Monday, November 28, 2005

Weather the Storm
So last night and today there was a terrific ice storm here and school is canceled. Along with it our Winter Celebration, for the 7th graders in the after school program, which is too bad but maybe it worked out for the best since my co-cordinator is stuck in South Dakota. Everything and I mean everything outside (including the door to my building and the front steps) is covered in a layer of ice - so think the snow doesn't even crunch when you walk on it! I am actually quite relieved I don't have to drive a van today.

Now if I could just get them to turn the heat down in my apartment, it would actually be quite cozy. I believe it's hotter just because it's the second floor, but it is irritating to come home and have to completely strip off all the extra layers down to the long underware or else be boiling in my apartment - and conversely to have to get completely re - dressed anytime you go anywhere. Ahh well.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Poverty...some thoughts

I know many of us have complained a lot about being “poor college students” or about being “poor” in general. I know my brother has often complained about our family being poor because he can’t have all the things he wants, and it bothers me not because I don’t want people to think my family is poor – but because he doesn’t know what poor is.

I know we’ve all been broke, in debt, out of cash, etc. We may have dipped our feet in the waters of poverty, but can we really claim to be poor as in impoverished while going to college? We’ve had the opportunity to be students of higher education which is a remarkable privilege even in the U.S., not to mention compared other places in the world.

“If you happen to be rich and you find you are left by your lover though you moan and you groan, quite a lot, you can take it on the chin, call a cab and begin to recover on your 14 karat yacht!”
I have a collection agency after to me to the tune of $400.00. This is a portion of unpaid medical bills not covered by insurance. I could have had them taken care of when I was unemployed, but the county sent me a ream of paperwork to go through to verify I didn’t qualify for any other government programs: Medicaid, social security, and I was too busy (or negligent) to follow through with the ream of paperwork. I was altogether consumed by finding a job – and then by having a job and working full time.

So now I have to pay up…and as I said in my first entry (which is the best one-you should read it) as a VISTA I make literally poverty wages. This term of service is supposed to be an experience of living in poverty. But I don’t feel like I’m living in poverty. Maybe because being a VISTA here in Moorhead has its advantages – or maybe it’s because I know that I have enough to survive. I can even afford to pay this *@#$! credit agency before the 29th of December.

Oh make no mistake it sucks to have to scratch $400.00. That’s money I could be spending on friends and family for Christmas or I could be saving to take myself on a trip. I could adopt and care for a stray cat for 400 bucks.

But instead I can choose to look around and say “Damn I’m lucky I can afford to pay that bill.” I mean, what would that credit agency do if I was one of the people at the Churches United Shelter I served breakfast to a few weeks ago? How does a credit agency contact you if you’re homeless?

I recently attended a “Hunger Banquet” at Concordia College for Homelessness and Hunger awareness week. It was one of those were 60% of the people sit on the floor and eat rice while one person present has a salad and lasagna and coffee and desert (and degrees in between). I was surprised to learn that one person represented an income of $50,000 a year. That’s not what we think of when we think of rich -we think of Bill Gates. We think of the 14 karat yacht.

But since going to that Hunger Banquet I’ve been doing some serious thinking about what it means when we complain about being “poor”. And who are we thinking of when we think of “the rich.” This wasn’t meant to be an essay on thanksgiving or anything. But I know the next time I start complain about being poor I’m going to stop and think about how rich I am.

Here are some good links:

Friday, November 18, 2005

Hurricane Relief trip - the Highlights

Ok, now that I'm posting this it sounds kind of hokey - put it has a beginning, middle and end, and a theme - if you remember that from writing articles for your highschool newspaper, which I do. My post for today is an article I submitted to the Minnesota VISTA newsletter about my experience as a staff advisor on Concordia College's Hurricane Relief trip to New Orleans this past October.
Recipe of the weekend: Pumpkin pie - to be frozen for Thanksgiving. The recipe is on the can of pumpkin.

