Wednesday, May 4, 2011

A long overdue update...

I realized this morning that I haven't updated my blog in a while, and figured that there's no time like the present. Here's a picture from the SCAD Sidewalk Art Festival in Forsyth Park this past weekend. Pretty much every bit of sidewalk had some type of art on it, which was pretty cool. This is one of the neatest ones. I'm not sure if it comes through for you in the picture, but in person the image looked 3-D.

So much has happened - some things are coming together for the people I'm serving, my favorite soccer team (Chelsea) has had a meteoric climb to 2nd place in the English Premier League and is within striking distance of 1st, I turned 23, the Cleveland Indians are in 1st place, and Osama bin Laden was killed.

So first things first - work has proved productive recently. One of my clients, a 22 year old from way out in rural Georgia, is matched up with his local YMCA. Through a series of phonecalls and meetings, I was able to find the director at the Y who was extremely receptive to the idea and willing to help make it happen. Once the obligatory background check stuff is complete, my client will be able to get out of his house and be around people (which he loves), while doing some light maintenance work alongside the Y's handyman. What I really like about this Y in particular, is that most of the employees have been there for years and they are kind of like a big family. The director said they know eachothers' families and they'll frequently get together for picnics and other activities. She said they would love to include my client in all of this, which I think is absolutely wonderful.

I've also been working on getting some SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) students in to the Day Center here at the Georgia Infirmary and it is also coming together nicely. Two Design Management grad students are coming in to have a session on facilitating creative thinking with some of our members. Their goal is to help members make some mental connections with memories and feelings, leading to greater creativity in conversation, art, or life in general. I don't really get it, but they seem pretty bright, so I'll let them do their thing and see how it goes.

Now as for soccer! (non-fans may want to skip this paragraph) If you didn't already know, I did the stereotypical american study abroad student thing and latched on to a European Football (soccer) Club. I picked up the kit (jersey + shorts), the lingo, and a passion for the sport. Unlike most, I would presume, I did not let go of my connection once I returned to the states, and I continue to cheer for my club. Now, I was already interested in the game, as I played when I was young and got really into the 2006 World Cup, but being in London and around the coverage every day just built up until I was a big fan. Early on in my time in London, I realized I needed a team to cheer for. Manchester United was out from the start because they are evil, and pretty much any American I had met that had a remote interest in soccer cheered for them. On top of that, I wanted to pick a team from London. My choices narrowed to Arsenal, Chelsea, Fulham and West Ham. Before I had really decided, I had a chance to meet some extended family that lived in London when I went to their home for a Sunday lunch. I met my little cousin Edward, who was 7 at the time, and the perfectly proper English boy. He raved about Chelsea and how great they were: The captain, JT (John Terry), was an immovable object on defense, and his favorite player, Nicholas Anelka, was an unstoppable force at striker. His enthusiam fed mine, and before lunch was over, I was a Chelsea fan. It was the perfect connection I needed to take an interest in a club, and it was even better that it was a family connection. Anyway - I fed my cravings for sports with soccer and watched every game I could in a neighborhood pub. I even went to a match at Chelsea's home field - Stamford Bridge. It was a somewhat bland scoreless draw against Everton, but it was an evening I won't soon forget. Fast forward through the painful (and poorly officiated) Champions League exit that year against Barcelona and last years' double winners of the Premier League and the FA Cup, and Chelsea found themselves hitting historic lows this season by plummeting down the standings. Starting in February, though, the team starting clicking and ripped off a string of victories to make them the hottest team in the league and skyrocketed up to second place! Now, this coming Sunday, Chelsea play first-place Manchester United and a win would allow them to leap frog United into first! Needless to say, it a huge match. Now that you're all caught up on English soccer...My baseball team, the Cleveland Indians, have come out of nowhere this season to first place in the division and the best record in baseball. Crazy...

