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Back to School for ACE (and Me)

28 Sep

ACE chalk 9-25-14

Marie Ebacher leads me up the stairs, down a hall and into a classroom. I see several children, all African immigrants, working quietly on homework as a veteran teacher, Gladys, observes them.

“This is basic math,” says Marie, a student of mine back in her Assumption College days. “So you should be able to do it.”

Marie’s not trying to be ironic, or reveling in some “the student has become the master” moment – although that is certainly the case this afternoon, my first as a volunteer tutor for African Community Education. Instead, Marie, ever considerate, is merely addressing the anxiety I’d expressed an hour ago. An English professor by trade, I had made it abundantly clear to Marie that I was among the math-impaired. This was at least a little hypocritical: As the director of Assumption’s Community Service Learning program, I constantly utter the cliché about the value of “getting out of your comfort zone.” I can’t help appreciate the possibility that now it’s my turn. I’m a sucker for poetic justice, even when I’m its victim.

I settle down next to a slender African girl in full Islamic garb, from the scarf on her head to the ankle-length skirt – the same clothes she wore on the basketball court when I was happily helping her shoot, something I could teach without fear of unwittingly undermining her academic future.

Now, though, I am staring at a worksheet of 20 or so numbers, most of them in the millions. Her job was to identify the slot in which a certain digit rested. For instance, if asked where the “7” was in 1,407,429, she was supposed to say the “one-thousand” slot. Marie was right – I could do this – but that begged other questions. For instance, what was the exact title of each slot? I don’t want to be just guessing its name, only to find out the hard way that her teacher has a different lingo. She allays this anxiety by producing a second sheet listing the terms.

Then there was the deeper question: How do I know what I know? Back in the early ‘60s at Northington Elementary, was this how I learned that the thousand came before the comma? As far as I can tell, this fundamental knowledge was just downloaded into my brain from The Cloud. (For certain, clouds were involved, if only in my memory.) I’ll never know. But my new friend helped me get past these issues; before long she had completed the entire sheet, and it was time to go back downstairs to a group activity.

Marie Ebacher at commune in Senegal.

Before becoming an AmeriCorps staffer at ACE, Marie Ebacher learned about Africa firsthand.

The next morning it was my turn to be tutored. Colleagues Sarah Cavanagh and Jim Lang met me at NU Café for the latest meeting of our writing group. Each of us are working on books, and their manuscripts are in one way or another about the psychology of learning. Sarah’s is particularly intriguing, since she’s a professor of psychology – which I might’ve majored in if not for, yes, that whole math obstacle. Somewhere in our discussion, it comes up that emotional engagement enhances learning – and that learning, even when you potentially ruin it by making it your day job, can be pleasurable.

My mind flashes back to the afternoon before at ACE, a classic example of both. It doesn’t take long to get emotionally involved with kids period, especially immigrant kids who have come so far just to be here – and yet, in many cases, have so far to go in terms of catching up with lifelong English speakers from homes more affluent than their own. That emotional desire to connect started with me asking them to educate their tutor – before the official tutoring period started, several of them politely pointed out in a textbook where they were from in Africa, reminding me how little I knew. Just knowing I was about to start volunteering, I automatically read any news about Africa with heightened interest.

That’s certainly incentive enough to volunteer. But then there is the pleasure of learning – and not just book-learning. There’s learning how to decode homework assignments by teachers I’ve never met, working at grade levels I’ve never taught, in methodologies of which I’m largely ignorant. There’s learning even more respect for the teachers, the tutors, and most of all the students who are striving to put together those basic building blocks I’ve long ago forgotten. There’s learning how to listen – a task complicated by my hearing, not as good as it used to be, and by our distinctly different accents. Learning the New England spin on English is challenge enough – now they have my Southern accent thrown into the mix. There is learning to focus and concentrate amid distraction – a challenge that the student occasionally meets more effectively than the tutor, glancing at commotion elsewhere. By the time my Thursday debut at ACE rolled around, I had taught four college classes and two independent studies, and yet my time with my ACE students may have been my most intellectually engaging hours of the week. And now, even as I write this, I’m fascinated with how I can become better at it.

I chose ACE after this year’s cross-country, community service road trip, finding that after all my much-varied volunteer gigs, what I most wanted was a chance to connect with people different than myself, doing something that I was both good at and, at the same time, not so good at. Something in which the clientele and I would not only grow closer ­– but grow together.

Thanks to the good folks at ACE, that search appears to be over.

The Vulnerability Trip

19 Aug
The Roadrunner in Ft. Stockton, Texas seems to suggest I get right back on that road to El Paso.

Coyote or not, the Roadrunner seems to suggest I get right back on that road to El Paso.

