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Meet the ECC members–Brittany Freeman

When I opened the email about the Engaged Citizen Corps last year, I thought I was just clearing more “college propaganda” (as I like to call it) out of my inbox. Little did I know, my decision to actually engage in the content would lead to a defining program of my first-year experience. The Engaged Citizen Corps is a holistic program where you work, live, and learn in the same environment of your cohort. Through a mutual pairing process, each member is assigned a local non-profit agency in Des Moines. For me, this meant that I would be working with Anawim Housing, an affordable housing and homelessness outreach non-profit, to complete my 300 hours of service as an AmeriCorps member. Though the face value of 300 hours seems a bit daunting, it truly is necessary to connect with the organization on a deeper level. But what does this actually mean? It is easy to get caught up in the opportunity to build your resume especially as a first-year, but this experience is far more than another line on your resume.

Let me preface my experience by saying that I had virtually no expectations for this program. I had done internship programs before, so I already knew the importance of keeping an open mind. So, I kept it simple. I looked at this as an opportunity for growth and education. Having never been to Des Moines, I thought there was no better way to become acquainted with the problems and struggles facing the community. This was exactly the outlook I needed. Going to Drake, it is rather easy to get caught up in the micro-community of the campus, but it is important to remember that people’s entire livelihoods exist beyond the confines of the campus.

These “livelihoods” that I describe are often wrongly stereotyped especially within Anawim’s tenant basis. Though these people may be experiencing drug addictions, alcoholism, single parenthood, etc., they are not lazy, helpless scum. They are just people who have been bogged down by society’s unequal distribution of resources. With a deepening gap between the haves and the have nots, they feel the inescapable burden the most. Non-profits like Anawim are designed to provide opportunities to those who might not otherwise get the chance. But, it is important to note, that even Anawim’s programs do not extend to everyone. These man-made boundaries put people at risk for an on-going cycle of self-hatred and frustration. I regret to say that it is this that results in giving up. In doing so, people experiencing homelessness accept the wrongly attributed labels and become what they are described. This is not their fault. It is ours – for not speaking up or changing our language (one of the most powerful tools we have).

Seeing the narratives of Anawim’s clients – those who have experienced homelessness and those just in the need of reduced housing costs – I have begun to understand the diversity of Drake’s surrounding community. Without this experience, I would imagine that I too would be swept up in the luxuries of a small, private, liberal arts university. But instead, I have had the privilege of truly assimilating into the community and recognizing the importance of changing my dialogue. Though I may just be the “intern” at Anawim, I am doing so much more. I am documenting histories and completing tasks that aid in the overall functionality and vitality of the organization. I am educating myself and preparing to educate others. I am connecting.

Nonetheless, I know it is easy to get caught up in my story or the stories of the people, but it is important to also reflect on your own personal impact. It may seem like as a single entity you have no ability to affect change, but you do. It is this flawed thinking that is perpetuating our systems of inequality. Active reflection and implementation act as counter measures to the superficiality that is plaguing our nation.

To bring this full circle, let me return to Drake – what it means for the campus, for the students, and for the surround community. The Engaged Citizen Corps is not a program of single-student reflection in the community. It is a program designed to bridge the gap between Des Moines and Drake. For me personally, this has resulted in the pursuit of leadership roles in various organizations on campus where I can affect change within the realm of service and beyond. It means planning service events not only for the women in my sorority but also the greater student body. It means encouraging active education about issues and inspiring the pursuit of individual passions. It means making service a desire not a requirement. Together, we can inspire activism, advocacy, and service on campus with the purpose of translating it elsewhere as well. We have the privilege to serve other people, and we shouldn’t take that lightly. To that, I am going to leave this blog post with one final remark – “community service has to be less about random acts of kindness and more about strategic acts of justice,” (Wayne Meicel).

By: Brittany Freeman

 

Meet the Engaged Citizen Corps members–Danielle Dircks

Hello my name is Danielle Dircks! I am a first-year Neuroscience major from Omaha, Nebraska and a member of the Engaged Citizen Corps (ECC). The Engaged Citizen Corps has given me the opportunity to strengthen my passion for service through unique class experiences, an internship, and exposure to the Des Moines Community.

