Driven by Dreams, Accomplished through Self-Advocacy

JV AmeriCorps member Maria Watson (Portland, OR ’16-17) serves as the Transitions Program Support Specialist with Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center and Rosemary Anderson High School in Portland, Oregon. Maria shares her story of serving with opportunity/at-risk young adults to promote economic empowerment through college readiness.

The funny thing about college is that tens of thousands of people go every year, and yet no one ever really and truly seems to be “college ready.” When I went to college, I would have described myself as independent and resourceful. Yet, after not checking my email all summer before my freshman year, I showed up 6 hours late to move in and had a half hour to move into my dorm room before orientation events began.

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Portland Community Mates

Four years and four months later, I’m a college grad and a JVC Northwest AmeriCorps member serving opportunity/at-risk young adults who are making intentional moves towards self-sufficiency. Often, this involves supporting and promoting an important measure that, in my experience, happens to be pretty vague and arbitrary – college readiness.

During the fall term, I supported four of our students with an Introduction to College and Healthcare Bridge Program. The program offers an Introduction to Healthcare class at Portland Community College and an internship with Providence Health & Services to provide valuable and applicable tools and experiences for career discernment immediately upon starting college. Over the past four months, the healthcare bridge students have redefined my understanding of college readiness, teaching me that the power of confidence in self-advocacy is the most important factor of success – but the only way to refine those soft skills is to practice.

These women have faced language, academic, and financial barriers and have been able to overcome many of those by utilizing their voices and their resources. Their unwavering determination and motivation led them to ask questions and make pragmatic decisions driven by their dreams for themselves. There seems to be a plethora of resources available to current and aspiring college students, so a willingness and confidence to “show up” and utilize those resources is something that has set these young women apart.

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’16-17 JV AmeriCorps member Maria with POIC students

In one term of college, they have gracefully handled communication with professors, academic advisers, career coaches, scholarship donors, and financial aid consultants. This has escalated their success and experience with college more than I ever would have predicted. Now that they can advocate for themselves professionally and effectively with confidence, it seems to me that there’s nothing these women can’t accomplish when they set their minds to it.

Through this experience I have discovered how difficult it would be to face college without support. In providing college-readiness support to others, I have realized how much I relied on support systems to prepare me for college and life overall. I was raised in an environment that inherently expected college-level achievements, so my aspirations felt normal, and therefore I took my strides and support systems for granted. Being able to celebrate the successes of these women alongside them has reminded me of the shoulders I stood on to get to where I am today. Supporting these future nurses and midwives has truly been an honor.

Power of Place: Community & Education in a Remote Setting

JV AmeriCorps member Hopey Fink (Hays, MT ’15-16) serves as Academic Support Specialist at St. Paul’s Grade School. Below, Fink shares her experience providing educational assistance to students in the remote setting of Hays, Montana.

There’s a lot of “far” between here and other places. This unintentionally profound observation of a first grader has been ringing in my ears since September, when she pointed to a plane flying across the big sky over the playground at recess and mused about the distance to its destination. As a JV AmeriCorps member serving as the Academic Support Specialist at Mission Grade School on the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation in Hays, Montana, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the unique beauty and the particular challenges of living in a remote place – the joys, the struggles, and the stories that fill the spaces of far between here and other places.

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A horse outside a classroom at Mission Grade School

Nestled in the grasslands at the base of the Little Rockies an hour and a half from the nearest large town, Hays is a village of about seven hundred people, mostly enrolled members of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes. It’s a place where horses frequently wander along the main road, where elk and deer meat are normal neighborly gifts, and where the whole town watches high school football games from pickup trucks pulled up to the field. Like many rural communities across America, it’s a place where the bonds of family run strong but also where cycles of poverty and addiction test these bonds. In January, the Ft. Belknap tribal council voted unanimously to declare an official state of emergency regarding the abuse of meth, a drug that directly or indirectly affects the lives of many of the children at Mission Grade School.

In my tutoring placement, I work one-on-one and in small groups with students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Every day, I see the brightness and potential that these children and youth offer to the community. At the same time, I have also seen how the injustices in rural communities like Hays are intergenerational, and the paths to justice must also be intergenerational.

One place I have witnessed the power of generations working together has been at our school’s weekly Honor Night Book Club, which aims to support family involvement in student literacy. Honor Night is an evening of games and fun in the school gym held every Thursday for students who have attended school, done their homework, and maintained good behavior all week. Fink, HopeyWhen relatives come to pick up their children, they are invited to choose a book and read aloud for five minutes. If they spend this time, each child can take a book home. Seeing kids discover the enjoyment that even five minutes of reading with their grandmother can bring is a reminder of the importance of involving families in education, especially in a community where many, if not most, households are multi-generational.

