MLK Day of Service 2017

“Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”

– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

To commemorate the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service 2017, AmeriCorps programs throughout the country participated in providing service in their communities. These are just a few of the stories of how our JV AmeriCorps members served!

JV AmeriCorps members located in Juneau walked from house to house installing smoke detectors and educating residents about house fires with the American Red Cross.

’16-17 JV AmeriCorps members in Juneau volunteering with the American Red Cross.

Alaska – JV AmeriCorps members in Juneau and Anchorage walked from house to house installing smoke detectors and educating residents on fire safety with the American Red Cross. Our Anchorage JV AmeriCorps members’ service activities were featured in the Alaska Dispatch News–  read the article here! In Bethel, JV AmeriCorps members hosted a showing of the documentary, For the Rights of All: Ending Jim Crow in Alaska. Additionally, members created an “I have a dream” board for interested parties to disclose their dreams.

Oregon – Woodburn JV AmeriCorps members Marit Olson, Jared Harris, and Emily Curran spent the day weatherizing homes through the Community Energy Project with Hands On Greater Portland. Meanwhile, in Hood River, residents were blasted with snowy winter weather, so in response to the weather, our Hood River JV AmeriCorps members teamed up with Providence Hospital’s Volunteers in Action to shovel care receivers driveways.

In Hood River, residents were blasted with snowy winter weather! Our JV AmeriCorps members located in Hood River teamed up with Providence Hospital’s Volunteers in Action to shovel care receivers driveways!

’16-17 Hood River JV AmeriCorps members shoveling care receivers’ driveways.

Washington  The JV AmeriCorps members in Grays Harbor carried on the tradition set by last year’s JV AmeriCorps members by picking up garbage throughout the Aberdeen and Hoquiam neighborhoods. In Tacoma, a few of our JV AmeriCorps members spent their time getting their hands dirty in the garden! Blair Bellis and Benjamin Feiten volunteered at Hilltop Urban Gardens where they composted, painted signs, and prepared the gardens for spring. At L’Arche Farms, Elizabeth Nawrocki recruited and coordinated volunteers for completing tasks throughout the farm.

Idaho – In the Boise community, JV AmeriCorps members Mariah Ertel, Mary Franz, Mary Haggerty, and AnnaMarie Marsilio spent MLK Day volunteering at Big Brother Big Sister of Southwest Idaho. Our members tackled various responsibilities assigned to them, such as organizing a storage facility, taking inventory, and reorganizing t-shirts.

According to Mary Haggerty, “Serving on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with my community knowing that so many other communities, not only in JVC Northwest but across the country, were serving others filled me with peace and hope. Hearing about and seeing so many people spread light made the ideal of a bright future tangible.”

Jared Harris, Emily Curran, and Marit Olson, spent the day weatherizing homes through the Community Energy Project with Hands On Great Portland.

’16-17 JV AmeriCorps members Jared Harris and Emily Curran weatherizing a home in Portland.

Montana – School was still in session in Hays, Montana, so our JV AmeriCorps members spent time educating their students on the history of Martin Luther King, Jr.. JV AmeriCorps members located in Missoula volunteered at the Poverello Center where they focused their day on homeless outreach.

Thank you to all who participated in MLK Day of Service 2017!

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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.

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.

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.

Building and Sustaining Positive Relationships

JV AmeriCorps member Caitlin Shehane serves at The Center for Children and Families in Billings, Montana. She shares her experience being a part of a community that supports and empowers children and families to overcome hardships and reach their full potential.

I am currently serving as a Children’s Services Aide at The Center for Children and Families in Billings, Montana. The Center provides full family treatment for women recovering from chemical dependency and substance abuse as well as mental health counseling and services for youth transitioning out of foster care. My role in treatment is to supervise parenting time for parents and their children who are in foster or kinship placements and are working towards reunification.

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Caitlin proudly shows off a child’s art project

The majority of the children involved in the program are behind developmentally in some areas due in part to the trauma and neglect they have experienced. To address this, I facilitate weekly parenting classes called Teaching Strategies. At these classes, I complete child assessments and plan activities for parents and children to complete together that target specific areas of challenge for each child. I also provide care for children during treatment groups and transport children and clients to and from their appointments.

There have been many moments of heartbreak hearing the stories and witnessing what the children involved in the program are going through. At times, I have been hard on myself, wondering if I really am making a positive impact on these families’ lives. After all, I am not a case manager, clinician, or addiction counselor. However, serving at The Center has shown me I do have the skills and abilities to take on the incredibly important role of creating and sustaining positive relationships in these children’s lives.

Many of the children involved in the program are lacking positive role models and loving, caring adults in their lives. Some children come from homes where they are rarely seen or heard. Many of them have had to navigate alcoholism, addiction, mental illness, violence, and separation in their families. I’ve realized something as simple as providing them a safe place where they can be carefree kids, further develop their unique gifts and talents, form positive relationships with parents and siblings, and become educated on addiction goes a long way in acquiring resiliency. Seeing their huge smiles when I greet them and call them by name has shown me how important it is for children to be reminded of their infinite worth and how truly precious and loved they are.

JV AmeriCorps members located in Billings

JV AmeriCorps members located in Billings

One child I have worked closely with these past six months fills me with tremendous hope. She was removed from her home and placed in foster care about a year ago. Her mother is currently in treatment and her father in prison. When I first began, she was struggling significantly academically, emotionally, and socially. Since then, she has made amazing progress. One afternoon I waited in the office to pick her up from school and transport her to The Center for parenting time with her mother. She had the hugest smile on her face as she grabbed my hand and pulled me down the hall to a display of art projects. There was her name followed by “First Place Winner!” She is a naturally talented artist, and we have been working on this strength together at The Center.

Art Project from Children and Families

Children’s art projects

A couple of weeks later, I picked her up from school.  She was beaming as she held out her report card for me to see. All A’s and B’s! I told her how proud I was, and she told me she thinks she could be the first in her family to go to college. She also said how proud she is of her mom for going to treatment, remaining clean, and turning her life around. She mentioned that she never wants to try drugs. Since her mom and dad were addicts, she already has a higher chance of becoming an addict too. She said she wants to accomplish so much in her life. I truly believe that she can break the cycle of addiction that has been in her family for generations. I feel so lucky to know her and be a part of the loving and caring community who is there to support and empower her to reach her full potential. It is my hope and mission to provide this for every child that walks through The Center’s doors. This is why I serve.

MLK Day 2015!

In honor of this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, our JV AmeriCorps members participated in rallies and celebrations, joined in restoration projects, organized food drives, and more! Check out a few photos from this year’s MLK Day engagement!

MLK-The-Time-is-Always-right-to-do-what-is-rightThank you to current JVs and JV AmeriCorps members, former volunteers, fellow AmeriCorps members, and community members across the country for participating in celebrating the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

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.