Last thoughts on Costa Rica, weeks 5&6

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Today, we went to the National Museum.  As a group, we’d visited several other museums in Costa Rica and so I was interested to see how this one would stand out.  The first thing I learned was that the building itself is historical.  It used to be a fortress and was originally built as military barracks.  There may even be bullets in the exterior walls!  We got to walk around inside and see what all the different rooms used to be.  We even saw the exact spot where the president had announced that Costa Rica would no longer have a military in 1948.  I loved being able to see so much history from several different eras that this country has gone through all in one building.  Next, we walked through different exhibitions about the native people who first lived in this area of Central America as well as some focused on the political evolution of the country.  I found it all so interesting to see the different perspectives people had on Costa Rica and the way each opinion helped form the diverse country that it is today.  After our time at the museum, we all walked across the street to a market for souvenir shopping.  We were able to haggle with a few of the shop owners and buy some great things to take home.  People got hammocks, mugs, and little trinkets with pura vida on the side.  It was a lot of fun to wander through the different tents and practice my Spanish with the shop owners.  Overall, it was a very good day and another one to remember in Costa Rica.

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Doing service work here in Costa Rica has taught me about differences in cultures that I really never thought existed. Normally when one thinks of cultural differences you think of music, religion, clothes, etc. but today I noticed they run food banks differently too. To be fair there is also only one food back in all of Costa Rica so this is the only place that can be compared to America. But when we arrived half of us were directed to take inventory and half to clean a warehouse. I was part of the warehouse group and proceeded to take a few hours pushing water around on the floor of a warehouse trying to get it to go down a very tiny drain. To us this method of cleaning seemed really slow and inefficient while to the Costa Ricans there it seemed as though that was the best way it could be done. I think we felt this difference because in America everything has to be fast and immediate and if it’s not we try to change it so that it is. So I found it interesting to note that while we found that the process was taking forever they seemed to think it was right on track. To me this taught me that cultural differences can be anywhere including things that are in another country. Just because food banks are run one way in America doesn’t mean it is run the same in Costa Rica. 

 

Today was amazing!  It was our first full day at Arenal Hot Springs.  I spent the morning lying by the pool relaxing and catching some sunrays to show off when I get back home to winter.  In addition to working on my tan, I went back and forth between the naturally warm pool and a cold-water area to cool off.  Everything was pretty excellent.  Around noon, we walked down to the dining area and got to eat tons of delicious food!  Then, our driver offered to take us to a waterfall in the middle of a mountain.  About half of us decided to go.  As we drove from the hotel to the park, we got an amazing and rare view of the volcano.  It was completely clear from top to bottom with no clouds covering the summit.  We snapped a few pictures to remember the beauty of it.  Once we got there, we walked down along a rough trail through the beautiful forest and to the waterfall.  When we finally arrived, we set our things down then cautiously worked our way across the precarious and slippery rocks.  It brought back some memories of type two fun maneuvering boulder fields during NOLS.  We reached the edge of the water and slowly began to lower ourselves in.  It was cold, especially in comparison to the hot springs we’d just been enjoying, but we all got in.  The natural waves and power of the waterfall gently kept us towards the outer area of the pool.  For a while we just floated along and played in the water, taking pictures and trying to balance on rocks.  It was so fun and relaxing.  Then we got out and took more pictures of the stunning waterfall.  I felt so lucky I got to experience two very different yet equally amazing places in Costa Rica within a few hours of each other.  It reminded me of how diverse the small country is and how unique the natural beauty is.

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It’s finally Thanksgiving weekend here in Costa Rica. Man it’s weird to look back and see how we got this far but now it’s time to sit back and relax before finals. It has been so much fun traveling growing along with my group. I have personally had so many eye-opening experiences and grown as a person. I can only think as I have thanksgiving with the Gap group how thankful I am for them and this program. If I could, I would do it all again, Gap Semester for life!!