I’ve now been back in Worcester for a month, but the blogs from Road Trip 2014 just keep on coming  at Verge Magazine. Since I’ve agreed to not duplicate material between blogs, here I’ll only provide the link to my latest piece for Verge – “The Vulnerability Trip.”

Much more to come here in the coming months – but in the meantime I recommend Verge as an excellent source of insight about service and study abroad.

Down the road … if only the road to Starbucks.

 

 

Dave Eggers, Glide, and Unconditional Love

22 Jul
Dave Eggers, writer and advocate. (Photo from Huffington Post.)

Dave Eggers, writer and advocate. (Photo from Huffington Post.)

Dave Eggers has long been one of my favorite American writers. His innovative, funny and moving memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, was a finalist for the Pulitzer. His first novel, You Shall Know Our Velocity, was about an attempt to give money to deserving people around the globe. His second novel – What is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng – was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction. He wrote the screenplay for Where The Wild Things Are. He’s founded magazines in print and on-line, chronicled injustice in nonfiction, and even founded scholarship programs.

I’m not writing about any that.

Instead, I’m focusing on two paragraphs of a preface Eggers wrote on behalf of Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani, for their latest book, Beyond the Possible. Williams and Mirikitani have appeared in this blog recently; the couple have been at the helm of Glide in San Francisco, blending their spiritual conviction and artistic talent with inspired leadership and social outreach. Glide is legendary not only for its Sunday morning celebrations, but for its extensive outreach among the homeless and others on a wide variety of fronts in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. If you visit glide.org, you’ll see that two of the key phrases for Glide are “radical inclusiveness” and, even more daunting, “love unconditionally.”

In the preface, titled “Unconditional Love,” Eggers springboards off a Glide sermon to pose the question, “If a church can keep its doors open and lights on, accepting all at all times, could we? Could an individual person keep his or her own lights on, their arms and doors open, at all times?”

Eggers’ answer? “It’s hard, that’s for sure. It’s really damned hard. There’s always someone who annoys us. For some, there are Republicans. There are white people, brown people, black people, Asians. There is always someone who is in our way or whose ancestors oppressed our ancestors, or stands for something we don’t like, or seems to be standing in the path of progress. The wealthy. The homeless. Tourists. Industrialists. Real estate developers. Hippies. It doesn’t matter, but you know what I mean. Wherever you are, there is someone who is unwelcome.”

I came to Glide after almost three months on the road, much of it a journey not only across America, but at least a little deeper into efforts to help those in poverty. In that limited voluntourist way, I’d worked with the homeless in Tucson and Santa Barbara before I even got to San Francisco. Just whistle stops, but enough to make an impression. In all that time, working alongside veterans, I got marginally more at ease with relating to the homeless moving through the food line; I could joke and make conversation matter-of-factly.

Yet as I cracked open Beyond The Possible, I knew I was still just working on the homeless part. And here Eggers was, reminding me that once I got past all the fears waiting to ambush me from somewhere in my white middle-class subconscious, once I got past the popular prejudices that the homeless are all mentally ill drug addicts and/or alcoholics who reek of the streets, once I got past the fact that the particular person I was handing a food tray to might be all of those things, and nonetheless still worthy of respect and kindness, once I got past ALL of that – well, then, I was going to have to turn around and love an insensitive, entitled person who hadn’t learned any of those lessons and didn’t care to learn any of them, and who, seemingly secure in their willful ignorance, would happily slash funding for the programs where I volunteered.

Eggers is right. Unconditional love is a tall order. I don’t think anyone I know would say they’ve even come close, even for a single day.

But does that mean we shouldn’t try? For, Eggers concludes, “there is Glide, with its dozens of empowerment programs, its doors open and its lights on. There is Glide, built by Cecil and Janice and nurtured into the future by the Marks and the pastors, by the staff, by the young people, and by the thousands of members who are poor and rich, black and white and brown, well-fed and hungry, clean and unclean, on their way up and on their way down, devout or full of doubt – all welcome, all equally necessary, all equally valid, all offered Unconditional Love. It’s a radical idea, but the only one that makes any sense at all.”

photo1695

On the Verge

11 Jul

 

Car door stays open when shooting Vermillion Cliffs on the run.

Car door stays open when shooting Vermillion Cliffs on the run.

While blogging at Serving the Story on my community service road  trip, I’ve also been blogging about my journey for the good folks at Verge Magazine — a site I highly recommend if you are contemplating blending travel and volunteerism.

Verge recently posted two blogs from me. The first — the third in my series for them – is about the balancing of volunteerism and sight-seeing, including a crazed stretch of driving involving Tucson, the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Los Angeles. The next blog concerns the power of word of mouth when you’re on the road volunteering. If you get to the bottom of the first blog, you’ll see a link to the next one.

