Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Beginning Adventures in NYC

Brooklyn Library.
Whew. Ever since I arrived here in NYC it has been a non-stop adventure full of numerous new experiences!! I have been running all around the city and am rarely in my apartment except to eat (sometimes), sleep, or talk on the phone. I essentially have about 2 weeks to be a 'tourist' before my program kicks into full swing. Don't let this deceive you though, I have plenty to keep me busy with my upcoming certification exams to pass, pre-training exercises, and a full text book to read before the program starts. Joy. Today I locked myself in the Brooklyn Library with 10+ hours of studying. I haven't done that since I was an undergrad!

On to more interesting things.. I thought I'd list a few of my first impressions of New York City.

1. New York City is dirty. Don't let people tell you otherwise. It really is a very dirty place. I know the movies like to make it look all glamorous.. but really it's just one big dirty city. 

Big Dirty City. At a Subway Station.

These ALMOST came home with me.
2. New Yorkers LOVE their fashion. This is probably not a surprise to anyone familiar with NYC. It has so many designers, stores, and in general good looking well dressed people. I sense that I will become a much more fashionable person just because I will be living here. In fact when I was walking around Manhattan in a t-shirt and jeans I felt incredibly stupid because I was so out of place. It's not the New York way and nobody but tourists dress that way ESPECIALLY in Manhattan. So I made a mental note of that and bought 2 dresses to compromise. I have a feeling I will be wearing a lot of skirts and dresses this summer. :)

Also a source of amusement were some of the advertisements on the subway. I thought I'd share them with you:

NYC: Where people accept your beliefs, but judge your shoes. 

New Yorkers don't think they're better than everyone else. They just dress like they do.

I found this highly amusing probably because this really isn't that far off the truth! 
You'd think you are in San Francisco, but you're in Bay Ridge!

3. New Yorkers and the diversity in accents. Ok so this was actually a very NEW experience for me. On the subway Elise and I would talk and I got the sense that people were looking at me and I couldn't figure out why. (did I look funny? Was it obvious I'm new... what was it!?!) Well finally someone came up to me and said, "Excuse me, if you don't mind me asking, where is your accent from? I haven't heard it before." Uhhhh..... West coast.. Washington State. "OH yeah we don't get many people from there around here."  

On the flip side, however, there are SO MANY accents that I have never heard before! I tried out a church in Bay Ridge Sunday and the pastor had such a thick Brooklyn accent I had a hard time taking him seriously. I  know that sounds awful, but my only previous experience of a Brooklyn accent was from the movie The Untouchables where Al Capone has a thick Brooklyn accent (he was born and raised here). I mean there's just something extremely odd about hearing a pastor say "the WORD of God" in a really heavy Brooklyn accent. It was a lovely service though and I made a friend/acquaintance who is also looking for a new church. Ironically she said she knew I was new because of my accent and that drew her toward me since she was also a visitor. Which brings the following question to mind: do I to try and blend in with the dialect around here or not?!?

Anyway since life has been off to lightening speed and there is SO much to blog about and realizing that I cannot blog about ALL of it I thought I'd pose the question to my readers, What would you like to hear about my NYC experiences so far? 

I really do have TONS of stories about all of it so I'll list off some of the things I've been up to the past few days: Coney Island, Shopping in Manhattan (SoHo), Little Italy, Chinatown, subway rides (in general), Bay Ridge Neighborhood/church experience, Prospect Park Farmer's Market, Nation's Oldest Memorial Day Parade, delicious Food Trucks, Union Square (the Barnes and Noble has FOUR stories!!), my immediate neighborhood, off-broadway play Potted Potter/Times Square, and downtown Brooklyn.

Leave a comment and I'll see what I can write up on my next study break!!

Friday, May 25, 2012

It's my Birthday!

I'm turning 23 today! Hurray!

That's me as a baby! Look at  that blonde hair...
I love my birthday. I always have! It's always right around Memorial Day weekend when a lot of change and festivities happen and I like that. For instance, in my hometown the whole town goes out to the park for concerts which is then followed by the moonlight parade that I marched in for 7 years with the band. Some of my BEST memories of high school were involved with that parade with some of my favorite people. :)

It's also the time of year when you start to transition and has become a sort of theme for my birthday. It's the time when you start saying good-bye to the graduating seniors (or you graduate yourself). It's the time when the weather starts to change from chilly spring to a bearable light not-too-hot yet summer (my favorite weather). It's the time when there's just a lot of change with endless possibilities. Why would moving to Brooklyn at this time be any different?

Tonight I'm going to my first play in Manhattan called Potted Potter, a 70 minute Harry Potter parody where they take you through all 7 books. I'm SUPER excited 1. because Harry Potter is Awesome, 2. it is in Manhattan, 3. its my birthday! My Mom bought the tickets for Elise and I as a present. :)

After the play we are going to eat out somewhere (I'm still deciding where) before we finish the night possibly meeting up with some other NYC fellows! It should be fun! I want to eat somewhere super authentic... right now I'm leaning more towards Mediterranean or Thai food. We will see!