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Weeks 3 and 4 in Costa Rica

I have now been in Costa Rica for more than 3 weeks. It is amazing how time flies when you are having fun. Having never left the United States the first week was a lot of culture shock. I had to learn a lot about Costa Rican culture and how to speak Spanish. Although my Spanish is not great just yet, it is enough to get around the town. The last week our group visited the legislative branch of government here in Costa Rica. It was very interesting to see another form of government, up close and personal. We toured the building and even got to sit in the chairs that elected officials sit in during debates. I realized how similar the United States government is to this democratic system of government. It was interesting to note that in Costa Rica they allow anyone who is interested to come and watch the debate take place. I thought this was very intriguing and would encourage citizens to hold their elected officials accountable.

ImageToday we visited a unique place called EARTH University. Located in a secluded, rural area, the university specializes in agriculture and organic farming. Students from around the world come to EARTH University for a hands-on education that will hopefully provide them with a future in agriculture or farming. We got to see many aspects of the university like the medicinal plant garden; however, the most interesting was the banana plantations. EARTH has acres and acres of banana plantations and we got to see the whole process of banana farming from where they’re grown to where they get loaded into a truck to be shipped all over the world. Being one of Costa Rica’s largest exports, it was interesting to see how the popularity of bananas came together with modern university education.

As soon as we got to Limon you could tell it was a very vibrant place- from the colors, to the music, to the waves crashing, and the coconut infused food. There were people flooding the streets looking happy whether they were walking, shopping, selling goods, or talking to friends. This was more of the Costa Rican city style I had been imagining before we left the United States. It automatically gave you the tropical vibe. For our little time in Limon we had lunch at a famous restaurant on a street corner. It was very busy with people coming in and out. At my table, we all had typical Caribbean style food particular to this area. We had a variety of meat with coconut sauce, rice and beans with coconut milk, a plantain, and a very strong ginger ale like drink called ael (pronounced “ale”). I really enjoyed the food especially with the slight coconut flavor. It was very different than the typical gallo pinto and meat dishes in the San Jose area of Costa Rica. When we all packed up back into our van, we drove along the shore, which we hadn’t realized, was so close to where we ate and was visible from many spots in the town. The beach was beautiful. The sun was out and the sand wasn’t crowded with tourists or even very many locals. It was a great last sight of our short stop in Limon and a great intro to the rest of our weekend out of the city and in the Caribbean.

 Today was our first full day in Cahuita.  We had planned to go to the National Park in the morning and have an open afternoon, but it was raining.  So we had some time to relax at the hotel for a few hours hoping the weather would improve.  Luckily for us, it did and we were able to head into town for lunch.  I got the typical Afro-Caribbean dish of Coconut Curry with Chicken fillet.  It was absolutely delicious!  Then we all drove to the White Beach National Park.  We had a few hours to spend there, so our professor Manuel and another student and I walked a few blocks to Mr. Walter Ferguson’s house.  He is a very young ninety-four years old.  He sang little bits of songs he remembered once in a while, told us stories about his childhood, and recounted African legends in English and Spanish.  He is such a happy and intelligent man.  I couldn’t believe I actually got to meet and talk with the famous Calypsonian for such a long time.  That was truly a once in a lifetime experience that I will always treasure.

ImageThis weekend was a much-needed break: a trip to the Caribbean in Cahuita. A nice day at the beach on the first day was definitely needed. After being cramped up in the vus (van/bus) it was nice to be able to run around and get in the water for a couple hours. The whole weekend of music and the beach was so relaxing but this weekend was not just about relaxation and fun. This weekend we had a speaker come and talk to us about modern and historic Cahuita and Calypso music. Being able to have the opportunity to hear a famous Calypsonian play his music was absolutely fantastic, but being able to sit down and hear him sing along with one of my fellow classmates was absolutely incredible. The two of them at the time sounded great but then the other three of us were asked to sing with them and from my perspective my voice just didn’t quite match up. This combination of listening and trying to sing was a perfect end to a nearly perfect weekend.

I can’t believe we’re nearly a month into our time in Costa Rica. It seems like yesterday that we were trudging through the terrain of the Wind River Mountains. This weekend we’re in coastal Cahuita. Located on the southeastern side of Costa Rica (almost in Panama, to be exact) lies the small Caribbean town of Cahuita. With its laissez faire feeling and Rastafarian influences, it’s a place you would expect to find in Jamaica or Trinidad. We came here to further learn about Calypsonian culture and lifestyle. Our weekend features walking around downtown Cahuita, listening to an authentic Calypso band perform, and plenty of time at the beach. Though it’s a bit rainy, nothing will stop us from enjoying our time here. After all, where else can you go to the beach in November?

ImageToday, we did community service at an orphanage with 45 children.  Our group arrived in the morning with food for lunch.  We all walked through the large house heading for the open-aired kitchen in the back.  After dropping things off and hearing from the mom and founder of the orphanage, we all milled around the kitchen a while longer, trying to figure out what our next step should be.  Eventually, a majority of us just began playing with the children while a few went to work in the front yard on the tree house.  I approached a girl intently playing with some action figures and asked her name.  She glanced up and responded, “Brittney.”  Then without hesitation continued, “¿Caballo?”  I smiled.  If my time babysitting has taught me nothing else, I am a pretty excellent caballo.  We raced around the front yard.  She sat securely on my shoulders, clinging to my hair for extra security.  She would steer me, “A la derecha, izquierda, izquierda, izquierda…” inevitably commanding I gallop in circles.  Then, we sat and she became a hairdresser.  She mumbled to herself in Spanish while flinging and twirling the ends of my hair into knots.  Then she’d tap my shoulder, “¡Muchacha!  Su pelo…” And she’d pull the length out to its farthest in case I wasn’t aware of my own hair.  We moved place to place as my hairstyle changed.  She would giggle and tell me something while twisting one strand and I couldn’t help but laugh along with her.  After a while of this, I thanked her for the hair do and excused myself from the salon to help with lunch in the kitchen.  This was just one child I had the opportunity to spend time with today.  There are several others that I will never forget and feel so lucky to have met.

We spent this past Tuesday volunteering at Hogar de Pan Orphange.  When we arrived the mother of all the children living at this orphanage told us her story behind why she started taking children in.  When her daughter was very young, doctors told her that she was terminally ill.  Another sick child was being taken care of in a bed next to the daughter, a young Nicaraguan boy who was abandoned by his parents.  The mother took him in and took care of both him and her daughter.  Today, both children have survived 35 years later.  Ever since initially adopting this boy, the mother has been taking in more children in need of a home.  Currently, the house we visited holds forty-five children, the youngest being only three months old.  In addition, some of the children living there have some form of mental or physical disability. During the morning I hung out a lot with a young autistic boy.  He could not speak, but he enjoyed holding my hand and walk around the property.  He would motion for me to pick up any object on the floor which we walked past so he could tap on and feel the top and the bottom of the object.  Later I held and entertained a baby for about an hour and attempted to talk to her in Spanish.  By the afternoon I had comforted three crying children and pushed children on a swing for two hours.  This day was one of the most exhausting days I’ve spent in Costa Rica so far.

Last week we spent a full day at an orphanage not far from where we are living here in Costa Rica. Once we were let in through the gate to the orphanage, we were immediately greeted with children who helped us carry in the food we had brought for lunch. We followed those few through the front yard and continued further until we reached the outside kitchen. To our shock, this orphanage houses fprty-five children their ages varying from a few months to seventeen years old. The only thing these children wanted from us was our full attention.  That day was very bittersweet for me personally. I was so happy to spend time with the kids whether it was walking around, playing on the playground, or simply holding the babies. I was also happy that the woman who started this house is so willing to care for all of the children there. What made me so sad was the fact that there are so many children who are living there without a family, but that made me realize that collectively, they are their own family. I was also sad that these children only have a few adults there with them so that to me, means that they get very little individual attention on a regular basis. The worst part of the day was leaving them. They grew very attached to us and I think we did to them too. I hope that other volunteer groups will be coming soon and hopefully can spend an extended period time at the orphanImageage.

This week I was able to cross another activity off of my “Bucket List”; I was able to go white water rafting. Showing up at the river I was not quite sure what to expect other than a lot of water and a lot of fun. Once we got in the boat it had begun. After a 15 minutes of paddling we got to the first rapid and that set the tone for the rest of the day. The whole day was a blast and surprisingly got even better once it started to rain. The fact that the river water and the rain were both warm made this experience ten times better. There are not many times when you hear, “ok so now who wants to get out of the boat and float down these rapids?” Well after hearing that I knew I was never going to get a chance like this again so I took it. I jumped in the water and trying to keep my feet out in front of me floated down through the rapids. Being a very outdoorsy type person the optional rafting activity wasn’t very “optional” to me, I had to do it and thankfully I was able to.

