Tuesday, January 24, 2012

One Time when it was Christmas we had Nothing to Eat...

Lauren brought home this letter written by a child about the Soup Kitchen. She found it in one of the office files from several years ago. By the format of the letter it sounds like it was a school assignment where students were asked to write about their best Christmas.  

One time when it was Christmas we had nothing to eat so my mom took my sister and I to this place kind of like a church where people were eating. While we were waiting my sister and I were looking at a book with songs in it then a guy came to the place and started to talk. He had a Rudolph with a blue nose. He said, "Why is Rudolph's nose red when it is cold at the North Pole?" then he asked all the people to blow on Rudolph's nose and it turned red. It was cool then we got our food. I had mashed potatoes with gravy I had turkey and fruit and some milk then we got in line to see Santa, while we were waiting we saw one of our old friends. When we went to see Santa he gave me a hug and I got a doll and a hat, gloves, and scarf. Then we went home but we had to walk and I could not breathe so when we got home I took some medicine that was the best Christmas I ever had.

Nearly Half Way through my Volunteer Year!

I swear a few days ago it was November 15 and I was frantically writing a novel wondering where all my time had gone. WELL... now it's the end of January and I'm halfway through my Lutheran Volunteer Corps year. It's a strange feeling especially now that I'm finally starting to really feel settled into the community and making friends my age!! I really enjoy my life in Port Huron and it's strange to think about what is next. Life has been very meaningful for me here, probably because I help empower young people through teaching and I LOVE that, which is why I'm hoping to start a career in education next year. Keep your fingers crossed, I've been very busy preparing applications and rehearsing interviews and in the next few months hopefully I will have some good news to share with you!

That being said, I'm not sure if I will be able to update my blog as much as I have in the past. I'm feeling a great urgency to make every moment of my time in Port Huron count, which means that list I made back in September that barely has anything crossed off needs to happen pronto! Here are some of the things on my list that still need to happen:

1. Take the train to Chicago and visit the LVC volunteers there!
2. Day trip to Niagara Falls (its only 4 hours away through Canada)
3. Go explore the night life in Sarina, Canada.
4. See/Drive over the Mackinaw Bridge to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
5. Explore Frankenmuth one of the largest German towns in the country. (only like an hour away)
6. Go to the Thomas Edison Museum here in Port Huron (yes Thomas Edison grew up here)
7. Go to Cedar Point (the LARGEST rollercoaster theme park in the country.. only like 4 hours away in Ohio)
8. Go to the Henry Ford Museum.. I feel like this should be mandatory since I'm living in Michigan.
9. Visit the Detroit Institute of Art
10. Go out in a boat on Lake Huron

Yeah there's a lot more I could add to the list, but those are the big things! It's crazy how fast this year is flying by. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Raising Youth's Awareness about Poverty

Last Wednesday I planned an awesome youth activity for youth group to get the youth thinking about poverty especially the poverty in their home area of Port Huron through the use of computer and video interaction!! Young people (myself included) have grown up in a world of computers and technology and I wanted to bring that into our youth group time to give it some pizzazz.  

After our brief discussion after watching a YouTube video on childhood poverty, I split the youth up in groups. Then I introduced them to a poverty simulation that was first introduced to me in my applied ethics class in college (playspent.org). I encourage you to give it a try if are not familiar with it already! Basically it's simulation where you are a single parent with $1000 in savings who has lost their job and house. You then have to make it through the month providing food, shelter, etc. for your family. Through the month the program then has random scenarios pop up where you are forced to make a choice like "your child is invited to a birthday party: do you send the kid with a $15 present, send your kid with no present, or tell your kid they can't go." 

This is where things really started getting interesting for the youth!! First of all, most of them do not have adult responsibilities like having a job or other people to care for so they had to adjust to making those decisions. For instance, one group made it to day 8 before they 'lost,' which basically means they spent all their money and used all their alternative money resources (like stealing from their kids piggy bank or donating plasma). You know things like health insurance sound like a good idea, but if you are not used to budgeting, you may not prioritize accordingly. Eventually they were able to figure out how to make it through the month, but they still had things like payday loans or having their car repossessed, which is to be expected given the simulation. 

