Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Confessions of the.... Ostentatious Octet? (That nickname stinks...)

Days 2 & 3: Service on Service on Service

Quote of the days
"There's poop. EVERYWHERE."
- Phillip Barbolla

Apologies for the delay in this blog message.

We woke up early Friday morning to a lovely breakfast and a brief orientation with Sarah and Rich. Now, six of our eight people were making their returns to the Youth Service Opportunities Project [hereby known as YSOP] so we're all familiar with the mjaority of the people who work with the project.

Sarah is the program director at YSOP, and she shared with us how service impacted her life and choices. Originally an AmeriCorps volunteer staying off law school for a year, she's remained in the non-profit sector for five years. Rich is the current AmeriCorps fellow with the program, but he's been there is a variety of capacities in the past. Erin-Marie (Em), Izzy, and Laura are all part of a host of part-time workers. Laura, specifically, has been there every single time I've been there (and is never too hesitant to bring up tales of crazed social workers and fainting volunteers).

YSOP begins every work weekend with a writing exercise that poses two important questions:
1. What did you think the last time you saw a homeless person?
2. What is your service goal for this weekend?
It's a time for legitimate reflection. Whether or not we recognize it, homelessness is everywhere. It can strike anyone, at any time, for a whole host of reasons. And though some people don't recognize that from the get-go, this is what YSOP shows its volunteers.

After our orientation, our Ostentatious Octet (we're still working on the name...) was divided into two groups:
Group 1: To the DC Central Kitchen: Mollie, Katie, Andrew, Phillip
Group 2: To Mariam's House: Alex, Jill, Sarah, Joanna

Group 1 headed to the DC Central Kitchen, a really cool place that sort of serves as a combination of culinary institute and kitchen/cafeteria for the hungry. Mollie and Katie were on designated salad duty. Andrew and Phillip were on scalloped potato duty with a nice lady named Laura (a recent Johns Hopkins MPP graduate). After a few hours of working, we'd all created formulas for doing our jobs, preparing food for delivery and distribution. Kitchens are crazy places, full of activity, and really fun. DC Central is always teeming with volunteers as well, so they've created a system that works really well that we all were able to glide into. DC Central also works as a training ground for students to gain certification and training as culinary professionals. It's a 14-week program, and roughly 90% of its graduates go on to gain jobs. This a really awesome opporutnity for people that  are getting back on their feet (63 of the program's 80 2012 graduates were ex-offenders, for example). Volunteers get to work directly with trainees. It's a really awesome environment.

After our morning, we were treated to a very nice lunch (jambalaya!) at the kitchen before heading back to YSOP.

At this point, we should digress for a minute and discuss transportation in DC: the Metro. The Metro is in many ways a brilliant system. For the people that live there. For the rest of us (well, Mollie is from Baltimore) it's among the scariest things ever. We had cards that worked to let us onto the train. They usually worked. But you have to pay attention to where you're going. Which is frightening (especially when you're trying not to literally fly everywhere). OK I'm being dramatic. But it's a good thing certain people weren't leading the group or we may have ended up at very incorrect destinations. (Andrew may/may not be directionally challenged.)

We had a few hours to go sight-see. We posed for pictures outside the White House, got as close to the Washington Monument as we're allowed, walked through a waterless WWII memorial, passed the Vietnam Memorial, hit up the Lincoln Memorial, and walked the whole length of the Reflecting Pool. (WHICH IS SO FULL OF POOP IT'S NOT EVEN FUNNY. NO. SERIOUSLY. POOP EVERYWHERE. Also, Phillip rescued a tool from the bottom of the reflecting pool. Andrew carried it around the rest of the day and it now sits in his dorm. People thought it was weird when he told them he pulled it out of the water.)

Group 2 Your bloggers weren't in this group, so please accept this summary, courtesy of Joanna Peders. Alex, Lily, Joanna, and Sarah went to Miriam's House. There we helped pack and move boxes from rooms awaiting renovation and cleaned the intern apartments. In addition to our four, three other volunteers from a local gelato place, Pitango, joined to help lighten the load and create new friendships. One of them was even from a city nearby Virginia! We ended early enough to spend a couple of hours touring D.C. in the sunshine

At three the groups reconvened to listen to a man named Alan speak. Alan speaks with the National Coalition for the Homeless. He was a high-profile gentleman in the DC for many years, protecting two presidents, making a six figure salary and raising two children. But he spent a long period of time battling depression. In 1996, his father passed away unexpectedly which sent him on a fast downward spiral of depression escalation. He ended up losing his job because he simply stopped showing up. And thanks to a combination of his own struggles with depression and the financial issues that arose because of it, he ended up homeless.

