Developing Compassion and Dismantling Stereotypes

In our latest AmeriCorps blog, JV AmeriCorps member Elizabeth Quinones (Gresham, OR ’17-18) shares how developing compassion and dismantling stereotypes are key parts of her service assisting clients experiencing homelessness and providing high school and college students experiential learning opportunities at JOIN. Read more about Elizabeth’s experience below.

As I unlocked the door to JOIN’s Dayspace at 10:00 am after a cold and rainy night, a rush of clients power-walked in to seek warmth, sign up to be first on the shower list, and grab a cup of coffee after a cold night of sleeping outside. I welcomed new clients and said my usual “what’s up” to our regulars, but this morning one interaction struck me.

“Hey man, what’s up? It’s good to see ya!” I said. His face lit up. “Well hey, it’s good to be seen.” I just stood there. My heart sank a little bit, and I gave a forced smile as I tried to process what he meant.

I began thinking about some of my favorite interactions with clients during my service year. When I was having a heart-to-heart with a client who suddenly hugged me so hard she lifted me off the ground and started spinning me around the Dayspace in bliss (I’ll admit, I totally let down my boundaries, but it felt right). When I got to jam out to *NSYNC with a client during cleanup hour as we happily danced while mopping and sweeping. How jokingly reading daily horoscopes with one client is our way of bonding and engaging in discussion. These are usually interactions similar to those I’d have with my friends from home.

In my JV AmeriCorps position as Immersion Coordinator at JOIN, my role is twofold. This unique position not only gives me the ability and autonomy to get to know folks experiencing homelessness, but also gives me the opportunity to share their beauty and strength with high school and college students through experiential learning opportunities. JOIN supports folks experiencing homelessness in countless ways, from street outreach and housing services to providing basic services in our Dayspace like showers, mail, computers, snacks, etc. The interconnected nature of my position allows me to spend half my time in our Dayspace building relationships with folks and assisting in providing basic services. The other half is spent facilitating immersions for high school and college groups by educating them about homelessness and poverty through conversations and relationships.

At JOIN, we believe the best way to learn about homelessness is to ask the people experiencing it. This is exactly why 25 years ago JOIN was founded initially to provide experiential learning “immersions” for students to learn about homelessness through conversation, relationship building, and service. Immersions can last from a school day to an entire week and are rooted in the values of solidarity and simple living.

Immersions require students to have courage to confront their own personal stereotypes and fears by directly interacting with folks experiencing homelessness. It’s easy to watch videos or read articles about this issue, but it’s hard to actually meet people living outside, hear their stories, and not question your prior judgements. Hearing about how someone has a college degree but tragically got into a messy health situation or how someone first became homeless while still employed makes you think.

Sometimes the most important takeaway from immersion experiences is developing compassion and dismantling our own stereotypes. Realizing that folks who live outside are people who have truly fallen on hard times. They are people. People with stories and interests just like you. People who never would have thought they’d end up in this position. People who show overwhelming resilience and love even when they feel invisible in society. They are not bums, addicts, or criminals. They are people first.

Seven months into my JV AmeriCorps experience. I realized my impact goes beyond the day-to-day handing out socks, serving food, checking mail, or leading immersion experiences. I am at JOIN to remind our folks that they should be and are allowed to be treated like people again – no matter how many others in our community put their heads down and choose to pretend they don’t exist while walking around downtown Portland.

It doesn’t matter what someone did five years ago or even five minutes before he/she walks into JOIN. JOIN is a place for second chances, being met where you are in life, and about “being seen” and acknowledged for who you are.

Preserving Life Lessons and Memories of Loved Ones

In our latest AmeriCorps blog, JV AmeriCorps member Sheryl Cherian (Aloha, OR ’17-18) shares her experience interviewing hospice patients to capture the memories and lessons of their lives through her capacity building project called On Living. Read more about Sheryl’s experience below.

Six months ago, I moved from my hometown of Chicago, IL to the Pacific Northwest to begin a year of service through the JVC Northwest AmeriCorps Program, my first full-time position after graduating from the University of Notre Dame last May. With the help of gut instincts and a strong support system, I committed to spending one year serving as the Immigrant Community Outreach Coordinator/Hospice Volunteer at Care Partners Hospice & Palliative Care, a community-based nonprofit located in Hillsboro, Oregon. I was to reside with four other Jesuit Volunteers (JVs), learning together how to live out the program’s core values: community, social & ecological justice, spirituality/reflection and simple living. I will admit that although I had recited my post-graduate plans dozens of times since committing, I had little conception of what my new, long-winded title really meant—nor any idea just how much this year of hospice service would bring me life.