Since starting my position in August I’ve answered a lot of questions. It’s hard to know the right way to answer them. As a VISTA my position is an interesting one, since I work at a college - Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota, but not for the college. It’s difficult to explain to people how I am on the college staff, but I’m actually a VISTA, especially since most people assume I’m a college student. “Actually I work here,” is heard a lot.

At times it’s difficult to know my role in the college setting. I want to go to meetings for student organizations and be involved, but how much should I participate? They’re not my organizations because I’m not a student anymore. So when I first heard about an interest meeting for a Hurricane Relief trip to the gulf coast over fall break, I was interested but reminded myself that this was an opportunity for college students – I am after all, already committed to service here.

But I went to the interest meeting anyway, because I was interested and somehow couldn’t let it go by. Afterwards I visited the campus pastor and told him if there was a need for college staff, I would be happy to make the trip fit into my schedule if my supervisor agreed, even though it meant incurring a little extra expense (no small deal for a VISTA, as we all know.) He responded that there was a great need college staff to go on the trip as advisors.

As advisors, we would be the adult resources for the student leaders, representing the college staff and administration. Each team of two student leaders was responsible for approximately 12 students. In total 158 students were divided among the three sites; Kenner, Louisiana, Mandeville, Louisiana, and Ocean Springs, Mississippi. 28 student leaders were in charge of 14 work groups, and I was one of 9 faculty/staff advisors.

Student leaders motivated and organized their teams, and were responsible for morning devotions and guiding evening reflections, or “debriefing” sessions after each days work. I wasn’t sure I was any more qualified than a student leader, and probably less qualified than some, when I agreed to go but the experience would be worth while.

Kenner, Louisiana is about 20 minutes outside of the city of New Orleans. There we were staying with families hosting us through two different Lutheran Churches. Hurricane Katrina put Kenner in an interesting situation. The only reason Kenner flooded was because city managers evacuated pump operators that could have prevented the overflow of canals. My host “father” experienced some damage to his home, but in his own words it was “nothing compared to what other people have lost.”

We went into the city of New Orleans the first day and cleaned up a churchyard. We started by picking up litter and debris, but eventually we were hauling tree branches and raking the yard. Then we moved on to a house on Emerald Street that was being totally gutted. The student crew that started the day there began by hauling out the furniture that had been underwater, and by the mid afternoon we were tearing up floorboards and hauling out sheetrock and insulation.

You can never really take in such devastation until you see it right in front of you. A water line on the front of every house on a block; a child’s jungle gym dangling on the side of a fence; in the midst of a pile of the entire contents of a home, covered with moldy sheetrock, insulation, and stray boards – a huge flat screened TV, and all the cars everywhere covered in the layer of white dust that tells you this car was once completely underwater.

And even when you see it, it’s hard remind yourself you’re in the same country you were in when you boarded that bus in Minnesota. A storm did this.

I spent only a few hours the end of one afternoon in a house on Pratt Drive in New Orleans – a neighborhood I can never forget. This area is called Lakeview. Eight houses down from the home we were working in is where the levy broke right in the backyard. In this stage of the recovery in New Orleans if a house doesn’t have a huge pile of its sodden contents in the street in front of the house, you can guess the owners haven’t been back yet. The house we were working in was the only one I could see with a garbage pile.

My favorite thing I got to do happened on the last work day. We finished the work at our first site early and went to a second house where the owner wasn’t expecting us for another hour. It became snack time while across the street a group of men were hauling cinder blocks out of the backyard. I went and asked them if they needed help. The man in charge of the project was very surprised and grateful to hear we had come from Minnesota. He was from Texas, himself and the home he was working on belonged to his father in law. Four feet of water had flooded the house, and the man was trying to repair the damage himself so they could sell it. He was very appreciative of a stranger’s offer to help and the first thing he asked me was “did the Lord send you?”

As a VISTA you don’t get many opportunities to roll up your sleeves and do physical labor. Our style of service is indirect. Normally, I spend most days behind a desk sending emails and coordinating an after school program which creates mentoring partnerships between Concordia College students and area middle school students.

