Homelessness in Wo Mag

12 Feb

Team inspects local homeless campground.

Worcester Magazine recently ran an in-depth piece on the local homeless and efforts to help them. In the struggle to continue moving away from the shelter model toward what seems the sounder path of a Housing First model, some people insist that more shelter beds are still needed.

As temperatures plunge in New England, this is a particularly well-timed issue for local citizens to consider.


No Time for Therapy

11 Feb

In the moving Strength in What Remains, author Tracy Kidder traces the journey of Deo, who flees genocide in Burundi only to find a fresh set of challenges in New York City. He is primarily occupied with survival from day to day, with virtually no one to talk to in his own language.

But then there’s the other challenge – the way that genocide won’t let him go, even from halfway around the globe. He still endures the post-traumatic stress of the horrors he has experienced, and the loss of all he’s let go of – and for lack of communication, his cannot help assuming sometimes that his entire family is dead.

I’m teaching the book in Creative Nonfiction this week, which made this article in today’s Worcester Telegram & Gazette that much more striking. It concerns how Syrian refugees, and those who help them, are dealing with similar troubles now – how to deal not only with the need for housing, jobs, and physical well-being, but the mental health needs of people who have endured so much just to get here. It’s another reminder of what we can all do in our own communities to help all refugees. Programs such as African Community Education, Worcester Refugee Assistance Project, and many others provide bountiful opportunities to help refugees and other immigrants.

Up On The Roof

8 Jan
Tamryn sweep 2 1-4-16

Assumption’s Taryn Gaguin walks the roof.

As director of Community Service Learning at Assumption College, one of my annual New Year’s resolutions is that, this time around, I’ll finally do a banner job of academic assessment – that often hopelessly abstracted process in which programs identify goals and objectives, figure out how to measure them, and relay the information up the chain to the people that accredit us.

OK, so, I’ll be honest: It actually hasn’t quite risen to the level of a New Year’s resolution, more a vague hope for the future, if I have time while accomplishing more compelling objectives. Experience has taught me that good can come of assessment when results translate into practice … but often there’s not enough useful information to change things … or time, amid the actual week-to-week work, to do it right.

On the other hand, well, assess this: In the last week, Assumption College SEND students have traveled to my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, helped strip away a decaying roof, and replaced it with a brand-spanking new one. Miss Anna, who lives in the home, doesn’t need a spread sheet or an assessment form to assess their success. For more, see the article and photo spread by Gary Cosby in The Tuscaloosa News.

This is the fifth year that Assumption has come to help Tuscaloosa recover from an April 27, 2011 tornado that killed 54 people. More than four years after the storm, Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa has moved from homes for tornado victims to addressing the ongoing shelter needs of lower-income people everywhere – and Assumption SEND has stuck with the agency through that transition. One SEND student, Mary Guinee, even went on to a postgraduate year of service with Habitat Tuscaloosa.

Every year the students’ work has left tangible results I can see as I drive around my hometown. Not to mention less tangible ways that students impact the lives of locals they meet, and the abundance of lessons that students learn from folks down here.

Those benefits I cannot begin to assess.

But someone will probably have to.

Return of the Return of the Blog

31 Dec

vermillion card

In 2014 I rambled from East Coast to Gulf Coast to West Coast, interviewing folks about the role service plays in their lives. Always a quick study, it only took about a hundred interviews for me to decide that, hey, business cards would be a good idea.

In fairness, I’d figured this out as early as New Orleans – but it took until Santa Barbara, a 10-minute walk from the Pacific Ocean, for me to settle in one place long enough to design and order these cardboard tokens of professionalism. I sat in my friends’ living room, playing with the abundance of possibilities in Vistaprint – 500 for 10 bucks, by the way – until I created a design that told recipients who, at that point in my journey, I thought I was.

Who I was, in part, was a person in profound denial about the fact he had an actual job, with actual responsibilities, waiting back on the East Coast.

Understandable enough. I was six months into my research sabbatical. So it was only natural that I rejected Assumption College blue and white for the earth tones of brown, beige and green, and that I ignored the school seal for an impressionistic swirl of mountains and forest. The image suggested not only my love of hills and woods, but also the blur of my year so far. Meanwhile, while the font was sharp enough, my employer and job title were in smaller, blander type than my blog – servingthestory.com.

But a month later I was back in Worcester, and a month after that I was back in that job – teaching English and directing a community service learning program. Slowly but surely the symbolic typography of my life shifted to a reality in which my paying job was accorded 24-point bold status, while the importance of this blog shrank down to agate – the microscopic type of baseball box scores.

But my business card isn’t entirely a lie. I’ve blogged precious little because, for the last year and a half, I’ve been working on a book-length account of my service road trip. With each revising I’m also reliving – remembering again the extraordinary kindness of the people I met along the way, and the opportunities they gave me to see, in an often brutal world, the better angels of our natures. The Whole Service Trip, as I call my project, is actually more than a trip – for a trip implies an end, and, after that end, a return to some norm in which one serves less. Whereas these folks, well, they’re lifers.

Their stories, and so those of so many others I’ve met since, still deserve telling. As do various facts, insights, and links.

