Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Reflections of an instructor

I begin my reflection of having taught this explorations of urban poverty course with an analogy. The Lotus flower, a plant that symbolizes many things depending on your religion or spiritual upbringing, to me represents growth and opportunity. The lotus plant in its natural state is typically found floating on top of dingy pond water, yet when its blooms emerge, it brings beauty to an otherwise murky scene. Urban poverty can be a yucky, difficult, topic to confront. Yet what I have seen time and time again, this year being no different, is the beauty that resides in humanity when we learn to confront our stereotypes, challenge our perceptions and step in to conversation with others. Thank you students for your willingness to be opened to new possibilities, new convictions and new challenges to action. You have made teaching a pleasure and each year I too grow and bloom in my understanding.

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To the class of 2017,

Thank you for digging deep and embracing vulnerability as we worked together to unpack our understanding of a very complex societal issue. Your learning has been demonstrated time and time again and I leave you with your own insights...

Things you’ve learned:
  • Poverty and homelessness are not as simple as I once thought.
  • The importance of not oversimplifying the reasons of poverty.
  • Centralized intake is something that really opened my eyes in this class.
  • I am encouraged to donate money that can go towards more resources that the community needs rather than what I judge to be what they need.
  • My map changed a lot in my eyes, I viewed everyone as a person and not as a disappointment.
  • While the government definition of poverty does exist, through this course I found out there are barriers that exclude and/or undervalue many circumstances people may face with poverty.
  • Poverty involves people of all ages and from all walks of life, who have less access to resources to meet their needs compared to the greater community.
  • I know now that poverty is not a person’s defining characteristic…Poverty is an individual experience for everyone who encounters it…Each life story is different and each person’s circumstances are different.
  • I have grown a lot in my understanding of this huge social issue.
  • Homelessness and poverty can happen to anyone at any point in time.
  • The idea of societal responsibility and systemic issues really bloomed throughout the course…I’m walking out of this course feeling like our overarching society has a lot more to do with [the causes of] poverty and homelessness than I had realized before.
  • I came to the conclusion that despite the inefficiencies and harm that charitable volunteerism can do, volunteerism is not an entirely bad thing…however it is going to take a lot more than volunteerism to get our communities out of this giant hole we’ve dug ourselves in as far as poverty and homelessness is concerned.
  • I may be one person, but I am also one person, and one is more than none.
  • My context regarding urban poverty has expanded greatly and most importantly has granted me the ability to look at each individual as someone that doesn’t stand in front or behind me, but right by my side.
  • Urban poverty is complex and is a challenge to fully understand.
  • As a result of my experiences on this trip I have learned a lot about myself.
  • Problems and solutions alike are now intertwined.
  • A two-dimensional piece of paper does not seem sufficient to fully illustrate the complexity and interconnectedness of all these ideas. If I had the time and ability, I would create a three-dimensional sphere with words all around and a complex network of lines connecting the ideas to one another across broad categories.
  • Housing is just one step in alleviating poverty.
  • Issues are often more complex than I had initially imagined.
  • The language we use is important, because it can shape the views of those we are speaking to and prove a more descriptive way of talking about these issues.
  • My heart breaks knowing that the system is set up for them to fail. I hated having the knowledge that this so-called, “land of opportunities” is actually a land of failed systems and sometimes little opportunity, depending on who you are.
  • I definitely gained a ton of knowledge, dove more deeply into the health side of things, stretched to see other perspectives, and have a clearer view of the complexity of issues. This inspired me to take action and use the knowledge I have gained to be a productive in being a solution.
  • Poverty is the lack of choices
  • I found that I did not realize how important people are in your life
  • I think that often times the systems of everyday life are not fair for people with little money…I feel like they are oftentimes being penalized for being poor.
  • I think the reason I was able to hold a negative viewpoint [about homelessness] for so long was because I was not interacting with the issue.
  • There are smaller things I can do now, such as being an advocate for change and voting for people who have policies that are favorable towards helping this cause.
  • Poverty is everywhere, and even in the places where you don’t see it because it’s not always visible.
  • I realized that poverty is one of those things where you think you know what it is until you have to explain yourself, then you don’t know where to even start on the conversation of poverty. Poverty is caused by a myriad of things.
  • Luck doesn’t pick and choose certain people, it just happens.
  • Charitable volunteers…give those who are planning and directing to do more of the other work that needs to be done in order for the organization to function properly.
  • When we don’t provide the space for people to share their views and thoughts, we start to fill in the blanks for them…I believe that as a community, we can create a space where we include everyone in the conversation on what strengths and challenges are in our community.
  • I’ve learned small lessons that will go a long way in the past three weeks such as the importance of eye contact, you are one but you, are one, never assume, and just because someone does not fit the stereotype of poetry does not mean that an individual is not experiencing poverty.
  • Related to the idea of social capital is asking people if they need anything, rather than giving them what we think they need.
  • Our social and professional networks can do more than help us find a job. The social capital we have can support us in times of need.
  • At the beginning of class, my poverty map was basic as it only had a few bubbles…My word map now looks like a system of cycles or circles.
  • I learned that when you want to help someone you need to determine if you‘re actually helping them….I feel that to see if you’re really making a difference, you first need to learn about the subject…learning about poverty helped me want to become more involved and actually help.
  • Specializing on certain groups is very helpful, as certain age and genders have different needs.
  • How easy it is for landlords to exploit the system in their favor, making them richer and their tenants poorer.
  • Now, I define poverty as the lack of choices that would enable a person to be successful and have access to the necessary resources to get the goods and services they need to survive.
  • You cannot tell if someone is homeless by looking at them.
  • I had never thought about how volunteers could cause harm in the communities that they are just trying to help.
About the class itself:
  • This has been one of the most difficult and fulfilling classes that I have taken at Drake University, and has created an interest in me to become an engaged citizen in the community.
  • This [class] is one experience I will never forget about and I hope I influenced some people along the way of my journey.
  • To take the title of the AOI this course is fulfilling for me to heart, I feel as though this course has shaped me in to a much more engaged citizen within our community, more aware of the true issues that need to be solved, and more emotionally invested in being a part of finding some of those solutions.
  • This course has opened my eyes to so much and caused me to reflect a lot on my own life. The word maps are a great way to visualize what we have learned and to see how much we have grown.
  • This class helped me grow as a person, as I was able to learn that poverty is a very complicated issue that is more than just about work ethic. 
  • This class taught me to think deeply about things that might even seem simple and try to think about how they might be related to deeper issues.
  • This class has completely changed my perspectives on homelessness and poverty.
  • Seeing poverty unclose changed my viewpoint and educated me better than any lecture ever could.
  • From this experience, I feel that I have grown as a volunteer, engaged citizen and as a leader. I have a desire to volunteer more and help in any way I can.

