Volunteer Nurse: A Year of Resistance and Radical Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Franz (left) with her Boise community mates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Positive Outlook in Difficult Times

JV AmeriCorps member Connor Hayes (Portland, OR ’16-17) serves as Activities and Events Coordinator with Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO) in Portland, Oregon. In honor of World AIDS Day, which took place on December 1, 2016, Connor reflects on his service and the valuable relationships he has formed with clients. 

Coming into my JV AmeriCorps year after four busy years of college, I wasn’t the best at appreciating the small moments in life. Amid the whirlwind of essays, applications, activities, and more, I began to forget the importance of relationships and little shared moments in sustaining and nourishing all of us as we move through life. Yet just a few months serving at the EMO HIV Day Center with many folks who have lived with HIV for decades has shifted this trend. The clients I serve have taught me so much about having a positive outlook in difficult times and truly valuing my relationships with those around me. It’s this growth that I’m most thankful for as I reflect on my service and World AIDS Day.

Serving at EMO’s breakfast window

One of my most meaningful lessons from the Day Center is the value and impact of small interactions within a community. From asking someone who keeps to himself to join a mindful meditation session, to the extra piece of cake silently dropped off next to the person having a difficult time accessing medical services, to the minute-long hug when someone walks in the door, I’ve heard from many folks that it is these simple gestures that can turn their entire day or week around. Coming into this year, I expected to be present to clients when they needed to talk about a crisis they were going through. However, I’m slowly realizing that in social work and life, celebrating a rapidly declining viral load or other great moment with a high-five can be equally as meaningful to someone.

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’16-17 Portland community mates

One long-time client at the Day Center, who passed away suddenly a few weeks into my service year, embodied a consistent ethic of this- finding joy in the most basic of interactions and sharing that joy with all. Every person who walked in would be greeted with a heartfelt, “hey, brother” (or, in my case, despite the fact I’m six feet tall, “hey, little brother!”) Even on his most difficult days, he would try to put on the biggest smile and most jolly demeanor I’ve seen in a long time, so folks struggling to stay positive about life could look to him and feel a bit more hopeful. Despite his increasing age, he was always finding something to do for the community, like walking in the Portland AIDS Walk or helping others fight the stigma around HIV.

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’16-17 Portland community mates participate in World AIDS Day event

As I’ve reflected this week on the lessons I have learned, I have been spending a lot of time thinking back to the AIDS Walk, which was a major event held in September. Walking together with a group from the Day Center, I was in awe of the joy and communal care evident in the entire HIV-positive community in Portland, not just our small community at the Day Center. Many of the clients at the Day Center and the broader HIV/AIDS community have survived significant struggles in life- from the initial shock of their diagnoses to the passing of countless close friends. Yet the event was anything but solemn. Instead, the AIDS Walk served as a celebration of life and community with friends and family turning out in thousands to support those they care about who are living with HIV, to affirm the dignity of all regardless of HIV status, and to show their hope for a more positive future.

For me, that positivity in the face of adversity is what makes World AIDS Day this past week so important. Certainly, it is a time to fundraise, to act, and to raise awareness for the continuing HIV crisis in various places around the world. It’s also a time to appreciate the strength, fortitude, and zest for life that the HIV-positive community embodies- a perspective that all of us can learn from.

World AIDS Day

JV AmeriCorps member Anthony Yakely (Anchorage, AK ’16-17) serves as the Client Services Specialist with Alaskan AIDS Assistance Association (Four A’s) in Anchorage, Alaska. To commemorate World AIDS Day, Anthony reflects on how his knowledge of HIV/AIDS has shifted from academic to interpersonal because of his experiences at Four A’s.

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Anchorage community in front of Mount Denali

Before this year, HIV/AIDS had always been presented to me in academic terms. My knowledge of it included words like “retrovirus,” “opportunistic infection,” and “cytomegalovirus.” After four years as a biochemistry major, I had learned a lot of the science behind HIV/AIDS. However, I did not yet know the human side of it having never personally known someone who is HIV-positive. Coming out of school, I was feeling burnt out and had a strong desire to serve in a hands-on role. When I was presented with the opportunity of serving my JV AmeriCorps year as the Client Services Specialist at Four A’s, I immediately jumped on the chance. This was what I was looking for.

I went into Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest wanting a sense of community and to have a chance to build relationships with all those I met. The first couple weeks were a whirlwind for me- meeting new faces and adjusting to a new service site in a new state on the other side of the country. However, after that initial adjustment, I began to build the relationships I craved. It started out small- sitting with clients at Friday lunches after I was done serving the meal and chatting about everything from family to living in Alaska. Little by little, I got to know the clients better.

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Halloween pumpkin carving client activity

With each Friday lunch and Thursday client event, I got to know those I was serving, the struggles they had faced, the addiction they had overcome and were currently battling, and the challenges and successes in everyday life. My favorite client activity so far has been pumpkin carving. By engaging with others in a holiday tradition that I love, I found the joy of just being, sitting, laughing, and sharing stories. My knowledge of HIV/AIDS had shifted from the academic to the interpersonal. It was an experiential learning- the concepts I had learned were being put into the faces of those I served through sharing meals, smiles, and arts and crafts. This disease described in almost mythical terms now had faces and stories that I had grown to treasure.

Unfortunately, the stigma for those living with HIV/AIDS still exists within our society. I have seen that the stigma surrounding HIV/AIDS comes from a place of fear. Because some of the ways the disease can be transmitted are often taboo, it creates a negative attitude towards those who are HIV-positive. By putting a face to the disease, I have seen the problem of this attitude. I have met clients who care deeply for others, often going out of their way to help other clients who are not as fortunate. It is in this generosity and in my daily interactions with clients that challenge what society says about those who are HIV-positive.

world_logo1Today is World AIDS Day, and we will gather as a community to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Our entire staff will be holding a candlelight vigil to remember those who have died of HIV/AIDS, including some of our clients who passed away this year. Also, we will view the film “The Normal Heart,” which tells a tale of the early days of HIV/AIDS activism in New York City.  This reminds us that the fight against HIV/AIDS is still not over, even as treatment and research continue to improve. It reminds me of the faces of those I serve every day.

Tackling Barriers to End-of-Life Care Services

Our latest blog post is written by recent JV AmeriCorps member Claudia Gomez Postigo (Hillsboro, OR ’15-16) who served as the Minority Community Outreach Coordinator – Hospice Specialist with Care Partners in Hillsboro, Oregon. Below, Claudia reflects on a project she completed with a co-worker that sought to tackle the language and literacy barriers her patients encountered when trying to take their medications.

During my 2015-2016 JV year, I partnered with one of Care Partner’s incredible nurses, Judith Gillen, to work on a project which was initially drafted as a response to the needs of our Latino patients and families. The issues we were first hoping to address were the language and health literacy barriers our Latino patients encountered when managing their multiple daily medications. We created a color-coded system of labels, partnered with a couple of families (both Latino and non-Latino), and introduced these labels into their homes.gomez-claudia

The results of the project were spectacular with various degrees of positive feedback from our patients and caregivers. We realized that the problem was much larger than the language and literacy barriers of our Latino patients. Regardless of ethnicity, educational background, or level of literacy, our families were dealing with multiple medications every day, and a system to organize the ones most easily confused made a significant difference. We also came up with a medication chart which included each medication’s corresponding label color, simple instructions, and the symptom each medication treated. We noticed that some patients responded better to the color of the label, while others preferred to use the symptom as the identifying factor of the medication. Both our Spanish-speaking and English-speaking caregivers loved the labels and expressed how they wished they had gotten them sooner.

hillsboro-2I was asked to present this project to a board of physicians that our hospice partnered with. After their positive feedback, we were encouraged to put this project on with all patients and families. There are still some areas of this project that need to be evaluated. Now that Care Partners has a greater understanding of its patients’ needs, with the help of this year’s JV AmeriCorps member Megan Andreasen, Care Partner’s next step will be to find an effective system for all nurses to begin introducing and using the labels in their practices.

This past year with Care Partners has confirmed my desire to pursue a future in nursing. I am so lucky to have been a part of the team and family!Save

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.

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.