Planting Seeds

June 2, 2010

I’m a pretty results-oriented guy. I like to see the benefits of what I’ve done relatively soon after working on it, and if I can’t see those results, I get a bit frustrated.

That’s why, at times this year, it’s been frustrating to be a teacher. You don’t always see results quickly. Sure, I’ve helped students get a good grade on this or that assignment, but ultimately, as a teacher, you don’t always see results today, tomorrow, next month, or even this year.

So, I find myself continually asking myself, “What real difference can I make?

Recently, I was bemoaning this to a friend of mine. She, however, was unimpressed. She said simply, “The fact that you are there is making a difference, Tom. You’re planting seeds. You probably won’t see whether those seeds grow, but they will. You are making a difference by planting, nurturing, and loving these seeds.”

She helped me realize that you don’t need to see the direct results in order to make a difference. Every little bit helps in the lives of children, and, no matter how frustrated I get, I need to realize that what I’m doing isn’t going to solve every problem, but it just might kick-start some growth into those seeds.

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Also, in cased you missed it, I’m fundraising for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and hiking the Appalachian Trail to travel to Dis-Orientation, our retreat to end our year of service. For my blog post and more information about it, CLICK HERE, or to go directly to the fundraising page, CLICK HERE. Thanks everyone! -Tom

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What’s Your Philanthropic Method?

April 8, 2010

I’m wondering, and it’s not a challenge, how do you give back to your community?

Do you volunteer?

Where? When? How often? Why?

Do you donate to charitable foundations?

What do you donate? To who? How often? Why?

Do you do something else instead?

What’s your philanthropic method?

I’d like to know, so comment away!


Advocacy and a Voice

March 15, 2010

Image via "hiddedevries"

Last week, a student came to me and asked, “What’s A-D-V-O-C-A-C-Y?” I told him that advocacy is basically when a group or a person helps support another person or group in order to help them. Literally not 20 minutes later, I read Kristina’s post over on her blog. I like her explanation of advocacy a lot better:

“It is hard to know when to be an advocate for someone, and when to let that someone speak for himself. People have voices, and we walk a fine & creative line when we become advocates for them. I don’t think that advocacy means speaking for someone without a voice, but simply working with that person to help him express himself in a more effective way… I realized that advocacy is a powerful thing, but it is so powerful because as advocates, we are asserting that we are invested and that we believe in that other human being, in his voice and his abilities. Advocacy is not about saying, “Oh hey, that guy can’t speak, so let me do the talking for him,” but rather it is saying, “You weren’t hearing him before. I am not speaking for him, I am speaking with him. Two voices are better than one. Listen to us now.'”


Kristina is spot on. Sometimes, it’s easy to lose sight of this idea as a full-time volunteer. We want so badly for everything to go well and get better now that we can forget that we’re working for long-term, too. It’s important that the people we advocate learn to develop their own voice, so, someday, they have a voice for themselves and help others attain a voice as well. We shouldn’t be doing for. Rather, we should be doing with.


Hope: An Orientation of the Heart

January 26, 2010

It’s been a busy week, so I thought I would share a quote with you that was passed on at Re-Orientation. It’s from Vaclav Havel, a Czech politician instrumental in bringing democracy to his Czechoslovakia. In 1986, three years before becoming president of his country, Havel was asked, “Do you see a grain of hope anywhere in the 1980s?” He answered,

Either we have hope within us or we don’t; it is a dimension of the soul, and it’s not essentially dependent on some particular observation of the world or estimate of the situation. Hope is not prognostication. It is an orientation of the spirit, an orientation of the heart…

Hope, in this deep and powerful sense, is not the same as joy that things are going well, or willingness to invest in enterprises that are obviously headed for early success, but rather, an ability to work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed…

Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out

It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

The question could very well have referred to the present, and the answer would still hold true. As I begin to consider my path for post-JVC life and grapple with what is happening in the world, I’m doing my best to work towards what makes sense and what is good.

What is hope for you? Where do you find it? What makes sense to you and how do you work towards it?



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.

The Importance of Serving WITH

December 10, 2009

Christmas is a time for family. A time to feel loved. A time, not only for gifts, but to spend time with those we love the most. It’s also a time when people give the most to others in need. Whether it’s buying gifts for orphaned children, donating old jackets and clothes to homeless shelters, or giving to a charity, many people do their best to help others in need.

These things are fantastic ways to help others and I’m not here to tell you to stop doing them. They are absolutely vital to programs and charities that serve the poor.

But I want more.

This year, go beyond charity and beyond even volunteering.

How?

Be with those in need.

In other words, start to see people in need as real, living and breathing people. People like you and I. People with lives. People with problems. People with loves. People who have made mistakes in their life. People with nowhere to turn. People who are lonely and desire relationship. People who need love or just a simple conversation or just a person to show that someone gives a damn about them.

Recently, my students wrote thank you letters to donors who are generous enough to give them scholarships to attend Cristo Rey. Many of them wanted to meet their donors and talk with them so they knew why someone would do such a good thing just for them. They want to see the faces of those who helped them. (Update: Benefactors visit Cristo Rey in the spring to meet their students).

So, this Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Christ, remember that Jesus spent his time amongst the lowest of the low in society and loved them when nobody else would. Remember what a little face-to-face conversation can do for someone. Talk with those in need. Sit with them and ask them what their name is and say, “How are you?” and mean it and listen to what they say. Serve people as people. Show you care.

*Image from knguyenpvn.

Note: Check out 12for12K’s “12 Days of  Christmas Homeless Push” for more information on what you can do this Christmas to help others in need.