Meanwhile, I press on to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota — but I have other stories to tell in this space first. Until then …

Life-limiting, life-affirming

7 Jul
Kathleen with angel in the sanctuary at George Mark Children's House.

Kathleen with angel in the sanctuary at George Mark Children’s House.

Editor’s Note: Serving the Story’s community service road trip continues in the San Francisco Bay area. The names of the children mentioned below have been changed to protect privacy.

Anna proclaims she’s a “movie buff”, so I ask for some guidance about a movie she’s planning to see soon – the new Transformers flick. I confess to her that when I went to the first Transformers movie, I couldn’t tell an Autobot from a Deceptacon; when the boss

Autobot – “Optimus Prime,” she interjects for my benefit – gave a speech at movie’s end about a brave Autobot who had died in battle, I was so confused, I didn’t even know it had happened.

She tries to help me out, speaking in emphatic and rhythmic bursts, with plenty of opinion thrown in for good measure.

In other words, a natural comedian. She explains how when it comes to picking out evil robots, if someone has “airplane wings sticking out of the sides of their head,” well, that’s a pretty good indication.

“You look them in the face,” she says, “and you’ll know which ones are evil.”

The hallway in which we sit is as quiet as a Michael Bay movie is loud. Plenty of light splashes through the windows of the George Mark Children’s House, which feels not only homey, but somehow better than home. Spacious rooms, playful animal statues, toys and games for children of every developmental level. My favorite room is Great Vibes, in which kids can play with lights, colors and vibrations in ways I can’t even describe here – except to say it’s like every children’s interactive exhibit I’ve seen in any museum, all in one cozy room.

There’s even Max, a black and tan King Charles Spaniel who comes waggling up with his master, Jeff Simon. As she pets him, she complains about not having a dog – but not for the reasons of most youth.

“If I were alone at the house and I died,” she says, “the dog could go next door and tell my aunt.”

Jeff seems to roll with this statement with no shock. He’s been coming here once a week for years, so he knows the ropes. “Sometimes I walk out and I’m excited about an interaction we had,” he’ll tell me later, on the patio. “Other times … I had one experience where we visited two kids and within an hour both kids had passed away. Both of them were kids we had seen a lot – which was terribly unfortunate and sad – but I was happy that he had time with them.”

Max and master Jeff take break from their rounds at George Mark Children's House.

Max and master Jeff take break from rounds at George Mark Children’s House.

This positive turn is characteristic of everyone I see at George Mark, and it doesn’t come off as a fake glossing over of the very real struggles of severely ill children and their families. Indeed, it’s the very challenges faced by families that makes the work at George Mark Children’s House so meaningful.

“People say, ‘how can you be in this environment day after day after day?’” Becky Randall, volunteer manager, had told me earlier that morning. “But you know how much we are helping these families. And, you know what? There’s nowhere I’d rather be.”

I believe her, just as I believe Ken Sommer, who had joined us for our morning talk. The director of advancement for George Mark, has worked in some challenging non-profits. An aspiring rock promoter who intead wound up in the arts, he eventually sought the gravity of the San Francisco Tenderloin district, working for both Glide Memorial Methodist– where I volunteered yesterday – and Tenderloin Development Corporation, which worked to house the homeless.

“Organizations like Glide and TDC do incredible work – I just don’t know if I could go back to doing that,” he told me, as we talked about the bleakness of what one saw walking in those neighborhoods. “Granted, I work for an organization that deals with sick and dying kids, and their families, and that’s equally tough, but this place feels like a celebration of life, as odd as it sounds. We give the gift of time to these families and walk with them through these incredibly difficult situations and help them make the best of those difficult situations. So it feeds my soul.”

“Mine, too,” Becky added.

Yet, strangely, typically only five of eight beds at George Mark are full. Ken suspects that this is partly due to misconception: The organization is thought of as a hospice for children, when “end of life” is only one of three kinds of service it provides. The house also offers “transitional care” – helping families adapt to their new medical circumstances after a hospital stay – and “respite care” – simply taking in an ill child to give families a much-needed break. What the children in every category have in common is a “life-limiting” illness – but that life might still take someone into their early 20s before passing. Thus, there are children, and families, who are in and out of George Mark for many years; even after the child’s passing, families often return for remembrance celebrations and other events.

But there are limits. For the 55-65 volunteers who put in weekly four-hour shifts interacting with the children, boundaries are important. As much as families might press for personal contact information or even such routine self-disclosure as showing pictures of their own kids, volunteers have to limit their contact to their hours at the house. But within those four hours, volunteers pay close attention to the needs of both patient and family.

Becky introduces me to one of those volunteers, Kathleen Phillips, as she sits talking with Anna in the hallway. I get to shadow her for much of her shift. In her first career, Kathleen wasn’t a nurse – in fact, she was the vice president of finance for the Oakland A’s. She left that job to raise kids. Once her children hit their teenage years, though, Kathleen told a friend, Kathy Nicholson Hull, that she’d like to start volunteering somewhere.

“She said, ‘Have I got a job for you!’”

Becky Randall was a veteran volunteer before she became volunteer manager.

Becky Randall was a veteran volunteer before she became volunteer manager.

It turned out Hull, a clinical psychologist, was partnering with pediatric oncologist Barbara Beach to start George Mark. The house would be named for Hull’s brothers – George had died at age 30, Mark at age 16. It would be nine months before George Mark opened its doors in March, 2004 – making Kathleen one of the first volunteers.

In the decade since, Kathleen has spent time with “hundreds” of patients. Each shift she carefully reviews the file on the child; diagnoses are not included, but scores of other key pieces of information are, right down to what things they seem to enjoy.

Reading from a folder, she tells me that this one “likes the pacifier, likes being read to, looking at colorful books … she has a lot of likes, which is good. Kids, a lot of them like the cause-and-effect activities, like whack-a-mole.”

Many are nonverbal, and might have very limited use of their limbs. Kathleen might use hand-over-hand techniques. For instance, placing her hand over the child’s, she and the child can draw a picture together even if the child cannot move the pen on his or her own. Even when a child is restricted to a bed, the bed can be rolled into the patio and garden so he or she can enjoy some fresh air.

As we converse, Kathleen is gently pushing a dark-haired boy in a wheelchair from room to room; his head lolls back against a head brace, he doesn’t speak, and I never catch his eyes engaging my own, but those eyes stay open, and he sometimes emits a long low laugh. When he does, Kathleen gently talks with him. Other times, they may just sit quietly together.

Watching, the time they spend may seem almost idyllic. Talking, playing, sometimes just sitting quietly. Or working out intuitively things that might feel good for a child – Kathleen says she gets a response from some by running a long narrow leaf under the child’s nose. But worlds of complexity lie under those interactions. That’s why the volunteers who work with the children have a weekend-long intensive training, followed by a minimum of three mentoring shifts shadowing a veteran such as Kathleen. (Some ask for even more shifts before starting on their own.)

Much of the training is about specific techniques; there is also a lot of role playing, acting out particular scenarios. Some concerns how to be helpful with the siblings – and what to say, or not say, to them.

“A sibling might turn to you and say, ‘Do you think my sister or brother is going to die?’ Becky told me. “And you have to just turn it around and say, ‘Do you think your brother or sister is going to die?’ You have to be really careful in how you interact with families, because every family is different, every family has their own way to deal with child’s illness. So you have to put own personal feelings aside and work with what’s going on in the moment.”

Because families are often so preoccupied with the sick child, sometimes the volunteer can be the sounding board for the sibling. “The siblings are really important here, because sometimes they can fall through cracks,” Kathleen tells me. “They get to do a whole bunch of stuff. Once I spent my whole shift with siblings. We had so much fun, just playing, inside, outside, running around.”

Kathleen remembers one girl who others said seemed determined not to talk; she simply sat and watched TV. But when Kathleen visited with her, the child opened up. “She said she felt really guilty because she’d rather be in school than here, but she didn’t want to say that, because she didn’t want her parents to think she was a really bad person, or for her brother to think she was a really bad person.

“So sometimes it’ll just come out. You’ll have a moment going and a kid will come out with something.”

In addition to such shrewd listening ability, what qualities are cultivated in a George Mark volunteer?

“Patience,” Kathleen tells me. “Life outside here with you own kids is like ‘come on, let’s get this done, let’s do that done.’ Here it’s a much different pace. It takes someone who has compassion – and someone who has a sense of humor. [Anna’s] funny; she’s kind of boy crazy, so she can say some really funny things.

“Just don’t be boring. I just act whatever age they are. Just to be physically active helps, because you can go down slides with them.”

Meanwhile, the very gravity of the situations faced by families make volunteers feel glad to have helped them. Ken tells of a child with cystic fibrosis who’d spent 48 of 52 weeks in intensive care before coming to George Mark – where he surprised his doctors by recovering enough to be eligible for a lung transplant. He received that transplant, and even though he still has cystic fibrosis, he’s this “18-year-old dude” who spoke at the organization’s gala.

But even when there aren’t such surprising turnarounds, the work feels anything but sad. “This isn’t a place of sadness, it’s a place of joy,” Kathleen says. “It’s just really nice that families get to spend time with child here and not in a hospital.”

And it’s nice for the volunteers, too. I take my late lunch with Kathleen the hallway. By now Anna is back from a shower. Susie, perhaps two years oaf age, has shown up in one of those rolling rings. John, who looks like he’s in his early teens but is in his 20s, continues to rest in his wheelchair.

Kathleen sits in a chair, keeping an eye on all three while Anna and I keep talking movies and dogs. Then Kathleen gently laughs. “Susie’s blowing kisses.” The child silently smacks her lips at Kathleen. I laugh, and the girl turns to me – so I play the game as well, smacking my lips. The sweetest moment is the delay – the second or two that passes before the child deigns to return the favor. It’s her sole gesture of connection to me, rising out of a mysterious world she, as of now anyway, cannot put into words. Maybe she never will.

I strive to let myself go further and further into this moment – just the three kids, and Kathleen, and the nurse behind a nearby counter. It is, indeed, profound and joyful, and, even though I don’t have kids, I can imagine doing this and even, once hooked, needing to do this. But then, almost five hours into my visit, something welling up inside, tells me it’s time to go.

Following the example of the George Mark volunteers, I manage to screen out the sadness long enough to write notes at a Starbucks and do my clothes at a coin-op called Laundry Land, where a guy named Julio distracts me with his story, one of being an immigrant and having a family here that his mother down in Mexico can’t come visit. His story, touching as it is, is actually a relief.

But soon Julio is gone, and my clothes are done, and in the parking lot, even as I’m stuffing my clean clothes into the trunk, it all catches up to me. The homeless in San Francisco yesterday, the children today. Something splits open. Like the little girl, I can’t put what I’m feeling into words. One of those times when pain and numbness seem to coexist, even conspire, taking you into a fog. The world around me seems changed, even strange.

Knowing I’m useless for the evening, I retreat to the familiar in an unfamiliar town – I go see a movie. I get a ticket for a comedy, but as I buy my popcorn, I keep hearing Anna’s voice. I decide to see if she’s right, even if that means going back for the 3D glasses and taking in the Transformers in all their 17-percent approval rating glory.

This time I see what she means, and I see why she likes it. In this world, the evil and the good are clearly defined, their actions logical and obvious. The opposite of the inexplicable threats of genes and nature and random chance, the pain inflicted on kids like herself for no reason at all.

Driving past George Mark Children’s House the next morning on way out of town, I want to swing up the lane and give Anna a sneak preview. Then I remember: She was scheduled to go home last night.

Like the volunteers chafing over the boundaries, I wish I could send Anna an email. Taking even that small action would mean a lot to me, and maybe a little something to her. This impulse must be part of what keeps volunteers such as Kathleen coming back week after week, month after month. And even though I know such work isn’t for everyone, as I left San Leandro, all I could think was, “How could you not?”

 

To Glide, Unconditionally

5 Jul

 

Redwoods dwarf Monday hikers.

Redwoods dwarf Monday hikers.

Monday morning I wake up in Marin County – or, as a friend who lives there jokes, “the home of the 1 percent.” I suspect I am hanging with the other 99 an hour later, when I strolled into Muir Woods.

Either way, the massive redwoods that stretched hundreds of feet above me aren’t caring – casting us and all our arbitrary divisions into deep shadow. Some trees here have reached a thousand years in age – it’s reassuring that they were here long before us, and will be here long after.

Of course, just as enduring, and less reassuring, is my next tourist sight of the day.

The homeless.

An hour after navigating the ups and downs, twists and roots of the Ocean View Trail in one of the more affluent counties on the West Coast, I’m veering past apparently homeless men in the Tenderloin, the toughest district in San Francisco. In a 2013 survey, District 6 was listed with 3,038 homeless men, almost half the total of 6,436 for the city. These figures come from yesterday’s San Francisco Chronicle, which pronounced that a 10-year-old plan to end homeless had “failed.”

This conclusion comes despite the city housing 11,362 homeless individuals in the last decade. House one, another pops up. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom – who 10 years ago as mayor launched the current plan – concedes that homelessness will never be eradicated. “… There are new people coming in, suffering through the cycles of their lives. It’s the manifestation of complete, abject failure as a society.”

I tend to agree with that cynicism, especially as I edge past a few street folks – some with eyes dazed, disconnected. But my mood shifts when I approach the bright orange awnings of Glide Memorial Methodist Church, walk in the front door to the counter, and experience energy, industry, and laughter. One of the security team, someone whom I’d later learn had experienced homelessness, gave me advice on where to move my car to duck a ticket, then pointed me upstairs to the office of the volunteer coordinator, Eden Chan.

tenderloin

Behind Eden’s desk is a cartoon image of a tenderloin sporting a bandaid and bruises, with the caption, “The Tenderloin – ain’t so tender!” But around the cartoon are notes of appreciation, suggesting that, thanks to Glide, there are still pockets of kindness – and highly effective ones, at that.