I am learning more and more that education extends beyond the pages of our textbook readers. If it is to be an effective tool against the systemic problems that are particular to this reservation community, education needs to encompass the values and wisdom and stories that Native families have passed from generation to generation in this place. A rootedness in this land and a respect for culture and tradition are things that I, as an outsider, cannot teach in the same way that I can teach times table tricks or phonics practice.

My JV AmeriCorps community mates and I have stepped into a nearly fifty-year legacy of Jesuit Volunteer service in Hays. Each day I am humbled by the sense that this place– these prairies and pines and these stories of wounds and hope that are woven into the fabric of this community- has existed long before us. I am grateful for the ways that I have felt welcomed into sharing some of the uniqueness of this place, whether that be on hikes in the canyon or in the circle of the sweat lodge.

Hopey (second from the left) with her JV AmeriCorps community mates

The distance between here and other places cannot only be measured in miles. Hays is a lot of “far” from the nearest Wal-Mart, sure. But the struggles of rural poverty and addiction, along with the struggles of many Indigenous people to preserve their ways, are also far from the minds of most people in America. In coming together across ages and in honoring the traditions of family and culture, the “lot of far” between here and other places can seem less daunting. Recognizing the power of place, in all of its vastness and remoteness, might allow generations to work together to break harmful cycles that are specific to this community. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from this place as a JV AmeriCorps member and to work with people in Hays to effect change- starting with times tables tricks and phonics practice.

AmeriCorps Week: Cultivating Roots in Grays Harbor, WA

This AmeriCorps Week, we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps service throughout the Northwest. JV AmeriCorps member Megan Norris (Grays Harbor, WA ’15-16) describes how participation in the Cultivating Roots garden has strengthened the feeling of community with youth and economically disadvantaged community members in Grays Harbor, WA. We thank Megan for sharing her story of service and would like to acknowledge all current and former members who have so graciously served in our program.  

Community gardens are so much more than plants or produce. They have a social and community aspect rather unique to the culture of a shared outside space. They are a space which many people invest love and want to see succeed. The Cultivating Roots garden, where I serve through the agency Grays Harbor Public Health and Social Service Department,  is located within Pacific Court Housing Development. Pacific Court is low income housing under ownership of the Housing Authority of Grays Harbor.

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Megan excited to ‘get things done!’

The residents who live among and around the garden, if involved in it, have grown not only produce in the beds, but also affinity for the space. The neighborhood children are especially keen of the garden. Some of my favorite days of service are the ones where I arrive at the garden with the intention of tending to the beds only to be met with enthusiastic children ready to harvest, learn, and help.

One October afternoon I was met with a different emotion from one of the dedicated garden volunteers. At 8 years old, she is a fantastic helper and quick learner, but on this day, she had come to the garden as a place of solace. In tears, this garden volunteer choked out a simple question, “May I help you today? I had a rough day and really just want to be in the garden.” Over the next two hours, we chatted about her day and why she was crying; we talked about ways tomorrow could be a better day; and we got our hands messy in the garden beds.

Cultivating Roots Garden

Other children came and went from the garden that day, sharing smiles and well wishes. When the garden chores were finished, not only were there 14 lbs. of harvest to be distributed, but a strong sense of community filled the air. A day was bettered by spending time in the garden, and the garden gained a reputation as a safe place to come when one has a crummy day. I was reminded that day of how my time in the garden is service and that the garden being located in the Pacific Court development, a neighborhood where parents often have to work two shifts and is full of hard working and earnest people, is a great fit.

Providing Positive Influence through Mentoring

JV AmeriCorps member Ellen Quinn (Billings, MT ’15-16) serves as the School Program Specialist at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Yellowstone County (BBBSYC) in Billings, MT. Below, Ellen shares her experience managing a mentoring program that provides consistent, positive influence to at-risk students in grades K-8th. 

Much of my previous experience working with at-risk populations involved adults and older adults. Many of them expressed behaviors and tendencies that align with histories ruptured by childhood homelessness, abuse, poverty, incarcerated parents, and/or substance abuse. Often I caught myself thinking, “If someone had reached out long before now to offer a positive presence and a listening ear, things may have turned out quite differently.”

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Ellen serving at BBBSYC

Now, as the School Program Specialist at BBBSYC, I have the opportunity to act as the catalyst that provides 110 at-risk students in grades K-8 (called “Littles”) with a high school mentor (called a “Big”) to provide that presence and listening ear. This program spans eight different schools throughout Billings.

