Thursday, January 4, 2018

A Seat at The Table

Our first blog post of 2018 comes from  Dominican Volunteer Stephanie Zavala! Stephanie serves at The Siena House, a homeless shelter for young mothers and their children in the Bronx New York. The names of Stephanie's clients have been omitted to protect their privacy.

I have started writing this blog about three times and there really is no way to tell you all about the incredible amount of joy and healing that the women from Siena House bring to me and to a shelter that is often heavy with loss, suffering, and grief. When I moved to our OLA community in The Bronx, all I kept hearing was that it was the children that made work worth it. But I could not stop wondering about the women I’d meet. I sat in the community room and expressed to one of our sisters that I was scared that the women would not like me, let alone want to build a relationship with me. Yes, I look like them, I share the culture, I use similar slang, and have some parallel experiences to theirs. But how could I—someone who carries the privilege of having a family, a home to run back to, and a higher education degree ever imagine that I could offer anything to the women of Siena? One of our sisters stopped me and said “You don’t have to worry about them liking you. Just think about being a role model for them,” as if it was me who was to teach them life lessons.  

Fast forward 4 months and the friendships I have formed with the women are what keep me going every day of my volunteer year. I sit with them at lunch and "S", who, mind you, slammed the door in my face one of the first weeks I was at Siena, makes me laugh until my stomach hurts. She has one of the kindest hearts and her humor is my absolute favorite. Maria is such a high maintenance princess, “Stephanie, can you watch "D" while I get her food. Can you pleeeease get me some water? Can you pleeeease carry "D" up to the third floor for me? I am so tired” but she has become one of my dearest friends. "C"’s little one, "M", has energy like no other —I reached my 10,000 steps in a BREEZE running around after her in the hospital waiting rooms. "L" comes to say “Hi” to us every single day even when she’s busy and I can tell she will remain in my life even after I leave. And right before I came home, "P" asked me to volunteer for a 2nd year…

I have never been so impressed by the power of relationship as I am when I think about my times with the women at Siena. Even seeing the ways in which these women support one another by laughing, sharing food, and taking care of each other’s children despite the daily frustrations they face in this shelter is powerful. These women have life experiences that I will never know first-hand, and to pretend like I know what is best for them or think they should see me as a role model would be one of the most condescending things I can do as a volunteer. I am an undocumented immigrant who has succeeded, and society loves to glorify stories like mine setting me as an example to follow. But when they look at women like the residents of Siena House, they feel pity or pass judgment about their history. Had I walked into Siena with this mentality, I wouldn’t share moments of laughter with the women the way I currently do.
Yes, their babies are absolutely wonderful, but we need to start believing that Black and Brown women in these circumstances are also capable of giving joy. We need to shift the narrative.

(Fellow Dominican Volunteer) Niki Klco and I work very intentionally to form respectful and genuine relationships. We are honest about our limitations to help, we practice active listening, and we honor the women’s struggles understanding how survival tactics manifest themselves in a world that marginalizes poor, Black and Brown women. Sure, maybe I did not have to worry about being liked but I did have to be a friendly and consistent presence in order to gain the trust of the residents. I learned their names as opposed to calling them by their room number, I learned their children’s names, made myself available, and shared lunch time with them as much as possible (they could not believe a staff member could ever eat with them). It was these actions that built the foundation for the friendships we share now thus resulting in the women loving Niki and I.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

The Start of Something Great

Dominican Volunteer Henry Moller serves as a teacher at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Atlanta Georgia .
For the 2017-2018 volunteer year, I am living in the Penn community in Atlanta, Ga and working at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit High School. While there has been an adjustment period to living in community, especially as the only volunteer, I have felt welcomed from the beginning. Besides staying in touch with DVs across the country, sharing meals, prayers, stories, struggles, and humor with the community all help to keep life in perspective and provide support during challenging times. Our community is very focused on social justice issues, particularly immigration reform. I try live this out daily in my ministry work at Cristo Rey Atlanta Jesuit.

                Cristo Rey Jesuit is one of many Cristo Rey model schools across the country that is designed to serve students of limited financial means to gain access to a top tier, college prep, Catholic education rooted in developing the whole individual and preparing them for life and to break the cycle of economic uncertainty. The model of the school is unique in that students attend class 4 days a week from 7:30-4:00 and one day a week they are stationed at a corporate sponsor learning about how the professional world works, developing skills, and contributing to their placement site. In return these corporations assist with the tuition for these students, many of whom would be unable to afford a private education otherwise. The corporate partners range from small nonprofits, to law firms, to multinational corporations such as Coca Cola and Turner Sports. In fact, during the “Draft Day”, an over the top celebration held in the Hilton Ball room complete with streamers, balloons, music, cheerleaders, etc. students are placed with a corporation. This year, Ernie Johnson, one of the better known NBA broadcasters and an employee of Turner Sports, gave a speech and personally welcomed each Cristo Rey student that was placed with Turner Sports. One could not help but be filled with enthusiasm and joy as the students proceeded to the main stage to meet their sponsors, receive company “swag”, and celebrate the beginning of a fantastic opportunity. I found myself wishing I was a Cristo Rey student as their college resumes, aside from being academically successful, would reflect 4 years of professional experience.