Actions you are committing to:
  • Donating cash, not canned goods
  • Clothing/jeans drives for men 
  • Volunteer with kids and families, helping even one child avoid poverty is a success
  • Personally volunteering at one of the orgs we visited here in Des Moines
  • Organizing a social media awareness campaign
  • Organizing a volunteer day with your student or greek org
  • Continuing to research and educate yourself on the topic (some have already done this through listening to podcasts, reading more articles, etc)
  • Sharing your experience with friends and family as a way to advocate for the homeless community

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Soup Kitchens: Catholic v Jewish

Tuesday and Thursday were both soup kitchen days. Although we provided similar services both days, they were vastly different experiences for me. On Tuesday, the Mighty Ducks (my service team) went to Fraternite Notre Dame, and served a meal of chicken, rice and lentils with two French Catholic sisters, only one of whom spoke some English. Thursday brought us to B'nai Jeshurun, a Jewish synagogue, where countless volunteers served soup, sandwiches, sides, a desserts restaurant style. Neither organization pushed a religious agenda and welcomingly served anyone who entered their doors, limiting second servings to ensure everyone had enough food. 

These experiences sound like they could have been similar... why weren't they? The answer lies in the organization, leadership, and honestly resources (not even referring to financial) of the different organizations. Additionally, I learned some transferable skills this week to take with me, but also realized skills I had that I used and didn't expect to use as I did. 

Looking at the organization of the different soup kitchens gives a first glance at the different experiences. Fraternite Notre Dame included no initial orientation, or direction really throughout the entire experience. We all managed to get our hairnets and aprons on, but didn't know what was happening until after we finished serving the meal. Although we figured out what to do, had we not taken initiative, we could have sat there while the sisters worked 3x as hard. B'nai Jeshurun on the other hand had Carl running the show. From the moment we entered the building and found the kitchen he was spouting off directions, specifying, "I want neat. This is not a race. Don't get my peanut putter and jelly baggies messy." He joked around with us too, turning up "man in the mirror" by Michael Jackson and was essentially direct us the whole time, making sure we had enough supplies and doing the dirty work of dishes in between. After completing the tasks to make the to-go meals, Carl called it a day, passed the baton and Esther sat down with all of us. She asked to get to know us and our expectations and shared about the once a week lunch program at the synagogue, her story, and involvement. Esther then directed the show, matched us with volunteers (there were probably a dozen or so there our of a pool of 65 that rotate each week). I was extremely impressed by the leadership and organization. Different people were in charge of different components and each volunteer knew who to go to for different questions. 

What can I take away from this? It is more fulfilling and productive to be organized and to give clear directions and have an understanding of expectations. It is essential that someone is directing the process, even if they personally don't work as much, to enable collective success. I know I am more of a big-picture person, so it was affirming to see the need and importance of having the person directing traffic. In my life I think it will benefit me to work in areas where I can use this strength and drive I have. 

Organization is intertwined with leadership. The sisters essentially did not lead. We more or less ran the show. This isn't necessarily bad, but I feel like more could be accomplished with clearer leadership. There was a huge language barrier which made things difficult, however I feel like making picture directions for volunteers at different stations (dishes, serving line, etc) is a way I would have improved the process. 

Carl and Esther and all the volunteers at the synagogue exemplified leadership as everyone knew their task and provided us with knowledge, resources, and inspiration to be successful. 

I know this class can qualify for the Lead concentration, which I do not have, but completely understand. I want to be the leader. I want to step up, discuss expectations, and give direction when appropriate. That being said, I've practiced and believe it is important to step back and be an excellent follower, completing tasks to progress a cause, like spreading peanut butter for sandwiches. Everyone has their own style, I will own my style and be the best I can at it. 

Resources are another point to discuss. There were probably financial differences, but I didn't dive into understanding that this week. Resources I saw include the synagogue had chef and 65 volunteers. They had the resource of people and were able to mobilize and inspire them to make change. 

I learned these concepts in the setting of poverty and working with people experiencing hunger and homelessness, but these skills are so transferable. In the reverse, I've learned that as I have goals, ambition, and a story, every person I met this week does as well. I started the week thinking I was uncomfortable when working with people experiencing homelessness, but the question-asked I am, I learned quickly on ways to relate. In the end our conversations weren't all that different even though their immediate situations were different than mine. I hope to build upon these experiences as I go forth with a goal to be a pharmacist working with diverse populations. I want to be able to relate to patients and provide appropriate recommendations to people in different settings. I will do this by asking questions to understand where my patient is at and what there understanding like I would with any patients. Instead of being uncomfortable, I will ask questions to clarify and competently provide recommendations and education. 

This week has been so much more than the direct service we have done. Although I'd love to share my experiences with Lincoln, the Dominican City Harvest delivery man, the 3 year olds that I danced with at a daycare for children of previously incarcerated women, or the technology savvy food pantry, this week was so much more. I learned about successful structures of organizations, how to better communicate and relate to human beings experiencing different things than myself, and I have thought of so many more questions that I look forward to continuing to try and solve like: How can I be an instrumental tool in helping people understand and treat mental health conditions? How can we show more people what the realities are of people experiencing homelessness? And how can we motivate different organizations to work together to have a larger collective impact?