Thursday, May 24, 2012

I made it to Brooklyn!

Standing in line to get on the bus to NYC from Detroit there was a moment when I realized that once I get on the bus my life will never be the same again... EVER. Everything became suddenly TOO real and it really really scared me... everything was happening too fast. I wanted yell "STOP RUSHING ME" and then sit on the ground with a blanket over my head so they wouldn't see me cry. But I didn't. I hadn't felt this uncomfortable since I left Washington state to go to school in Minnesota where I literally didn't know a soul... but even then my parents helped move me. At the bus station it was just me, my housemates, and John and Dolly (they are cooks at the soup kitchen who took us volunteers in like family) waiting for the change. My parents were thousand of miles away in Washington. I didn't know anyone on the bus and I only know 3 people in New York City. EVERYTHING was going to be different.

Yeah I travel with Sponge-Bob.. pretty much I'm super cool.

Just when I was on the verge of having a major freak out session they pulled me in circle of hugs and said 'it was going to be alright.' I don't know how long we all stood there like that, it probably wasn't long, but I hung on to every second of it and because of them I knew I could do it.

Whew... 14 hours later and (only 2 of which I slept) I arrived at Port Authority in Manhattan at 8am. Getting off the bus I was greeted at the dirty garbage filled station by my new roommate and fellow chemistry fellow, Elise. We made our way to the subway during peak hour with hundreds of face paced New Yorkers invading the space. Forty exhausting minutes later we arrived at our station in Brooklyn and made our way to our new home and apartment in a residential black/Caribbean neighborhood. 

View from my room.
Exhausted as ever there were still errands that needed to be run, so we made our way to the Department of Education to be fingerprinted (which was stressful) and then of course Target to pick up some things (got to support Minnesota companies, dontcha know). By the time Elise and I were able to grab a bite to eat for lunch I finally felt like I could start relaxing and enjoyed a FABULOUS Cuban sandwich made with all the love this wonderful Brooklyn sandwich maker had for his(?) shop. "This my dear is for you," he said handing me the plate. "Don't forget to come back, Amanda, we are here 7am-9pm." (he had read my name from my credit card). I liked that and it made me smile. I like it when people make that extra effort.

The rest of the day phased in and out as I became antiquated with my neighborhood and new room. It has been a LONG past 2 days filled with good-byes and new beginnings. I am glad to have made it and even more glad to start the new beginnings, beginning with my birthday tomorrow.

I'm slowly taking it all in listening to the sounds of the city. The trains that go by rattling the buildings at their foundations, the car alarm that will not stop, the horns from persistent trucks, the wailing sirens, the distant reggae music playing from a nearby apartment, they are sounds of the city. The city that I will now start calling home. Isn't that beautiful?

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Down to the River to Pray

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way!

I took a final stroll alone along the boardwalk of the St. Clair River and marveled at the ice cold crystal blue water that makes this area beautiful. I wanted to think and say good-bye in prayer. I scrolled through the songs on my ipod, inserted my headphones, and pushed the repeat button with my finger.

O sisters let's go down
Let's go down, come on down

 I thought about my biological sister who is my favorite person in the world. I thought about how lucky she was to get to see the soup kitchen and how uncomfortable it made it her (in a good way).

O sisters let's go down
Down in the river to pray

 I thought about all my sorority sisters who were a large influence for why I am here serving today. I thought about our ritual and our values of Wisdom, Power, Faith, Hope, and Love. I remembered how they sent me off into the world and remembered how my sisters who are now graduating seniors just went through that same ceremony. I smiled connecting to them miles away.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the robe & crown?
Good Lord show me the way

I thought about how I've been a student most my life and how I will be next year too. I thought about the changes that will take place and how I will have a classroom full of students. Then I thought about how I've been a different kind of student this year learning about that good ol' way.

O brothers let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
Come on brothers, let's go down
Down in the river to pray

I thought about the twin brothers in my literacy program this year. I thought about the older brother who would pick up his younger brother and how I never saw the parents. I thought about my kiddos who would ask for food to take home to share with their siblings. Or the students who would automatically save food for their younger siblings without even thinking twice.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way

I don't really like talking/blogging about my faith. I like to think my way of sharing my faith is by serving because it makes faith more real for me. I'm like my Grandma in that way I think. Servant has become a new way I think of myself.

O fathers let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O fathers let's go down
Down in the river to pray

I thought about the single fathers of the children I've met and how they love their role as Dads. I thought about the loyal and loving father who cares about his son SO much and rearranged his whole schedule to pick up his son after school because the mother was in jail again. I thought about the father who had a heart to heart talk of discipline with his son after his son was sent home because 'he was not ready to learn today.'

