire safety education and installed smoke detectors in a mobile home park, helped at the food pantry at Brother Francis Shelter, and organized donations and provided education in the RAIS (Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services) welcome center.

The wonder women of Hood River relax after an MLK Day spent cleaning and reorganizing the St. Francis House youth center in Odell

Oregon – The Gresham JV AmeriCorps community volunteered with SOLVE, where they cleared invasive blackberries, picked up trash along the campus, and posted signage. The Hood River members had a full day of volunteering: they spent the day cleaning and reorganizing at the St. Francis House youth center in Odell. In the evening, the group participated in an MLK Jr. celebration (which several JV members in their community helped plan) which included guest speakers, discussion groups, and a community potluck open to all. A few Portland JV AmeriCorps members served at the Albina Coop Garden where they prepared beds by mulching, weeding, raking, and laying bags on top of soil. While volunteering at the garden, they met other AmeriCorps members and volunteers throughout the Portland area!

Portland JVs Cat Weiss, Rachel Francis, Heidy Rivera, & Sara McLean volunteer at the Albina Coop Gardening and Farming Day

Idaho – In the Boise community, JV AmeriCorps members participated in a wide array of activities. Siobhan O’Carroll prepared materials and tabled with the Women’s & Children’s Alliance at the MLK Day Social Services fair. The rest of the Boise community participated in MLK Day at the Boise Capital Building, making t-shirts at Boise State University, participating in a rally, listening to speakers honoring MLK, and participating in a social services fair.

Washington – A few JV AmeriCorps members in Grays Harbor picked up trash at Stewart Memorial Park. In Omak, members helped out at the Paschal Sherman Indian School Dorm where they participated in outdoor activities with 15 dorm students including sledding, building snowmen, and hiking. Spokane Lavan members volunteered at House of Charity serving meals to patrons and organizing the resource room. Spokane Romero JV AmeriCorps members served at the MLK Jr. Family Outreach Center sorting donations for the Point-in-Time Count/Everybody Counts Campaign.

Seattle JV Connor Beck serving at at InterIm Community Development Association

Montana – JV AmeriCorps members in Ashland, Billings, and St. Xavier served at their placement agencies. Members in Missoula volunteered at the Poverello Center, read stories about Martin Luther King Jr. to elementary school children, participated in a drawing activity about a vision for a better world, and took part in a community dinner.

Thank you to all who participated in MLK Day of Service 2018!

Small Actions Lead to Meaningful Change

During January, the Corporation for National & Community Service celebrates National Mentoring Month! To honor this month, JV AmeriCorps member Katherine Pier (’17-18 Ashland, MT), who serves as the Substitute Teacher for the St. Labre Indian School, shares a story of two students who initiated a small action in order to positively transform the course of their school year. 

The following story may seem insignificant, but to the two students involved, I can see that it has made a world of difference. Two of the students I have been tutoring during the after-school study hall session have become very near and dear to my heart. They are truly wonderful kids, with curious minds and the largest of hearts, but they seem to have trouble keeping their grades up.

When I looked at their records, I saw that most of their bad grades were due to work that was simply never turned in. When I asked them how they stay organized and keep track of all their assignments, they looked at me blankly and shrugged. I could tell they had no idea what I was talking about.

In my high school days I would have been lost without a reliable notebook to keep a record of my chores, assignments, upcoming tests, etc. So, I decided to create my own agenda book for them. I stapled together a few pieces of paper and wrote a slot for the date along with four columns: class, work, due date, and plan. On the far left, I wrote one column that had a list of all their classes. I told these gentlemen that all they had to do was write down their assignments (homework, quizzes, tests, etc.) as soon as the teacher mentioned them in class and the date they were due. I handed these packets to these students holding my breath, hoping they would not forget to fill them in or, worse, lose them.

The next day at after school study hall, I came upon these two students again; to my delight, they both saw me, smiled, and pulled out their makeshift agenda books–FILLED OUT! My heart swelled with pride and appreciation for the step these two students took. It was a small step, but it made a huge impact. I nearly shouted, “This is so awesome! You filled them out!” One of the students was slightly surprised by my reaction, and he said, “Well, you asked me to do it. So I did it.” Then he smiled and seemed to be pleased that I was so elated by the fact that they had utilized this resource. I could see in his eyes that he was truly proud of himself for following my directions and completing a task, no matter how simple it was.