I should mention that this was the first year Cristo Rey Jesuit inhabited their new building in the heart of Midtown, Atlanta. Donors and sponsors contributed upwards of $30 million to renovate a vacant building which had been donated (and valued at around $5 million) by a real estate developer. In fact, the last task of the final exams from the previous year was to turn in the exam and carry one’s desk to the moving van. It was truly a community effort and this sense of pride shows when one visits the school. The seniors this year will be the first group from Cristo Rey Atlanta to graduate in the Spring. Many are already receiving acceptance letters from colleges and scholarship offers. For many students they will be the first in their family to have a change to attend college and it is my goal, as well as every other Cristo Rey employee, from the President to the night security guard, to make sure these students have the tools to succeed when they attend college. The school is majority, minority in its makeup. It is roughly 65% Latino, 25% African American and 10% other. For a good portion of the Latino students, they are first generation Americans. During student teacher conferences students translated between the teachers and parents. In addition, almost all students at Cristo Rey come from families with limited economic means. The average family, which can range from 1 child to multiple children, earns around $30,000 annually. This means almost all families are forced to live in distant towns as real estate in Atlanta is very expensive. Almost all students take public transportation to school. Many of the students work secondary jobs after school or on weekends. Others are the primary care giver for younger siblings. Several of the students in my classes leave for school at 4 a.m., do not get home until 9 p.m., and must watch siblings until their parents get off work sometimes past midnight. They do all this and still manage to do homework and study. The sheer will power and dedication these students show leaves me in awe every day. It has created a burning passion inside me to fight for social justice so that these students, and their parents (some of whom may or may not be undocumented) can live in peace and simply pursue their honest goal of raising a family, contributing to society, and enriching our country’s culture. One take away from this year I will always hold on to is my desire to fight for the dignity, humanity, and equality of all people regardless of ethnicity, immigration status, socioeconomic status, or religious beliefs. 2 years ago, I would simply brush these issues aside as something that is not my problem. Now I realize not only is it a problem for me personally, but it is a moral responsibility to act and break through ignorance, regardless of any uncomfortableness or opposition.

So now that I’ve explained what Cristo Rey has done for me, what do I provide to Cristo Rey as a Dominican Volunteer? My background is in History and Secondary Education, so the natural fit would be to teach Social Studies, but I was told my first day that flexibility is a mandatory quality at Cristo Rey. After weeks of shuffling between classes I now teach sections of Human Geography, a section of Biology, a metacognition workshop, and 2 writing labs. I also advise seniors through the college application process and coach basketball. Needless to say, I have been extremely busy, and the work can be exhausting but I leave every day fulfilled with at least one positive mental note I carry home with me. I think the workload is manageable for me because of the structure and atmosphere at Cristo Rey. When I did my student teaching last year in a large suburban public school I had to follow a formulaic curriculum focusing on the end of year state test, and many of the students did not care to be there and there was little support from parents. There was also little that could be done in the way of discipline. In fact, I almost declined the Dominican Volunteers position because I was nearly convinced teaching just was not for me. Cristo Rey has rekindled my fire for connecting with students in their formative years and guiding them to be men and women for and with others as best I can. I am still not sure if classroom teaching is my vocation, but I can honestly say I go to work with a sense of possibility and optimism each day. Part of this is the freedom to teach in the style I have developed that is natural for me. While I hold my students to a high standard and cover necessary material to prepare them for college, it is not uncommon for me to start my class with a 10-minute meditation reflection, journal time, or other mindfulness activities. Some days I’ll play music with a positive message while we work on projects. Other days I will throw out a controversial, off topic question to spark debate and help develop critical thinking and public speaking skills. My best days at Cristo Rey so far were before Thanksgiving break when I had students answer a series of optional questions about their hopes, dreams, challenges, goals, inspirations, and gratitude. The trust the students showed in sharing truly personal, sometimes extremely painful and disturbing experiences made me feel like I had truly formed a bond with my students, and created a bond between fellow students. One reflection/poem a student who had experienced extreme hardships in life wrote brought many students to tears and moved me deeply. He had the courage to stand up and read the following:

 “I’m stronger because I have to be, I’m smarter because of my mistakes, I’m happier because of the sadness I’ve known, and now wiser because I have learned”

For a fourteen-year-old freshman, who learned English as a second language and still struggles at times with language, to have such profound thoughts and a perspective many full-grown adults never achieve inspires me to continue to work for my students every day. With his permission I have laminated the poem and it will be displayed in my office to serve as a reminder of how special these students are to me.