Friday, January 13, 2017

Not On My Subway

Not On My Subway

The New York subway was our main form of transportation around the city besides the use of our own two feet. When you see a traffic jam, hear honking cars that seem distressed for no reason and the hustle and bustle of city life above ground and surrounded by buildings that scrape the sky you sometimes forget that there is a city beneath the city. Far beneath.

We were warned not to stare at people when we first got off the plane last Friday while traveling to Manhattan on a bus. This was something that seemed as though it was going to be difficult not to do (not thy I have a staring problem) given I wanted to absorb the people around me- how they act, the look on their faces and applying what we learned previous to our arrival in New York City about what is means to be in poverty.

After forgetting my city pass at the church we were staying at before entering the Empire State Building, one of our fearless leaders and I had the privilege of riding the subway twice. Yes, we had to travel a half an hour back to the church. When we got on the subway for the second time there was a man who announced he hadn't eaten all day. Mind you this was only mid morning and was very apologetic for any inconveniences he had bestowed among those riding at the time. This created silent on the subway car and no one offered anything to feed this man's hunger. Through observation is was hard to tell whether or not he was homeless, in poverty or just needed a meal at that particular moment in time. Given he was a well dressed man, the time of day, and the fact that he was not asking for money, made me question his integrity and motive. What was rustling through my head was whether or not to offer food or money. Most people give dollars to those asking for this type of assistance and in the larger scheme of things, how far will that dollar go and what will it then lead to?

First, we offered him an apple and he rejected it. This was shocking. I then offered him only a nutrigrain bar which at the time was the only piece of food I had on my person, which he took as he ended up taking. The strange thing about our offerings to this man was that at the last minute he requested that he wanted the apple and before we were able to hand it over we had to quickly leave the subway train because we had reached our stop and were in a hurry.

The instructor and myself reflected upon the experience we had just had. We were two people from Des Moines, Iowa who gave a stranger something he needed in order to live. We pondered the idea of what would he have done with a few dollars if we were to give him money. Also, did he even end up eating the nutrigrain bar I gave to him or end up throwing it away because it wasn't what he wanted? His announcement to the subway car was very direct and seemed heartfelt and genuine at the time so of course we wanted to help.

After this occurrence, besides the fact that we were able to make it back to the Empire State Building, we were able to bring our experience back to the rest of the class and I was able to discuss this experience with class. By this point the whole class had seen what are called "beggars" on the subway but in different settings. For example, the number of people on the subway plays a large factor as well as those begging. Sometimes we are packed in like sardines and other times there is much room to spare on our various subway rides. More people to give, but also more people to reject the requests of those asking for food and/or money.

Through this experience, along with others that played out throughout the week, I gained a new perspective on what it takes to get what you need or want on a day to day basis and the circumstances you will go to in order to make it happen. I suppose first, you don't say anything and end up on a corner with a sign, silent, hoping someone will spare you some change. Then on the flip side, if you are surrounded by people who you know will not be moving for a while and are in close proximity with each other, you beg or in other words become vocal about your needs.

This man I encountered on the subway used language and phrasing such as, "Everybody if I could get your attention please. Everyone please for one minute of your time. I hope I am not bothering you and/or making you feel uncomfortable in any sort of way but I have not eaten all day and if you could spare me anything it would be much appreciated. I hope you have a wonderful day and God bless."

After hearing the respect of this man it was very challenging from an emotional standpoint not to comply and give in to his request or any request with that as the starting phrase. In New York City there is a saying called nimby- short for "not in my back yard." People seemed to be so used to "beggars" that they will not even look them in the eyes and stare while they are talking. When someone is requesting simple items that could be life or death at any given point it comes down to your own humanity and whether or not you are an enabler or disabler. The subway is even a place for learning and, given the reason we were there in the first place was because we were taking a class about urban poverty, it seemed as though it was a mini lesson in and of itself.

Thanks for reading,

Reaching Out Reflection

On Wednesday we visited reaching-out community services, which included a food pantry and other services. The food pantry was located in Brooklyn, by various other stores nearby. As we walked in, I noticed a small lobby area with a  reception desk area. We asked for Tom, who was our contact for the pantry. We were escorted to farther back to a small food pantry. Tom shook everyone's hands and told us a little bit about the location. He had worked at the pantry for about 25 years and mentioned that it providing food for 16 codes around the area. Also it was open 9-5pm Monday through Friday. I was very surprised that the organization  served that many areas around it. That was a significant amount of people, not just people close by. It really opened my eyes to how many people were experiencing hunger. From this it seemed that shelter was a bigger operation then most, because it also was open 8 hours day, 5 days a week. I became interested in how the pantry could help out so many people? I thought that it might not be very effective, due to how many families it was serving. I remember thinking about how toxic charity mentioned that food pantries may not give much choice and just create more dependence. it would be pretty hard to give every family a choice considering how many came in.

Next Tom told us how about how the shelter operated. They used an online system where clients would select online what food they wanted. The system would record the basic information about the family to determine how much food they received and customize the options to their needs. For example, if a person had a cat, cat food would appear. If they didn't, then cat food would not even appear as a option. After the order was made, the staff of the pantry, would prepare it in back and then bring it out toward the client. Each client was required to show an id, to avoid any stealing. This system was very unique, as the costumer didn't physically pick each item. This saved so much time, as the pantry had little space and deciding between two things could hold the line up. It also prevented stealing as each client didn't have access to food storage area. Also inventory could be calculated by the computer and then by hand to get a much more accurate count. This system clearly made the food pantry more efficient. But from previous experiences and discussions in this class, I had learned that every organization trying help poverty has its drawbacks. The system worked well but was clearly expensive, not every organization could afford this, especially new organizations. Old churched might be outdated and not be able to implement such a system. Also people could ask their friends to get extra food for them and even borrow their identification. This food received by each family only supported them short term.