 

Costa Rica: Part 1

Image            We arrived in San Jose, Costa Rica last night and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t still nervous. The first night with my host family was a bit awkward, but I know things will get better once I’ve fully settled. My family is small, consisting of my mom and her two adult children, but they’re very nice despite not speaking any English. They make sure to speak slowly enough for me to understand and do their best at not laughing when I mess something up. We had our introduction to the Center where we’ll be studying today and it’s absolutely beautiful! I can’t wait to get started and fall into a comfortable routine in my new home.

             The first week being in Costa Rica has been amazing. My time so far has been unbelievably rewarding. My host family is now like my second family, they have opened their house and it has become my home. I had this feeling when I had my first actual conversation with my host mother one Sunday afternoon. I awoke with a day of unscheduled activities; the only thing on the schedule was “spend day with host family”. This made me very nervous seeing that I barely speak their language and all of our previous conversations had been about what I wanted to eat that day.

            What was I supposed to talk about for an entire day?! I fell asleep the night before already nervous about waking up, the next thing I knew I was sitting at the breakfast table. My new mom and I were eating some rice and beans, a signature dish of Costa Rica. I ate slow trying to “milk the clock”. Although after realizing it was only 10:30, I realized that it was not going to work that way. I took a deep breath and tried to have a conversation.

            To my surprise I actually remembered some of my Spanish from freshman year of high school. It started rushing back to my head, “I play… ummmm… how do you say… Baseball?!” Then I ran to my room and handed her an actual baseball. That was it, my stories just had to have props and I was golden! After making this realization I ran back to my room and pulled out pictures of my family and friends. I told story after story from back home. She told me her own stories of living in Costa Rica. I actually understood the main parts of them; the details were a little bit out there still.

            I love my family life though, the time was flying by and I wasn’t even worried about it anymore, I was successfully having a conversation with my host mother in mostly her language with some props and acting added in. It made the day a very memorable one to say the least; I felt that my Spanish skills would just continue to increase the longer I am in the country. I’m very excited for the time to come when I can speak an entire conversation in Spanish.

             Today I had the first conversation with my host family. It was a very short one but it was definitely a start nonetheless. I asked for water and pronounced every single word incorrectly but it was the most Spanish I have spoken in my whole life. They appreciated the attempt and I felt embarrassed at first but I didn’t know what else was to come. I didn’t know how many awkward silences would come from me taking out my pocket sized Webster’s English-Spanish dictionary. I think I am off to a good start and my Spanish will get better while being here.

Image              Today we went to La Paz waterfall gardens.  I had to wake up early in order to arrive at the Center on time.  We drove off together out of San José and into the country.  Climbing in elevation, the air became cleaner and the temperature dropped a little bit.  We pulled over along the side of the road in order to look at a wild sloth in a tree!  Next, we stopped at a coffee shop part way up the mountain.  The drinks were delicious and the view was already incredible.  Finally, we arrived at La Paz waterfall gardens.  We all walked through the gardens together, moving from one different house to the other.  In the first, I was able to hold a Toucan!  It was so friendly and beautiful.  I couldn’t believe I was seeing this iconic bird so close up and personal.  Next, we moved along seeing other animals natural to Costa Rica like monkeys and white squirrels and smaller birds.  Following this, we all spent a lot of time in the butterfly room.  Some of them had eaten fermented fruit and therefore become drunk!!  We all tried to catch these ones and ended up with some incredible pictures.  After this, it started to rain a bit, but we were still able to enjoy looking at the big cats and snakes.  Lastly, we all walked down to the waterfalls.  At this point, it was pouring rain.  However, the waterfalls were stunning and totally worth soaking my shoes.  The natural beauty of this place was so pristine I felt like I was in a movie!  La Paz waterfall gardens was the perfect first outing for our time in Costa Rica because it showed me how truly rich the country is in its natural resources.  I enjoyed every part about our day spent in the mountains.

             Today was so amazing.  In the morning, we all woke up early for our first full day in Monteverde.  We were able to hike through an actual cloud forest in the one of the national parks of Costa Rica.  It is so unique because there are so few places in the world that still exists like this in such pristine condition.  We heard all sorts of different types of birds and spotted a rare squirrel, too.  Eventually, we made it to the continental divide.  The view from the top was breathtaking.  I loved being able to step back and forth between the Pacific and the Atlantic side of the country.  Then, we walked back down and crossed a red suspension bridge connecting two sides of a river.  The bridge was so high up!  I could look down and see the thick canopy of trees so far below me.  The perspective was so unique I don’t think I’ll ever forget it.  It also felt so nice to be out in the forest hiking with my group.  A lot of it felt similar to NOLS, just in a different atmosphere.  The hike gave me a different understanding of how extraordinary Costa Rica is and made me realize how truly once in a lifetime an experience like this is.

             Now that we’ve been here for a couple of weeks, I finally feel comfortable with my host family and the daily routine. Last weekend we went to Monteverde and took a tour around a cloud forest. The forest was incredibly beautiful and so unlike anything we have in the U.S. After touring the forest, a small group of us went zip lining and it was so much fun! It was nice to get away for the weekend and see more of Costa Rica. The city is nice, but it’s nothing compared to the countryside. I’m eager to see what else Costa Rica has to offer.

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Blogs from our last service site, Washington DC

ImageWow, what a week it’s been here in D.C. At the start of the week we knew it would be a busy one, but I don’t think any of us knew just how busy it would be. Each day we’re split up into various groups and sent out to different places all over the city. I can’t even begin to name all of the organizations we’ve worked with so far. One of my favorite places to work, however, was an organization called Miriam’s Kitchen. Much like any other soup kitchen, meals were provided to the homeless throughout the day, as well as other supportive programs to help the clients get back on their feet. Though something special about Miriam’s Kitchen was that they offered therapeutic art classes nearly every day.  Everyone was welcome to do whatever artistic outlet they wanted. Some painted, others wrote, and one man in particular seemed to be the master of beads. Down the street at one of the universities,  there was an exhibit of many of the participants’ work and I was astounded at the amount of talent these people had. Being an artistic person myself, I really appreciated the use of art in trying to help the homeless and I enjoyed seeing what those at Miriam’s Kitchen had to offer. This week has really opened my eyes and gave me a new perspective on the homeless population.

 Homelessness isn’t something I’ve ever put much thought into, to be honest. Where I live it isn’t a very prominent issue. I always stereotyped homeless people; pinning them as that they had become homeless as a choice and just didn’t want to help themselves. Until I worked more closely with the homeless in D.C., did it occur to me that some people are homeless by choice and some have illnesses or job loss that causes their homelessness. Working in DC gave me an entirely new perspective on homelessness. I worked with one man at Miriam’s Kitchen who had been homeless for about 20 or so years. He did bead work and made jewelry to pass his time. He made several of the girls necklaces which was very generous of him. He didn’t have much to offer but he gave us what he could.

Our week in Washington, D.C. opened my eyes to a culture and a people that I had previously written off as lazy and unintelligent.  What I found out this week however, is that homeless people are neither lazy nor unintelligent.  They are most often people who have been ripped out of their jobs and homes by our country’s faulty economic system.  This fact scares me.  It scares me to see the homeless population as the result of my strict brand loyalty and the support that my family gives to large corporations that rarely support local communities.  The stories of the many homeless individuals that I had the chance to talk with during the week makes me question the effectiveness of our political and economic systems in our country.  How can so many people be homeless in our nation’s capital?  How can our society outlaw this group of people who are so in need of our help?  One of the most valuable things I learned this week was that the mental illness and addiction characteristics that most people associate with people that are homeless, most often develop after people become homeless.  I am very happy with the amount of work that we were able to do for the homeless population in Washington, D.C. and am very thankful to all of the organizations that we worked with this week for allowing us to come to their city and make a difference.