As a Hospice Volunteer at Care Partners, I have the gift of spending many of my days learning from the special wisdom of those close to death. When I am not engaged in immigrant community outreach, I spend my weeks driving around the Portland area providing companionship and respite care for my caseload of 5-6 patients, as well as their caregivers and families. During these visits, my patients often smile through my mediocre ukulele playing, and we often simply sit and enjoy each other’s company while their caregivers take a much needed break.  I have sat with people four times my age who radiate more life than anyone I know, who contain multitudes of stories and deep complexity, and who so clearly still have the need to be heard, to be seen, and to be loved. In watching and working with families, I have noticed that while nothing can prevent grief, there is healing in the acceptance that your loved one lived until the very end. There is comfort in realizing that if she or he met the process with acceptance, maybe you could, too.

JV AmeriCorps member Sheryl (right) with her Supervisor Jennifer

Inspiration from these hospice volunteering experiences and the National Public Radio StoryCorps podcast led to the idea for my first capacity building project, a story-collection initiative called “On Living.” Essentially, I facilitate audio interviews between any of our patients and their loved ones who are interested, including those to whom I am assigned as a Hospice Volunteer. The process involves family members/friends gathering in a circle with the patient, speaking into a high-quality podcasting microphone, and having a conversation based on their questions and curiosities about the patient’s life, memories, lessons and any other topic they have chosen together. The product is a beautiful conversation, and I edit the recordings for fluidity and transfer them onto a CD. The recordings allow families to preserve the stories, in their loved one’s own voice, for generations. If the participants choose, their “On Living” story can also be published anonymously on the Care Partners website and social media pages.

Since the project’s inception, I have worked with families to adapt the general framework to their needs. For instance, one family desired weekly recording sessions. In another example, the eleven-year-old daughter of a very young patient who died on our service wanted to record her own memories of her dad. I have also translated the information sheet for our families who prefer to speak Spanish. In these ways, “On Living” has become a broad launching point for intimate conversations about love and loss, and because every patient is different, every story looks different, too. Also, because Care Partners is a community-based non-profit hospice, our goal is to capture the abundance and diversity of these stories, and to be able to provide something meaningful for families and friends to hold even after the loss of their loved one. I have been humbled by the healing powers of voice, of story-telling, and of gathering in what is assuredly one of the most difficult times for these families. “On Living” is just one way we can help create the space for this kind of sharing, which happens anyway, as my hospice volunteering experience has made clear.

In the second half of the year, I am focusing on the sustainability of the project after  my service year concludes. I will be implementing training guides for the next JV AmeriCorps member and Care Partners’ large cohort of hospice volunteers, for whom I am organizing a half-day training in the spring. Recently, a generous donation from one participant family has also helped support the expansion of the project.

JV AmeriCorps member Sheryl (far right) with her Aloha community mates

Overall, my observations thus far have taught me that death is as sacred as birth; that end-of-life work involves the family as well as the patient; that hospice is about living well in the days remaining more than dying itself; and that in this healthcare field, compassion and socio-emotional support blend with medical, nursing, and social work practice in profound ways, including ways which help the patient feel like a person again. Most of all, my time in hospice has reminded me that we are all human beings—we exist with limits, but we can live with abundance, no matter our circumstances and the time we have left. In some ways, awareness of the proximity of death seems to invite more meaning-making in life. I hope that “On Living” can be a part of this natural process for many more patients and community members to come.

I am grateful for the opportunity to engage with such meaningful work at my young age, and I recognize that the lessons I am learning here in hospice will only be reiterated as I myself grow, age and, eventually, die, hopefully with abundance of love and support I have now witnessed surrounding many of my patients.

AmeriCorps Week: Addressing Food Security at Wallace Medical Concern

Through JV AmeriCorps member Peter Fink’s (’17-18 Gresham, OR) experience serving as Community Health Specialist, he has learned that food insecurity greatly affects his patients’ health and well-being. Wanting to better understand and respond to this issue, Peter focused a recent project on designing and implementing a workflow to more efficiently track and address food insecurity for patients at Wallace Medical Concern. Read his story below.

As an American Studies and PreMed major in college, I have always been interested in the intersection between society and health; clearly, the social and physical environments we construct have profound impacts on our health and well-being. Toward the end of my senior year of college, I decided to apply for a deferral for medical school in order to get more “boots on the ground” experience in healthcare and learn more about these social and physical environments before I hit the books. I wanted to gain a better understanding of our complicated insurance system, improve my competency in Spanish, and get experience interacting with the many social determinants of health. This led me to apply for the JV AmeriCorps Community Health Specialist position at the Wallace Medical Concern, a federally-qualified health center in one of Eastern Portland’s poorest neighborhoods.