Tom then sent us upstairs to meet with Adrian and help organize excess toys left over. The organization also hosted outreach programs that provided children with toys during the holidays. Despite being past the holidays, people had still decided to donate toys, which created this clutter. We organized these toys in bins and bought them to the basement. The area was packed with items, so put the toys on the floor. Adrian also mentioned that most of the shelves were half empty or filled with junk. This showed another drawback, as the organization operated in a small space that was crowded by its inventory. I assumed that trying to finding a bigger building that could accommodate better to the organization's needs would be hard to come by in Brooklyn. Also this space would be very costly and probably could not be afforded by pantry. I did wonder if the organization decided to add the computer system instead of buying a new location. Other  organizations might have choose to operate in a new location instead of  the system. This shows how different organizations might want to stop poverty but have very different ideas and agendas.

  Next we went back to the food pantry to help prepare orders. We were taught how to gather the food for each order by Dan, who had recently retired. Despite being very blunt, it seemed that he must be fairly dedicated to the pantry as he was volunteering and retired. A receptionist or an automated message would say next order, then a receipt would spew out of a machine. Each item appeared in order, on the paper, in the order they were located in the pantry. After the order was complete we would go to the lobby and call out the order number. Then we would id the person and hand them their food. We punched out a few orders and had to leave, because of how far away this part of Brooklyn was from the church and the Brooklyn bridge. It was also mentioned that today was a slow day and that it was very hard to predict how the day would go. Tom said he could make a pretty good guess but he  were often shown to be wrong. I wondered what a busy day would look like, when a truck delivered and many clients lined up for food. There was no loading dock so this would cause a lot of traffic through the front door. Also this could require many more workers, which would be hard to fit in the small space.

Overall I thought the organization did do a good job of using a modern system to efficiently run the pantry. I did wonder how many times a person could come and pick up food a month. They mentioned some did come in twice a month, which would cause the family to become dependent on the  pantry. Also what actual effects did the pantry have its clients. Toxic charities mentioned that some neighborhoods adopted food bank systems that the people experiencing poverty operated themselves. I wonder if this pantry could start creating a system like that or would they lack the resources to do this? The area also might be way to big, but they could start adopting this in small areas one at a time. This even might take too many resources. Another route they might go long term, would be to adapt some housing and or job programs. This also would be very costly, but could be a option in the future. This might not be the most realistic option, due to the high costs of living in New York. The organization might also be taking smaller steps to address these needs, that I wasn't aware off. They did provide some financial assistance and case meetings. Reaching out could include some more services in the future but its computer system did make it stand out from other food pantries. I would also be interested to see how the the organization had grown through out the years and what changes it had made.

Volunteers from Iowa!

Thursday morning dawned sunny and warm. Even a few morning delays (rushed breakfast, forgotten metro card, etc.) couldn't get the Alpha Dogs down. We had one more day of service and fun evening plans ahead of us; why wouldn't we be excited? I had no idea that this would be by far my favorite service experience from the trip.
We arrived at Masbia, a Kosher soup kitchen in Brooklyn, and were welcomed warmly by the kitchen's director Levi (pronounced Lay-vee), who was excited to meet a group of volunteers from a location as exotic as Iowa. He gave us a brief overview of Masbia's regular weekly activities. Divided among three locations, the organization provides hot meals Sunday through Thursday and food from the large pantry downstairs on Friday. We were then divided into a couple of groups. My group was led into the small kitchen space and shown how to pack a hot meal of rice, vegetables, and chicken which had already been prepared earlier that morning. My task was to seal the lids on the boxes. Levi stressed the importance of this task. "Take an extra minute," he said. "We want to make sure everyone feels like they're getting an intact meal." It took us about two hours to finish packing the 220 meals, which were being sent to Queens. While performing the repetitive tasks of sealing the packages and later scooping vegetables into the containers, I began to think about the end result of the work our little assembly line was doing. Sure 220 people in Queens were going to receive a hot meal, but what's 220 full stomachs when about 60,000 New Yorkers are spending the night in a shelter at any given point in time? I also thought it seemed inconvenient to prepare the food in one location and then transport it somewhere else. Why not just prepare the food in Queens where it was going to be handed out? It turns out, as we found out during our reflection at YSOP, that Masbia had actually lost the building at its Queens location. The organization now handed out the meals we prepared in Brooklyn in front of the old building. I was amazed; I had no idea how important those 220 meals were. Our willingness as volunteers to package the food in Brooklyn meant that the organization didn't have to fail its clients in Queens. It meant that 220 people who relied on Masbia for high quality Kosher meals wouldn't have to travel the distance to Brooklyn, find a new place to go, or go hungry. It reminded me of a conversation from earlier in the week, from which emerged a question that shifted my focus for the trip and for the class. What can I, as one individual, do to help those experiencing poverty and homelessness? It's impossible for one person acting alone to completely solve these issues, and many times our own efforts can seem too small. But through our work at Masbia on Thursday I learned that my efforts often have far-reaching effects I may not even know about. Even though 220 meals and 2 hours out of my day might seem small, it's actually big, bigger than I even knew.
On the other hand, my experience at Masbia got me thinking about pooling resources and the lack of communication and centralization among the organizations we have visited in New York. Couldn't another organization in Queens offer up its kitchen for Masbia, so that meals could be prepared on site? It would have taken me much longer to make 220 meals on my own than it did with three of my classmates helping. The same should apply to organizations, right?
My thoughts continued in this vein throughout the rest of our day. We ate the same food that had been packaged (and sampled what was for dinner) as a quick lunch, then spent the rest of the day chopping carrots and unloading donations amid a flurry of other volunteer activity around us. Earlier in the day, Levi had told us that Masbia usually sees about 120 volunteers a day, going in and out between 6am and midnight. At first, looking around the small dining area and kitchen, I thought, Really? What for? Seeing the amount of work to be done in the afternoon on "donation day" (Thursday) showed me what for. Once again I realized just how little a group of seven people could do on its own. It would take many more volunteers to unload all the extra food coming in for the pantry. We barely seemed to make a dent in the bags and bags of carrots that needed to be peeled and chopped. Working together with many others, however, all of it would get done. It seems only natural to apply this concept at an organizational level. It seems that many of those concerned with poverty and homelessness in New York have already decided that centralizing the city's efforts would be too difficult. My question is, what's the harm in trying? All it takes is a few people to lead the charge. Why was our group so successful at Masbia on Thursday? We had an encouraging and organized leader in Levi. It's a good idea and it makes sense; we can all see the effects of our actions reach further if we combine our efforts and work together. If a few people were to really get behind and organize a centralized approach in New York, there would be no shortage of hands to carry it out. With rising technology, there must be ways of connecting people who have never even heard of each other and moving them toward a more collective approach. We've all seen the difference a combined effort can make. Big change can be difficult, but who knows? By the time I make it back to New York City, things might be a little different.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Monday, January 9, 2017