Oh dear! Did personalities start coming out!!! Some youth have very strong opinions.(surprise surprise)

Person A: "WHO CARES our kid can't play sports!! We can't afford it!!!"

Person B: "But if our kid does sports then we can work more and it will keep them off the streets. Plus, it will keep them active."
Person A: "BUT we CANT AFFORD IT!!"

Person B: "You're right $50 is a lot.... can't we do something!?!"

Person A: Like WHAT?!?! There's no money.

Person B: I guess you are right...

Trust me it was fun overhearing the conversations as the tension in the room rose. However, the one major dividing issue for the youth was toilet paper.... TOILET PAPER!! Ironically enough it was the men in the group who were the most opinionated on this issue.

"We HAVE to have toilet paper," the men would insist.

"But if we don't get toilet paper, we can save $4 and that will help us buy chicken for the children. Besides aren't YOU a boy scout??"

"No no what does being a boy scout have anything to do with this!?! Feed them ramen noodles. We can survive off that. We NEED toilet paper."

Needless to say youth group was very interesting. I didn't have time to get to my "God" part of the lesson so we are doing that this week. We are going to tackle big questions that I don't have answers too. Questions like "Why does God let bad things happens?" and "why does poverty exist?" Yeah.. I don't really have answers for that, but I have lots of ideas! In any case, I find that when I don't know the answers to our youth topics it opens the discussion to be more like a dialogue where we all have things to contribute to the conversation.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Struggle that is Grocery Shopping

Nothing divides the Bina West Miller House quite like grocery shopping.

The otherwise ordinary and mundane task becomes a moment of tension between my housemates and I as we vary on ideas of what is necessary to get at the grocery store. Living off a small stipend and in intentional community obviously complicates shopping because we split the cost of the food we eat between the three of us. Jeremy, my housemate who loves food more than life itself, is also one of the cheapest people I know, and is quite proud of his 'resourcefulness' (aka a positive way to say extremely cheap). This is probably why he immensely enjoyed being a freegan in New York City last year and the idea of buying food just seems silly to him.

So anyway, here we are in our friendly local Kroger grocery store and Jeremy and I are in disagreement about the importance of buying shortening for baking.

Me (putting the shortening in the cart): "Ok here's the shortening for baking. I was planning on making homemade biscuits and a few pies maybe next week."

Jeremy (questioning the purchase): "what do you need shortening for?!?"

Me: "Well it's just an ingredient for things like pie crust or biscuits and sometimes for cookies I use half shortening and half butter."

Jeremy: "Ok well why do we need it??"

Me: "Because it is an ingredient for baked goods. Come on you can't make my Grandma Douglas's recipe for pie crust without shortening.. it doesn't work."

Jeremy: "Well can't you subsitute it for something cheaper?"

Me: "I mean I guess you could use butter... but butter is way more expensive."

Jeremy: "A tub of this stuff is $4.00!! I don't know if that's the best use of our money."

Me: "Seriously?!? It will be less than a $1.50 for each of us to get a tub that will last us at least the whole year and the extras we can leave for next years LVC volunteers. Plus this is the off brand stuff!! If this is really that big of a deal I will just personally buy the shortening."

Jeremy: "Oh Amanda, you don't need to do that."

Lauren comes up to the cart after grabbing some of her own personal items.

Me: "Hey Lauren do you have any issues with us buying shortening."

Lauren: "No.. you use that in baking, right?"

Me: "Yep, that is exactly right."

Woohoo the shortening is in the clear!! Now if only we could get past the discussion of which yogurt to buy individual yogurt cups or one large tub, to the discussion about which cheese to get for sandwiches, to the chunky vs. smooth peanut butter debate, to the buying meat at the deli or buying the packaged lunch meat to the discussion of "can we afford buying frozen pizzas that are on sale?" Choices. Choices. And trust me we all have our preferences.