Alan's story is powerful for two reasons. Number one, it's a clear indication that people can become homeless for a whole slew of reasons. Homelessness doesn't have barriers. Number two, he also discusses in talks about the community that exists among the homeless population. There is a family system, in a sense of the word.

Alan's story is always a bit different when we hear it. It seems to reflect his current state in life and acknowledgment of his experiences. This time around, we got a grittier version of his story, detailing some plans for suicide at one point. Regardless of how many times you hear his story, someone cries. You just can't help it.

After this, we had a bit of time, so we played Apples to Apples. AND ALAN JOINED US! Alan usually checks out after he talks to us, but he stayed to help us for the evening. And he had never played Apples to Apples before. And it was super fun. And he really enjoyed it. Yay!

At 4:30, we convened to start preparations for our traditional dinner. We always prepare, serve, and then enjoy a dinner with members of the YSOP community - homeless and otherwise  We divide into groups and conquer the food: BBQ chicken, salad, garlic bread, and cake. The BBQ chicken is an effort. The BBQ sauce is open to interpretation for recipes, but usually the Heinz that serves as its base remains the dominant flavor. Salad can't be messed up. (OK, I lie, but we didn't.)

Then Andrew attacked the cake. Not really. But he tried to splatter the vanilla-frosted chocolate cake with chocolate and it looked terrible so then he mopped it around and it looked worse. And it just didn't get better. (IT TASTED WONDERFUL THOUGH.)

Also joining us for this dinner were a number of friends of YSOP staff, who came to help us and interact with us. They were really awesome,

So after an hour or so of preparation of foods, we opened the doors and about twenty-five urban-area DC citizens joined us for dinner. They talked, played games, enjoyed the food, and gave insight into a whole slew of aspects of life. These conversations are what makes Urban Plunge special and what makes the dinner a highlight of the YSOP experience: direct service and direct connection. It's a really awesome experience.

Some highlights: Joanna Peders bears of stunning resemblance to both Lady Gaga and young Hillary Clinton. (She responds to both names.) One gentleman pulled his best sorority squat for picture time. We learned about the joys of taking classes (which we could relate to). We went through more sweet tea than anything else. And everyone loved the chicken (despite the failures of our BBQ-ers to make the BBQ sauce taste like anything but Heinz 57 BBQ sauce). And Andrew's cake folly was unnoticed. There were some regulars to those who've been on the trip before, but there were many new faces in the crowd to get to know.

After cleaning up, we sat down and processed our evenings as a group. This is always really cool, because it's awesome to get so many perspectives on the evening. We divided our dinner room up amongst us fairly equally so everyone got to know someone knew. Some people are more quiet and reserved (just like how we are outside of that community). These processing times remind us of the commonalities between all of us.

Afterwards we headed to our sleeping quarters for the night and ate McDonalds and played more Apples to Apples.

We woke up early the next morning to head to the Capital Area Food Bank, this time as a group. This was a site that some us had been to before. The process of actually physically arriving at CAFB is an exercise in non-profit work at its finest: you ride the bus to a bus stop. There an [unmarked] van picks you up and drives you about ten minutes away. Then groups of volunteers wait in a large waiting room.

CAFB provides food and supplies to a lot of satellite need centers, where those in need have easy access. Our job was to box these. Literally. Put the food in boxes. Make sure they could close. Clear out full metal cages worth.

This kind of direct service is sometimes less impactful than the direct service we were doing the night before. To prevent it from being mundane, we made it fun. For example, we got into the containers. We made videos of ourselves getting into the containers. We also talked to a lot of other volunteers. There were a number of Coast Guard members volunteering alongside us, which made for fun conversation.

As we were departing, we actually saw one of the gentlemen (the guy who did picture poses!) at a bus stop. He saw us and waved and it was wonderful.

When we got back, we did our redux of the day. This last one is always interesting, because it's an accumulation of thoughts that touch on the overarching themes of the weekend. We always conclude it by revisiting our original writing assignments - what do we think of the homeless/what is our service goal/are we different from homeless/whose obligation is it to serve. These are all powerful questions that lead into thought-provoking discussions. It's a meaningful close to a very meaningful weekend.

We sped back to Roanoke that night. (We got back in like 2 hours. From DC. Not really. But it was fast.)

This weekend was a much needed break, a reassessment of priorities, and a wonderful experience. Thank you for reading!

The Ostentatious Octect.
We're not the Fab Four or the Fierce Five. We're BETTER.

Jill Disbro, Alex Weaver, Joanna Peders, Sarah Neuren, Katie Larrivee, Phillip Barbolla, Mollie Gleason, and Andrew Dittmar

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