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the robe and crown?
Good Lord show me the way

I thought about the people who are not with us today. Joe my friend and favorite soup kitchen client, Joan Potter my friend and 2nd grade reading tutor, Jake Jahn a high school senior, and my Grandpa Gilbert. Their lives have changed me. Let their souls rest in peace.

O mothers let's go down
Come on down, don't you wanna go down?
Come on mothers, let's go down
Down in the river to pray

I thought about all the different types of mothers: birth mothers, single mothers, mothers who have lost a child,  adopted mothers, those who we call mother, those who wish they were not mothers. I thought about Sarah and Abraham and how Sarah laughed at the news.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the starry crown?
Good Lord show me the way

 I thought of all the places I have been and where I have lived. Moses Lake, Saint Peter, and Port Huron. I wondered why I was here and why I existed. I wondered why we think location matters anyway.
O sinners, let's go down
Let's go down, come on down
O sinners, let's go down
Down in the river to pray

I thought about myself and I thought about you. How we are all sinners needing to go down to the river and pray. The client at the soup kitchen, the neighbors across the street, the people nearby and the people far away. Come down to the river to pray.

As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good ol' way
And who shall wear the robe and crown?
Good Lord show me the way

I will be in New York City tomorrow. 
Good Lord show me the way.  

Alison Krauss "Down in the River to Pray." Listen to it on youTube here.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Top Growing Moments of my LVC Year

When I think back on my LVC year one word comes to mind: Growth. As I told my housemates, when you enter college you change over a 4 year process and a lot of growth happens in that time. Well this year I feel like I had the same amount of growth as I did in college, but it all happened in one year instead of four. The amount of growing I did is EXPONENTIAL. Really. This year has stretched me in ways I would have never imagined and has 'rewired' a lot of the ways I think about things. So. much. Growing. I probably have stretch marks. 

Here is a list of some of my biggest growing moments:
6. Completing my first rough draft to my novel

When you live simply and only work 40 hours a week you find yourself with a LOT of free time. We do not have cable at my house and we only get internet in one room (because its free that way!). Pretty much my housemates and I spent a lot of time staring at each others faces... or sitting out on our front porch, which is just as good as tv if not better. Anyway, in November Lauren, the literature major, convinced me that we should do the National Novel Writing Month Challenge. This means write a 50,000 word novel in a month's time. So I did it averaging about 2,000 words a day since I started a few days late. I really enjoyed this challenge and I was surprised I actually had a lot to write about. Don't get me wrong a lot of what I wrote is crap, BUT it got me writing and leaves a nice skeleton of a structure for me to play and toy with. At the very least I think it catches the essence of my generation and maybe someday when I retire I'll come back to it. 

5. LVC Retreats 

I loved LVC retreats!!! There is just something special about being around a group of young people who are social justice focused. Plus, they are pretty cool people if I do say so myself. Even though I don't see the Chicago/Milwaukee volunteers often they have changed my life for sure. Isn't it funny how in so short of a time someone can change your life? Some of my favorite LVC memories took place at retreat.. like taking over the country karaoke bar in the middle of nowhere Newaygo, Michigan. ALWAYS a good time.

4. NYC Trip with Jeremy

If it was not for my housemate Jeremy, I would not have interviewed in New York and I would not have ended up getting the position. I applied to New York City Teaching Fellows on a whim right on the deadline date. My rational was "all I know is I want to be a teacher and the deadline for this is today so I'm just going to fill out the application and see what happens." When I got the interview I was floored! I never had truly considered moving to NYC before because it didn't seem realistic to me. Then.. I became really scared thinking of interviewing in NYC and how I was going to get there etc etc. I had never been to NYC before and was really close to turning down the interview. That's when Jeremy stopped me and said "Amanda you can do this. I'll road trip out their with you, we'll split the cost, I have a few connections we could stay with, I'll show you the subway... lets do this."  And we did.  

3. Taking the Youth to the Gathering 

The Gathering is a 4 day event for 600+ high school youth in Michigan where they have worship, service, small groups discussion, and fun activities. This was a big growing moment for me that really terrified me at first. I'm pretty sure I didn't sleep the night before the Gathering because I ran over every single possible bad scenario that could happen to the youth at this event. Being the Youth Pastor I was the main chaperone with only one other adult leader (who was still in college) and was the youngest leader there by probably 5+ years. That was a lot of responsibility for me and it intimidated me at first. Looking back on it now, it wasn't nearly as big of a deal as I made it out to be and seems really silly now. Now if someone were to tell me I would be the main chaperone at a big event like that I'd be like "sign me up!! This is going to be a BLAST!" We had so much fun and  it definitely reaffirmed me that I could handle the responsibilities that come with teaching.