I will say though that grocery shopping is really the only consistent thing where conflict happens in our house, which is also very easy to resolve. I really like that my housemates and I are committed to making intentional community work!!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Amanda and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Sometimes I have bad days. Today in particular was a Terrible, Horrible, NO good, Very Bad Day. I want to move to Australia and I'm sure if we had a cat it would choose to sleep in Lauren's room and not mine. At LEAST I didn't wake up with gum in my hair.

In case you didn't catch the references from above, I was referring to the children's book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Yep, today definitely qualifies for being awful. It all started when I got the school this afternoon. We have been short a few volunteers for the literacy program and when this happens it can take my otherwise chill and relaxed life turn into a living hell. Sometimes tutors do not show up and you have to troubleshoot really quickly to make alternative plans. Sometimes students are just 'not ready to learn' and you have to call their parent to come pick them up and baby sit them in the mean time. Sometimes the room gets too loud and makes tutoring difficult. Sometimes parents find you and demand that their child needs to leave NOW (which is usually just fine.. it's just the tone of voice that gets me). Sometimes volunteers will tell you everything that is wrong with the program that is out of your control. Yep, all of this happened today. I didn't get out of the school until 45 minutes after the students were picked up. Boo.

Sign-out Table for Parents with donated hats/mittens etc.
Truth be told there is just not enough space for us to work efficiently at the school. Its so frustrating because all year we have been trying to find/create more space with the help of the principal, but there is just not enough space in the school. There are other after school programs and every single classroom is being used. Also, we just do not have enough volunteer support right now for the amount of students we have (and plenty more on a wait list). At this point it is looking like we will have to cut students back to only one day a week instead of two. I think this will really be best for the program, but it still really upsets me. The need is so great it's really overwhelming. These students are already so far behind reading at grade level and they are only in first and second grade. The parents say they are seeing huge improvements with there students or at the very least a definite increase in their excitement about reading.  The students have been making progress too, but they still have many miles to go.

What also gets me is that most of the program's obstacles are problems created by adults. To me it seems if you sit back and approach the problems with the students needs in mind the answers to our problems are relatively simple. BUT it is not that way! You have to go to this person about this, or so-so is uncomfortable with that, or OH that's a new idea.. we have NEVER done anything that way before or my favorite: lets form a committee to solve this problem!! Frustrating.

So long story short I came home and pulled my covers over my head and indulged in self loathing for awhile. No not really, but that's what I felt like doing. In reality I went back to the church to set up my awesome lesson for the youth group tonight (and really it was awesome I'm quite proud of it)! Also, I had a really great conversation with my host Mom who understands the dynamics of this area and the great need. I'm very thankful for that! We are going to hang out sometime this week or early next week and I think that will be really good for me. But if all else fails, singing "Bennie and the Jets" with my roommates after work is always an excellent alternative.

Moral of the story, sometimes people have bad days and today I had one. But, tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it. And on that note, I think it is time for me to go to bed!        

Middle Schoolers. High Schoolers. Teenage Emotion.

The past two weeks I have been mentoring youth at different Christian youth events. The Gathering was for high schoolers and Youth Quake was for middle schoolers. Now this might not surprise you at at all, but there is a HUGE difference between high school and middle school students. Let me explain:

Middle schoolers are not independent. They just aren't. (I know newsflash, right!?)  So when I'm hanging out with middle school students they tend to latch on to me (metaphorically speaking). Everything I do is SO much cooler than their parents and it's always "Miss Amanda this... and Miss Amanda that." (For the record the high schoolers just call me Amanda.. so adjusting to the 'Miss' part was new for me.) Finally it got to the point where I had to tell them "Hey guys I know I'm really cool and I love hanging out with you, but you are going to have to put yourself out there and go make new friends because you can't always hang around me." (I would never have to tell this to my high schoolers. I'm not "cool enough" for them.)  

As my Mom told me: "Middle schoolers, they will love the fur off you" and yes they definitely did!

High schoolers, on the other hand, are exploring their independence and for the most part don't really want to have 'too much' to do with me, you know, because I'm really not THAT cool. So at events they disappear to go hang out with their friends and will occasionally check in with me, which I am completely fine with!! Yes, go be independent.. just don't do anything stupid.

Teenagers are also quite vocal whenever they think you have planned an activity or lesson they have deemed stupid. "WHY are we doing low ropes activities!?! This is not going to be any fun!!! Don't you know I HATE low ropes." Then of course they pout and are determined to NOT have ANY fun.. even when things actually start being fun... don't worry it is still NOT fun even though they begin smiling and laughing. Oh but it gets better, once they realize that indeed it IS fun, they will still resent you because they actually DID have fun with your otherwise "stupid" activity.  OH working with teenagers is such a joy.

But my favorite part about teenagers in general is how they haven't quite figured out how to use their emotions effectively. Everything is either AMAZING AND WONDERFUL AND SO GREAT or OMG THE WORLD IS ENDING. There never seems to be a middle ground. I love how teenagers have very real and 'raw' emotion so to say where they have this amazing ability to open up and be extremely vulnerable with me and the group. You just don't see that in a lot of adult circles. Ironically this is why I really enjoy working with them, so I can help them build their emotional awareness. I'm not exactly sure how I do it, but somehow I am able to widen their perspective in a way where they do not feel threatened. It sounds strange to say it, but I really think I may have some pretty cool talents in that area and I'm hoping to develop it more. The only downfall right now is I don't really know what developing that skill looks like or even means at this point.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Great Need For Our Literacy Progam

Today was my first day of the new year seeing my first and second graders at the literacy program I coordinate through Lutheran Volunteer Corps called Read for Life! After spending a lot of time with teenagers I was definitely ready to spend some time around some seven and eight year olds. 

My first day back in the office last week, I was bombarded with phone calls of volunteers who were dropping the program for various reasons (family/health/other issues). Honestly I was getting pretty discouraged about it by. the fifth call when I realized one eighth of our tutoring power will not be returning this semester. It felt like we took several steps backwards when we were SO close to having every student tutored one on one. Trust me, having one on one literacy tutoring makes the biggest difference in the world!

I do my best to communicate with the tutors how important and appreciated their work is for the literacy program. For the most part they know this, but sometimes it is really difficult to explain the great need and urgency of our program. Most of the volunteers do not live in this area and they don't always grasp the dynamics that surround this area. For instance, sixty percent of the household incomes in the area around the school are below $25,000. My neighborhood and the school community consist of 10% owner occupied housing and 90% rentals. Not only this, the students at the school in 2010 scored at the 10% reading level for third grade.

On a more personal level, students in our program have asked me for more food for their siblings back home, some tell me they don't have toilet paper at home, and some families have to make the choice of choosing whether to buy the needed medications for their kids or food. It is really tough to know information like this about some of your students and not feel a great urgency to help out as much as possible. But of course one has to pick their battles, I cannot solve all the world's problems. So I've poured my talents into the literacy program to do everything I can with the program for these students. It is very hard when there are so many obstacles that we run up against, but it is a battle worth fighting.

Despite all my frustrations, going back today was very affirming for the work I'm doing. I know almost all 40 students by name and they were very happy to see all of us tutors. I even received a few hugs! Also, several parents expressed great thanks for the work we are doing. They are already seeing improvements in their children's reading abilities and are making it a priority to keep their student in the program (shuffling jobs and schedules, or asking family members to pick up their kid).

It is important that I remember this when I am in the office. As one of my good friends from college says when she's frustrated with boring paperwork for the camp office she works at, "I'm doing this today for these specific kids" (and runs through the lives of children she has impacted at camp).

I am doing this to serve the children in the Port Huron area who deserve to have the best education possible.       

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Sex Talk with Middle Schoolers

So..... I did not intentionally walk into this conversation.... it just happened!!

As you may know currently I am at Quake, a weekend youth event for middle schoolers, chaperoning 2 girls with a parent. Part of the Quake experience is to register for 3 seminars called "treks" where the kids pick out their seminars. The first trek my girls signed up for was called "guys, girls, and other stuff." Of course, naive me is thinking "oh this will be great, maybe a little dating talk, maybe some talk about friends and cliques, peer pressure etc." WRONG. This ended up being a full blown hour long sex Ed seminar where it's like "if you have sex, you will get pregnant, and DIE" (ok really not that extreme but you get the idea of what it's like for middle schoolers).