I have a lot of growing to do as a teacher and mentor of young adults. I am learning day by day, making mistakes, and trying to improve just a bit every day by embracing as many opportunities as I can. I have truly forced myself out of my comfort zone and it has paid great dividends in my professional, personal, and spiritual life. Before becoming a Dominican Volunteer, I was what one may consider a “Creaster” Catholic (Christmas and Easter). While my faith journey is far from complete I have at least embraced the challenge of putting in the work and dedicating time to really explore my spirituality. While I am not big on reading scripture or various theological writings, I have come to know God through my experiences with people and the good works I see being done daily. That is more than I could say a couple years ago.

I started this post off with the title “The Start of Something Great”. I believe that title applies both to myself and to Cristo Rey Jesuit High School. The school is still very young, and I am very new to the profession. Who knows what the future brings but I have a sense of peace and optimism that great things are in store for Cristo Rey, myself, and Dominican Volunteers USA.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Finding Home Away From Home

Dominican Volunteer Elizabeth Drake serves as a Refugee Employment Specialist At Catholic Charities Chicago.

If you asked me where I thought I would be right now this time last year, I am not sure what I would have said. However, I am 98% certain I would not have said living in Chicago, Illinois working at Catholic Charities-Chicago helping refugees and asylees find jobs. Nevertheless, here I am more or less adjusted to life in “The Windy City” (aside from the weather, which I’m not sure I will ever get used to). 

 People always say, “home is not a place, it’s a feeling”, and prior to this year I would have agreed-hands down, no questions asked. Up until this year, I have lived in exactly two places-my childhood home in Northern Virginia and my college town in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Both places I think of as home. I moved to Chicago eager to experience city life, and full of hope for the year ahead. I have always been interested in other cultures, and I love learning new languages, so I was particularly excited to be spending my days working with people from all over the world. Hearing their stories and learning about their customs and cultures. The first three weeks of work were my training period, which consisted of going with my supervisor or coworker to job interviews or client’s homes talking with them about their employment goals. It was great. I got to speak Arabic with many of our Syrian, Iraqi, and Sudanese clients. 

Then about a month and a half in, homesickness hit me. The allure of riding the train 1.5 hours to and from work disappeared, and the unpredictable political climate made work stressful.  However, day by day as I began to manage my own case load, I realized that my clients and I have some commonalities. The most obvious being that we are all now in Chicago and are trying to figure out how to make this city home. As I walk with my clients through the complicated process of navigating employment in Chicago, I am constantly inspired by their strength and resilience. 

Two clients in particular come to mind:

NA*, was a tailor in Aleppo, Syria. He and his family fled in the middle of the night when their city was under siege. They lived in Jordan for several years and finally came to Chicago this past spring. NA  first worked at a factory that packages halal snack foods as a dishwasher and janitor. When I met NA in September he told me that he wished to become a tailor because sewing is his passion. After several weeks of phone calls I found a tailoring job in a factory, and despite NA’s limited English, the factory manager decided to give him a chance. I have never seen someone so happy behind a sewing machine, and I am glad he was able to continue doing what he loves. 

Another client, T*, was a classically trained ballet dancer in Russia. He and his husband left Russia and emigrated to the United States by way of the Dominican Republic. When they got to the U.S. they turned themselves in to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials at the border. They proceeded to spend 8 months in jail while waiting for their asylum hearing. They were granted asylum in May. When I first met T in early September, he had been going to English classes for 4 months. He was not very confident in his English capabilities, but he told me that he hoped to work at a hotel after he finished English classes. Two weeks after he finished English classes he got a job at one of the hotels on the “Magnificent Mile”. One of the most memorable things that T has ever said to me is “You have a good job because you help people like me and God sees that and smiles down on you”. “I hope to someday do the work that you are doing”.

It’s the little things like watching NA use a sewing machine, or hearing words of encouragement from T that truly make this job so great and remind me that no matter where you are, you can feel at home. I am so thankful to have had this opportunity to be a Dominican Volunteer, and I cannot wait to see what is in store for the rest of the year.

*Name was abbreviated to protect anonymity