Because it's long, here's an overview:
I went to Hour children who helps incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women. I hungout with the kids of these women (and some other kids from the community). I had a lot of thoughts about any harm my community service efforts could be doing.

Today my group and I went to Hour Children in the Queens area.

Hour Children’s mission is to help incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their children successfully rejoin the community.  I would encourage you to visit their website to learn more:

We learned that if the children are born in the prison in NY, they are allowed to stay in the in a facility in the prison for up to 18 months. Renee then told us that in Des Moines, at the Mitchell women's prison, a baby would be taken away from it's mother  only 3 days after it's born.  Maybe they believe that having the babies in the facility is too dangerous. Maybe there are political and physical barriers. But if we know that this is an issue, we should be pushing to help fix them.  It is critical for the baby to be with the mother for the first 6-18 months. Babies that are separated at birth or at too young of an age will have a harder time as an adult, statistically. If we take the babies away from their mothers to early we will help create the same struggle cycle. Renee told us a very unique story yesterday. She asked, "What if we're standing by the river and we saw a cat floating down the river?" Obviously someone said ( I think it was Mark), "Well it's not a dog so..." Pretty funny 😂😂. But all jokes aside, she continued, "We save it right? Well, what if we come back the next day and see another cat? And the next day another?  What if we decide to walk up the river and see a hole in the fence where cats keep getting through?" Obviously then we have to patch the hole. We need to go to the source and fix the problem. I also thought that we should educate the cats. Tell them, "If you go down this path you're going to die. I don't know where you're going but there are better options". We need to be aware of our actions and if theyre simpy pulling the cat out of the water, or patching the hole.

 When we got to Hour Children we were greeted nicely and brought across the street where some of us would be helping with the children. Hour Children holds a daycare for people in the community, as well as the children of recently prisoned women. Good daycare can be hard to find so having a place for the locals to go was great to hear. Hour Children also has a food pantry for people in the community in need.

When we got to the facility, Linda, our guide, told us that we could either play with the children or work at the food pantry. I wasn't sure which one I wanted to do. Would I be awkward around the children? Would I be able to help them? When she asked who wanted to do the pantry, half of the group raised their hands.

So children it was.

Linda, which by the way means beautiful in Spanish, brought us to 3 rooms. The first was filled with babies, all of them sitting in high chairs, all very cute☺️ The second was filled with toddlers, whose ages probably ranged from 1-2 years old. They seemed happy and excited to have guests.
It's interesting how, as a child, our parents shield us from a lot of the bad in the world.  It was amazing to see these children, whose mothers have had a rough time, playing and enjoying being a kid.  They appeared to have a normal life, from what I could see at the daycare.
The third room we entered would be my room. We entered and almost immediately a little girl grabbed my hand and led me to the toys. I had some immediate concerns. I wondered, should I go with her? Will she have a hard time letting me go at the end of the day? I looked back to see if it was alright to go with her but before I could turn around, I heard someone say, "you've been chosen" I assumed it was safe to stay. Michelle, from our group, also hungout in the room and just like me, a little one latched onto her quickly. The room held about 10 kids and most of them seemed to have no issue inviting us to play. The were very trustworthy right from the get-go. We played, had snacks, played some more, had lunch then laid them down for nap time. It was a good time😊 I tried to help a little girl fall asleep for nap time. As I sat there with her, I couldn't help but think, what happens if she falls alseep and I'm not there when she wakes up? Will she ask for me and her new friends? I left before she fell asleep, all of the visitors were too much of a distraction.   In my opinion, it was better.

When we got back to YSOP, who we will be working with this week, our leader Lisa asked some thought provoking questions. Here's the link for YSOP, too. Please take some time to check them out: Anyways, to start off with, I told her and the group how I was "chosen" and I raised some of the concerns I had with this. She told me that YSOP people go there frequently and that the children mostly trust people in the YSOP shirts they had given us. It eased my nerves, I did feel a little bad for not being as special, but I felt better. I would feel awful if the children asked for me or for one of the other helpers the next day.  One of the questions she asked was, "Are we harming them in any way?" I brought up what I had been thinking during nap time. One idea Robert Lupin talks about in his book Toxic Charity is the unintended consequences our actions have, whether they're good or bad. I was excited to be going in and helping but was it actually helping? Is it helping the child who gets some new friends for the day? Or is it helping me feel better about myself for having served the community?  When we serve at food pantries or donate our old food, are we really helping those in need? Do they want our stinky old sardines? Are they going to enjoy eating them? Or are we helping ourselves feel better by donating, even if it isn't effective. By hearing what the community service vets have to say I have been able to learn a lot about the side effects of my service and various factors to consider.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Nutrition

