‘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.

Teaching, Serving, & Building Relationships

During the month of August, the Corporation for National and Community Service is celebrating the service of teachers and educators. In honor of this month’s theme,  JV AmeriCorps member Elle Ross (St. Xavier, MT ’13-15) shares her experience serving as Academic Support for the Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy in St. Xavier, MT. Below, Ross explains how she learned building relationships is the basis of  both teaching and service. 

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JV AmeriCorps members located in St. Xavier

I have always greatly valued my education, and serving in a school for the past two years has helped me come to appreciate the people who really made it happen – my teachers. So, throughout this year, I have been trying to contact or send a little note of appreciation to some of the teachers who really helped me become who I am.

As grateful and nostalgic as I am, I have found that it is really tough to find the time and energy to reach out to old teachers and friends as it is difficult to put into words all that I want to say. So, when a former student recently reached out to me, I was overwhelmed with joy and incredibly impressed.

I was Sandy’s (name has been changed) math teacher. She and I spent roughly an hour or two together every day for a year and a half. While we learned a lot of basic math in that time, we also learned way more about each other and ourselves. We learned together through laughter and sometimes even tears, whether we were working on math or not.14-15_JVs in Service_St. Xavier_Pretty Eagle_Catherine Morrison and Elle Ross (16)

Unfortunately, Sandy switched to another school and I was no longer her tutor. I was crushed. She started at another school and I kept tabs on her the best I could by sending notes, but I didn’t hear much of a reply. A few months later, I received a call from Sandy who said she received my note and asked if I would tutor her in math. I was shocked and ecstatic that she made such a big and brave effort to call a former teacher and ask for help. We were able to meet at the library, continue our lessons, and finish her math homework. I was happy to hear she was doing well in math because of the confidence she gained from our lessons. This experience helped me remember why teaching is not only so important to learning, but why teaching and service is rooted in building relationships.

Living with the Land and Building Community

JV AmeriCorps member Sarah Komisar serves at the Sitka Conservation Society in Sitka, Alaska. Below Komisar shares her experience teaching Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community through the processing of deer. 

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Miller explains how to process deer while respecting animals and native traditions. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

Living with the land and building community can be done in many ways. As a JV AmeriCorps member at The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), my placement included working with the Alaska Way of Life 4-H program. During January of 2015, SCS and Sitka Native Education Program (SNEP) partnered to teach Sitka’s youth how to process one of Sitka’s local bounties: deer. The children from the 4-H program and SNEP Culture Class learned from Chuck Miller, SNEP Youth Program Coordinator, more than just how to butcher a deer as he removed the hide from the animal.

Miller shared with students the customary traditional practices of deer processing. Right away, Miller said, “It is important to not waste, and it is disrespectful to the animal to say ‘eww’ or ‘that’s gross’ because that animal gave up its life for you, so you can live.”

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Students learn how to wrap meat in freezer paper. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The children were certainly not squeamish. No ‘ew’s resounded from the audience of eager and fascinated onlookers. The first thing he pointed out was that the head of the deer was missing. Chuck explained that the brain of the deer could be mixed with urine and used to tan the hides long ago. The children learned that the hoofs could be boiled down and used for rattling sticks to dance with. The hide was removed carefully, and the kids discovered that it could be used for clothing or drums. The children eagerly peered over each other to get a look at the deer’s heart, liver, and stomach. Chuck explained that the tendons are so strong that they have been used for battle armor, dream catchers, and to latch many other things together.

The class also discussed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations and the importance of limitations on does for protecting fawns to conserve the population.

Miller shared with students how to respect the animal by properly processing the meat, as well as by not wasting parts of the deer. He then explained how respecting the animal transfers to respect for the community: the first deer of the year you get should never be kept to yourself.

“You give it away to somebody who is a widow, an elder, or both. You want to make sure you take care of people in the community who cannot hunt for themselves and our elders.” One of the boys in the group whispered to his friend, “I’ll give it to my grandma.”

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Deer processing complete! Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The class was able to see the deer processing steps all the way from removing the hide to wrapping the meat in freezer paper. The kids shared stories of their own deer hunting experiences and favorite recipes as they packaged the meat. Students were enthralled and walked away with both a practical understanding of the deer butchering process as well as a stronger respect for this treasured resource.

The Sitka Conservation Society looks forward to partnering with the Sitka Native Education Program in the future to teach Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community.

AmeriCorps Week: Tenacity, Cooperation, and Persistence in Grays Harbor, WA

This AmeriCorps Week, we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps service throughout the Northwest. JV AmeriCorps member Bridget Hinton serves in Grays Harbor, WA, a community that has struggled economically since changes in timber policy in the 1970s. 

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Students and volunteers working together after school.

I am currently serving as the Youth Education Program Coordinator through Catholic Community Services in Grays Harbor, Washington. My position is dynamic in the sense that I serve at the Feed the Hungry program each day and coordinate all aspects of the youth education program. I spend my afternoons with some of the most inspiring, fun and engaged students I have ever met. The youth education program serves a total of eight students, both elementary and junior high, who struggle in school for a variety of reasons. Some students have learning disabilities. For some, English is not their first language and/or not the primary language spoken at home, and others experience very difficult home lives living in extreme poverty. In a broken education system where there is a lack of resources and/or unequal distribution of resources, and where support is hard to come by, the students in the youth education program work diligently to succeed.

At Catholic Community Services, the community volunteers and I work to foster a positive learning environment where we do small activities to keep students focused and motivated. Each week, we concentrate on a different word of the week, write in responsive journals where students and I write back and forth to each other and give team points every time 14-15_Grays Harbor_BridgetHinton_determinedstudents write in their planners (we are currently working towards 250 team points!). For the Word of the Week we have focused on words such as tenacious, cooperation, and persistent. One week, we learned about the word determined and the volunteers, students and I talked about what it means, what it looks like, and what it sounds like to be a determined student. One student in particular was exceptionally determined that day when she completed a number of missing assignments from her history class. This student took the initiative to be honest with14-15_GraysHarbor_BridgetHinton_BelieveinMyself me and admit to her missing work. We spoke about how she is not a bad student for not having completed her assignments and turned it into a learning opportunity and a chance to practice living out being a determined student. This student pushed through, worked alongside a volunteer, and successfully completed her assignments. I have seen tremendous growth in each student’s confidence level since the beginning of the year, and I am hopeful that the tools learned in our program will carry over in other aspects of the students’ lives.

Choosing St. Labre

Ben Rumbaugh serves in Ashland, MT, as a Dormitory Assistant for St. Labre Indian School. Here he addresses the importance of education for his students and their Native communities.

The St. Labre Indian School provides education and a multitude of resources to children in the nearby Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indian reservations. A significant aspect of attending high school at St. Labre is that a large percentage of students live in the school’s dormitory on campus. This incredible facility enables students from the reservations – some of which live up to 125 miles away – to attend St. Labre. During the school week the dormitory is home for these students, who return to their families on weekends. Consequently, some students travel six hours a week just to attend school!

A snapshot of Ashland

A snapshot of Ashland

This astonishing reality raises several questions for me: Why are students going to such great lengths to receive their education at St. Labre? What are the conditions of the tribal schools, which are closer to their homes, that these students choose St. Labre despite the distance? Ultimately, how will their secondary education prepare these students for self-sufficiency so that the cycle of poverty – which is a blatant aspect of life for a number of the students – be broken? Attempting to answer these questions has helped me begin the long process of discerning my time and place with this exceptional community.

My position at the dorm involves supporting residents so that their home-away-from-home is hospitable and sets them up for academic success. This support takes many forms: it can be as stressful as making sure homework is done on time, as fun as cheering for them at sporting events, or as simple as watching a movie with them to unwind after a long day at school. By providing a stable and supportive environment at the dorm, students are prepared to take advantage of St. Labre’s education.

Through building relationships with the students, I have gained a sense of why they chose to attend St. Labre. The most common answer I get is that they come because of the post-secondary scholarship opportunities. Because St. Labre is a private, Catholic institution with an extensive donor base, the school has the resources to offer its graduates scholarships to pursue higher education. For many of the students, the traveling and time away from home is worth this opportunity.

Teepees_Ben RumbaughThis commitment also highlights the lack of alternative support systems in the area for post-graduation sufficiency. If students have to travel such distances to be guaranteed post-secondary support, then what is that saying about the schools that are closer to their homes? I attended high school in a predominately white, Midwestern community. Comparing my experiences with accounts given from my students, I cannot help but notice discrepancies in the educational system. It makes me wonder about the resources available to tribal schools and subsequently the support they can provide their students. There is a significant need for dialogue with these communities so that problems can be identified and addressed in order to bridge the educational gap.

One problem that has been communicated by the students at the dorm is that they do not know what post-secondary opportunities exist for them. Because of our current system, many students are under the impression that any education after high school involves another four years of college and they are immediately turned off to that much additional schooling; many do not realize that higher education can take many forms whether it be vocational, two-years, four-years, etc.

Ben (on far left in top row) with his Ashland JV AmeriCorps community

Ben (on far left in top row) with his Ashland JV AmeriCorps community

These conversations have led me to start an initiative that makes resources about post-secondary opportunities available to students who live at the dorm. Placing these resources in their home-away-from-home will allow students the time and atmosphere to consider their potential for education after graduation from St. Labre. With hope, these resources will help students achieve self-sufficiency and, in turn, will create a more stable community.

St. Labre is certainly a unique experience in education. My position at the dorm has given me the opportunity to engage students in a more holistic fashion; I’m not only providing academic support, but also supporting them in a consistent and loving home. Although it’s not perfect (in a home of sixty-plus teenagers, conflict is inevitable), the dorm is an important element in St. Labre’s mission of providing education to the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes. There is no doubt that education plays an important role for developing a sustainable community with adequate services. While questions surrounding education can have vague and weighty answers, they highlight a need for dialogue with marginalized communities. I’m learning that this type of dialogue is an important step in finding real, effective solutions towards social justice.