And lest I be tempted to forget, there’s the reminder of this card, which I still hand out to strangers. On the off chance that one of those strangers actually acts upon the information on business cards, well, I should be there to greet them.

So, to the folks who are visiting Serving the Story for the first time, welcome (and sorry if, being a Southerner, I seemed overly friendly). To the rest of you, well, you already know that about me, and you stuck around anyway, so thanks. There is so much to share – so many stories of people thinking, and feeling, and acting, beyond the immediate sphere of their lives, hoping to make the world a kinder and fairer place for people they don’t even know.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably one of them.

So thank you for what you’ve done in 2015  … and for what you, and others, figure to do in the year to come.

365Z Honors Ford’s Acts of Kindness

24 Jul
Brittany with late brother Zach, the inspiration for 365Z.

Brittany Ford with late brother Zach, inspiration for 365Z.

One day last week, my California friend Charmaine Coimbra, a Friend of the Elephant Seals, woke my blog from its eight months of book project-inspired hibernation with her column about volunteerism in her local paper, the Cabrian Times. The next day, I opened my own local paper, the Telegram, to discover former student Brittany Ford and her family featured in Telegram Towns. The Fords were there because of their work with 365Z – an organization the Fords created to honor the many acts of kindness of Brittany’s dearly departed brother Zachary.

While the newspaper article focuses on all the recent accomplishments of 365Z, Serving the Story talked in depth with Brittany about her brother, loss, and how to help people heal through yoga in an April 15, 2014 entry, “Kindness in Unkind Times.” The work of 365Z also came up when I talked with Joe McDonough about how the loss of his son to leukemia led to the family forming B+, which has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for families of kids with cancer.

That second conversation occurred in a coffee shop in Newark, Delaware, on the second day of last year’s three-month-and-a-week community service road trip. I made the contact only because of Betsy Price, a friend who I hadn’t seen in 16 years; she also was kind enough to host me on my first two nights on the road.

I mention this because acts of kindness such as this occurred again and again on my journey; my nearly 12,000 miles of driving alone were dwarfed by the enormous gaps between my volunteer opportunities, putting my project at risk again and again. But those voids were filled, again and again, by suggestions from folks I met along the way – performing their own acts of kindness by pointing me to like-minded folks in the next town down the line.

Here’s hoping that more and more people respond to the message of 365Z, in the spirit of Zachary Ford.

Charmaine Has Her Reasons

23 Jul

E Seal Charmaine 6-25-14

Editor’s Note: Charmaine Coimbra is not only an official Friend of the Elephant Seals of Cambria, California, but also a friend of last year’s community service road trip. She recently quoted me in her volunteerism column for the local newspaper, The Cambrian; the column also includes 10 reasons to volunteer. You can read her column here — and below you can read more about her reasons in an adapted excerpt from my manuscript about the road trip.

A year and a month ago, I’m driving up California Highway 1, following my friends Ted and Chella up the gorgeous two-lane alongside the sea from San Luis-Obispo to Monterey. We’ve agree on three places to both pull over, but we’re such creatures of habit, I could’ve predicted the first just based on past history — the Elephant Seal Beach near Cambria.

By the time we get there, in one of those crazy California coastal shifts, the weather has changed from sunny with a gentle breeze to a light fog being blasted over us by stiff winds. A local woman who knows the ways of this weather, the volunteer ranger is well-prepared; Charmaine Coimbra is bundled up in a purple hooded jacket, beneath which is tucked a round-hat that comes down to her side sunglasses, leaving only her pink cheeks, chin and lips exposed. I see so little of her, I don’t know if I’d recognize her indoors.

Even her voice is altered; she’s practically yelling above the wind to answer the questions of the hundreds of tourists who have pulled over to gawk at the scores of elephant seals, who have traveled a long way themselves. They migrate clear from Alaska every year to mate and mote. The first, with all its raucous competitiveness, is over – but the second is still in progress. As the massive seals loll side by side in the sand, even in the grey light, it’s easy to see the golden brown outer coat peeling away to expose grey slick flesh beneath. Most rest, but a few flap about a bit, and two young bulls rise up and play-fight, emitting a few deep howls in the process, practice for mating seasons to come.

E Seal 2 6-25-14

While many of the seals are so inert as to appear dead, Charmaine proves quite lively. She gives me a new appreciation for what they seals have gone through to get all the way down here every year. During their long landless swim, they lose bone density; the prolonged time on this beach rebuilds 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 even the two-ton elephant seal has healthier habits than this human.

Charmaine tells me that she didn’t wait until retirement to start volunteering – her career in community service began at age 3, when she accompanied her father in tap-dancing to “Me and My Shadow” at a Grange fundraiser. She’s been involved in various forms of volunteer work in the decades since, and upon retirement, it didn’t take long for her to focus on her beloved elephant seals. “I’m a California girl,” she tells me, “and I love the sea.”

When I line her up for a picture, and she jokes about not exactly looking her best, a woman behind her interjects, gesturing toward the seals. “Hey, don’t worry – we all look beautiful compared to these guys!”

