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.

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.