So we are sitting there and my middle schoolers eyes are getting BIGGER and BIGGER and I'm like "oh God, there are going to be so many questions.... How am I going to handle this!?!? College definitely did NOT prepare me for the middle school sex talk."

Afterward I ask the youth what they thought of the trek and of course they said it was really awkward. I was like "yes. yes it IS difficult to talk about sex sometimes. How about we discuss it over lunch with the main speaker of the event who I previously invited to join us...." Fortunately, the speaker, Tiffany, is SUPER down to earth and makes everyone feel at ease with her presence. So she was able to put a very positive spin and emphasis on the whole "talk." I also think it was easier too because we are all girls and Tiffany had very good insights. It was nice to have that womanly community for such discussions.

In any case, the whole thing was really a good push for me to stretch my comfort zone a little bit. I've been feeling the need to have a serious sex talk with my high schoolers, but I've been putting it off for obvious uncomfortable reasons. You know since I have infinite knowledge about such topics... THAT'S A JOKE PEOPLE... Yeah right, sex is scary! I just hope parents are talking to their kids about it. The worst would be for some parent to come up to me and be like "WHAT are you telling my teenager!?!?" Ummm what I'm hoping you are at least talking to them about..... Yeah. That could be awkward!

I'm thinking the week before valentine's day would be a good time to have this discussion with the youth. I'll keep you posted on how it turns out!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Youth Quake

I'm in Lansing again for another youth event!! But this time it's in a different hotel with a different age group of youth. Yep that's right I'm chilling with the middle schoolers and it's wonderfully filled with all that middle school awkwardness I remember. This time, however, I'm with two middle school girls and a parent. So basically this is a cake walk compared to Gathering last week.

Although I love my high schoolers, middle schoolers are so much easier! Sure they are significantly less mature, but they listen to me when I talk and follow directions. They make life mostly pretty easy! (maybe it's because I only have 2 girls with me... If the numbers went up I'm sure it would be much different). But.... I will say the high schoolers have a lot more fun probably largely because they have a lot more energy and stay up WAY later. Ha my middle schoolers were pretty much asleep by the end of campfire at 10:30. The high schoolers would still be going strong until 1:30 am. Again I have to say the middle schoolers are SO easy.

Anyway, we are looking forward to a fun filled day tomorrow!! Here's a picture of the campfire portion of tonight!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Back in the Office

Wednesday was my first day back to work at the church where my office is located! I took the first half of the week off since I was very busy with the youth last week at Gathering and have to balance out my hours. Technically I get a full week off, so I'm hoping to use my other free days off to go adventure in Chicago with one of my college friends. We will see! I have never been to Chicago.

In any case, I forgot how much I really enjoy working at the church since I've been out of the office for a while. On most days it is usually just me, the secretary, and the pastor, but really anyone can stop by at any time. For instance, the craft ladies stop by (and they love to show off their crafts), families with younger kids, the custodians, or the retired seniors. Almost always when people come to the church though they will stop by my office to at least say a brief hello or tell me about a new project or idea. I really enjoy that aspect of my work where I get to see a variety of people and that they care enough to ask me about home. It's nice.

Otherwise, the office is always filled with humor, which makes it a fun place to be! Sometimes I find strange things hilarious. For instance, we all like to banter back and forth across the hall without leaving our offices (sometimes), which is fine. But every now and then I'll take a mental step back for the setting and be like.. wow.. here we all are in our offices talking loudly across the hall to the other person and hearing each others conversations all the time. I find it extremely funny, especially because sometimes I throw in random one liners between the secretary and pastor. It is very amusing.  Of course, these banters are usually about which hymns should be in the bulletin this Sunday or what's happening with all the poinsettias that are still in the church etc.

I really enjoy my office environment!

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Good Things are Happening in Michigan

I really believe that the meaning of life can be reduced down to one simple word: Love

I have been reading a great book by bell hooks (the name is intentionally not capitalized) called all about love. Bell hooks makes a great statement about how we live in a world where there are schools for just about everything from masturbation to every dimension of sexuality "yet schools for love do not exist." 