The high school Bigs serve multiple purposes for their Littles. First and foremost, they are consistent, positive role models who provide 1-to-1 mentoring to each of their two Littles. They spend four days a week for one class period with each Little, during which time they coach their Little through homework, eat and talk with them at lunch, play games with them at recess, and complete class work in the hallway or library. Many Littles need help catching up on their classwork, concentrating in class, learning to talk through disagreements, improving reading and math skills, and confronting bullies.

In all cases, the Bigs serve as coaches and role models. These Bigs are also trusted adult figures with whom Littles can choose to share things that trouble them, such as bullies at school or instability at home. Through the ears of the Bigs, BBBSYC can communicate with school counselors to stitch together a better sense of how the Littles cope with uncertainty in their lives and what extra support we can offer them.

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Ellen (second from the right) with her JV AmeriCorps member community mates

On Wednesdays, students come to the BBBSYC office where I lead lessons focused on topics relevant to mentoring at-risk youth. Topics include bullying and cyber bullying, childhood aggression, self-esteem, learning disabilities, and communication. Many of the high school students enrolled in this elective class are already well equipped with previous experiences working with or mentoring children. Or they at least have a desire to offer their time getting to know another student and helping them with school work. By working together with the high school Bigs, elementary Littles, and their counselors, I am learning a great deal about ways to help all students involved improve their communication and mentoring skills so that they learn to advocate for themselves and others.

The struggles that many Littles face outside of the classroom are numerous. A large majority of the Littles  live in homes with varying degrees of instability, ranging from minor to overwhelming. Some students live with grandparents or other relatives because their own parents are incarcerated; others have been placed in foster care due to unsafe home environments and involvement with Child Protective Services; and others have adults coming in and out of their lives that they would rather not form meaningful bonds with due to a lack of trust that the bonds will last. Montana is consistently one of the highest states in the nation for suicide rates, which directly affects some of our Littles’ families. Meth is by far the drug of choice that tears families apart and, in some cases, leads to fatal overdoses.

Because I am a Lunch Buddy and visit my own Little once a week, I see firsthand how some of these issues affect young students’ classroom performances. Keeping all of these factors in mind, it is understandable how these children come to be in need of a consistent, positive influence such as a high school Big. Mentoring is something anyone can take part in, whether informally through organic friendships or formally through a structured program like those provided by BBBSYC. Though I may not have much previous experience working within school systems with the perspective of a social service agency representative, I can already see in my first five months here how imperative this program is to the students involved and also the greater community at large.

‘Tis the Season of Giving

JV AmeriCorps member Elizabeth Murphy (Spokane, WA ’14-16) shares her experience serving as Community Food Resource Specialist at the Catholic Charities of Spokane in Spokane, WA. Below, Murphy reflects on her favorite holiday, Thanksgiving, and the joy and excitement she feels for food and community. 

In the season of giving, I find that I receive so much. My experience over the past year has shown me how invigorating little victories can be. As I watch a child have her first taste of spinach, have a senior ask me, “what’s a smoothie,” or give someone a bag of arugula, their favorite vegetable, I am filled with joy in a cheesy excited way. I jokingly told one of my housemates Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays, because everyone gets as excited about food as I am every day.  I try to carry the joy and comfort of sharing a meal with family and friends into an everyday tradition.

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Elizabeth Murphy at the Acorn Squash Harvest at Food For All Farm

Serving at the same placement in Spokane for two years has allowed me to grow and deepen in relationship with the people I serve. Weekly, I deliver produce to St. Margaret’s Women and Children’s Shelter residents.  Last week, an alumni of our program stopped by to drop off her “Christmas Blessings form” for her and her son, and I offered her a bunch of bananas. She ecstatically said, “Love! My baby is going to love this!” When the same mom was living in the shelter in the spring, I remember her calling asking me to, “please save me and my baby food from the community kitchen!” I get so excited when other people get excited about fruits and vegetables!  Even through the simple pleasure of a bunch of bananas, I am lucky to connect with moms and kids who in turn make me excited to continue serving at my placement.

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Delicious food served at a dinner at St. Margaret’s Women and Children’s Shelter

Last winter, I began serving with residents at Fr. Bach Haven housing for previously chronically-homeless men and women. We had a community kitchen cooking class and nutrition education series that allowed me to continue serving in the springtime. With another community partner, we hosted a garden-themed lunch and gardening class one week and the following week planted garden pots in front of their building. Since I decided to stay a as a JV year here second year, I was happy I could continue to serve with their case manager to plan a harvest-themed potluck for residents this fall and eat the fruits of our labor. I brought food from our program’s Food for All Farm and residents brought food from their garden pots. There’s a special connection that comes from working the soil, preparing a meal, and sharing a meal together.

