Thursday, April 25, 2013

Spring Break Service Trip 2013

I had the privilege of going on another service trip this year with DePaul students over Spring Break. This year I was asked to take a group of girls to Cincinnati. I was very excited for this because it was a new trip and because it was such a short drive! I got to meet with our group a few times before the trip and I was really impressed with all the girls, especially my leader, Tina. We stayed with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul's volunteers in their house and they took very good care of us! The trip addressed many issues, but mostly focused on poverty and homelessness. There are too many highlights to count but a few of the most meaningful moments are below:

Food stamp challenge - we were challenged with creating a healthy and tasty meal for a family of 4 on $6 which is the standard amount per meal for those on food stamps. This was eye opening and challenging. We went to the closest grocery store to the house we were staying at and found it to be really small and structured in a strange way. All the produce was along the back wall and there wasn't much to choose from. All of the processed/junk food was in the front. We walked back the 2 or so miles to the house to experience what people living in the area without a car have to do to get their groceries. We got a tour/explanation of the West End neighborhood on the way back. Even though it was snowy and cold, we all really enjoyed this eye opening experience.

Selling Street Vibes - We had the opportunity to shadow a former Street Vibes newspaper salesman and try to sell our own. We learned that it's done through the Homeless Coalition and homeless people that get jobs selling the paper have to buy the paper for 50cents and then sell them for $1.50 and earn $1 off each sale. Many of us really struggled selling the papers and realized how hard they have to work to make so little. We all came out of the trip realizing we need to be more open and friendly to the Street Wise sellers in Chicago.

Jail Tour - near the end of the week we went on a tour of the county jail. Quite the experience! After being told all week that a smile and eye contact goes a long way with people we were told to not look or talk to any of the inmates. The best way to describe the experience is to say that I felt like we were zoo animals and so were the inmates - on exhibit. We got shouted and laughed at and the whole experience was incredibly uncomfortable. We learned a lot about the inner workings, politics and hierarchy at the jail.

Simulations - SVdP put together 2 simulations for us. First, they did a poverty simulation. We each got a packet with our "situation" and character, some fake money and what we needed to accomplish. For example, pay rent, get groceries, get medicine, etc. They set up all the different social services around the building and you had to figure out how to utilize them and take care of your list. We were all running around trying so hard and none of us completed our tasks. I was $2 short. We all realized how much work it is trying to make ends meet and how limited organizations' resources are. The other simulation was a rent/utilities simulation. SVdP can assist with 8 (i think) rent assistance requests and 8 utilities requests. People fill out a form explaining why they aren't able to pay, how much they can pay, if they'll be evicted or have their heat shut off, etc. We had to review applications and decide who got the help. It was torture. It's so hard to decide who gets help and who doesn't. Who's too poor to even help or who's not poor enough. It's a crazy, crazy mentality and really hard to wrap your head around.

Resurrection Food Pantry - One of the most powerful experiences was at the Resurrection Food Pantry. This place has so much spirit and love! The volunteers are incredible and their love really rubs off on the people that come there. I had the opportunity to assist several clients select their food items from this choice pantry. I really enjoyed my interactions with everyone but a few stood out. The first woman I helped started crying and said how much their neighborhood needs this pantry and how grateful she was. I couldn't help but tear up too and once I started the rest of the day was filled with tears often! One man, Clarence had a limp and a cane and he told me that it was his first time coming so he needed some extra help. He informed me that he had started dialysis that day but he was grateful to learn he wouldn't have to do it permanently. So many of the people we met had such positive attitudes. It really puts things in perspective! I took him through the pantry and I would say you can have 4 cans from this area and he'd think it was 4 per shelf instead of 4 total - it was really tough to experience this new reality with him. Overall it was a meaningful experience for me even though it was really challenging at times.

Respite Care - This experience probably had the biggest impact on me and I get choked up every time I think or talk about it and I'm still not entirely sure why. We went here after the food pantry and I was already quite emotional! Respite Care is in this big old mansion and it's run by a doctor that quit his practice to assist with the long term care of homeless individuals. Patients live there during recovery and they assist with finding housing once they're released. It's pretty incredible. We prepared a meal for the residents and ate with them. I ate with Troy and he told me about his life and challenges. He chatted and chatted and I was really enjoying getting to know him. After about 25 minutes he told me that this was the longest and nicest conversation he's had in a long time and that he didn't have any friends or family anymore. Not only did this break my heart but it also touched me and reminded me to be more open and friendly to others. I basically cried the entire rest of the day and still think of Troy a lot.

There is so much more that we did and experienced during the week including hearing a talk from a former homeless woman, sharing a meal with people at a soup kitchen, going to a lot of mass for Holy Week, praying the steps at Mt. Adams for Good Friday, visiting the Cinci Art Museum, hearing from former inmates and so much more. I am so grateful to SVdP and the girls I got to experience this with. It was a total roller coaster and really powerful for me. There are so many things I learned and now view differently. Now that I'm home, I'm trying to be more friendly to homeless people and Street Wise sellers-and giving the change or food I do have on hand to homeless people and buying the newspaper when I can. Rob and I are going to donate items to different shelters and organizations each month - so far I dropped off a bag of tooth paste and tooth brushes to the Lincoln Park Community Shelter. I still want to volunteer at more organizations that support homeless and poverty initiatives but I don't have much time these days - hopefully someday!