On Saturday, Brian and I were tasked with the difficult task of grocery shopping to please our fellow travel group with a balanced, nutritious foods (as recommended by the U.S. government) for Sunday’s breakfast and lunch. The catch, we had $4.50 from each person to simulate the average amount a person receives through food stamps daily. Brian and I worked diligently to find portions sizes and recommended servings per day of each food group to meet the government’s advised balanced plate. I consider myself a people-pleaser, so after creating a list of groceries, we thought met both nutrition and price point, we allowed the whole group to tell s what they liked and what they didn’t on the future menu. Come Sunday, when grocery shopping was all said and done, both breakfast and lunch were a hit—with everyone feeling full and even leaving some food leftover! With a group of fourteen of us, it was pretty easy to get feedback about the foods everyone wanted and were in need of nutritionally-speaking. However, the first site visit I went to four service learning project showed me just how more inefficient the food distribution system is for the organizations serving those struggling in poverty.
            Jan Hus, a church my team visited as our first site visit on Monday, does a load of different services for those experiencing homelessness including a meal service, a clothing closet, street outreach, and a food pantry. My first task, as I was led down the staircase by our point-person from the church, Jordan, was to help down in the food pantry with shipments. Little did Jordan know, as my partner Sam and I were walking in to start our job, we would be learning so much more than by just doing.
            A 78-year-old man and a member of the church named Hank let Sam and I in on some news, “Well,” started Hank, “it doesn’t look like we got any shipments in today.” As we walked into the small food pantry, he led us into a corner and leaned on a shelving unit filled with many different types of food. The food pantry was much smaller than I was used to, even smaller than the one I worked in in my rural Iowan hometown. I asked Hank how many people were served at their facility. He said there were 2,500-3,000 people they assisted through the food pantry and the meal service (an equivalent to half the population in my hometown).
            Because the nature of our task was no longer needed based on the lack of a shipment to unpack, Hank took the time to tell us about his experience both in life and about his work at the church. Hank mentioned he was once a veteran and later on became a county judge, but at some point started struggling with an addiction to cocaine which landed him in prison a couple times. After his incarceration, he could no longer find work and soon found himself in the midst of homelessness. Now that he ran the food pantry, he knew the food distribution system and the problems within it.
            What I gained most from Hank (because I learned a lot) was the lack of communication between the church and the organizations who donated food to the pantry. “You see these juice boxes,” Hank said as he acknowledged the odd assortment of food to be given to those living on the streets, “these are not nearly big enough.” Regarding the quantity of boxes he’d have to give one of their clientele to meet their needs and nutrition. He also mentioned that they receive gallons upon gallons of canned peaches and spinach, yet the food bank never gave them sliced bread.

            Looking at both struggles Hank had in homelessness and running operations for the church’s food pantry, I realized that the resources trying to help by donating food were not running it nearly effectively as they could be. Regarding the grocery shopping experience and how successful Brian and I were at meeting the needs of our team, I wondered why the services filling the food pantries, especially through tax payer dollars, were not succeeding. First, Hank and I both mentioned communication barriers a few times—mainly that those who give do not ask the needs of those they are giving to—they just give. Which, while well intentioned, just produces a lot of wasted or unutilized items. Second, the people who give do not have enough knowledge about those the service organization is serving. In the case of Jan Hus, there were many canned goods that just sit on their shelves for months because many of their clientele do not have access to a can opener. Finally, Hank and I had a light conversation over politics, and while I may not have agreed with many of his views, we both agreed on this: the divisiveness between political parties, race, gender, etcetera has not helped—especially in the case of churches and other private bodies. Hank mentioned five other local churches who hosted weekly meals and clothing closets, but NONE of them worked together. When Abraham Lincoln said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” I had no clue his words would ever ring true to churches and for other services trying to meet the needs of those who are homeless. Maybe Brian and I got it right in our grocery shopping strategy for our group of fourteen people, but much more will have to be done to fix these roadblocks for Jan Hus church.

Hour Children

Tuesday was our first day on service sites with YSOP. My team got assigned to work with a group called Hour Children. The non-profit works with incarcerated mothers to help them raise their children. We were told the name stemmed from the fact that children of incarcerated parents only get to visit them for one hour a week.

I was blown away during our brief orientation by the sheer number of resources that were available through this organization alone. They not only provided daycare and weekly prison visits for children, but also extensive work with the mothers including programs, housing, and a food pantry. It must be incredibly convenient for these mothers to have access to everything in one place. I think that it probably encourages the mothers to know they not only have the organization's help, but also the network of other mothers in the program. This network leads to a low reincarceration rate of only 3%.

I was nervous because this was our first service experience of the trip and didn't know what to expect when we first got there. Getting to work in the food pantry with a woman named Alyssa helped me to learn more about the program. The pantry mostly served the Hour Children mothers, but also a portion of the local Spanish and Mandarin community.

The pantry was closed due to weather, but we had prepwork to do for Thursday when it opened. This made me wonder how they told people they were closed besides the sign on the door; which I thought negated the point of being closed so their clients didn't slip in the icy parking lot. Do their clients have cell phones? Or internet access? But it also made me think about their clients. What would they do for those two extra days before they could come to the pantry? Would they have to stretch their meager remaining food for two extra days? Would they have to beg on the street? Would they ave to dip into their rent money for food? What extra stress and decisions does this inconvenience add to the clients' stressful lives?

Monday, January 9, 2017


Today was the first full day of service and the day that many of us were waiting for over the course of the weekend. After dividing the group into two groups of seven. My team, nicknamed The Mighty Ducks, make the journey to Queens to serve at the Hour Children.  This organization works for women who currently or have been incarcerated for nonviolent crimes and their children. We learned from Lisa, the women who gave us first instructions, that in New York some women's prisons have nurseries while allow babies born in prison to stay with their mothers up until 18 months or their mothers time ends. This is important because the bond a baby and mother make in the first year is impossible to recreate and by being separated it hurts both child and mother for the long term. Upon hearing how this system worked our instructor told us that in Iowa/ Des Moines the same is not true. From our area, babies born in prison are removed from their mothers after only three days either to different family members or to foster care. This broke my heart.  After hearing the importance to keeping the mother and child together I can't imagine how hard it must be for mothers to see their newborns taken away from them just because of their current situation.  While I understand that the Iowa faculty might not have the room, funding, or staffing required to replicate what is done here there has to be a better, more dignified way to allow new mothers to be mother.  The emotional toll this must take on the new mothers is unimaginable and I think something, even minor changes would be better st this point. I hope, once I'm back in Des Moines to be able to take time and learn more about what is done both in Iowa and my home state of Missouri and see how we can provide dignity.
     I say dignity because that was not only one of the underlining themes of "Toxic Charity" by Robert Lupton, but also because Hour Children cites it as one of their main missions as well. The area that I spent most of my day was in their food pantry. While this isn't their main mission they do put a lot of resources towards the running of the pantry and working with the community that way. At the pantry we met Alyssa, a young energetic women who is a trained Dietitian, who runs the pantry. After organizing massive amount of bread and eggs that had been delivered on Sunday we were able to ask her questions about her job. As a pantry that allows people to shop like they would any other grocery store, rather than giving out bags of predetermined food, it allows people to shop with dignity and to get the items they like and will eat.  We asked her what she would like to see donated more and immediately she responded "cash". Monetary donations are far more valuable than canned foods most often given during food drives. Along with government subsidies and the ability to buy in bulk from local vendors nonprofits can spread even a dollar into more food that a private citizen could ever buy. This concept was not new to me. Last year I saw a show called "Adam Ruins Everything" where the host busts the myths of commonly believed things such as engagement rings being an innocent sign of love and mouthwash being created to solve bad breath.  In the shows first episode the host advocated that clothing drives, food drives and penny drives are all just empty ways that people think does good but in many times can harm the system. For example by donating food that has been sitting in a cabinet for 5 year and had long past expired this takes away resources the pantry need stocking and sorting the fresh food they get in sometimes everyday. When cans are donated volunteers must sort to see what is expired and what hasn't and then toss anything expired. By seeing someone who works in the industry say the same things advocated on that show it not only reinforces how widespread the problem is but also how important it is. The one thing that I took the most comfort in is the fact there is a real soliton or at the very least a path that we can all work toward and that is #donateCashNotTrash. With this knowledge in mind I will be sure to take that with me in life by not only donating money but educating and encouraging others to do the same.  By being responsible community members and understanding how our efforts affect those who our actions intend to help hopefully more progress can be made in the hunger problem that faces our country today. Of all the issues around poverty that has been discussed thus far food insecurity and food pantry are undoubtedly where my passions are and I hope that we continue to focus resources around that area.  My family has also focused around food and cooking and my mom is a wonderful baker. With food being one of the basic needs of life and how constant it has always been for me I can't really image what must go though some people's minds as they ration items between food pantry stops or when food stamps come out. Anyways today was a great day to start in service and I am excited to see what challenges and new experiences lie ahead of us as a group and for me personally.

Health & Wealth

Saturday started out in an interesting way. When I read about the food desert and saw the instructions for the day on what we were to eat, I was shocked at the idea of eating snacks all day. I've been trying to stay away from sugary processed food because of my teeth but that was impossible because if you truly live in a food desert, your options would be limited. As hard as it sounded initially, I couldn't even complain because there are people who may disklike sugary stuff, but they have no option. Dental insurance is expensive and if that's not an option, your teeth can be very unhealthy after years of eating sugary food. In my country where poverty is observed by people being very skinny, in the US it's the complete opposite because cheap food is unhealthy food. Obesity happens sometimes because kids don't have an option in what they eat, maybe there isn't any fruit available at home. If we tried to eliminate obesity, we should make grocery stores more available with affordable options where buying a fruit is as cheap as buying potato chips. Throughout the day, even though our minds were set in exploring and being tourists, it was hard to observe the things happening in our surrounding.
On the subway, I saw several people experiencing homelessness. Because I normally don't use public transport in Des Moines, that to me was not common. Some of the individuals were sleeping inside the train while others were seated outside at different stops. I'd be curious to know if they were waiting for a train to get them somewhere or if they sat in the station all day. To get down to the subway, you have to have a pass which can be pricy. Because of the pricing, I was wondering if the individuals chose to purchase tickets in the winter because the subway stations and subways themselves are warmer than being outside?
While at the 9/11 museum, the video titled Rebirth at ground zero mentioned a statement that really resonated with me and was again resurfaced at dinner while discussing the distribution of wealth. "why does anyone have to suffer?" After experiencing what a few hours without proper nutrition can do to you,it became very apparent that not having the basic human needs is a crisis that we as a general population need to be more aware of because lack of knowledge leads us to judge others for their lack of involvement.
When you're cold or hungry, it's hard to think of anything outside of your situation. You try to survive each day, which can make long term life planning difficult. I kept thinking about how I didn't feel the best during the day and I found that it was hard to focus, I had to keep telling myself to focus on what was going on and that was just a few hours. After the process, I thought about if for example, I'm a student who doesn't know how I will find proper food during the weekend, how can I apply myself in school so that I'm keeping up with my assigned course work? This lead me to the conclusion that wealth and health have some correlation and if we address the health part, then we give individuals the opportunity to not have to worry about the bottom of the hierarchy of needs but can start thinking about other things that can help improve their lives.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Big Apple or Big Bag of Chips?

     After a rough first night of sleep in our New York home away from home, the 6:45am alarm wasn't quite enough motivation to get me out of bed. It had gotten progressively colder throughout the night, and I couldn't bear to come out from my sleeping bag + blanket cocoon. Instead, I had the daily internal war with myself that I always do when I'm supposed to get up early; I call it the Battle of How Much Longer Can I Sleep and Still Look Halfway Presentable. After several minutes of sleepy, silent debate, I finally forced myself out of bed as my stomach growled: food is always a decent motivator. But as the haziness of too little sleep the night before wore off, I remembered we hadn't ended up buying any groceries yesterday. "That's okay," I thought, "They're not gonna let us starve."
     Little did I anticipate the surprise that came with breakfast. On the table near the kitchen, all sorts of junk food was laid out - Ritz bits, candy bars, fruit snacks, Capri suns, Cheetos - with a sign reading, "Food desert: Geographic areas where residents' access to affordable, healthy options are restricted or non-existent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance. Happy breakfast!" I looked over the junk food before me, and as I grabbed some fruit snacks and thought, "This will have to do," I realized how people experiencing poverty very well may feel when they stand at the grocery store picking through the limited "healthy" options before them that fit their budget. The phrase, "Poverty is the lack of choices," from class last week came to my mind. Thinking back to my high school days working as a grocery store cashier, I knew just how expensive the healthy, nutritious food options were, but I have always taken for granted the ability to buy more groceries than necessary from each USDA recommended food group. As I chowed down on an Almond Joy supplementary to my fruit snacks for breakfast, I felt frustrated not only by my lack of options, but frustrated with my own ignorance of the cost of basic needs.
     As the day wore on and we took a sobering trip to the 9/11 memorial museum, the biological effects of not having a nutritious meal all day started to set in. Not only is not having the option to eat healthy frustrating, but the long-term ability of junk food to keep your hunger satisfied is minimal. In combination with the many strong feelings of sadness, distress, and heartbreak evoked by the 9/11 memorial exhibits, a lack of nutrients brought on more tiredness and a lack of ability to concentrate. Renee asked us to take how we were feeling in those moments just before leaving the museum to imagine we were children living in poverty whose parents had just had a big fight the night before, and we had to go to school the next morning. I suddenly felt a surge of empathy for the children for whom this is a daily reality; I felt sick to my stomach, dehydrated, and disenchanted by the world around me. I couldn't focus. 
     If I'd had to sit down and write this blog in that moment, I would have felt set up for failure. I pondered how unfair it is that we hold school children who feel like this on a daily basis to the same standard as children who come from privileged homes. It made me upset as I realized firsthand how those who live in poverty are not set up for success given their circumstances, even just by not having a nutritious meal. Throw that in with emotions of sadness and distress from daily stressors, and possibly a lack of sleep; you'd have a recipe for disaster.
     Our next major stop of the day was the Tenement Museum. After spending a while wandering around a snowy and slushy Manhattan, we were ready for a break from the cold. Though our walking tour had been canceled due to the unfavorable weather conditions, we eagerly headed off on our "Hard Times" tour through narrow hallways into the first of two 325-square-feet apartments. It was here in this building that over 7,000 people had lived in the 70 years between the 1870s and the 1940s. Our first story began in the late 1800s as our tour guide narrated for us the lives of the Gumpertz family from Germany, who had lived there for several years as a family of 6 before the husband deserted the family and left his wife Natalie to fend for herself and her 4 children alone. 
     As our tour guide discussed one of the options for charitable help at the time, we looked over a recovered document from the time determining who in the tenement was to receive charitable financial aid. I was struck by some of the words I saw, in particular the words "worthy," "respectful," and "deserving of aid," which appeared several times. It occurred to me how different this method was compared to how we do things now. Back then, help was given based off a person's moral character - things like whether a person or family was "respectful" was a huge deal. Nowadays, there are strict rules set in place for receiving aid, "poverty" is determined by rigid dollar amounts, there are set processes in place, and there are mounds of paperwork to fill out. It seemed to me how much simpler it may have been for the Gumpertz family and other tenants of the tenement to get the help they needed compared to now. I wondered, what happened to the importance of taking someone's character into account when making decisions? Just yesterday we saw 5 people sleeping on the street; I know nothing about any of them. There's I would feel qualified to make a decision as to who was the most "worthy" on behalf of an organization in charge of distributing aid to any of those 5 people. How can organizations morally determine who gets how much help with just a stack of papers filled with numbers and raw data? Has the problem of poverty blown up to such a large scale that such giving based on a person's moral character isn't possible? This single paper on our tenement tour raised 100 questions in my mind as I realized just how complex and huge the problem of poverty is today and how simply deeming someone "respectful" isn't enough to determine someone to be "deserving of aid" anymore.
     As our tour guide continued her narratives of families living in the tenement we were standing in, we delved into the topic of immigration. The tenants of the apartments we explored were all immigrants to the United States, and as such they faced many hardships including racial, language, and economic barriers. As we learned more about the immigrants who overcame the poverty they were living in while in this tenement and the admirable work ethic they must have had to survive, the conversation turned from the early 1900s and Ellis Island to 2017 and the refugee crisis. It made us think about the power of language; while I somehow associate the word "immigrant" with someone who is hard working and moves to another country in hopes of creating a better life, the word "refugee" when I hear it evokes the idea of someone who is escaping some sort of persecution or hardship. While growing up and learning about immigration to the U.S. in elementary school I thought of immigrants with admiration, I hear the word "refugee" in the media today and don't quite know how to feel as various political parties play tug-of-war over this global issue. In the end though, whether we're talking about Ellis Island 100 years ago or 2017 Syrian refugees, aren't we talking about the same idea? Groups of people coming to the U.S., all in search of a better life and in hopes that they will not have to endure the same persecution or hardships they had before - be it the potato famine in Ireland in the 1850s or war in the 21st century. Regardless your political views on the subject, I learned from our time in that tenement that even just the words we use can affect how we feel about a subject. And how we feel about a subject affects what action takes place. It gives us something to think about as we face a major political shift in the coming weeks.
     As I lay on my cot on our second night in New York, I have more to think about than I did last night. As a result of our experiences today, I have  gained empathy for those experiencing poverty and a greater appreciation for what that means in this world today as we kick off 2017.
All in all, for a day that started out with a pile of junk food, I'd say it turned out to be wholesome after all.