Another program within Catholic Charities is called Senior Services through which I was matched with a low-income senior who I’ll call Sam (not her real name). I get to go to her apartment every week, make a meal with her, and we share that meal together. Sometimes we even go on field trips! Twice this summer I was able to take her to the farmers market so she could spend her senior farmers market nutrition program checks (which the Food for All program distributes in Spokane). Even though Sam is away from her family and on a tight budget, she has such a joyful presence and zest for life. I love my weekly visits with Sam. She always makes me laugh, gives me hugs, and loves every meal we make together (especially butternut squash soup). This year, I get to spend my Thanksgiving sharing a meal with her, another one of the reasons I am so happy to continue serving at my placement and deepen the relationships I’ve made over the past year.

Feeding Hunger for Food and Community

JV AmeriCorps member Sarah Moore (Grays Harbor, WA ’14-15) shares her experience serving as Early Learning Specialist at the YMCA of Grays Harbor in Washington. Below, Moore reflects on her involvement with the Park and Play program.

Last summer, the YMCA of Grays Harbor partnered with the Aberdeen School District to provide a strong program for children that combines food and fun. Each day, our Park and Play program served anywhere between 50 to 150 lunches and snacks to kids at three parks in town.

It was obvious after only a few weeks of programming that these children are in great need of food. Without these lunches, many children would go without food or without proper nutrition. However, I think there is a greater hunger than for food among these children: there is a hunger for community, for friendship, and for opportunity.

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Sarah (far right) and her Gray’s Harbor JV AmeriCorps member community mates

After being given a lunch packed with a sandwich, fruits, vegetables, chips, and milk, the kids grabbed a seat around the park, usually at a picnic table. With only a few picnic tables available, kids often ended up eating with new friends. Conversation usually started about what was in the lunch that day: what they like, don’t like, or have never tried before. At times, there were even proposed trades for an extra bag of chips.

Food was only the starting point for finding commonalities among new friends. The conversations quickly evolved from food to what game or activity we would play after eating or even details about life at home or school. Conversation continued as we brought out rubber bands to make bracelets, play dough, or paint. We cheered for one another through hula-hoop contests, hand games, and running races. Through it all we learned each other’s names, languages, and stories. I believe this is the greatest thing we have to offer at the parks.

After only a few weeks of the Park and Play program, I was convinced that it was the moments shared around the table and beyond that kept the kids coming back day after day and staying for the duration of the program. Yes—we were hungry for food. But the food spoke to a hunger that was deeper; a hunger to be present with one another, to play, to laugh, to share, and to build relationships.

Becoming a Girl on the Run

For this month’s blog, JV AmeriCorps member Rachel Young (Juneau, AK ’14-15) shares her experience serving as Young Parent Healthy Teen Assistant at the Catholic Community Services of Juneau in Juneau, AK. Below, Young reminisces about coaching elementary school girls through Girls on the Run, a program that inspires girls to accept and love themselves using a curriculum that incorporates exercise and running.

“We are strong! We are smart! We are unique! We are beautiful!” I echoed these exclamations amidst the hundreds of elementary school girls decked out in face paint and homemade tutus and choked back my own tears of joy. Why was it that at 23, I was only just realizing these lessons for myself?

GOTRThere was a general sense of excitement and energy in the air as these amazing girls made their way to the starting line of their celebratory, season-ending 5K run. They had been working for this. They were ready for this.

It hadn’t all been easy. As a coach, I’d seen tears, anger, and sadness. I had mediated conflicts and misunderstandings and even had my own feelings hurt once or twice along the way. But that is what eventually made us a strong, resilient team- by learning to work together and love each other to overcome our obstacles. These girls learned about themselves and their team-mates this season. They transformed into strong-willed, confident, compassionate teammates. They learned how to work together, how to support each other, and how to treat themselves with care. Each practice, they shattered stereotypes about femininity and redefined what it means to be a girl of the 21st century.

One student stood up to the bully who had been teasing her in class. Another learned how to communicate her feelings with her dad. A third girl gained the confidence to mediate a disagreement between two of her friends. As these girls learned about themselves, they brought me with them on their journey. I remembered that I, myself, am powerful; my body is beautiful; and my future is limitless.

The morning of our 5K run, 150 vivacious girls left the starting line at Sandy Beach, and later, 150 triumphant girls crossed the finish line. Some ran, some walked, some hopped, and some even crawled like a cat on all fours. That day, there were no losers; only joyful, empowered, loving, and courageous girls.

After the event, we stopped for a team picture and the runners thanked me and my fellow coaches. I then thanked them right back. Thank you, girls, for showing me that it’s never too late to learn and grow and I’ll never be too old to be silly. I’ll always be a Girl on the Run.