2. Read for Life Program 

This was definitely the most challenging part emotionally of my LVC year. There are things I saw or things that children told me that you should not be part of a child's life and this is the reality some of my students live in. Poverty is very real in America and I always knew that but I never experienced it first hand before.. and it's just really really tough. The hard part for me was knowing that I can only do so much to help these kids. I can't solve all their problems, I can't change the circumstances in their lives, but I could give them the gift of literacy and organize a program that does this exceedingly well. So that's where I put my energy and I'm really proud of that. It has been a joy to work with this program.   

1. My Blog

Life is nothing but a story and stories are meant to be shared. This blog has allowed me to find my 'voice' in a medium that I am comfortable using. If it wasn't for my LVC year and countless hours of staring at the wall bored and missing my family I probably would not have started blogging. My blog allows me to share my story with others both with its sorrows and joys. It makes me feel closer to humankind and I like to think that my story can be inspiring/useful to others too.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Will I blog after I move to NYC?

Many people have been asking me if I'm going to keep blogging in New York City. The quick answer is yes. 

I LOVE blogging, it's my favorite hobby. However, I am not sure how often I will be able to blog being a part time student and full time teacher.... and still have a life (which is VERY important). SO my blog will undergo a bit of construction as I get settled in NYC. I'm hoping to post at least once a week on a specific day (to be decided later) and then any additional posts not on that day will be like sprinkles on the cake. Depending on how things work out for me, I might use my subway commute time to draft posts on my phone then format them later, but we will see. I'm still trying to decide the best way to 'maximize' my subway commute time.. writing blog posts, listening to audio books, or reading news/blogs on my google reader. In any case, it won't be wasted time that's for sure. 

I think through the summer I'll have a little bit more time and plus since everything will be so 'new' I'll want to blog a lot more! I'll keep you posted. 


Friday, May 18, 2012

SWAT Team Returns

So... I don't usually write about the more traumatic experiences I've had this year (mostly to keep the folks back home from worrying) but since I leave in less than a week and we recently had another visit by the SWAT team I thought there wasn't much harm in sharing this event with you all. 

Recently, we had another HUGE drug bust in the lot next to my house one evening. My housemates and I where actually playing Clue completely unaware that it happened despite the event being well within sight of our house. From what we were told the next day, apparently the SWAT team swooped in quietly (and out of nowhere) and did a MAJOR drug intervention, busting a few of the local dealers. Honestly though this sort of thing doesn't even jar me anymore, its just like 'oh there was another drug bust in the area, what else is new'... but the fact that this was the 2nd drug bust of  the year BY THE SWAT TEAM on my BLOCK was a little dis-concerning. I mean sure, maybe if these two events happened 5 blocks apart that wouldn't be so bad, but the fact they were both on different locations on the same stretch of road with my house in the middle is definitely interesting. Welcome to the south end of Port Huron. Needless to say there's a reason why I skim the Port Huron news headlines everyday.

For those of you who are not familiar with the first SWAT team intervention it happened sometime around the second week I got here. In fact, it is one of the more classic stories of my LVC experience. Basically this event was a meth lab on wheels in the form of a van! I mean, I give them points for creativity.. why not turn a van into a meth lab? It might make it more difficult for the cops to find you, and you can offer a delivery option to your costumers! Brilliant! (I'm not sure if that's actually what they used it for, but in my mind that makes turning a van into a meth lab more legitimate.) In any case, the SWAT team caught up with them on my block. In fact, the WHOLE block was closed down for 3 days not allowing any cars through with huge caution signs. Then there was me the next few mornings walking by being like "hello, please don't notice me. I have nothing to do with this and I'm just going to work."

There's A LOT of drugs in this area and someone somewhere is making a lot of money off it. Really when you think about it most of the crime in this area is drug related too. I have not heard of any of the major crimes that weren't drug related. SO basically if you are not involved with the drug community you are not going to get shot/stabbed/murdered etc. So.. that's good news for me I guess since I'm not involved with that. But, if anything were to happen to me on the streets I think the street people would intervene since I know a lot of them and see them almost everyday on my way to work or at the soup kitchen. It's kind of funny how that dynamic works, you help feed people and then when you see them around town you feel safe because you know them. They aren't going to let something happen to someone who feeds them.. and actually on the same note, I think if I were to ever see any of them in trouble on the street I'd help them out too. (maybe just calling 911 or letting the director of the soup kitchen know so she can notify the appropriate people, but I think I'd still do something.)

Needless to say, when people ask me if I'm afraid to go to New York City, I say.. "no.. not really." I know it will be different and you definitely have to be careful there, but I think this year has helped me tremendously with my 'street smarts.'

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Beautiful Youth I work with

"I'm going to miss looking out the window with you." -H.L.

 This quote was written on my good-bye card by one of the youth I've mentored this past year. Since my blog is called "A Window of Life" I thought it was very fitting to share it with all of you here. The origin of her comment actually goes back to the Michigan Gathering, a 4-day state wide high school youth event, where I noticed her incredibly upset as she stared out the hotel window. Me, noticing this and wanting to comfort her, I went up to her awkwardly and asked her what she was doing. She said "I'm just staring out the window." To which I very awkwardly replied... "I.... like staring out windows.... too." Then I realized how incredibly awkward that statement was and she looked at me with the expression of really, you just said that? so I started laughing and she started laughing too. Ever since then it has been a sort of joke between us.

The group being goofy.. like always. I LOVE this picture. 
 Wednesday was my last day being the youth pastor of these wonderful youth. I decided my last day with them was going to be a birthday/good-bye party since my birthday is next week. Plus, birthdays are significantly more fun to celebrate anyway. The highlight of the evening was DEFINITELY the hello kitty and sponge-bob party hats. Oh and by the way... if you can't tell from the pictures.. we are in the nursery since we've out grown our youth room. (but really when you think about it, the nursery figuratively is one of the best places for teenagers ha ha ha!)

Although good-byes are always difficult, I thought this transition went rather smooth. There was too much to laugh about and really it's hard to be too serious with party hats like these. I intentionally tried to make it that way though.. I knew if it got too serious we'd all be bawling our little eyes out. When I originally told them I was leaving early they all teared up.. I would not have seen that one coming 10 months ago when I started this job!!! They were real terds in the beginning (and they know it)!! But here we are months later and every single one of them showed up to say good-bye, which I was tickled pink by! Usually we only have about 11 plus or minus a few but yesterday all 15 of them showed up! That makes me happy. I love them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Reflections with Lindsey

Since I have only a week left in Port Huron things have started switching from panic mode (aka how am I going to get everything that needs to be done, done) into a careless meh-lifes-going-to-happen-so-I'm-going-to-stop-worrying-about-it mode. I admit I like the later one much better, it's significantly less stressful and allows me to think I have enough time to say good-bye to everyone. Plus, it probably helped that last night our Regional Coordinator for LVC, Lindsey, drove up from Detroit to lead us in reflection about the transition that is taking place.

Originally in LVC we would have an end-of-the-year retreat ala choose-and-plan-your-own-adventure retreat. Since I'm leaving the program 2 months early this has thrown a wrench into the whole system and it's causing Jeremy, Lauren, and I to do our end-of-the-year retreat early. Since we are unable to do a weekend long retreat like we would have wanted, we've spread it over a few nights starting with yesterday.

The night started off with a ton of laughter over pizza going over the quotes we've had this year, things that are funny now that weren't back in the fall, and overall just general loving banter. The highlight of our fun took place when Lindsey led us in an activity that required us to draw/color our LVC journey. I'm much more random with my thoughts than the others as there is no rhyme or order to my picture, but I thought I'd share it with all of you.

It captures the best (and worst) moments of mostly my house's dynamics, but to some extent my work and others I've met along the way. I drew Lauren in the blue dress, Jeremy in the green shirt, and myself in the red dress. Every picture has a story, but ones of particular interest are some of the thing's I've already blogged about like the enchilada fiasco, or the first time the SWAT team busted a drug bust on our block. OH my the stories... I'm hoping to add more pictures through the next week as I think of more things too.

Then after our fun shinanigans Lindsey took us on a field trip to (drum roll please) the Blue Water Bridge to Canada!!! Unfortunately we did not go to Canada, but instead sat on the rocks by the river right where it flows into Lake Huron. I mean really you could not find a more symbolic spot to sit and talk about transition. There was the St. Clair River flowing into Lake Huron, the train tracks, the Blue Water Bridge to Canada, the change in sky colors that comes with twilight...  I mean really, if you looked up the perfect place to sit and talk about transition in the dictionary it would show you a picture of where we sat.

From there we started talking about how we've transitioned in the past both in helpful and unhelpful ways. We talked about things that we want to take with us when we leave Port Huron and things that we will choose to leave behind. We talked about friendship and what it's like living in intentional community and how next year no one is really going to 'get' what this year and all it's crazy stories have meant to us. It was sad and it was thoughtful. We heard the train whistle in the distance.

We were then invited to write on stones some of the things we want to leave behind and throw them into the river. This was actually a little harder for me because as I thought about it I realized a lot of the things I wanted to leave behind are not necessarily things from Port Huron or my experiences here. They are things from college or before that I had never really let go of and this year had been a year for me to take those things and re frame them outside of the structure I had always known. It felt good to recognize that I had finally started to let go of those things.

I realized something really important in that moment  that I had never really thought of before.. you go to college to grow and expand your mind.... and you do service work to grow and expand your heart. That's what really this year has been all about for me. I had all the book knowledge, but little experience using the muscles of the heart and I wanted to develop that. You know what? Doing service work changes you, just like college changes you. I know that's not the most novel of ideas and I'm sure I have heard it before, but I've never experienced it to the extent that I have this year. I'm thankful for that. I'm thankful for all of it. I am going to miss Port Huron.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

Last Day of Read for Life

Whew, last week was the wrap up for the literacy program that I have coordinated for the year. When I started this year I had no idea what the literacy program would come to mean to me and the community or really what would evolve from it. It has been such a joy to work with all the tutors and the school. As a group there has been 1,303 volunteer hours served by 48 different tutors at various points through the year. We started off the year with 43 students and had 35 students stick it out till the end of the year. (A lot of families are on the move around here so it's hard to retain students in general.)

On our last day I took some time to just look around at the program to observe and reflect over the year. This may have been a bad idea..... as I looked around I realized how much of a difference this program has made in the lives of all those involved and I had to hold back tears thinking about it.

I saw excited kids happily eating their ice-cream and pizza playing sight word bingo with their loyal and faithful tutors who have nurtured their growth over the past 8 months. Students asked their tutors if they will see them again next year. Parents told me Monday and Wednesdays were their child's favorite day for school because of this program, "they want to skip every other day, but not the days they have Read for Life!" I saw children giving hugs as they departed and tears on a few of their faces mixed in with smiles. I witnessed growth in the children's literacy skills and simultaneously their self-confidence. Tutors shared stories of their students growth and the funny things along the way. I saw the compassion and of the tutors for these students. A student exclaimed "this is the best day for Read for Life EVER!!"

I observed the certificate ceremony in the 2nd grade room, where one of the tutors invited her police officer husband and friend to come visit the group. The students got to ask them questions about being an officer and the officers stressed the importance of making good choices and to keep up with school and reading. Then they each received their certificate and a hand shake from the officer and a Magic Tree House chapter book to take home. "Someday, I want to be a police officer," one of the students shared.

I realized that some of the most challenging students were actually the students who cared the most about the literacy program even though I would have sworn they didn't care about it all. I received hugs from students and when I asked them what is that for they simply said, "I will miss you," and I will miss them too. 

I thought about all the heartbreaking stories I've heard from the lips of some of the students, parents, or tutors and then I thought about how knowing them has changed me. I will miss them all and I'm sure I will think of them often since in a lot of ways they are like my first classroom. It's hard to let them go out into the world, where I wont be able to check in with them to make sure they are safe and growing academically and otherwise. But I will be sending up many more prayers for them because at the very least I can do that.

Taking all these things in my heart, at the end of the day with the empty ice-cream bowls and pizza boxes thrown away,  I turned the light off to the art room for the final time. 

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Beginning of Good-bye

It's going to be a big next two weeks for me before I ship off to New York City. Things are slowly coming together but SO much needs to happen between now and then starting with saying goodbye to all my kiddos. This is the last week for Read for Life and as you can imagine I have been frantically tying all the ends together both for our end of the year party and thanking volunteers. Whew it has been a whirlwind, but it will all pass soon.. maybe too soon.

Thank You Card Making Extravaganza!
Today I realized that the students in Read for Life are extremely sad to have Read for Life end for the year. I thought this was rather strange because I figured they'd be excited for the end of the school year party and proud of their accomplishments. However, then I realized that a large majority of them are not excited to return an hour earlier back to the cold, hard, reality of their daily lives. When I realized this it just made me so sad.... they crave that individual attention the tutors are able to give them so much. Read for Life has been so much fun (and work) for them. A lot of the students have already asked their tutors if they will see them again next year. It's so heartbreaking to hear some of the student's stories, but on the flip side it makes me so glad that programs like this exist. I will miss them all a lot (and yes that includes the most challenging kids that make you want to pull your hair out at the end of the day.)

In any case, many big things are coming up for me including then first of my teacher certification tests among other farewell events and getting everything squared away for New York City. I'm not sure how much I will be able to blog in the next 2 weeks, but I hope to keep posting semi-often. There are so many great wonderful things happening it would be a shame not to find time to blog about them!

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Bean Ministry

Fun Fact about Michigan: it is the bean capital of the world! At least that is what Michiganders tell me so they might be a little bias. Whether or not this is true, they do grow a LOT of beans here (no not green beans), but good hearty protein beans. One of the members of LVC's Local Support Committee in Michigan, Peggy, is very involved with hunger and she helps distribute beans to food insecure families through Lutheran churches in Southeast Michigan. She's a diaconal minister which means instead of being a minister of a church and their congregation she does service in ministries at the intersection of church and world (so doing things like distributing beans to the hungry). I particularly love this sort of ministry at the intersection of the church and the world and it would be the only tempting reason for me to go to seminary.