I am officially an old man. At least after my recent birthday, I feel like it. For some reason, 23 sounds so much older than 22, and according to a 90's song by Blink-182, nobody likes me. For anyone that is actually old - like 50 or something (just kidding mom and dad) - they're probably laughing at me. But hey, let me have my moment. Anyway, I did have a wonderful birthday which included relaxing on the beach and enjoying some delicious pizza from my favorite restaurant in Savannah (Vinnie's). My mother also sent me a Mrs. Field's Cookie Cake (jackpot!). This was on top of the wonderful time I had at home with my family for Easter, when my grandmother made a fantastically delicious Walnut Cake for me! All in all it was great, and the only thing missing were my friends who I spent my last four years with, and are now scattered across the country.

Concerning my final topic, Osama bin Laden is dead. I'm sure you've all heard the same reports I have about the Navy SEALs that went into Pakistan and took him out. I'm not sure of how I feel about the reaction to his death. I'm not going to miss the guy, but it strikes me as a little odd that there was such an unbridled celebration. I get the cheers of "USA" at the Phillies game; I get the statements from the firefighters of FDNY and those who lost family and friends on 9/11. What I don't quite get are the impromptu celebrations on college campuses and cities across the country with flags waving and drunk kids singing. These things are not without precedent. Just think of the Wizard of Oz and the cheers of "Ding dong, the witch is dead!" But that's not what first came to mind when I saw the pictures from the celebrations. I can't have been the only one reminded of images of people in parts of the world singing and burning those same American flags, while celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center. The reactions from many Americans that I saw on the news just seemed too close to those of the people we have condemned as evil, at least too close for my own comfort.

 On the other hand, I suppose you could view the reactions as less of a celebration of a man's death, and more of a celebration of the lives which he can no longer threaten. I remember how I felt watching the towers fall in my 8th grade classroom. I was scared, angry and hurt, and I was far away from any real danger. Perhaps for some who have felt the effects of his hate first hand, bin Laden's death provided that moment when they can breathe easily again. They have cause to celebrate a return to living life with less fear. I would argue that's what the people of Oz were really celebrating when they sang songs about the death of the Wicked Witch of the West. They were celebrating an end of fear and terror, and the beginning of a return to normalcy. In this war on terror, true victories seem hard to come by, and perhaps this event gave hope to the American public that terrorism can be defeated. In practice, the true cause of such celebrations seem to be a fine distinction on a personal level, which may be why recent images can conjure memories of both a scene from the Wizard of Oz and people celebrating an act of unprokoved evil.  I can say that these recent events gave me pause and caused me to reflect on what I really think, and I invite you to do the same.

Thanks for reading, and God bless!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Federal Budget and the AmeriCorps Education Award

Last week, I submitted a short writing on the importance of the AmeriCorps Education Award for Mercy Volunteer Corps that was published on the Sisters of Mercy Blog. The AmeriCorps program is at risk of losing its federal funding.

If you are interested, you can read the post here:

Your choice of bonus points, kudos, a medal, a cookie, or a gold star if you find the typo. For the record, I'd take the cookie.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Spring Cleaning

This past Saturday, I went with a group of hospital employees way out into the country to help a man clean up his house. He lived with his two brothers who have recently been moved to a nursing home, which contacted SOURCE to help out with this third brother. After an assessment, it was decided that things needed to be a little more tidy to be able to send in an aide to help this man.

Now, he's not a hoarder, but you couldn't tell by looking at his house. It was an old farm house, with a porch that wrapped around half of it and built up on pegs to keep it off the ground. The porch, which one of my legs fell through at one point (don't worry mom, I'm fine), was filled with random crap - chairs, wood, tires, heating units, tools, buckets - you name it, and it covered the whole porch. The yard was no better - more tires, old mattresses, doors, lawn mowers, and on and on. Now, like I said, this man was not a hoarder - he did not have an illogical attachment to these items. It simply didn't occur to him that he should throw things away, that he should clean up. He didn't know any better. You really felt for the guy. He was probably in his late 60's, the top of his head came up to my shoulder (and I'm not exactly Yao Ming), and he had on a pair of bright blue overalls and a trucker cap. He was a super nice old man, but a simpler sort of man, so that you might understand how his home became the way it did.

We spent a few hours piling up all the things from the yard and porch, including a rotting mattress, a wooden chair that disintegrated when I tried to pick it up, a wasp infested armchair, a blanket which was home to what was identified as a brown recluse - one of the deadliest spiders in the world, a pile of scrap wood overrun with lizards, and a wide array of other random things. There was supposed to be a dumpster at the house to throw everything in, but the company never dropped it off. So I think they were planning on getting a burn permit to just torch everything, but I won't be there for that. One really cool thing I did find were cotton weights, which were attached to a scale and weighed against cotton shipments many years ago. The whole place had a distinct smell which was none too pleasant.

Then, as things were wrapping up outside - we moved to the inside. "Oh goodness gracious..." was all that was going through my head when I walked in. The first thing that hit me was how dark it was. It was the middle of the day and it was unbelievably dark in there. The whole place was lit by a couple of bare light bulbs. There weren't many windows, and the ones that were there were covered up. I was thankful that I couldn't see any better because what I could see wasn't good. Stacks of papers, boxes, clothes, and everything covered with a layer of filth. Mouse droppings lay along the walls. It smelled impossibly wrong. The unmistakable scent of stale urine. I nervously tapped my gloved hands on the sides of my jeans, and I fought the urge to run back outside. I was immediately thankful to know that I would be leaving soon and going back to a nice, clean, non-infested house, but I became very distraught to think that this man lived here. It was his home. Yes, he could have kept it nicer, but a lot of things were out of his control, including his own mental capacity that should have told him that this wasn't healthy. I knew that I had volunteered to help this man do what he could not, and that helped me to do things I never thought I would be able to do. I walked toward the back of the house, down a dark, bare plywood hallway to a room that I quickly discovered was the source of the smell. This was one of the brothers rooms before he went to the nursing home. He stayed in this bed, sitting in a pool of his own urine for days at a time. His bed sat as it was since he left in December. It was our job to get this nastyness out of the house. We brought in a large roll of extra heavy duty trash bags, and one by one, David - who I have an immense amount of respect for - picked up the blankets and placed them into the trash bag I was holding. We all tried not to breathe. One bag filled. Two bags filled. Three bags... There were an impossible amount of blankets on this bed. The old man explained that everytime his brother said he was cold, he threw another blanket over him - they didn't have heat. Now the mattress. It sat there half rotted. I wished I had 80 pairs of gloves on. Out it went. Then the box spring. It smelled like death. Not done yet. We went through boxes that had been sitting long enough for their contents to rot away. Jackets that fell apart when you took them off the hook. I felt like I was in a movie - a part of a scene that would make me squirm if I were watching it from my living room couch. When we had finally finished, I walked outside into the glorious sunlight and the pristine fresh air, thanking God that I didn't have to go back in. The old man thanked us profusely and I watched him sit up on his porch, feeling that no one should have to live in a place like that. It didn't feel like I was in America. It felt like a third world country.

We drove to a nearby church to wash up. I washed my hands. I washed them again. I scrubbed them with disinfectant wipes. I lathered them up with hand sanitizer. I still didn't feel quite right. The church was serving us lunch. I didn't feel like eating. In order to not appear rude, I ate some BBQ pork that was prepared for us - one of my favorite southern meals. It was not satisfying to me in the least. I sat mostly quiet for the long ride home in the 15 passenger van. When we got back to the hospital parking lot we left from, I hopped in my car and drove home. I walked to my room and straight to the shower. My community asked how it went, and I didn't know where to start. My immediate reaction was to tell them, "Be glad you didn't go." But, I think in some way, I am glad I did go. I was exposed to a situation I couldn't have imagined, disturbing on many levels - yet it was someone's home. Eye-opening? Very. Sights and smells that I will never forget. I don't have any pictures to share of Saturday's adventure, and you're probably thankful for it.

I spent most of Sunday cleaning my own room and bathroom. Just suffice it to say I was inspired to clean just about everything I owned. My sheets, clothes, towels, blankets and anything else I could find. I opened the blinds and threw open the windows. I couldn't get enough sunlight and fresh air.

A year ago, I was on spring break in Puerto Rico directing retreats, something I never imagined I'd be doing, especially at no cost to me - thanks ND. (Shout out to Javier, Laura, Molly, Meg, Maeve, Lee, Ryan, Santi, and Brian). The year before that at the same time, I was traveling through Rome, Munich and Prague with one of the best people I have ever known - also something I never imagined I'd be doing (shout out to Dan with an assist to my Aunt Margaret!). Chalk up this weekends experience to the "Something Mike Never Imagined He'd Be Doing" column (shout out to old man in blue overalls). I wonder what I'll have managed to get myself into a year from now!

Monday, February 28, 2011

Smiles and Sunshine

I'm learning a lot. There aren't any assigned readings or papers (thank heavens), but I'm learning a lot. I'm learning how to forget my own worries and reservations in order to be of a greater use to those around me. I'm not entirely comfortable cold calling (or emailing) people I don't know and asking for things - time, donations, or whatever else it might be - but I see the need of those people I've been working with in SOURCE and it makes me ok with it. It also encourages me when I see the overwhelming generosity of people again and again in response.

I recently met a new client, who has a great interest in art. Her art is her passion and keeps her engaged in life. You could just tell that art is what she thinks about everyday, and what she loves. She has aspirations of being able to display and sell her artwork, but she lacks the financial means and connections. It became my job to get her art materials to replenish her very low supply. I sent out a wanted ad on craigslist to see if anyone could donate things, and also contacted professors at SCAD (Savannah College of Art and Design) to see if they could help. The response I got was amazing. People from SCAD, people around town just giving what they had. I was literally running around all over town, trying to meet everyone who wanted to donate things. A brief overview of the items that were collected free of charge for this woman in less than a week: An easel, 4 stretched cavases, about 40 high quality paintbrushes, a large drawing board, high quality charcoal sketch paper, charcoal pencils, full set of acrylic paints, two sets of oil paints, apron, plain sketch paper, and palettes. I was overwhelmed.

The best part was taking the materials out to the woman who needed them. Now this woman has a very flat affect and doesn't really show much emotion, but when she saw all of her materials she started laughing and smiling, wringing my hand and saying this was more than she ever expected. Her eyes were moving over all the materials, and you could see her imaging all the art she could do with them. She told me with a big smile that I had outdone myself, and I told her to give me a call when I could come back to see some of her work. Seeing the joy on her face will make anyone with half a heart smile ear to ear on the walk back to the car. Keeping that in the back of my mind will make it so much easier the next time I have to step outside my comfort zone to help someone.

In other news, it was 84 degrees yesterday. I went to the beach and got sunburned. That's a first for me in February. I sincerely apologize to all those still dealing with snow. That reminds me of a story. I was at the breakfast table with a couple of my community members and I said, "You know, I don't understand why there's such a large population in the northern part of the country and not so much in the south - the weather is so much nicer down here." One of them replied, "It's probably because a lot of the people already in the south are so different, and a little crazy." I came back with, "But if enough northerners came down, we could supress..." I stopped halfway through the last word. "Oh I guess, that kinda happened once and didn't turn out the greatest for anyone involved." So after realizing that I didn't want to advocate the start of a second civil war, I abandoned my idea that all the northerners should move to the better climate in the south.

Well, that's enough musings for one day. Cheers, and God bless!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Charleston and Fort Sumter

Happy Valentine's Day! I was pleasantly surprised to be presented with a cupcake this morning at work. That's a great way to start a day. I think it's impossible to be grouchy or irritable when eating a cupcake at 9 AM. There's an idea to create world peace. Let's get Pillsbury and Betty Crocker on board and run with it.