“Some people might think it’s only a success story if a homeless person becomes a businessman,” she’ll tell me a couple of days later, when she has time to sit still. “I think a success is providing a place that’s safe.”

Sometimes even joyful. Glide rides the spiritual energy and inspired leadership of Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani, who have led the church down a path of “radical inclusiveness” since the 1960s. As a young pastor, Williams transformed the church into one that reached out to marginalized populations, assertively reaching out to the poor, to the gay and lesbian, to drug addicts. Back in the ‘60s, Williams even took down the sanctuary cross, declaring that “we all must be the cross.” The Sunday worship services are called “Celebrations,” and they are the stuff of legend. The day before my volunteer gig, I tried to attend the service, only to be thwarted by the gigantic Gay Rights Parade. But Williams would take that trade – in his ministry, he officiated same-sex unions decades before they were legally recognized.

That joyful spirit makes it easier for workers to rise to the challenge the rest of the week. After all, the key phrase is “Love Unconditionally,” and part of that love manifests itself as “telling your truth” – and hearing the truths people have to tell can be heartbreaking at times.

Beyond the Possible sports blurbs from Buffett and Bono, Tutu and Angelou.

Beyond the Possible sports blurbs from Buffett and Bono, Tutu and Angelou.

Even my wordless walk to and from Glide suggests stories that I don’t even want to imagine – and those stories are ongoing, happening again and again, night after night, in the streets and alleys.

“I heard someone else say that poverty is scary, even if it’s not happening to you,” Eden tells me. “It’s scary and it’s sad and people don’t want that and the way they cope is to avoid it or unplug or turn away. And Cecil has said that, too. People have asked us to have the line inside for meals and somehow hide the ugliness of the food line, and Cecil said, ‘No. Poverty shouldn’t be hidden. You should see this; you should have to think about it.’”

Naturally, some volunteers come to Glide in order to overcome the tendency to look away. “I had someone say to me when he came in for an interview that living in San Francisco, there’s a large homeless population. Just to cope, you tune them all out. Because if you don’t, it’s very hard to walk anywhere – and he didn’t want to do that anymore, so that’s why he came.”

Some come from farther away. Intern Marisa Sitz is from Pinson, Alabama – perhaps an hour from my hometown. An English major at Birmingham-Southern, she was drawn to the message of “Unconditional Love.” She feels that the interns are treated as “guests in the community.” Shortly after her arrival, she witnessed another intern seeming overwhelmed with the noise and the bustle of comingling with the clients.

“One of the clients noticed that she was standing with arms clasped in front of her and introverted and very closed-off looking, and he walked over and said, ‘Girl, why are you so tense? It’s all good!’ It got her laughing and it was very kind. That’s been the kind of experience that’s been repeated, They treat us as if this is their home and we are their guests, even if we’re guests who help.”

Marisa has laugh at the lobby counter.

Marisa has laugh at the lobby counter.

Of course, it’s easier to generate positive feelings all around when you’re helping so many people get through their days. Glide has a wide-ranging program addressing spirit, growth, leadership, and wellness – which starts with making sure people have something to eat. The website states that in fiscal year 2011-12, Glide served 835,036 meals.

One person who has put away a few of those meals is my floor supervisor for my shift in the dining hall. A short, stocky man of 46, with long black and grey hair flowing out of his Golden State Warriors cap, James first came here as a client with a meth-amphetamine addiction. But even then, he insisted on volunteering every time he had a meal, wanting to earn his food. Soon he was volunteering so much, he was given a staff position. He tells me that he’s been clean for six years, thanks “to Jesus and to Glide.”

“For me it was just that in this neighborhood, there’s a lot of negativity, and come here and it’s so positive and you want to be around positive people. It’s like the old saying that ‘if you run with dogs, you’re going to get fleas.’ If you’re around people doing positive things, some positive stuff is going to come out of it.”

The positivity kept multiplying when he was honored with a full-time staff position as an “expediter” – coordinating all the volunteers for three meals a day, five days a week. That meant people depending on him too much for him to fall back into old habits.

“You can actually see the difference you make for people. And me, since I live in the neighborhood, I’ve had a lot of people coming up, saying ‘it’s good to see one of us do this’ or ‘if you can do it, I can do it.’

“I don’t see myself as a role model, but when you work in a place like Glide, it kind of falls into place that you’re a role model. Because they see someone like me, who’s been on both sides of it, a guy who stopped putting needles in his arms and has been doing the job for the last seven years, and doing it well.”

During my shift, I can see why they call him the “expediter” – although the word that pops into my mind is “maestro.” Greeting each person with cheer and energy, he’s a whirlwind of motion; within 10 minutes, he has us all in our gloves, aprons and hairnets. Five or so folks are positioned behind the counter, their jobs being to place various food items onto each tray. Said tray then is handed over the counter to Maria, who places fruit on the tray, then slides it down to a guy to my right, whose job is to place the pepper and salt packets.

James wheeling and dealing and doing his thing. (Photo from Glide website.)

My initial job is to simply slide the full trays down to Joyce, who presents the tray to the client. That is, once the client has gotten the correct color ticket from yet another young volunteer.

As we wait, I sense folks starting to line up in the hallway. In the kitchen, one of the cooks pauses to windmill his arms several times, as if warming up for the big game. And it truly is an adrenaline rush. In the first half hour, I count 100 trays, and then lose track amid my new pepper packet duties. After perhaps 45 minutes, James comes marching by, shouting, “Good job! Only 572 to go!”

The food we’re serving is a patty of meat, rice or potatoes, watermelon or oranges, bread, and the salt and pepper. There’s a vegetarian stroganoff – James knows when those are coming and makes sure those trays are diverted. Amid the assembly line, it would be easy to disregard the vegetarians, or to ignore the fact that many people may be on low-salt diets. Providing the packets separately gives clients at least a little control over their food.

The clients, meanwhile, vary. I don’t notice any who overwhelm me with the stereotypical odor of some street folks. Most appear reasonably clean; some take the time to make eye contact and exchange greetings, while others shuffle off quietly to their tables. One person loudly thanks the volunteers as he walks by us in the line; he does this again when he comes back for seconds.

From my corner spot in the assembly line, I occasionally sneak looks at the tables – some sit and stare without speaking to one another, while others carry on loudly with one another.

Once the meals are served – all 727 of them – I talk with Chloe, the ticket taker, and Joyce, the person who handed the vast majority of the clients their trays.

Joyce and Chloe after the meal rush is over.

Joyce and Chloe after the meal rush is over.

Joyce has seen more daunting work environments; an incoming first-year biology student at UCLA, she got to the last day of a hospital internship before she fainted.

“But I didn’t faint because of what I saw, but what my partner was describing to me, which was a patient that couldn’t stop bleeding. She said it looked like a fountain of blood and imagining it in my head made it worse than seeing it, and then I smelled it. The next thing I know I woke up in a bed not too far from the patient.”

In this case, the reality for Chloe and Joyce was more positive than what they might have imagined. They were impressed by both the politeness of the clients and the organization of the operation: Chloe had to learn a ticket system that included special designations for people who had to rush off to jobs, as well as several other classifications. She tried to be friendly even amid the rush. “Many of them have been outside all day, so it’s nice to have someone say, ‘how are you doing?’”

They agree that the experience might change the way they walk down the street. I try it myself as I walk to my car, moving more slowly, taking the time for a nod of the head or a quick “hey.” But the buoyant mood from inside Glide’s walls seems to rise into the twilight air and dissipate; even two hours from sunset, four folks are sleeping on the sidewalk. I’m sure I just helped feed two of them. I should be glad they at least got some food in them – but there’s still the sadness of the rest of their stories, repeated day after day.

Then I think of that job interview candidate who came to Glide hoping to focus on the very people whom he’d previously worked so hard to push beyond his peripheral vision, beyond the blinders we put on every day. Only he finally chose to pay attention – and then to act.

And of course I think of Cecil Williams himself, who wrote in Beyond the Possible: “The key to living a full life is to affirm, affirm, affirm. … Notice what is happening to you every day and affirm your love whenever you can.”

At Glide, that affirmation isn’t reserved for Sunday morning – it’s what they do every day, and night, of the week.

And they give their clients the chance to do the same.

Which makes the Tenderloin, like Muir Woods, territory I plan to hike again.

photo1695

 

1 Jul
Elephant seals duke it out playfully on California Highway 1.

Elephant seals duke it out playfully near California Highway 1.

Since leaving Massachusetts on April 11th, I’ve soaked in some spectacular scenery. The natural creation of Grand Canyon, Glen Canyon, Bryce Canyon. The manmade equivalent in the form of Vegas and Hollywood Boulevard at night. Scores of scenes of quieter beauty, from dawn on the Texas Gulf Coast to twilight in Santa Barbara.

And so on.

And so on.

Almost enough to say, OK, enough with the whole panoramic vista thing.