Needless to say Peggy's very involved with LVC, Read for Life, the church (especially rural ministries because that was her focus in seminary), and also part of her job is to also help churches transition when a pastor retires. In addition, she also distributes beans across Michigan as combating hunger is one of her main passions. She's always talking about these bean distribution sessions so finally I decided I would join to see what all the talk is about. 

Hopping in the car with her and 300 lbs. of beans we drove down to Detroit to greet a congregation that would distribute the beans to their community. We arrived at a smaller but GORGEOUS church. They had beautiful stain glass windows and a large lovely garden growing in the back. The women of the church were particularly proud of their garden, with good reason! We then unloaded the bags of beans and set up the stations. Then we all sat down to listen to a nutritional session about why beans are so important and to mix them with a grain to get a full protein. They also discussed how to cook the beans and provided different easy recipes. Then we washed our hands and got to work bagging up beans into 2lb bags!!!!

Bag of mixed beans.

50 lb. bags of beans.
 The beans are completely funded by the national ELCA Lutheran church body out of Chicago. As Peggy was explaining to me there are these grants they set up that you apply for stating your mission etc and she was awarded this bean grant to do be able to do this. Then Peggy, who knows basically everyone (really you can't walk somewhere in Port Huron with her NOT stopping to talk to someone), was able to talk the price down for the beans to only 15-18 cents per pound for the beans. You can get A LOT of beans for this price especially in Michigan. In fact this grant money has provided 240,000 meals. In addition to just supplying the beans, Peggy also teaches people the importance of nutrition and how to make food stretch, which is SO important for food insecure homes. (She has about a million degrees.. one of them is in nutrition.. another in child development.. she's just very knowledgeable!) 

Bagging Black Beans with their recipes.

The church decided that they were going to distribute the beans 3 ways; one for a non-profit group, one for another community group, and then one for their own church (and people who stop by or families in need). The church was SO incredibly thankful for the beans! They saw the beans as a critical way to help families and to reach out to the community to help bring people into the church. As you may or may not know the unemployment rate in Detroit is in the low 40%  (high 30% for Port Huron) so there is a LOT of need. It was such a pleasure to work alongside  these ladies (it was all women who participated in bagging the beans). They really do care a lot about their community and I think if I lived near them I would probably regularly attend their church. It is uncommon to walk into a church and instantly feel part of the community, but maybe bagging the beans had something to do with that!

Bags of Beans ready to be distributed to families.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Welcome to Egypt!

The 2nd graders in the after school literacy program I coordinate have thrown down a challenge for the tutors to pick up. This isn't your ordinary challenge you'd expect from 2nd graders-- it is a story writing show down! The second graders love writing and analyzing stories, but more than anything they LOVE when the tutors write their own stories to share. The past 2 weeks we have had different 'guest' authors (aka tutors) write stories and comprehension questions for them and the enthusiasm is only building. A few of the students have even submitted some of their own stories with the help of their parents. I love seeing this enthusiasm especially since I wrote my first independent story "Ashley Hates Valentine's" when I was in 2nd grade. I decided to get in on this excitement and agreed to write a story to share with the second graders today.

Originally having major difficulty coming up with some sort of story, I finally settled on writing a second grade version of my January term study abroad experience in Egypt. For those of you who do not know, my alma mater, Gustavus Adolphus College, has a month long term during January where students are encouraged to travel abroad or take a class out of their major to "explore" other interests. For instance, I took Arabic one year and another year I took a class called Faith and Learning. My junior year, however, I made the decision to go to Egypt with roughly 20 other students and 2 professors in January 2010. Having a whole month to explore Egypt we went everywhere! We spent roughly 2 weeks in Cairo, 1.5 weeks traveling down the Nile to Luxor, Valley of the Kings, and Aswan, and then we spent a weekend in on the coast in Alexandria. I LOVED it all, but especially Alexandria.

My story is geared for 2nd graders, but I thought I'd share it with this audience too. Since the story was for second graders I had to take some of the better stories out... but maybe I'll save those for another time.

 Amy's Big Adventure

Me at the Pyramids!
When Amy was a little girl she loved to read stories about faraway places and imagine what it would be like to go there. One of her favorite places to read about was Egypt. Have you heard about Egypt? Do you know where it is? Egypt is very far, far, away from Michigan.

Amy used to read stories about the Great Pyramids in Egypt and she would pretend that she was an Egyptian Queen who lived there. She imagined herself having long black hair, wearing lots of gold jewelry, and having servants who would drive her on a boat on a river they called the Nile. Someday Amy dreamed of going to Egypt in real life.
Nile River in Aswan. We rode a Felucca (red sea traditional sail boat) to the botanical gardens where this picture was taken.
When Amy turned 20 she did not forget this dream and saved up all her money so that she could see Egypt like she always imagined. It was going to be a big adventure! 

After a 23 hour flight on an airplane, tired Amy finally arrived in a very big city, Cairo, where she could not understand a word people were saying! They did not speak any English and even had different letters on their signs! Some of the signs looked like this: العربية .  Can you read that? Amy couldn’t. It was the biggest city she had ever been to and Amy felt very small and alone. Luckily, there was a friend to greet her at the airport to show her around.

In the morning, her friend served her a breakfast of hot dogs, refried beans, cucumbers, bananas, pita bread, and hot tea. Amy thought this was unusual breakfast food, but was very thankful to eat before their big day. 
My first Breakfast in Cairo.
Stepping out onto the streets of Cairo, Amy saw many new things she had never seen before. All the women covered their hair with bright scarfs and wore long sleeved shirts and full length skirts. Some women even covered their face and showed only their eyes.  It was obvious Amy was not from Egypt because she wore jeans, a short sleeved shirt, and uncovered hair.
Street in Cairo on a Friday.. (equivalent to our Sunday) much less traffic than usual.

The people they passed on the street were very nice and would say “Welcome to Egypt,” to Amy as she walked by. Some who spoke English would ask her where she was from and say, “America! Beautiful. Beautiful!” A few times men were surprised she was 20 years old and not married. “So old for a beautiful girl to not to be married” they would say. She tried telling them in America being 20 years old was a very young age to be married, but they didn’t seem to understand.

Khan el-Khalili Bazaar
Amy and her friend stopped by a huge open market called Khan el-Khalili Bazaar that was filled with spices, scarfs, perfumes, Egyptian paper called papyrus, clothing, and more! The excitement of the market buzzed with business as people negotiated prices. In Egypt they sell things differently than they do in America. In Egypt the buyer and the seller have to agree on a price for the purchase. Usually the seller will ask for WAY too much money and the buyer has to talk the price down. Amy loved this! She learned enough Arabic to be able to handle the marketplace and got many good deals. At one point a surprised Egyptian spice seller said “You talk and buy things like an Egyptian!” Amy took this as a huge compliment. 

Egyptian Taxi.
Next Amy really wanted to see the pyramids like she always dreamed, but first they had to get there. They decided to take a taxi, but Amy didn’t know that driving in Egypt is different from America. In Egypt there are very few rules for driving. In fact most people do not even take a driving test! Their taxi swerved in and out of lanes and was honking all the time at people walking and other cars. At one point there were 5 lanes of cars on a 4 lane street! Amy had never experienced anything like it.

Amy could hardly believe she was finally going to see the pyramids! She was eager to see the Pyramids but at first she could not see them because the air was so dirty! She tried looking through the thick, heavy, smog ahead of her, but she couldn’t see anything! The heavy air made it difficult for Amy to breathe because she was used to fresh clean air. 
Looking over Cairo from the Citadel. You can see the pyramids faintly on the horizon. Yucky air pollution.

“Where are the pyramids!?! I don’t see them” Amy exclaimed to her friend as they entered the gate to see the Pyramids.
“They are right ahead of you!” she said. “You aren’t looking high enough!”

Amy tilted her head up higher and sure enough emerging from the smog was the Great Pyramid. It was much larger than Amy had expected and it sent chills down her spine. “I had no idea it was so massive!” she said. 
“That’s why they call it one of the seven wonders of the ancient world,” her friend replied.

Looking up at the Great Pyramid from it's base.
Amy and her friend spent the rest of their time together exploring many treasures like the Pyramids in Egypt. Even though Egypt was very different from what Amy had originally imagined she loved every minute of her time there making her dream come true. She was very sad when she had to leave, but promised herself someday she would return.
Beautiful Aswan Sunset on the Nile.
 The End. 

I really hope someday to return to Egypt. I was extremely fortunate to go when I did in January 2010 exactly one year before the unrest started in January 2011. Uhh it gives me chills thinking about it. I remember sitting in my house watching the tanks drive around Tahrir Square exactly one year after I freely walked there with my friends at night. I just sat glued to CNN breaking news watching people fight for their rights and observing the brutality that took place.

It was one of the eeriest experiences I've ever had, right up there with 9/11. But what was strange about it was that it was not at all a surprise to me. When I was in Egypt you could feel the unrest in the people waiting to explode, but no one would say anything to foreigners/me about it. Part of Egyptian culture means to always talk highly of your country ESPECIALLY to foreigners and you would NEVER say anything bad about your country to them. It's an interesting dynamic to work around. I would ask our tour guides about what was 'really' going on and their eyes would go dark and they'd mutter something in Arabic maybe throw out a few political parties under their breath and that would be it. All they would tell me is to look for Egypt in the news in 2011. They knew it was going to happen and when it did... it was no surprise, but traumatic nonetheless.