I was first introduced to the Engaged Citizen Corps when I was a senior in high school. My Drake admissions counselor took one look at my resume, saw my passion for helping others, and recommended this program. The ECC allows me to use what I am learning in the classroom and apply it to the real world. As a first-year student, I was required to take a First Year Seminar (FYS). Because I am a member of the ECC, I was put into an FYS entitled The Common Good. In this FYS, myself and the eight other members of the ECC dove into the world of service. We used the book Toxic Charity, written by Robert Lupton, to address some of the misconceptions involved with service work. His book mainly addressed the idea that even when you have the best intentions, you can do more harm than good, especially if you are not looking at the impact of your work on those you are trying to serve. The most important thing in service should be the people you are trying to serve.

In addition to taking specific classes, the ECC partnered me with a local non-profit where I was able to put into action what I have been learning. I have been working with HOME Inc., an affordable housing non-profit, as a research intern. My main task has been to conduct a research study to generate measurable outcomes for the work HOME Inc. has been conducting. I spent last semester collecting data. I went through over a hundred files from the last 30 years collecting information on our clients and on the houses that we have sold to them. I looked at things such as property value prior to HOME Inc. buying the house, the property value after HOME Inc fixed it up, the price the client paid for it, the size of the family, and their income. Now that I have all of the data collected, I am starting to analyze it. I am looking for trends, commonalities, and irregularities. The main goal of this study is to see what impact HOME Inc. has had on the surrounding neighborhood through looking at specific questions such as, has housing retention rate in those areas increased? Through their revitalization work, have they increased property value? Not only are we looking at the neighborhood, but also the families. Does having a stable place to live allow for an increased income? Do the children of the homeowners go on to finish high school or attend college?

This research project has allowed me to take what I love, experiments and research, and apply it in a different environment. Between the classes I have taken and my internship, the ECC has given me a new perspective with which to view the world. Most college students live on a bubble on their campus. They aren’t exposed to the community around them. This is especially prevalent with the Drake campus, since the area surrounding it doesn’t match the demographics of the school. This new lens the ECC has created has opened my eyes to the realities many people living not too far from myself face. I have decided that the phrase, “I understand” will no longer be a part of my vocabulary. No matter how much I want to fully empathize with someone, every single person is different. People living in poverty (notice the people first language) experience things that I cannot relate to. My perspective will always be different from theirs. As one of my professors says, “even if we are sitting no more than five inches from each other, you will still be able to see things that I can’t. No matter where we are physically positioned in the room, we will never see the same things. Just as we will never experience the same thing and thus never know exactly how the other feels”. I am fortunate enough to have always known where my next meal was coming from, or how I was going to pay for my books for school. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case for everyone.

The Engaged Citizen Corps has allowed me to broaden my horizons, learn about the interworkings of a non-profit, and think about service in ways I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. It opened my eyes to something called people first language, instead of saying “poor people” to say “people living in poverty” because their socioeconomic status doesn’t define who they are as a person. The Engaged Citizen Corps encompasses the full meaning of service learning through its ability to connect what I am learning in classes, both my ECC classes and my neuroscience classes, to what I am doing out in the community. Through application, my knowledge doesn’t just lay static in my brain, it gets applied to my daily life in ways I never anticipated.

Citizen Engagement at CFUM

My passion for service led me to join the Engaged Citizen Corps at Drake University, an academic and service year experience for first-year students. The Engaged Citizen Corps program requires students to volunteer at an organization, and I was assigned Children and Family Urban Movement (CFUM). Being part of the Engaged Citizen Corps program, I have to be more mindful of my actions while volunteering, because “even the most innocent and well-meaning attempts to help, inflict pain” (Lupton 147). With this possibility in mind, I wonder whether or not I am making a positive impact on CFUM, what have I learned about myself so far, and how have my views changed during this entire experience?

I work with the different programs that CFUM has to offer, such as their K-5 programs, Gender-Specific programs, and community engagement programs. While working with the K-5 programs and Gender Specific programs I help clean the classrooms, prepare snack for the children, plan enrichment activities, help with homework, and monitor the children’s whereabouts. I understand that when working with children one needs a lot of patience and truthfulness, especially when there are continuous conflicts: the children fighting with one another, children misplacing items, not listening to me or the other adults, and not wanting to participate in academic studies. Truthfulness allows me to render genuine answers to the recipients about school and life. They understand that they can trust me as an ally and someone to look to for advice, particularly towards college. However, I do run into questions about the possibility of hard work and personal struggles inhibiting them from wanting to go to school, which is why I also work in the community program section of CFUM for their Grit Program. But, before I attempted to manage the Grit program, I had to apply the concepts I was taught in the ECC program.

In being a ECC member, I took a First Year Seminar Class called The Common Good. In this class we read Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton. Lupton admonishes forms of volunteerism that will cause more harm than help, in particular, precluding the chances of dependency and disempowerment. Most of the causes of toxic charity is from volunteers that lack recognition in their actions, and expressing a superior deposition. To preclude the chance of any expression of arrogance or superiority, I have to “enter the neighborhood as a learner than an initiator” (Lupton 161). I am an observer with the students, with the intention of trying to find what they most needed most from the grit program: support, endurance, recognition and other essential characteristics. The overall goal is to empower the youth, in which Lupton expresses that “when we do for those in need what they have the capacity to do for themselves, we disempower them” which then creates dependency, and dependency is a form of toxic charity (Lupton 3). We want to empower the youth to make a social change, and give them the tools to surpass potential obstacles. Hopefully, our new project can do that.

CFUM and I are starting a new project that entails integrating more grit – self-discipline wedded to a dedicated pursuit of a goal through perseverance – into the recipients. The purpose of this project is to augment the children’s chances of success after they graduate from CFUM’s programs through activities promoting grit. CFUM and I want the children to be successful in their academics, social and emotional lives. I am collaborating with the program coordinator – Hannah Olson – to ensure that the activities I am creating can be feasibly implemented. Before creating the activities for the children, I read two books by Paul Tough, How Children Succeed and Helping Children Succeed. Both books take on the challenge of elaborating on methods of augmenting the chances of a child’s success, and record other organizations trying to do so. In addition to this, I had to procure inspiration concerning grit activities from other professionals through online research. With information from Tough’s books and online sources, I realized that grit has many counterparts to it. Therefore, I divided the curriculum of grit into subunits: growth mindset, discipline, environment, intrinsic motivation, and failure. My activities are modeled after each of the subunits of grit, which would overall teach the children how to apply grit into their lives. Some of the names of the activities that I have created are Grit Pie (inspired by Kristen Goulet), Finding Your Grit, Board of Support and Guidance, and Perseverance Walk.

Most of these activities were made from essential skills. I had to use my literacy, organizing, creativity, and recognizing skills. When reading the books and online resources, I analyzed the importance and effective approaches each one were depicting. Also, I organized my notes in a presentable manner to the directors of CFUM to ensure they could understand my findings. In addition to this, the most prominent skill is creativity. With working with children, I have to make activities that appeal to their interest. Through volunteering for CFUM, I recognized I am more than just a volunteer, I am a role model for the recipients that go to CFUM. I came to this conclusion once I saw that I identify with many of the values of CFUM. CFUM appreciates how I value development, discipline, knowledge, and grit, because these are values that they want to implement in their recipients, so the children can have long-term success. From having these similar values, CFUM wants me to work for their organization past my 2 semesters of volunteering, in order for me to be around the children/recipients more.

Individual analysis forces one to approach whether or not their service is effective. I feel as though my work is effective because of how I am building strong bonds with the recipients, and making it known to them that I am an advocate for their success through the projects that I am on. In addition to effectiveness, individual analysis allowed me to learn about myself. I learned that I am more than just a volunteer; I am a role model for others. Even if I don’t see it, I have people looking up to me, and it shapes how I conduct myself. I conduct myself humbly as a positive role model. Besides learning about myself, I learned that service can be toxic, in which volunteers can do more harm than help. With that being said, I cannot wait to continue my service with CFUM and other organizations in an effort to find more opportunities for impact and growth.

Written by: Jamie Rusan

Sabrina Uddin–Engaged Citizen Corps Member

Hello, my name is Sabrina Uddin and I am a first year student at Drake University from the Chicago area. As a member of the Engaged Citizen Corps (ECC), I am an intern at IMPACT Community Action Partnership. The nonprofit organization has several offices throughout central Iowa, but the Drake Neighborhood office in particular is home to both the leadership team and an outreach office that services the community. Though I work primarily with the Director of Community Engagement, I am often able to collaborate with other members of the leadership team and staff in the outreach office. IMPACT runs two major programs from its outreach office: a food pantry and Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). The food pantry is utilized by an array of households throughout the community for varying amounts of time. LIHEAP financially aids households by assisting in payments for utilities bills.

Typically, I make the five-minute walk to the office from Drake twice a week and spend between eight and ten hours completing a variety of tasks. Through interning at IMPACT I have gained unprecedented skills and experiences because I am able to interact with many different aspects of the association. When I first began interning, I focused on two entirely different projects: organizing staff t-shirt orders and an audit of the food pantry. This was a good introduction to working at IMPACT because I familiarized myself with the staff, volunteers, schedule, and locations of food recovery and other IMPACT offices. Since those first few weeks in September, my projects have expanded to include answering phone calls and scheduling appointments for LIHEAP clients and organizing open-ended responses from a community survey. On a daily basis I make copies of flyers, expertly use the paper cutter, and enter information into spreadsheets.

Occasionally I engage in direct service by assisting in the food pantry. I work with volunteers to lead clients through the food pantry. My internship is focused largely around behind-the-scenes tasks that help the nonprofit run smoothly, however I always appreciate being able to interact with the people IMPACT helps. Regardless of whatever task is at hand, I know that as a member of the Drake Neighborhood and Engaged Citizen Corps, I am ultimately contributing to IMPACT’s overall mission of working to eliminate poverty by addressing the needs of the community.

Drake University’s campus is rather like a bubble. It is easy for a busy college student to become wrapped up solely in academics and extracurricular activities, forgetting about the community around the campus. However, it is important for students to remain cognizant of the fact that they are certainly part of this community. Since we live in the area during the school year, I believe it is important that students engage with the community in some way, whether that entails venturing off campus to support local businesses or simply saying hello to another person at the bus stop. As students at Drake University, we are undeniably connected to this community. I know that if I had not ventured out of my comfort zone and applied for the ECC, I would not feel nearly as connected with the Drake Neighborhood as I do currently.

Through this internship, I am afforded the opportunity to converse with and learn about community members and this has allowed me to develop a substantial understanding of the Drake Neighborhood. Since I am aware of the challenges and successes of the community, along with other students who are engaged in the community, I feel as though I better understand where improvements can be made and what we, as Drake University students, can do in order to help make a positive difference. Furthermore, by working in what some might call “the real world” I have been able to observe and experience situations that have sharpened my critical thinking skills and my ability to work with people. I know that after I am no longer a member of ECC, I will carry these lessons with me. When I am home, in the suburbs of Chicago, I now have knowledge that will allow me to optimally help my community. Regardless of where I end up in the future, I want to be sure that I can contribute positively to the overall wellness of my community.

Just Sustainabilities J-Term Course

As part of their learning about environmental sustainability, social equity, and urban planning, students in the Just Sustainabilities J-Term course explored advocacy for alternative transportation in downtown Des Moines. Although it was one of the coldest days of the winter, we bravely ventured into the streets and bus stations to explore how community leaders are working to make the city more friendly to people who cannot or choose not to rely on private cars to move around.

We first stopped in a conference room at the law firm of Faegre Baker Daniels, on the 33rd floor of Des Moines tallest skyscraper. There, we met with firm partner and Drake law alumnus Larry James, as well as with Jeremy Lewis, the director of the Des Moines Bike Collective. Larry and Jeremy told us about their work on the Connect Downtown plan, which is an urban planning document that identifies key ways to increase the walkability and bikeability of the downtown area. They described the research that went into developing the plan, but just as importantly, they also told us about the political processes involved in building support for the plan on the Des Moines City Council and in the downtown business community. After a question and answer period, we made sure to check out the views of the city from above and to take plenty of pictures!

From there, we walked ten blocks into the East Village to look at the East Grand bike lane demonstration project. As a first step towards making the Connect Downtown plan into reality, the city of Des Moines has built protected bike lanes on both sides of East Grand. While ordinary bike lanes are only marked with paint, the city has installed reflective posts to increase bike safety. In addition, it has created spaces for parallel parking between the bike lane and the street. As one planner put it, normally, bike lanes are designed so that bikers protect the parked cars from traffic. The East Grand design flips this arrangement, so that parked cars protect the bikers. It’s simple, but adds a lot to bikers’ feeling of safety!

After lunch at Zombie Burger and conversation about what we had seen and heard, we took the DART bus to our last stop of the day: the DART downtown central station on Cherry Street. There, we met with DART’s public affairs officer, Amanda Wanke, and members of DART’s planning staff. We learned about the bus utility’s goals of expanding its services, which are described in DART’s Forward 2035 comprehensive plan. In addition to describing innovative ideas like “transportation hubs” – which combine bus stops, bike-share stations, and car rentals – and driverless busses, the DART staff explained that they are required by law to ensure that DART’s services are equitable and nondiscriminatory.

This trip not only revealed new information about the city of Des Moines, it also helped to move the class forward towards completing independent research projects about organizations that are working to advance sustainability and equity. Discoveries from this research appear on the public class website at www.justsustainabilitydesmoines.wordpress.com. Check them out!

 

Written by: Michael Haedicke

Julie’s Reflection: A Year Into Her Position

Hi!My name is Julie and I currently work as the Food Security Coordinator for Next Course: Food Recovery Network at Drake. I am a double major in Sustainability & Resilience and Rhetoric, Media, & Social Change with a minor in Sociology and am both passionate about Next Course and see it as an intersection of my two major areas of study.

 

I have been in this position for a little over a year, but have learned so much about the complexity of food security that my perspective has been forever changed. To start, classes like Michael Haedicke’s Food and Society and programs such as Double Up Food Bucks working out of the local nonprofit Eat Greater Des Moines led me to consider the accuracy of my position title. Food security, the ability to to access affordable, nutritious, and culturally comfortable food as needed, is threatened for many people, even in our local area. I recognize that the work of food recovery- allocating excess food from Drake’s campus to nearby organizations that assist people facing hunger- supplements the charitable efforts of local organizations, but does not provide the sustenance required to move an individual to complete food security. With this understanding, I came to identify as a “Food Recovery Coordinator” more than a “Food Security Coordinator.”

Meet Julie, Next Course’s Food Security Coordinator

Hi! My name is Julie and I currently work as the Food Security Coordinator for Next Course: Food Recovery Network at Drake. I am a double major in Sustainability & Resilience and Rhetoric, Media, & Social Change with a minor in Sociology and am both passionate about Next Course and see it as an intersection of my two major areas of study.

            Next Course recovers excess food from Drake’s campus that would otherwise be thrown away, and donates it to one of five local partner agencies on a rotating triweekly basis. When I first started my position, I was encouraged to visit and get to know the people and mission behind each of our partner agencies. This led me to schedule tours at Central Iowa Shelter and Services (CISS) and YMCA Supportive Housing Campus. Touring both of these local charitable organizations alongside other Drake students allowed me to see the complex and immense effort of local individuals to help, support, and enable people in need. The tour at CISS revealed all the services that are provided there beyond meals, such as job application workshops, a hydroponic garden, and Veterans Assistance apartments. I was utterly inspired by the psychological and sociological considerations put in by CISS faculty to address local issues. Working for Next Course has not only broadened my perspective about Des Moines, but also lead me to new considerations about my future career path.

Drake MCL students conduct research for local nonprofit

Our task wasn’t easy. As part of Drake’s Master of Communication Leadership (MCL) program, our class of 14 students was asked to propose, conduct, analyze, and present research for a local nonprofit.

The client was Best Buddies Iowa (BBIA), an organization dedicated to creating opportunities for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD). BBIA organizes leadership development programs and one-to-one friendships between people with and without IDD to help participants build self-advocacy and communication skills and feel valued by society.

At the beginning of the semester, BBIA Director Blake Campbell presented to our class on the organization’s current state, its short- and long-term goals, and its obstacles. Armed with that information, as well as our own preliminary research, we decided to focus on four main areas:

  • Program analysis – To gain an understanding of BBIA programs, including challenges and opportunities.
  • Market analysis – To assess the current needs of individuals with IDD that might be met by expanded BBIA programming.
  • Brand awareness analysis – To gauge community awareness and opinion of BBIA.
  • Digital media analysis – To examine the effectiveness of BBIA’s website and social media in communicating its vision.

The class divided into groups to tackle these areas. Under the guidance of Matthew Thornton, assistant professor of journalism and mass communication, we conducted online surveys, in-depth interviews, and secondary research. Many of us even attended BBIA events to learn more about the organization.

Our efforts culminated with a 91-page, professionally printed report that we presented to the client, thanks to a mini-grant provided by Community Engaged Learning. We were able to identify key findings that will help inform decision-making at BBIA and take the nonprofit to the next level. These findings will also be crucial as we put together recommendations for BBIA in our capstone class next summer.

Overall, the research provided us with an in-depth understanding of BBIA. Along the way, we also learned about strategic research methods. We learned how to analyze data and summarize our findings. We learned about the value of teamwork, persistence, and effective communication.

When we hit walls, we resorted to back-up plans to achieve our goals. We utilized each student’s individual strengths to make the project succeed—from designing the presentation, to writing and editing the report, to creating a video for the client. Everyone in the class contributed in a unique way, and the process of organizing the combined efforts of 14 people helped build leadership skills.

I feel proud of what we did as a group this semester. It was gratifying to present research that will help BBIA continue its important mission and impact even more people with disabilities throughout the state. I can’t wait to see what we accomplish in our next class.

 

Written by: Kayla Choate

Drake Students Collaborate with Movimiento Al Exito

This semester’s Methods of Social Research class sought out to aid one of Iowa’s premier organizations for Latinx youth. Movimiento Al Exito is an organization focused on enhancing the lives of Latinx youth through cultural recognition, secondary education opportunities, and creating a sense of well-being in their communities. Our class was approached by Al Exito with the request to gather information to objectively view their success and areas of improvement for the program as a whole. Through hard work, dedication, and some help from a mini-grant, we were able to conduct a survey to students in Al Exito and present tangible information to help our client improve the lives of Latinx youth in Iowa.

The process was long and arduous. As we progressed through the course, we learned survey work takes research, time, dedication, and patience. We began with textbook readings to develop a perspective attuned to service learning and research strategies. The class was visited by two heads of Al Exito, executive director Dawn Oropeza and Professor Cammarota from Iowa State University. From these meetings, the class performed research about Latinx individuals in Iowa and learned of Al Exito’s goals to obtain from our survey. From there, each of us were given a task in the project such as working on a survey draft, working with SPSS (our statistical analysis program), applying for grants, and more. To create our survey, we conceptualized and operationalized many questions, both in written and survey form, in an effort to obtain relevant information. Many of our questions centered around adult support, acculturative stress, future goals, prejudice, and cultural awareness. After conducting a pilot survey with a select group of Al Exito youth, we traveled across Iowa to distribute the survey. Schools in Des Moines, Marshalltown, Clarion, Hampton, and Ottumwa were all administered our survey. Upon its completion the class analyzed data collected from 128 Latinx youth throughout Iowa and found many interesting statistics to help Al Exito in the future.

We learned many important lessons throughout this project as a class. However, three stick out to us more so than others. We all learned the value of service learning. The first how actually going into the world to fix a problem hands on allows us to create a difference and learn skills beyond a textbook. We were able to practice civic responsibility while reflecting on an unforgettable experience. The second lesson we learned is the value of survey work in the real world. Problems plague the world we live in and, unless analyzed extensively, rarely sort themselves out. The work we performed exemplified the power of information and its ability to change the world for the better. The third lesson we learned was our power in the real world. When visiting schools and administering surveys to youth, we all realized how (even if we don’t feel like it) we are adults and the youth looked up to us. It helped us to realize our place in the world and emphasized our ability to make positive and meaningful change.

We, the members of Methods of Social Research, would like to thank Drake University Community Engaged Learning for the grant to help us on our trips, materials, and supplies. Without your help, the positive experience gained by each individual member of the group could’ve turned out differently. Thank you!

 

Written by: Joshua Yeager

An Immersive Fall Break

My last fall break as an undergraduate student was lavished with lessons deep.

Unlike all the others, I was not stuck in a time warp, endlessly arguing with my brain that I did deserve the luxury of spending my two days off being non-functional (after all I had worked oh-so hard) and binge watching every drama and anime under the sun. On the contrary, I was entangled in the hustle and bustle of being a member of this society and realising harsh truths.

Let me rewind.

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This semester, I have the opportunity of working at the Community Engaged Learning Office and being a Student Learning Ambassador. Part of my responsibilities included organising a fall immersion project that would take place over the fall break – October 16 and 17. The plan was to attend the Iowa Hunger Summit and help at Bidwell Riverside on Monday and be out in the farm at Lutheran Services of Iowa – Global Greens on Tuesday. We had three people for the first day and six for the next.

Now, let the raw, blunt, brilliant story of my fall immersion project unravel!

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MONDAY, 16TH OCTOBER

 

“The Iowa Hunger Summit gathers leaders from across Iowa representing community organizations, business and industry, state and local government, social agencies, churches and religious communities, schools and universities, civic and social clubs, and other individuals and groups that lead or participate in projects to confront hunger.

The World Food Prize was hosting the Iowa Hunger Summit on Monday and it was a great opportunity to learn about hunger – which was the issue that we decided on exploring! The event ticked standard checkboxes of events: welcomes, thank you’s to the sponsors, introductions, and so forth. In the process, somewhere after the five Secretaries of Agriculture were introduced and their panel discussion were to begin, we blundered head-on to a group of amateur protestors. The only thing I gathered from their cries and sign was the word ‘GMO’. Frankly, there were only about 9 and they didn’t make a huge fuss and quietly left when escorted. I guess, my senses must have temporarily shut down with misplaced excitement (though I am glad no one was inappropriate or forgot civility).

Once they were cleared from the room, it was time to move to the next item in the agenda: The panel. As with any instance where politicians are involved, there were points I agreed with and points that made me wish all officials in power had an obligatory ‘spend a life in the day of’ imposed on them, to be grounded and connect proposals to reality.

Anyway, the most remarkable aspect of the summit was its lunch.

It was a horribly brilliant lunch.

Trust me – I need the oxymoron. Now, the tradition at any summit – and the favourite part in many person’s day – is a delicious lunch. However, I was attending the hungersummit and I went in expecting -despite being informed- for a five-star lunch (there’s another lesson here: how many of us make poor choices despite being informed?) Our lunch was donated by the Outreach Program – a program much like the Meals from Heartland where the struggle to end hunger and provide meals to those in need is endless.

When our meals were served my moral imprimatur crumbled into pieces.

I’ve volunteered twice at Meals from Heartland and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that whatever is being packaged is an ocean away from being appealing to the taste buds. Nutritious? Maybe? A meal that you and I can have on a regular basis? *cricket sounds* I have been lucky to be raised on delicious, nutritious meals and that is maybe what prompted my reaction… but I was not the only one in the room. In hindsight, after each hunger related volunteer session, there was a moment of gloved hands saying ‘cheese’ and eternalising the moment when I’ve done a oh-so great deed! I have never been the sort to shy away from being grateful but when the going gets a bit rough, it is easy to forget to appreciate and easy to complain. I was instantly grounded.

We were served the same lunch that we would have otherwise been packaging. I am going to be blunt about it: I could not stomach the meal and for the first time in forever, I left half the plate untouched (Suddenly, I could no longer hear my parents’ voices constantly ringing in my head saying: never excuse yourself from the table unless the plate is clear). Many people in the room didn’t take more than a couple of bites. Some people even had a snack bar in their bags. I heard from several past attendees of the summit that the organisers were generous this year. There was a time when all you got was corn juice or only a third of your plate was filled.

We did luck out when it came to portions. We had a decent serving to settle any hunger… that is if you could numb your taste buds and swallow. You know what’s funny? The meal was not as atrocious as I might have made it sound but I was so used to a certain kind that I simply could not think of eating what was in front of me. Whoever came up with this idea for the hunger summit deserves a medal for creativity and is the master of ‘driving a point home’. There are a couple of important lessons here, but I am going to save them for later.