So last week when my friends Ted and Chella proposed we run a two-car tag team up the curves and dips of California Highway 1, from San Luis Obispo to the Monterey Peninsula, I started building in escape clauses. I’d give Chella a ride as far north as Pismo Beach, and then, well, we’d see.

But who can resist the Elephant Seal beach – where one can see hundreds of elephant seals, which can get up to two tons, lying side by side next to the surf – or Ragged Point, a high cliff jutting sharply out into the Pacific. Or the way visibility can change from metallic blues and bright green in bright sun to the waves gone dark in a sudden incoming fog. At points you’re level with a thin layer of cloud, splitting the ocean from the sky. Redwoods, pine, and spruce abound. This is scenery you can gladly give your heart to – and the kind of twisty-turny cliff-side driving that you sure as hell better give your mind to.

All of which should pretty much be enough to make you forget about your day job, or your research project, or almost any human endeavor. Yet even on our Wednesday drive up this profoundly moving coast, on a day when I had no ambitions other than absorbing natural beauty, the theme of service has a way of poking its head up like a sea lion eying a rock to climb onto.

Near the elephant seals, amid a sudden fog, a woman talked loudly over a blasting wind, fielding questions. The seal on her jacket identified Charmaine Coimbra as one of the Friends of the Elephant Seals.

How good a friend? Well, when she retired and started casting about for the perfect volunteer gig, she soon thought of the seals. “I’m a California girl,” she told me loudly over the wind, “and I love the sea.”

Charmaine and her friends amid a blustery wind.

Charmaine and her friends amid a blustery wind.

Even though I’ve visited this stretch before, Charmaine’s expertise gives me a new appreciation for what’s happening in front of me – which, as far as I can tell, is mostly nothing. Sure, they flap about a bit, and two young bulls rise up and play-fight, emitting a few deep howls in the process. Mostly they just lie there. But their stillness gives you the chance to observe the various stages of molting, the loss of the brown furry outer layer for the smooth silver-grey skin beneath. This is what they swim down from Alaska to do for a month every summer.

There’s also something else going on. During their long swim, they lose bone density; the prolonged time on land, even just lying and moving sporadically, gives them the chance to rebuild their skeletal support. Paradoxically, this healthy instinct comes at the expense of exercise – so they also fast. They thus adjust diet for their exercise level – which is one way that a two-ton elephant seal has healthier habits than this (weight fortunately not available at press time) human.

Charmaine didn’t wait until retirement to start volunteering – her career in community service began at age 3, when she accompanied her father in dancing to “Me and My Shadow” at a Grange fundraiser. She’s been involved in various forms of volunteer work in the decades since.

But in literal terms, no cause is bigger than the elephant seals stretching out on the beach behind her. When I line her up for a picture, and she jokes about not exactly looking her best, a woman behind her interjects. “Hey, don’t worry – we all look beautiful compared to these guys!”

Charmaine isn’t offended. When I asked if she had a favorite elephant seal, Charmaine laughed. “To tell you the truth, they all look alike to me!”

Books hanging from Henry Miller Library ceiling.

Books hanging from Henry Miller Library ceiling.

Further up the road, past Ragged Point and other locales, I catch up with Ted and Chella once again – at the Henry Miller Library, a wonderfully quirky roadside tribute to the famous bohemian fiction writer. I enter a courtyard couched under towering redwoods and other trees, wind myself past modern folk art sculptures, some seeming to celebrate fertility and eroticism, others suggesting crucifixion and the evil of television. The A-frame library is marked by Henry Miller books hanging open from the ceiling, sunlight shining through from above.

Out back, I find a deck and plush couches. On one of them sits my friends – on the other a young woman with blonde-and-pink hair, curled up. The book she’s reading isn’t by Henry Miller – it’s a Harold Robbins instead. But Anna Leah is an English major back east in Boston, and when she was looking for a way to volunteer in the Big Sur area, site of many family vacations, it was hard to resist the library. She gets to pitch her tent behind a wood fence not far from the couch, and uses a solar shower. She cleans before and after each business day, as well as working in the shop.

Anna Leah mimics one of the statues.

Anna Leah mimics one of the statues.

It’s less demanding than her first volunteer gig of this summer – setting up and taking down stages during a music festival. She was drawn to that one not just for the music, but for the pleasure of trying “manual labor”, learning construction skills and discovering that one doesn’t have to be burly and male to be good at the job. She becomes increasingly animated as she talked about how each volunteer gig helps her try new things and expand her skill set. But now she’s found a job perfect for an English major – working and reading in the shade of the redwoods, plenty of culture and counterculture to inspire her – as if Big Sur wasn’t enough on its own. She smiled. “It’s a sweet deal.”

A ringside view from Ragged Point.

A ringside view from Ragged Point.

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