I wasn’t sure how this was going to work when I said I’d be a staff advisor, responsible for helping train the student leaders and helping facilitate the debriefing sessions. Would I be able to contribute something meaningful? Or would I just start babbling in the debriefing session thinking what I had to say was insightful?

In the end it didn’t matter what I said in session. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t part of any one work group. It didn’t matter that I was a staff member and not a college student. What mattered was I was there, among some of the most mature, hardworking students I ever met, sharing in an experience. I know some of the students who joined this trip to serve wouldn’t argue with me that we were just as served by the people we had come to help.

As a VISTA I spend some time answering questions, but sometimes questions are best left unanswered. Sometimes the line between Americorps and Concordia doesn’t need to be defined. And as I learned in New Orleans, sometimes my experience will be serving through Americorps and sometimes it will be serving through Concordia. The thing that matters most is the service, and that’s the most important part to get right.

To view a 3 part news piece on Concordia's Hurricane Relief trip, click on this link. It should be cool. I haven't seen it yet.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Accident in a minor key

There are some things you just don't say in a phone message. For one,that somebody died. For two - that you got in a car accident. Even a minor one. So, since I broke one of my own rules last night, I need to give a little explaination.

Yesterday was the first real snowfall of the year - meaning it stayed on the ground. Although technically it hit the ground, melted, then froze again as ice. Yesterday was also the day we picked up our 6th graders for our Linking Up service project that the kids voted on - and took them to two different nursing homes to volunteer by visiting with the residents. However, this story takes place on the way to pick up the kids.

There's a lot to be said about driving other people's kids around. I was really uncomfortable with the concept initially and its still not my favorite thing to do. The thing I've discovered about driving a 15 seater conversion van is that you can not adjust the mirrors from a place where your head will be while driving. Well at least I can't. My arms are too short. So mirrors are practically useless. But the mirrors were not involved in what happened yesterday.

On the way to pick up the van there was some discussion of anti-lock brakes -as I understand it those are the ones that pump the brake for you. All I need to know is if you need to stop and your not stopping push hard on the brake. I employed this technique to perfect effect when upon reaching the school I immediately skid out on an icy patch as I stopped at an all too important stop sign which prevents me from getting run over by school busses.

I stepped hard on the anti-lock brake and wait for the huge 15 seater conversion van to slide to a halt and it does. I did it right. Sigh. As I'm taking inventory of my personal well being after this incident, my thoughts are interrupted by someone slamming into the back of the van. I didn't even know there was a car behind me! So I get out of the van and this girl my age gets out of a tiny car and she asks if I'm all right, I ask how she is. Same thing - she slid on the ice and couldn't stop so she rear ended me. Only the front of her car is totally smashed and the van is fine. Not a scratch I could see. Her hood was dented, headlights broken; so smashed I was struck by surprise and was even heard to stupidly remark "is all that from right now?" as in "or was the front of your car already smashed before you hit me?" Here's my sign.

I gave her my name & phone number in case she needs me to explain what happened to anyone and got her info in case they discover some damage to Concordia's van. I also had to call the Car Pool office once we got to the nursing home and let them know. They weren't too concerned as I said the van appeared to come through without a mark.

This incident, however minor in retrospect, put me in a bit of a state, then as far as driving the kids for the rest of yesterday. But its over now and nothing I can do but get back in the saddle today - or behind the wheel of a great big giant 15 seater conversion van. God be with me!

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Fast, postponed

Been checking my mail compulsively all week. It doesn't help that I haven't been able to make as many phone calls as I would like because I've been sick and losing my voice. I had a health-fast planned for this weekend. Which means not only no eating, but a bunch of activities non-stop all weekend so I would be too busy to think about being hungry.

Well, that got canceled due to my cold. The sore throat went away pronto, but it was clear I was losing my voice when giving directions to large groups of middle school students, and by Wednesday I devleoped a cough. I stayed home Thursday to rest and drink white horehound tea (good for coughs but bitterly nasty to taste). I figured it would fix me right up, and for the most part it did. In fact for most of the week I 'd come home from the office around five and read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire until nine and go to bed. It was a beautiful existence if you don't count coughing up nastiness into a hanky. (Goblet of Fire, by the way - !!! I get the feeling there are dark and dangerous times ahead.)