Peter Fink Wallace Medical Concern

JV AmeriCorps member Peter Fink and his Co-Worker Suzana

My time serving at Wallace Medical Concern has certainly highlighted for me that promoting health extends far outside the doctor’s office. Specifically, one of the most basic factors in people’s day-to-day health is simply having enough healthy food to eat. Food insecurity has wide ranging impacts on patients’ overall well-being, causing problems like malnourishment, chronic diseases like hypertension and diabetes, job insecurity, and behavioral health issues. In Oregon, 1 in 7 of our neighbors is food insecure; that is, you are more likely to meet someone who is food insecure than you are likely to meet someone who is left-handed. Right from the beginning of my service here, I knew I wanted to make a contribution toward addressing food security in our patient population, as I felt it was a feasible way to address more complicated issues we see more “upstream” from the problems themselves.

Thanks to great support from my Gresham community mates and  supervisor, I was able to do a lot of research on how other clinics have most successfully tracked and addressed food security for their patients. Using advice from online resources, the Oregon Food Bank, and other local clinics, I helped create a workflow that involves different types of employees in our clinic and is both feasible to implement and effective in practice.

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Peter and his Gresham JV community

Essentially, whereas before we entered the names of food-insecure patients into an Excel spreadsheet to cold-call, we now have our medical providers enter this information directly into our electronic medical records and do a warm hand-off referral to me directly after the patient’s medical visit to discuss food resources. I can then use the geographic information system I made using free online software to identify which food pantry in the area is the closest, best option for the patient to access. In addition, I can also refer them to contacts we have at other agencies to apply for SNAP benefits and discuss how to cook and prepare more nutritious meals.

Though it’s easy for me, as an inexperienced 23 year old, to get daunted by grand ideals like “promoting for human dignity,” I have come to see that starting with the basics– in this case, simply addressing the very basic need for food as a prerequisite for a flourishing and dignified life— can lead to encouraging results and deep fulfillment.  Although this new food tracking workflow is nothing grandiose, I am excited about its prospects for helping patients both economically and physically, and promoting dignity on a most fundamental and practical level.

MLK Day of Service 2018

On January 15, 2018, people across the country engaged in service to their communities to commemorate the 2018 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service, our JV AmeriCorps members included! Below are just a few snapshots of our JV AmeriCorps members’ service activities on MLK Day of Service 2018.

Juneau JVs served up sandwiches and smiles at The Glory Hole shelter and care center

Alaska – JV AmeriCorps members in Juneau served at the Glory Hole shelter and care center where they handed out sandwiches in the soup kitchen. Our Bethel JV AmeriCorps members sorted, organized, and transported donations to Tundra Women’s Coalition’s new thrift shop location. In Anchorage, members participated in a range of activities within the community: members provided fire safety education and installed smoke detectors in a mobile home park, helped at the food pantry at Brother Francis Shelter, and organized donations and provided education in the RAIS (Refugee Assistance & Immigration Services) welcome center.

The wonder women of Hood River relax after an MLK Day spent cleaning and reorganizing the St. Francis House youth center in Odell

Oregon – The Gresham JV AmeriCorps community volunteered with SOLVE, where they cleared invasive blackberries, picked up trash along the campus, and posted signage. The Hood River members had a full day of volunteering: they spent the day cleaning and reorganizing at the St. Francis House youth center in Odell. In the evening, the group participated in an MLK Jr. celebration (which several JV members in their community helped plan) which included guest speakers, discussion groups, and a community potluck open to all. A few Portland JV AmeriCorps members served at the Albina Coop Garden where they prepared beds by mulching, weeding, raking, and laying bags on top of soil. While volunteering at the garden, they met other AmeriCorps members and volunteers throughout the Portland area!

Portland JVs Cat Weiss, Rachel Francis, Heidy Rivera, & Sara McLean volunteer at the Albina Coop Gardening and Farming Day

Idaho – In the Boise community, JV AmeriCorps members participated in a wide array of activities. Siobhan O’Carroll prepared materials and tabled with the Women’s & Children’s Alliance at the MLK Day Social Services fair. The rest of the Boise community participated in MLK Day at the Boise Capital Building, making t-shirts at Boise State University, participating in a rally, listening to speakers honoring MLK, and participating in a social services fair.

Washington – A few JV AmeriCorps members in Grays Harbor picked up trash at Stewart Memorial Park. In Omak, members helped out at the Paschal Sherman Indian School Dorm where they participated in outdoor activities with 15 dorm students including sledding, building snowmen, and hiking. Spokane Lavan members volunteered at House of Charity serving meals to patrons and organizing the resource room. Spokane Romero JV AmeriCorps members served at the MLK Jr. Family Outreach Center sorting donations for the Point-in-Time Count/Everybody Counts Campaign.

Seattle JV Connor Beck serving at at InterIm Community Development Association

Montana – JV AmeriCorps members in Ashland, Billings, and St. Xavier served at their placement agencies. Members in Missoula volunteered at the Poverello Center, read stories about Martin Luther King Jr. to elementary school children, participated in a drawing activity about a vision for a better world, and took part in a community dinner.

Thank you to all who participated in MLK Day of Service 2018!

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.