World AIDS Day: Living in Solidarity with Our Neighbors

JV AmeriCorps member Emily Breakell (‘17-18 Portland, OR) serves as the Activities and Events Coordinator for the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon’s HIV Services. To commemorate World AIDS Day, Emily shares a reflection on her experience serving in the HIV Day Center in Portland, OR.

“Silence=Death?” the coffee barista asked, questioning the text on my shirt. I had almost forgotten that I was wearing such a striking tee—black, with a pink triangle, and the text “SILENCE=DEATH.” I struggled to come up with a quick but adequate response.

“This logo was created in the late 80’s by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) activists. It represented the need to resist the taboos that made the AIDS crisis possible.”

The kind barista replied, “Oh!” as I handed him too much of my monthly stipend in exchange for sweet, sweet caffeine. “But, why wear it now? It’s not the 80’s.”

I replied simply, “Are you sure?” And pointed vaguely towards a speaker as Madonna was playing in the coffee shop. But here’s what I should have said:

Globally, more than 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS, making it “one of the most destructive pandemics in history.” An estimated 36.7 million people are currently living with the virus. I am a JV AmeriCorps member at an HIV Day Center where I spend time with people who are HIV-positive, and they are fighting through silence and stigma each day. While medical treatment, prevention education, acceptance of the LGBTQ+ community, and HIV/AIDS services have improved since the 80’s, we have a lot of work left to do to create an HIV/AIDS-free world.

The SILENCE=DEATH logo is a reminder that when we don’t talk about HIV/AIDS as something that is presently detrimental to the lives of people in our communities and around the world, we are failing to live in solidarity with our neighbors. Sometimes, the word solidarity comes off as disingenuous or as a “buzz word.” Instead, solidarity is an invitation to lean into what seems most heartbreaking or difficult to face. It is easy to dismiss social problems as being too large to face. It is easy to forget about people outside of our circles or to judge them as having made poor or immoral life choices. It is hard to dig deep into the complexity, to unearth the truth that we are all fiercely resilient people with a capacity for joy amidst pain and that caring for people with HIV/AIDS means caring for humanity.

It is difficult not to notice this wisdom welling up in regular interactions at the Day Center. While we provide services like hot meals, showers, laundry, clothes, and wifi, perhaps the most important reason the Day Center exists is to be a space for building community and relationships. I have seen people be literal mutual shoulders to cry on; I have witnessed able-bodied clients carry their friends’ walkers up and down our basement stairs daily; and I have heard heart-wrenching stories over eggs and toast all too regularly. The Day Center staff works incredibly hard to create a space where people feel safe, and where they can find people who understand some of what they are facing each day.

Some clients have very few people in their lives with whom they can candidly talk about their experience being HIV+. Because of stigma, many people try to hide their HIV status from family and friends, and the Day Center might be the only place where they are able to talk about certain realities. As the Activities and Events Coordinator I am lucky to be able to facilitate some of the community-building at the Day Center through leading amateur group yoga, (mostly un)guided painting, driving a 12-passenger van through Portland traffic to go on field trips, and so much more. It is in these spaces, where I am coloring alongside a client or walking into the Sauvie Island Pumpkin Patch with 12 clients, that I get to hear life stories and experiences that tear down every harmful stereotype one might try to draw up about Day Center clients. That seems to be the solidarity I am learning as a JV AmeriCorps member. That it isn’t all about the service I am doing for HIV+ people. It is the slow process of us learning each other’s humanity and realizing that our joy is tied up in each other’s.

That might sound pretty lofty and spiritual. But in earnest, my experience of this community has been one of laughter and silliness and joy. This community consists of people who carry rich life experiences and stories of love, hope, and loss. This community cares for each other through cups of coffee, snarky jokes, games of pool, and listening ears.

This World AIDS Day, I will be munching on eggs and toast with my friends at the Day Center and grounding myself in gratitude for the joy they bring to my life. I invite you to do better than I did at the coffee shop—break the silence around HIV/AIDS in your own way, and to lean into discomfort and your own version of solidarity.

More statistics and information available at: https://www.worldaidsday.org/about

Providing Safe Space for Youth Experiencing Homelessness

JV AmeriCorps member Hannah Eby (Aloha, OR ’16-17) served with Community Action at the Hillsboro Family Shelter. In our latest AmeriCorps blog, Hannah reflects on her service year and her role in assisting children and teens experiencing homelessness.

The JVC Northwest AmeriCorps Program makes it possible for the Family Shelter in Hillsboro to have a Children’s Specialist, a role through which I helped make the shelter a safe space for children and teens to process their situation, get homework support, and have fun time to just be kids. There are a couple  stories that stick out in my mind which demonstrate the impact of this JV AmeriCorps placement.