Since then, the three of us have used these booklets to go through their assignments and to come up with a plan of how to complete each task. I let the students decide which subject they would like to start with, when and where they would like to study, and for how long. It is totally up to them. They are fully autonomous in creating a schedule for themselves, and I have found that this makes them more likely to follow it.

I am incredibly proud of how this small step has seemed to change the course of their school year, and how these two students have shown self-discipline and have exercised taking initiative to change their future. For in the end, the trajectory of their lives is truly up to them. I am proud to be witnessing that trajectory take its shape.

World AIDS Day: Living in Solidarity with Our Neighbors

JV AmeriCorps member Emily Breakell (‘17-18 Portland, OR) serves as the Activities and Events Coordinator for the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon’s HIV Services. To commemorate World AIDS Day, Emily shares a reflection on her experience serving in the HIV Day Center in Portland, OR.

“Silence=Death?” the coffee barista asked, questioning the text on my shirt. I had almost forgotten that I was wearing such a striking tee—black, with a pink triangle, and the text “SILENCE=DEATH.” I struggled to come up with a quick but adequate response.

“This logo was created in the late 80’s by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) activists. It represented the need to resist the taboos that made the AIDS crisis possible.”

The kind barista replied, “Oh!” as I handed him too much of my monthly stipend in exchange for sweet, sweet caffeine. “But, why wear it now? It’s not the 80’s.”

I replied simply, “Are you sure?” And pointed vaguely towards a speaker as Madonna was playing in the coffee shop. But here’s what I should have said:

Globally, more than 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS, making it “one of the most destructive pandemics in history.” An estimated 36.7 million people are currently living with the virus. I am a JV AmeriCorps member at an HIV Day Center where I spend time with people who are HIV-positive, and they are fighting through silence and stigma each day. While medical treatment, prevention education, acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, and HIV/AIDS services have improved since the 80’s, we have a lot of work left to do to create an HIV/AIDS-free world.

The SILENCE=DEATH logo is a reminder that when we don’t talk about HIV/AIDS as something that is presently detrimental to the lives of people in our communities and around the world, we are failing to live in solidarity with our neighbors. Sometimes, the word solidarity comes off as disingenuous or as a “buzz word.” Instead, solidarity is an invitation to lean into what seems most heartbreaking or difficult to face. It is easy to dismiss social problems as being too large to face. It is easy to forget about people outside of our circles or to judge them as having made poor or immoral life choices. It is hard to dig deep into the complexity, to unearth the truth that we are all fiercely resilient people with a capacity for joy amidst pain and that caring for people with HIV/AIDS means caring for humanity.

It is difficult not to notice this wisdom welling up in regular interactions at the Day Center. While we provide services like hot meals, showers, laundry, clothes, and wifi, perhaps the most important reason the Day Center exists is to be a space for building community and relationships. I have seen people be literal mutual shoulders to cry on; I have witnessed able-bodied clients carry their friends’ walkers up and down our basement stairs daily; and I have heard heart-wrenching stories over eggs and toast all too regularly. The Day Center staff works incredibly hard to create a space where people feel safe, and where they can find people who understand some of what they are facing each day.

Some clients have very few people in their lives with whom they can candidly talk about their experience being HIV+. Because of stigma, many people try to hide their HIV status from family and friends, and the Day Center might be the only place where they are able to talk about certain realities. As the Activities and Events Coordinator I am lucky to be able to facilitate some of the community-building at the Day Center through leading amateur group yoga, (mostly un)guided painting, driving a 12-passenger van through Portland traffic to go on field trips, and so much more. It is in these spaces, where I am coloring alongside a client or walking into the Sauvie Island Pumpkin Patch with 12 clients, that I get to hear life stories and experiences that tear down every harmful stereotype one might try to draw up about Day Center clients. That seems to be the solidarity I am learning as a JV AmeriCorps member. That it isn’t all about the service I am doing for HIV+ people. It is the slow process of us learning each other’s humanity and realizing that our joy is tied up in each other’s.

That might sound pretty lofty and spiritual. But in earnest, my experience of this community has been one of laughter and silliness and joy. This community consists of people who carry rich life experiences and stories of love, hope, and loss. This community cares for each other through cups of coffee, snarky jokes, games of pool, and listening ears.

This World AIDS Day, I will be munching on eggs and toast with my friends at the Day Center and grounding myself in gratitude for the joy they bring to my life. I invite you to do better than I did at the coffee shop—break the silence around HIV/AIDS in your own way, and to lean into discomfort and your own version of solidarity.

More statistics and information available at: https://www.worldaidsday.org/about

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.