Anyway I figured by now I'd be fine and in the day time I am, it just nights that involve a lot of hacking, and sweating. I'm annoyed that it's just a minor cold, but I wish it would hurry up and either go away or kill me. It's tough not to have the energy to do the things you want. No high school production of Suessical, no charity knitting event, and certainly midnight movie of Princess Mononoke at the Fargo theater.

I still managed to go out to dinner with fellow VISTA Natasha, and see Concordia's production of Joseph on Friday night, and still got my hair cut and devoted last night to dying my hair with henna and watching Spanglish, rented from the library. So that means the movie of the weekend is Spanglish, and as there was no fasting the recipe of the weekend is Spinach Lasagna from the 11th edition paperback of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, page 745 I believe.

Stay tuned for the details of planning my families Thanksgiving. There's more I could write about now, but I'm trying to keep it brief.

Monday, November 07, 2005

A night at the Opera

I'm still figuring out this blog thing. I'm disapointed so far because I want my blog to have cool headlines and links like everyone else's but I haven't succeeded in my first post, so I'll continue experimenting.

Over the weekend, I went to the Opera. I felt I had to take advantage of the Fargo Opera's production of The Magic Flute because you don't have to be in exotic faraway places like New Jersey or London to have theatrical experiences and as far as a vibrant arts culture, I think Fargo gets a bad rap. Truly, I am impressed with this community. There are 3 professional theatres, an active community theatre (with its own theatre building) 3 universities and all that entails, and the Fargo Opera and the Fargo addition to the Spirit Room gallery downtown and various other groups of private citizens putting together art for their own purposes.

That being said, the opera was in English, which although I liked it, kind of makes opera silly. I would rather listen to it in its original language and see how much I can follow than hear it in English and think these characters are nuts. I mean, "I heard this guy saw a picture of me and fell in love, but then I met him and he won't talk to me, so I'm going to kill myself." What?Also, I've always understood opera to have no spoken words, but this production had acted scenes with spoken dialogue.

My favorite part is when Papageno, the bird catcher, meets his true love Pagagena and they sing immediately about how they need to go off and have lots of children and name them Papageno and Papagena. It was very cute. And the costumes and the sets were fabulous! Even if you're not interested in opera, if the opportunity presents itself go for the costumes and sets. The most incredible set I've ever seen in my life was at the "small" opera house in Munich Germany.

Yes, indeed we must all appreciate and take advantage of the time in our lives when student tickets are offered to us without question. We will miss it when it's gone! The only bad thing was sitting at the opera I could feel myself getting sick. I woke up with half a sore throat (you know, when your throat is sore on just one side?) and usually by the middle of the day it goes away, but by mid-afternoon it hurt emensely and you know how a sore throat hurts to swallow so you can't stop thinking, I wonder if it would hurt to swallow now? Yup. How 'bout now? Yup.

By evening I was in a lot of pain. Luckily I employed 2 home remedies, one of them being my witches brew to kill colds and I'm feeling A LOT better today. I'm going to continue the cold-fighting regimine, however to ensure I don't get any sicker. Last night I think I had a fever, because as I sweat out the cold I had fitful dreams about the three tasks of the Triwizard Tournament (I'm reading Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire again) and eventually my sleeping mind summoned Christopher Lee to scare away my cold symptoms by doing what in my dreams I don't remember!

Saturday, November 05, 2005

Well, I suppose I'm figuring out how to start my own blog. Caved in to peer pressure as it were. "All my friends were doing it." So, we'll see how painfully boring, or shocking or whatever is the life of an Americorps VISTA volunteer. What is that you say? "Americorps? What's that? Is that like the Peace Corps? If you were in grad school, I would understand."