Yesterday, my fellow mercy volunteers and I took a trip up to Charleston. It was a great day to be out and about with the beautiful weather. The highlight of the trip for me was visiting Fort Sumter - where the first shots of the Civil War, excuse me, the War Between the States as it's referred to here, were fired. After getting past the weird sense of pride Charleston still has for starting the secession, I really enjoyed the visit. They take you out on a ferry to the fort - as it is it's own man-made island of granite on top of a submerged sand bar. It really is a marvel that they built such a fort in the early to mid 1800s. It was just cool. Unfortunately, they only give you an hour before your ferry leaves - and ours was the last of the day. I could have easily spent 3 hours. I love unique history like that of Fort Sumter. Trying to put myself in the shoes of the Union garrison that briefly held the fort in 1861 and seeing that first cannon shot exploding overhead was moving. Imagine being there when everyone realized, "Oh crap. Not only is our country, which is not very old, no longer unified, we're at war." I've never felt uncertainty about the future to that degree; I've never been directly affected by any conflict. I've never had to risk my life to fight for something I believed in. I can't imagine an all-out war on American soil. Reliving the events that tore our country apart, and seeing how it is now just gets you thinking. Anyway, enough history geek ramblings. Not hard to imagine that I was one of those kids that watched the History Channel everyday after school. By the way - they've ruined the History Channel with all the stupid reality shows like ice road truckers and all that other random programming. Sorry if I've offended any rabid ice road truckers fans, but come on.

Another thing I realized in Charleston is how crazily similar it is to Savannah. Churches have the same names, candy kitchens with free praline samples, container ships - to name a few similarites. However, the downtown seems quieter and more intriguing to me - probably because I haven't spent the last 6 months there as I have in Savannh. I do think that Savannah is far prettier and has so much more green space. While both cities have palm trees and oaks - Charleston seems to have favored the former and Savannah the latter. I'm a bigger fan of the oak / spanish moss combo, but maybe that's just me. It was a very fun trip, and I enjoyed getting out of town for a little while.

This should be a good week at work, with some plans possibly coming together for some people in SOURCE.

I hope everyone is doing well. Best wishes from Georgia!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A request...

If you think of it, I ask for your prayers for a specific intention. One of the people I serve, whom I visit regularly, is not doing well. His health has deteriorated significantly, and at 24, he is battling serious health issues in addition to the cerebral palsy he has always had. My most recent visit with him was not in his home, but in the hospital. It was clear that he was in pain.

If you find the time, please say a prayer for him, that the pain will cease and that, God willing, he can overcome these health issues.

Thank you.

Friday, January 14, 2011

It has all been worth it

Today, one of my people came in to tell me she had passed her certification test and now had a steady, good paying job. The joy on her face was unbelievable. I was so happy for her, and I can say with confidence that this whole experience, in all its challenges and surprises has been worth it, if for no other reason than this woman's progress.

This woman has improved so much since I met her in August. She is a stroke victim, who could no longer work because of her limitations with speech, memory and mobility. When I met her she was very dependent on her walker, had trouble with her memory and making words come out. I've been helping her chronicle her life story, and each time I met with her, her memory was more complete and she could move around a little better. Now, she is able to move around without the aid of her walker. Her memory is stellar. It's unbelievable how much she has improved.

I was lucky enough to be able to help this woman. I listened to her stories and recorded them, I helped her apply for the job, helped her with preparation for the certification test and helped her celebrate success with a big hug this morning. She knows that once she starts earning income, her benefits will decrease, but that seemed insignificant to her. Something she said to me stuck out, "I have to take this chance to start my life over. I don't want to be on benefits anymore. I don't want to live in a personal care home anymore." I did help this woman all I could, but make no mistake, she is where she is today because of her attitude and her perseverance. She has been through so many hard times, any one of which are too much for me to even imagine. Here she is, making that next step all her own. I am very proud to have worked alongside this woman, and thankful for the reassurance she has given me that it all has been worth it.