Hannah created a sensory room for children as a Capacity Building Project

One three-year-old boy in particular showed signs of chronic stress and trauma upon his arrival to the shelter. Whenever staff would walk near his room, he would cry and ask if we were taking his room away. He didn’t know how to play with the other kids, avoided people, and became aggressive over even the smallest disturbance. Sometimes he would build houses and violently destroy them over and over, becoming very upset and clearly processing previous trauma. However, because the shelter had a Children’s Specialist, I was able to work with him specifically on processing his feelings and building safe relationships. Every day, we would start with a comforting routine, gradually introducing him to more interactive play with me and the other children during Toddler Time. Parent-Child Playtime was an opportunity for me to encourage new ways of bonding between him and his parents. By the end of his stay, the three-year-old was happier, knew how to control his aggressive behavior, and felt comfortable with staff and the other children. His parents often brought him back to visit me and other staff, and he was always very excited and happy to see us, demonstrating his growing ability to form healthy relationships.

Hannah (second from left) and her Aloha community mates

Another story that sticks with me is about a 17-year-old girl who loved music. She had grown up playing violin, but when she and her mom started living in a car, she was no longer able to play music. Over time, she forgot how to read music and therefore couldn’t join the orchestra at her school. However, when they moved into the shelter, I was able to set aside some time each day to play music with her and re-teach her how to read music. Not only did she improve enough to be able to join her school orchestra, but her confidence soared. Her mother, who also seemed to lack confidence and struggled with mental health issues, was inspired by her daughter’s improvement and asked to learn ukulele from me. I taught her ukulele, and she often told me that her half-hour ukulele sessions were the best part of her day and gave her something to look forward to. They worked together to learn a holiday song together on violin and ukulele, and this provided family bonding and pride. They eventually moved into housing and visited to say that they continued playing music and that it was an important part of their lives.

These are only two of countless stories that come to mind when reflecting over my AmeriCorps year. Without the JVC Northwest AmeriCorps Program, the Family Shelter would not have someone working specifically with the kids to provide for their needs and help them feel confident and connected to others. This JVC Northwest AmeriCorps role is absolutely vital for children and teens processing various traumatic experiences associated with homelessness.

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.

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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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.

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

AmeriCorps Week: Life as a JV AmeriCorps Member

This AmeriCorps Week, we’re highlighting JV AmeriCorps service throughout the Northwest. JV AmeriCorps member JP Ideker (Hood River, OR ’15-16) serves underprivileged students and their families throughout Hood River County, OR.

My service placement at Oregon State University (OSU) Extension Service has given me the opportunity to meet, learn from, and be with some incredible people. Through service with the SNAP-Ed program conducting healthy food demonstrations, I’ve gotten to meet community members at food banks, K-5th graders (who always make me smile) at elementary schools, and several professionals at nonprofits working to address food insecurity and promote healthy eating.

James (third from the right) and his Hood River community mates

JP (third from the right) and his Hood River community mates

Through service with the Juntos college and career-readiness program, I’ve gotten to learn from local Latino families and students about the obstacles that the Latino community faces in pursuing higher education and the history of the Latino population in Oregon. Through service with the ASPIRE high school mentoring program, I’ve gotten to be with Latino high school students as they navigate college, scholarship, and financial aid applications.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about my definition of service and how this year has helped shape my understanding of such a broad concept. I think meeting, learning from, and being with the people we “serve” are key elements of true service. By meeting people where they are, learning from their stories and experiences, and choosing to be with them, we begin to share our lives with others. It is this sharing of experiences that best reflects the word “convivir” (to live together) that so many Juntos families have used to describe their favorite parts of the Juntos program. The word “convivir” has become an integral part of my year with OSU Extension, the Columbia Gorge community, and the JVC Northwest AmeriCorps program.

JP Ideker Additional Photo

Natalia Fernandez and JP present at a workshop

It is difficult to choose a single great story that best describes the past seven months in Oregon, but there are many small, daily shared experiences that have been life-giving, peace-filled, and almost painfully soothing. These daily shared experiences take several forms, including cross-country skiing with our support families, waking up at 7:00 AM and finding a crockpot full of tamales my GED students left at our back door, helping a family fill out a FAFSA application for the first time, and having a high school student lend me their favorite book to read.

I am incredibly thankful to share this year with a new community and have them share it with me as well. From sitting down with families in their homes to hear stories about their immigration to Oregon and their traditions, sharing pozole and chicken tinga with Juntos families before the college workshops begin, and seeing elementary school kids’ eyes light up when they try the healthy food of the month, I’m left with daily reminders of the goodness around me.

I feel lucky to get to meet, learn from, and be with the Columbia Gorge community for another five months, and I look forward to all the lessons this year has to offer. Service as a Jesuit Volunteer AmeriCorps member so far has taught me a lot about the value of shared moments in that there’s a certain intangibility to the beauty in them – in daily handshakes, smiles, stories, new fruits and vegetables, and college workshops. I’m thankful for this intangibility, this community, and a shared life.