Charmaine doesn’t exactly rush to defend her seals’ attractiveness. When I ask if she has a favorite, she laughs.

“To tell you the truth, they all look alike to me!”

Charmaine is more helpful than she knows. When this tandem drive up the central coast is over, Ted and Chella will head back south, and I’ll be on my own again, with very few friends waiting to see me on the way home. But Charmaine reminds me of all the trip’s earlier blessings, all the conversations with strangers who come something like friends, sharing one of the best sides of their selves – their desire to serve something larger than themselves. And while those encounters are fleeting, sometimes something sticks. Within 24 hours, Charmaine will friend me on Facebook, setting the stage for her to treat me, along with her other Facebook friends, to a steady stream of wondrous scenes from California Highway 1.

My Fellow Writers

6 Nov
Three of the homes built by Brad Pitt's foundation in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward.

Three of the homes built by Brad Pitt’s foundation in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward.

I hustled into the downtown Starbucks and hunkered down in a plush leather seat in the corner – between two windows, back to the wall, an abundance of space between me and the nearest customers. For all these reasons, and because of superstition based on past performances, this was my lucky writing chair – and today I was going to need all the luck I could get.

It had been one of those weeks when the writing came anything but easily. I was working on a book project about my community service road trip, and right now that means writing about my visit to New Orleans. Normally New Orleans is a pleasant enough direction to let my mind wander, but now I’m struggling to shape all the good times into a coherent series of chapters, built on interviews only partly transcribed and facts only partly gathered.

Given that problem, it was understandable that my Thursday off-campus was not going to yield the explosion of memorable prose I’d been praying for this week. Instead, a review of what I’d written revealed that my entire plan for New Orleans was wrong – what I thought was one chapter needed to be two. Worse, one reason it needed to split in two was that one of the agencies merited more research, including more interviews that, of course, I’d then have to transcribe. An hour into my would-be writing session, I accepted this. I sent an email to one agency – the New Orleans Musicians Clinic – asking for things as large as setting up an interview and as small as the architectural style of the agency’s offices.

So fine. At leaset now I could move on to my half-chapter about Common Ground Relief, set up in the Lower Ninth Ward so severely flooded by Hurricane Katrina. A description of the environmentally correct – and festively colorful – homes built by Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation should be easy enough to turn around. Only a quick bit of on-line research quickly revealed a New Republic article about criticism of Pitt’s noble effort. (Sigh.) The clock told me I was running out of time. My writing self would have to rush to my 3 p.m. Thursday volunteer gig without the satisfaction of closure.

At least I could take a break from the writing.

ACE chalk 9-25-14

Again, I was wrong. When I walked into the basement classroom of African Community Education, it wasn’t long before I was pulled – with gratitude – from a student’s high school algebra assignment to two people working on my writing –which, until my ill-fated trip to Starbucks, I considered my forte. In a new twist, I was tutoring two students at the same time, about two very different assignments. The young writers sat opposite me; I moved back and forth between them, feeling like the pedagogical version of a bartender. (“Ma’am, can I freshen that essay for you?”) The multi-tasking reminded me of my earlier frustration at the coffee shop; what could possibly come of all this hopping back and forth.

Only I felt more locked in to their respective missions than my own. Maybe it was the knowledge of what these students – African refugees who endured difficult transitions to America after even harder lives in conflict-ridden homes abroad – had gone through just to be here today, gamely seeking to climb another rung in a ladder I’d never even had to negotiate. Or maybe it was my thwarted desire to complete my own chapter earlier. I was urgently concerned that someone finish something today – and, given what was at stake, I’d rather it be them. I felt we were nearing the goal – only then the girl, a senior from the Central Republic of Africa, threw me for a loop. She was two paragraphs from completing – only now she was doubting the validity of her assertion two paragraphs earlier. She shared with me her new insight, and I had to agree, but I feared for her, just the same – this was looking to be her version of my Brad Pitt boondoggle. I wanted to spare her – who only began learning English four years ago – my rhetorical lostness.

But listening to her, I had to agree she was right – and I could only cheer her on as she erased half of the second paragraph and rewrote it in her careful pencil, a handwriting I could never duplicate at any age. She moved on from there, consulting me on every sentence, but every idea her own. She finished only a half hour after her male counterpart, who only had to write one paragraph. That left time for her to tell me about her home country, her schooling, and her plans for community college. She and walked out at the same time, hung with the kids waiting out front for their rides home after a long day of schooling.

My earlier frustration seemed to have dissolved into the cool misty night air. Sure, my work will be harder to complete – and yet my professional path is so much easier than the series of obstacles these kids have hurdled. One possible conclusion of such volunteer moments is the familiar one we may experience when we look in a bathroom mirror and say, “Hey, stop yer whining.’”

But that has a negative spin, as if I’m supposed to pity the lot of these kids compared to my own. It doesn’t ring true to what I really felt – inspiration. How, after all, could we not be inspired by a group of motivated immigrant kids, earnestly writing their way sentence by sentence into a new language in a new country? The next time I struggle to push through to the end of a chapter, I’ll remind myself of these young writers – making their own luck, regardless of the chair life gives them.

%d bloggers like this: