Ruined for Life, Earning the “F”, and My Last Post

September 29, 2010

So, it’s been a while. Over two months, actually. I meant to write this post in mid-August to wrap this blog up, but as JVC ended, and I began my new life as a “real person”, I got a bit distracted. Hey, it happens. But I’m back now. Well, I’m back for one last hoorah as TheVolunteacher. Here’s a quick (okay, probably not quick) rundown on what’s happened since I last wrote.

I joined about 40 Jesuit Volunteers in hiking about 30 miles of the Appalachian Trail at the beginning of August. It was intense, it was awesome, and I may actually still be sore from sleeping on the ground (or maybe it was the hiking part…). Regardless, it was a lot of fun. I had never even slept in my own backyard before, let alone gone hiking for 3 days in the wilderness of Southern Pennsylvania, but I enjoyed it. I was able to bond with some JV’s who I didn’t normally get to talk with. I got to hear more of their stories, talk sports, learn about their plans for post-JVC, and reflect on the year. It was a great experience, and one that I will never forget. I’ve attached some photos from the trail below. (As a side-note, thank you to all those who helped support me and my goal to raise $500 for JVC for this hike. Your generosity helps to ensure that great people in JVC continue to do great things for those in need, helping to make our communities, cities, and the world a better, stronger place for all).

After the hike, we arrived at Blue Ridge Summit, where it all began last August, for Dis-Orientation, JVC’s closing retreat, joining the other half of JVC-East. Here, I earned my first ever “F”. No, no, we didn’t receive grades as JV’s (we all know I’d get an A+, duh), but we officially finished our year as Jesuit Volunteers and became Former Jesuit Volunteers (FJV’s). It was an odd few days. We all knew we would be saying goodbye at the end of Dis-O, but we all kind of pretended it wasn’t actually ending. So, what did we do? We had a great time together, that’s what! We had ample free time to spend together, heard from FJV’s about post-JVC life, hung by the pool, dined on the finest of foods, and celebrated a successful year.

On Friday morning, we ate, packed, said a prayer, and said tearful, yet joyful, goodbye to one another. It was then that it hit me that JVC was over. It hit me that this amazing group of people meant a ton to me, and that we’d probably never all be together again. It hit me that my new life was starting. And it hit me that I had truly been “ruined for life” as the JV tag-line says. Not to be overly dramatic, but never again will I be able to look at the world in the same way; I know too much now. JVC has opened my eyes to so much, and made me think in ways I never really thought possible. I look back at the me that started JVC, and, really I’m the same Tom O’Keefe. But so much has changed, too.

And now, here I am, almost 2 full months into my new job at Cristo Rey Jesuit, moved into a house with good friends Nick and Rick, and making a life in the great city of Baltimore. Way back in August of 2009, I wrote of starting JVC, “It’s scary, nerve-wracking, a little bit sad and a little bit happy, but mostly it’s a truly exciting time.” I feel a lot of those same things now. But really, it’s different, and I can’t really explain the feeling, but I know I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. And that’s a great thing.

So, I guess this is the end of TheVolunteacher. I really enjoyed writing in this space. It was a way for me to fully flesh out and reflect on what I experienced. Thank you to everyone who took the time to read it. Your support means so much.

Keep spreading the good word, remember that life is good, and stay well.

Peace,

Tom

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“Why Would Anyone Wanna Leave Baltimore?”

June 16, 2010

I have some great, great news!

The Cristo Rey Jesuit Corporate Internship Program has hired me as a Corporate Sponsor Representative!

I could not be more excited for this opportunity. My time at Cristo Rey has been truly amazing, and I can’t wait to continue working at such an amazing place, and live in such a great city.

I’ll explain more about the position in a minute, but first, I think some big thank you’s are in order:

Mom and Dad– Pretty cool, huh? You’re oldest son has a job! Thank you for ALL of your love, support, and high expectations throughout the years. If there’s anyone who had unrelenting faith in me, it was you!

Friends and family– Your love and loyalty has meant so much to me through the years. Thank you!

Cristo Rey Jesuit and the people there– I wouldn’t want to stay if this year hadn’t been such a fantastic experience. Your devotion, love, and hard work inspire me every day! Thank you all!

JVC and Community- If not for JVC, I would never have had this opportunity. Also, thank you to my community, JVC Arrupe House. I’ve learned so much from you all this year. You’ve pushed me in ways I never thought possible, and your support for me has been so important to my year.

The People of Baltimore- I had no idea that I would come to love Baltimore as much as I do. Its people, places, and unique personality make it a place where I want to stay.

Okay, so, the job itself. Like I said, I’ll be working in the Corporate Internship Program as a Corporate Sponsor Representative.

The thing that makes Cristo Rey unique from other schools is the internship program. Each student, in addition to completing their college preparatory education, must work 5 days a month at local organizations like Legg Mason, Under Armour, and Mercy Hospital. In turn, these corporate sponsors, pay a portion of the student’s tuition. Recently, the Baltimore Sun covered the program wonderfully in much more detail.

My job will be as a liaison between the students, the school, and the corporate sponsors. It’s an amazing program and I’m honored and excited to be a part of it in such a great city!

Plus, as Bodie Broadus said in The Wire, “”Why would anyone ever wanna leave Baltimore? That’s what I’m asking.”


April Travels

May 3, 2010

Okay, I’m back. I know I haven’t posted since the very beginning of April, but this year ain’t over and neither is this blog (gosh darnit!).

It’s been a busy month. The winter has quickly turned to spring (or summer if you take into account that it’s currently 80 degrees at 11am as I write this!), and, boy, has it been nice to walk out the door in the morning without a coat!

Anyway, here’s a quick rundown of what I’ve been up to while away from the blogosphere:

  • After returning to Baltimore from a relaxing Spring/Easter Break at home in Massachusetts, the housemates and I made the trek southward to meet up with the Washington D.C. Jesuit Volunteer communities for a cookout. It was a perfect way to kickoff spring, plus the folks down in D.C. are top notch and a welcoming bunch. (By the way, you should check out their blogs, and other JV blogs, here)
  • On the 12th, we had our monthly dinner with the Wheeler House Jesuit community. As usual, the food was deee-lish, and the company was great. The Jesuits even donated some new kitchen supplies to us. It’s amazing how supportive they’ve been all year!
  • On the weekend beginning on the 16th, Scott, Kelly, and I made an epic, weekend-long journey, hitting southern New Jersey and the Connecticut JV communities in Bridgeport and Hartford. On Friday evening, we stayed at Scott’s family’s house in Pittsgrove, South New Jersey (I had been told that South New Jersey is a totally different state than North New Jersey, and now, I believe it! What beautiful country!). The Donovan’s welcomed us like long, lost sons and daughters and treated us with food (meat!), drink (good beer and soda!), and cable television (in HD!). On Saturday, we drove up to the Bridgeport Community intending only to drop off Kelly and pick up our friends Jeff and Alex to head to Hartford, but, instead, we spent the entire afternoon with the Bridgeport Brigade, and ate some dinner with them. They’re a pretty cool bunch, too! Finally, around 9pm, we arrived in Hartford to celebrate any early Cinco de Mayo with the 7 ladies of Agape House. It seems to be a weird pattern with JV communities, but the women of Agape House were fantastic hosts, and it was great to see them and my favorite Villanova “frienemy”, Karen. Finally, on Sunday, we made the long drive back to Baltimore (but not without a quick pit stop in Pittsgrove for lunch of course!) to begin a new week.

    My greatest of frienemies, Karen.

So, that was my April in a semi-long nutshell.

May should prove to be another busy, but great month. On the docket, I have a Baltimore Tweetup (when you actually meet Twitter friends in real life- weird, I know), a visit to the Philadelphia JV community, our Silent Retreat (yes, complete silence for a weekend), a potential http://tweetvite.com/event/BmoreTequilaTweetup party for our house, Stand Up for Comedy night with CRJ, and, my birthday on the 28th.

Have a great week, everyone, and I’ll see you when I return from Silent Retreat!


I Heart City Life

March 31, 2010

On Friday evening, while it was still light out, a man walked up to our porch, took two of our floral-patterned lawn chairs, walked to his green Yukon, and drove away. Four of us were home, but we were too slow in realizing what was happening to do anything to stop it.

It was an oddly gentle reminder that we live in a city. It’s a city full of many great people, places, and things, but it’s also a city where crime, theft, and violence are realities. We may live in Charles Village, a relatively decent area, but Greenmount, a street and area known for crime, is a mere two blocks away. In Baltimore, “relatively decent” turns to “pretty dangerous” in a blink.

This is all a bit new to me. I’ve never lived in a city before.

When you live in the city, you can’t afford to forget to lock your door. You have to walk with someone else at night. You can’t leave the windows open all day. The GPS can’t stay on the dash. If you’re kids want to play outside, you sure as heck need to be out there with them. And when you get too comfortable, there’s usually a siren close by or a search helicopter to bring you back to reality.

On the other hand city living gives you have a unique community. You don’t need a car. You can walk most places: grocery store, watering hole, gym, the farmer’s market. They’re all close by. You have a certain protective bond with your neighbors. You see familiar faces around the local spots. You can sit on your porch on a particularly warm Saturday in March and watch the cars go by. You find a certain comfort in the sounds of the city: the barking dogs, the too-loud music or car engine, the side-walking passersby.

Living in a city is both scary and gloriously liberating for a country (suburban) boy like me.