Americorps is kind of like the Peace Corps, but domestically, which means still in the United States. There are all kinds of jobs you can do for Americorps, and different branches to be in. The different branches have different benefits and my branch is VISTA which stands for Volunteers In Service To America. I think LBJ started it, but I'm not sure. VISTAs focus on indirect service. So rather than planting trees or building houses, you might volunteer coordinate at a nonprofit or do my job, which is to coordinate an after school mentoring program.

My position is a little tricky because I work at a college, Concordia College in Moorhead Minnesota, but not for the college - in that I don't get paid by the college. Yes, I do get paid some, but I'm encouraged to think of my living allowance as a stipend and not a paycheck, and myself as a volunteer and not so much "having a job." But more about that later.

The Linking Up program I coordinate is a partnership between Concordia College (where the college-student mentors come from), Moorhead Healthy Community Initiative (a local nonprofit and base of operations for Karin, my co-coordinator, partner in crime, and another VISTA) and Moorhead Public Schools (Horizon Middle School - where the 6th, 7th and 8th graders who attend our program go). Most people want to think of this program as something that helps needy kids, but that's not necessarily the case. The kids in the program are any kids who go to the middle school whose teachers/guidance counselor thought they might benefit from the program. It is just as much a benefit to the college students in the educational psychology class who are going to be teachers one day.

There are other things about my position which are complicated and confusing. For instance, I'm also supposed to be doing research on anti-racisim for the training and participating in the subcommittees of the Training Our Campus Against Racisim intitative (TOCAR), and I am. It's just that part hasn't been as consistent, and doesn't take up as much of my concentration as the Linking Up program. But surely, I've learned a lot in the little more than two months that I've been here. However, when most people ask me about my job, I don't say much about this part because it requires a lot of detail and nuanced explaination, and some of the topics I work around, like White Privilege can be controversial for some people. And I like to save conversations that require that much attention for occasions like Christmas dinner, or when I've been drinking.

Now, having told you all that you might ask, "What are the benefits of being an Americorps VISTA volunteer?" Well, first of all you get to learn to be thrifty. Something I've always enjoyed being so therefore the living allowence which is technically poverty wages (maybe 115% of what it means to be living in poverty in Moorhead) doesn't bother me all that much. One of my favorite benefits is that as a VISTA I qualify for housing assistance and therefore I don't have to pay rent on my beautiful apartment that I love so much!

Other benefits you get through Americorps are health insurance for your term of service, and at the end of the year an Education Award of nearly $5,000 to use to go to school or apply towards student loans. It sounds like a mere drop in the bucket (toward my loans) until someone pointed out to me What job right out of college do you expect to get where you can put that much money toward your loans at the end of a year? (Good point, Kyle!) And my loans are defered for the term of service and Americorps pays the interest that accrues during deferement. (We'll see about that because I'm having some problems with my loan consolation company.)

My position comes with added benefits too, because I work at a college I can work out for free, and ride the bus for free. Sometimes I can come to campus events which include a free meal. I can (shhh!) sneak on campus and do my laundry in the dorms because although it's no cheaper it's much more convenient than riding my bike to the one open laurdromatt in Moorhead!

In additon to all the glamor of the VISTA life, you get to work toward the ultimate goal of Americorps which is to eliminate poverty in the United States, which will probably never be achieved in my lifetime. But at least when everyone sits around the table bitching I can feel that I at least did something about it for a time, and maybe in some small way, I hope, made a difference. You know the saying, "give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he'll have food for a lifetime." At Americorps training I heard, "if you start a school of fishing you'll change the future of generations."

But that was just tha background info. Now the stage is set for this wonderful blog of my year of service. (Americorps term of service: 1 year. Peace Corps: 2 - something I forgot to say earlier). Now that I've filled you in on all that what do I actually have to say today? How about this?

Recipe of the weekend: Squash Stew. See Vegitarian. Whomever posted it is right about how difficult it is to peel an acorn squash. They don't get ripe like a cantalope. It's like peeling a rock. Especially with my dull as shit potato peeler. It's in the crockpot right now so I can't comment on how it will taste. More later!