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.