The rest of the summit was a conglomerate of break-out sessions and were equally informative. Afterwards, we headed off to Bidwell Riverside Center. I had managed to string along another friend to help at the site! Yay me for being social!

“As long as the need exists, Bidwell Riverside will continue to provide food, clothing, child care, and hope to all”

Bidwell is located on Hartford Avenue. It has a long history starting in 1983 and by 2012, the center was helping 867 families in need with three different services – food and clothing, children’s day-care, and bedding. The center welcomes all and makes it accessible to everyone who needs help.

That evening we were in charge of stocking up the empty shelves with the donations they had received from DMARC and others. I was worried that 3 pairs of hands would not be able to do much but, once we got to work, after about 30 minutes of learning about Bidwell, time disappeared to the extent that the next time I blinked, it was already the end of our shift. Amongst the three of us, we restocked three shelves. Chicken broth, beef stew, cans of peach, there was so much… and it was positively brilliant!

Missy, our point of contact at Bidwell, was very helpful in showing us what the impact of our help meant to many families. She talked about how unfortunate it is that there should be the need for such centres in the world, but the fact of the matter remains that this is the way the world functions.

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Tuesday, 17th October

On Tuesday, we set out bright and early – around 9AM to the Lutheran Services in Iowa Global Greens Farm in West Des Moines. We started off a bit chilled from the wind but as we were shown our task, we deemed the weather perfect. In front of us were 2 huge gates that needed repainting, and to be able to do that we needed to scratch off the old paint and rust, sand, wash, and more before proceeding to paint. After a small introduction by a person in charge, Jess, we divided into two groups and cracked some muscles.

In between metallic scrapes, Jess told us that LSI’s refugee population comes mostly from Bhutan, Burma, Burundi, and Rwanda. A lot of them were farmers in their homeland and they are overjoyed to be able to create a piece of home and familiarity in America through the Global Greens Farm. Being able to farm goes beyond sentimental value. For some families, it is their income. Knowing the importance of financial stability they toil in an attempt to create a living – harvesting crops and selling at the farmer’s market downtown or on University Avenue. All the while juggling adapting to a new country, language, and culture.

Under the warm autumn sun, we scraped, dusted, and sanded the gates for three hours (though our group – working on the second gate – took about an hour to make a dent of progress). However, as noon rolled around, one of the gates was almost done. An outsider can be deceived into thinking that not much was done but, that day, we contributed in a meaningful way and most importantly – in a way the community partner needed us to. We were working with them.

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Reflection
A few paragraphs ago, I mentioned that there are important lessons with each volunteer opportunity. The take away can be different for each person but this fall break as I reflected on hunger, refugees, and volunteering, there are two conclusions:I promised you a honest reflection and here are my raw thoughts:

  • Hunger – in the entirety of its definition – is real.
  • Simple volunteering without reflection is like a pendulum that does not swing.

It is a fact that each person is on a different step on society’s ladder. Some are more fortunate than others – maybe because of something we did or maybe not. However, I think, that those of us that are a step ahead, should definitely keep climbing – but carefully reaching out to the person stuck below will not lead to a fall. If the ladder you are on is treacherous and you are at a risk of losing footing, the least you can do is appreciate that you are climbing up until you are stable and then turn around to help someone.

Most often, people think that being grateful and appreciating what you have is equivalent to feeling guilty for enjoying life. That is the most ridiculous thought I have ever heard. If you are able to afford a meal at an expensive restaurant and eat delicious food, by all means do so. You only have one life after all (throwback to the YOLO days). However, if you gloat and turn a blind eye when you know and see that you can help then… take a step back and reflect.

Segwaying into my second point: community service can be ugly. Fleshing this out will require another thousand words but as another blogger mentioned “your great work might not be so great at all” and reflection of the volunteer moment is as imprtant as direct service. Always reflect on identifying if you didin’t unintentionally leave the person you are trying to help suffering. A picture might be worth thousand words but a person’s eyes speak a million.

I am going to overlook philosophical debates when I form my next sentence. We are all rational to a certain degree and all have the free will to choose and be deliberate about our actions. Hence, we should be wise and extend a hand, all the while keeping in mind that helping someone whilst unable to help yourself is a slippery slope. As hard as it might be: Be realist.

Written by: Chamindi Wijesinghe

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