Now, as I return home tomorrow for Spring Break and Easter, I’m reminded of the stark difference in living that I’ve experienced this year, and how much I’ve come to love living in the city of Baltimore… even if we do only have one more floral-patterned lawn chair left.

Decal from LiveBaltimore.com


Built-in Support

March 11, 2010

Each year, hundreds of Jesuit Volunteers (and all people involved in programs like JVC) are thrust (willingly, I might add) into something unlike anything they’ve likely ever done before. How are you supposed to go to a new city, live with 5 or 6 people you’ve never met, start a challenging new job, and live on $85 of spending money per month all at once?

Image via "plentiful"

Well, JVC, for one, does something pretty amazing: they provide JV’s with support. Support from former JV’s (FJV’s), neighbors, Jesuit priests, bosses, and co-workers. JVC will even connect JV’s with volunteers from other programs, even if they’re rivals, heathens or *gasp* both (just kidding).

Here’s a few ways we get support here in Baltimore:

  • 2 FJV Support People – Earlier in the year, our two FJV Support people, Steve & Leah, came to our Spirituality and Community nights to participate and give us feedback for any problems or questions that we may have. We also each met with one of them for a one-on-one in which we could talk about challenges we’re facing.
  • An FJV Network – There’s a pretty darn good network of active FJV’s living in the Baltimore area and we’ve been lucky enough to get together with some of them on different occasions. In the fall, a group of FJV’s meets in Patterson Park for frisbee; this winter, Scott, Stacey, and I have been playing on an FJV-infused broomball team; we’ve hosted a couple of Pot Luck Dinners at our house with FJV’s; and the FJV’s always make an effort to invite us to different events and activities where they’ll be too. Being able to participate in these things has given us a sense of belonging in the city and the fact they they did JVC too is huge. That, and the FJV’s are some pretty cool folks!
  • Jesuit Priests – A group of Jesuits live down Guilford a few blocks from us, and, each month, they invite us over for mass and dinner. They’re an amazing group of caring, giving, and loving men who would stop at nothing to help us in any way.
  • At Work – Our bosses at our work sites know that we’re JV’s, and they know that we’ve committed to more than working at their sites this year. They regularly check in with us and are responsible for making sure that our housing, food, and travel are all up to snuff. Our co-workers also know that we’re JV’s, and, at least at Cristo Rey, teachers and staff are always good to use, whether it’s giving us tips on things to do in Baltimore or feeding us (read: meat!).
  • Other Volunteers – Earlier this year, we got together with another other groups of volunteers like the LaSallian Volunteers, Mennonite Volunteers, AmeriCorps Volunteers, Lutheran Volunteers, Mercy Corps Volunteers, and Bos Seccour Volunteers. We keep in contact with them and get together now and then.
  • Villanova Alumni – I know this is a bit more personal, but I’ve been lucky enough to happen into a group of Villanova alums who have been very good to me this year, always inviting me to Villanova basketball game-watches, making us food, or simply buying me a drink. Plus, I often visit a few friends of my own from Villanova living in Baltimore.

The support this year has been amazing, both from JVC and outside JVC. I honestly don’t know where I would be if not for the many people that provide us with this love and support.It lets me know that we’re a part of something greater, that it doesn’t end this year, and that people are appreciative of what we do. After this year, I’ll be sure to pay it forward.

So, if any of you are reading this…

THANK YOU!


Snowpocalypse!

February 7, 2010

So, we got snow this weekend. It started on Friday at 11am and didn’t stop until about 4pm on Saturday, which was actually 6 hours earlier than what meteorologists had called for. In the end, we only received about 2 feet (they were calling for as much as 30 inches. THIRTY!). Even for my hearty New England standards, this is a ton of snow.

Seriously, people were running through the streets yelling, “Snowpocalypse! Snowmageddon! SnOwMG! Snowly Moly! Snowtorious BIG! Snowva Nation! Stay in your igloos… err… homes!”

Well, I may have been the only one yelling, “Snowva Nation!” but I was really excited about the Villanova-Georgetown game (THAT one ended well- NOT).

…OK, so nobody was actually yelling anything, but you get the point: people were not taking this storm lightly.

I spent most of the early afternoon today (Sunday) shoveling my car in preparation for work tomorrow, but it turns out Baltimore City has already canceled school! I’m definitely not in Massachusetts anymore!

Anyway, here’s a few pictures from when the storm died down (click to make them bigger):


Who I Live With Part V: Amanda the Advocate

January 3, 2010

This post is the final piece of a five-part series of interviews with my Jesuit Volunteer housemates in Baltimore. Parts I, II, III, and IV can be found here.

Baltimore City Detention Center

The last, but certainly not the least (none of them are, of course), of my housemates is Amanda White. Amanda is completing her second year of JVC here in Baltimore and is, comparably, the old, crotchety woman of the house… minus the crotchety part. In reality, Amanda is a confident, driven woman and her experience, positive spirit, and get-it-done attitude are an asset to the community. She hails from Louisville, Kentucky, has a sometimes-subtle southern accent, and attended Georgetown College in Kentucky. Amanda works for the Public Justice Center in Baltimore as a Legal Advocate and will pursue a career in law. I’ve learned a lot from Amanda’s work and she’s helped to open my eyes to a totally different population than I expected (more on that below).

I sat down with (e-mailed) Amanda with a few questions to tell you more about what she does. Here goes:

What’s the Public Justice Center?

The Public Justice Center (PJC) is a nonprofit legal advocacy organization founded in Maryland in 1985 that seeks to enforce and expand the rights of people who suffer injustice because of poverty or discrimination. The PJC advocates in the courts, legislatures, and government agencies, and through public education and coalition building. Current projects focus on tenants, workers, immigrants, prisoners, homeless children, families needing medical assistance, and creating a right to counsel in civil cases.

You’re a Legal Advocate at the PJC. What does that entail? What types of projects do you work on?

This year I am assisting lead attorney, Wendy Hess, on the Prisoners’ Rights Project.  The goal of the project is to improve the poor medical and sanitation conditions within the Baltimore City Detention Center (BCDC).  The project takes a two-prong approach: a class action lawsuit and individual advocacy.  In 2003 the PJC joined forces with the ACLU to bring a class action lawsuit against the BCDC. Rather than seek a monetary award, the lawsuit was intended to affect the medical treatment and sanitation standards at the BCDC. Currently, the State and ACLU/PJC are working on a settlement, which we hope to have finalized in 2010.  The only issue left to litigate will be heat, or the issue of adequate temperatures within the jail. My role in this part of the project is fairly limited, but I mainly help collect the necessary legal documents and information, such as taking detainees’ declarations.

During the course of this lawsuit, the PJC has also offered individual advocacy for men and women being detained at the BCDC.  Staff and trained volunteers meet with detainees who experience urgent medical issues.  After conducting an intake interview, the Prisoners’ Right Project Team (a.k.a. Team Awesome!) makes a judgment call on the best course of action.  Sometimes that might be educating the detainee on the best way to obtain adequate medical care.  Other times that might be actually sending an advocacy letter on behalf of the client.  I assist in conducting these interviews, training the volunteers, maintaining the client files, and attending Inmate Council Meetings (weekly meetings where representatives from each housing unit come together to discuss current detention center issues.)

Outside of these responsibilities, I tackle other side projects as needed.  Right now I have been focused on researching the issue of trying juveniles as adults for our project “Just Kids!” Along with our partners, the PJC hopes to help issue a report with recommendations regarding this issue.  I also sit on the Baltimore Open Society Institute’s Coalition of Criminal Reform Advocates, and I have worked with the Maryland State Bar Association’s Criminal Reform Section.

The diversity within my job responsibilities has been a great learning experience.  What I love about the work has been the eye opening and humanizing experience of putting faces to a generally forgotten population.

You’re in your second year with JVC. Why a second year? What did you do last year?

When I first entered the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, I knew that I wanted to do at least two years of service before applying to graduate schools. There hasn’t been a question in my mind since I graduated that I not only wanted to make a career out of serving others, but a life.  My first year as a JV really set a great foundation for the lifestyle changes I was hoping to make, but I thought a second year would cement the values.  This experience is unlike anything that I will probably ever do again in my life, so I want to get as much out of it as possible.  So far, the year and four months I have spent as a JV have been some of the most transformative months of my life.  There is so much to learn and so much to just take in.  I like to think of it in the sense that my first year was about observing and studying the structures that keep individuals stuck within the cycle of poverty. My second year is a continuation of that process, but also time to start analyzing the ways in which I can begin to affect the different phases of the poverty spiral.

Last year I worked at a neighborhood center in Syracuse, NY.  I was the Program and Tutoring Coordinator for an elementary after school program.  From 2-5pm Monday through Friday, I and three other co-workers entertained and attempted to educate 60+ children ages 6-12 years old.  For one year, I lived and breathed the lives of my kids and the neighborhood I worked in.  I held conferences with their parents, ran a food pantry twice a week for neighbors, attended local school performances, and organized holiday parties.  Now my new office is covered in pictures of my “babies.”  I try to call them once a month, and look forward to heading back to NY to visit them.

Fun fact time!

I was a Girl Scout from the second grade through my Senior year of high school.  I sold cookies to pay for a whitewater rafting trip on the New River, a long weekend in Gatlinburg, TN, and a Spring Break cruise to the Caribbean. But my favorite part was the annual fundraiser we held – a Father/Daughter Square Dance! Yee-haw!

Yee-haw, indeed! Thanks, Amanda!

Photo via Autonomy.