In many cases families are the original school of love (and in some cases institutions like religions), but what happens when these families and structures are dysfunctional or broken? Where do we learn the art of loving then?

Now usually I would continue from this point making large philosophical generalizations about the world etc. However, I think for today I'll skip all the rhetorical circular arguments and just reflect on my experience at the Michigan Gathering, which was a steady and faithful reminder of love, since I do not have answers to the above questions for today.

The banner hanging at the Michigan Gathering.
The theme this year for the 4 day youth event was Revolution and I spent many hours in discussion with youth and adults about what it means to revolt and more importantly, what it means to revolt with love. Now I'm not going to answer "what it means to revolt with love" because I do not have the answers and honestly the discussion was left open for all to interpret. I challenge you what does it mean to revolt with love? 

"So many of us long for love but lack the courage to take risks." -bell hooks

But, what I do know is that this revolution of love is bringing good things to Michigan. By the third day of the event youth were revolting with love and compassion in big ways! 

For instance, one teenager shared her story and struggle with being an illegal immigrant from South America and her family was going to be relocated back there in a few days. They had few options that scared her; they could go back to their native country where they would most certainly be killed or they could run and hid and forgo much needed medical treatment. By the end of the story the youth at the conference organized THEMSELVES and made over a hundred phone calls to the Feds in Washington DC. Guess what, later that evening they called back, saying they got the message loud and clear and her family will not be relocated. The revolution of love had spread to Washington.. it was one those moments that more than warms your heart-  it makes it explode with compassion. You should have felt the energy of love in the room when they announced this to the over 600 people there. LOVE AS ACTION.

In addition to this, one of the housebuilding service projects a group noticed how the family was in great need of a new stove (their previous one was broken and they couldn't eat any hot meals). This was brought to the Gathering at large's attention and they collected over a $2,000 offering from mostly HIGH SCHOOLERS. Our young people are spreading the revolution! LOVE AS ACTION. 

At a more local level, my group had the AMAZING opportunity to eat dinner with the speaker, Pastor Reggie Hansome who asked the youth in what ways they were going to spread the Revolution. The answers ranged from starting up and leading the youth choir at their church, to being an advocate for those who have survived child abuse, to sharing love and compassion with those at school, to helping a new friend they met at Gathering who just found out her best friend committed suicide. There's some pretty heavy stuff out there that our young people are ready to tackle and want to tackle.

The Youth Group with the Pastor Reggie, the speaker at Gathering!
 This past week has been such a huge reminder of love for me on so many levels! I am so grateful I have the opportunity to be part of the youth's lives. They are so inspirational in so many ways. I really do not think I could be the same after such an amazing experience.  



Sunday, January 1, 2012

Kids' Food Basket Service Project at the Michigan Gathering

The group who made food bags at Gathering.
Part of the four day adventure of the youth centered Michigan Gathering is to participate in a service project. Our group was assigned to a project called Kids' Food Basket which is a nonprofit located in Grand Rapids, Michigan focusing on childhood hunger. One in every four children in the Grand Rapids area lives in a food insecure home and does not know where their next meal will be. Our job at the Michigan Gathering was to mix trail mix to be placed in their sack meals that are distributed after school to 31 schools.

I personally was delighted that this was our service project because childhood hunger is also very relevant to the Port Huron area. It was the perfect opportunity for me to share with the youth how I have been experiencing childhood hunger in our area with the literacy program. It opened the door for them to ask questions while simultaneously realize that WOW this happens everywhere.... even in their own schools.

In addition to this, I started talking with one of the other youth ministers in the Blue Water Cluster (St. Clair County's Lutheran Youth Group) and we decided that for our February Cluster event we are going to make more bags for the students at my school to be distributed to students who need them. She has the resources to get the food (not to mention the soup kitchen) and I have an "in" with the school. I really like working with her... we are both activators like that and get things started!!    

At the Gathering alone we were able to make over 8,000 bags of trail mix, which is about 2,000 more than they thought we would accomplish! Although this was a really neat accomplishment, reality set in when the supervisor told us that this food supply would last for one and a half days. The demand for sack dinners is that large!