 ImageFrom the moment we stepped out of the vans I knew this would be a great week of service. We were going to be working with the homeless and organizations that would help them receive food and drink. I learned so much that I hadn’t before. I saw a man watching the cars go by on our first rainy day as he sat on the corner of the street pan handling for money.  I saw him again the next morning at Charlie’s Place, in line for food. I was in charge of the front, which served food and talked with the clients. He was sitting at a table with another man as he read his paper. I sat down at the table and we talked for about twenty minutes about his past foreclosure and where he was now. Currently he has a low paying job but was still homeless, trying to make money to eat and survive. He wanted a better future but it all takes time. After our conversation, I have faith that he will make it through.

 Our week in Washington, D.C. was really something different than what we had done on other service weeks and it was amazing. During our week I felt that we really connected with the people we were helping and almost the entire week was spent working directly with them. It was really an inspirational experience to be able to sit down and talk with the people we were helping and listen to their stories. Many of the people we met were very interesting to talk to and were extremely nice. This week was definitely a bias buster, throughout the week we saw some very hard working, smart, and well-meaning people who were homeless at no fault of their own. We also were fortunate enough to hear some peoples’ stories about how they overcame homelessness. After this experience I have noticed I have a much higher desire to return and help more.

 Fortunately, this week we had many interactions with the people we were working with. One of the interactions that stuck out the most was when we had two speakers from the National Coalition for the Homeless come to talk with us. The main reason why they were there was to put away any myths that many people in the United States believe about those who are homeless. We went around the room giving one adjective that could be used to describe those people who are homeless. Some of the words were addiction, family, and mental illness. While those can sometimes be true, they are not applicable to all people who are homeless. What I found out during this talk was that many people who are homeless become drunk, addicted, or obtain some sort of illness because of the state they are in. They did not have that prior to being homeless in many cases. Another important idea I learned from our speakers was that being homeless could really happen to anyone. Lots of the people living on the streets are there because of loss of their job, foreclosure, or medical costs that were too high to pay. Homelessness is not something planned or ever really chosen, but instead a result. This is something that many people need to hear and understand instead of making preconceived ideas that these people have numerous problems, are lazy, or unwilling to make their lives better.

During my time in D.C., I ended up having a lot of time to reflect. I got sick for two days and had to miss out on some activities, but while I was out I thought about how I lucky I am. There I was in shelter, in a bed, with food and water close by when there could be and are people in the same city just as sick as I was with none of the comforts or securities. I knew I was going to be fine; I had a place to rest and access to medicine. But during my recovering time I wondered what it would be like to have a fever in the pouring rain, to not have medicine, to not know if I would get better or not. This reflection also made me realize how much I have grown in my time in the gap semester program; I have gained new eyes and new appreciation for the world around me and the things I have. As the semester continues I hope to continue to learn and understand all the things that I would have never noticed before.

 Living near the District of Columbia I thought I knew almost everything about our nation’s capital. I had been to the government buildings, seen the monuments, toured the museums and even did service at food distribution sites. What else was there to learn? This week in D.C. showed me how much I missed by ignoring the people in plain sight. Homeless men and women sitting on the sidewalk waiting for someone to acknowledge them, give them a few cents, a few seconds of their time. In history class, we were taught about the Untouchables in India. A group of people I considered unjustly oppressed simply because of their own fate. How could anyone be rejected in society because of something out of their control? How are they denied jobs and access to the resources the rest of the country utilizes? Looking at these questions I noticed similar faults in our own society. The majority of homeless people do not choose to be without residence. They may have gotten fired or the price of a house became higher than their income. These uncontrolled changes do not make a person instantly a stereotypical alcoholic, drug addict, dangerous or lazy. Yet as a result of these stereotypes, we tend to make the homeless invisible, deny them jobs and in a way oppress them for no viable reason. After this week I cannot make a homeless person invisible, especially if they are asking for something as simple as a few cents. Lastly, I am glad I learned about the many food kitchens and service sites that D.C. contains and I would enjoy volunteering at these sites again.

 After spending a week in DC immersing myself in the complexities of chronic homelessness in urban environments I gleaned many things pertaining to the diverse causes of the issue, and the possibility of stronger long-term solutions for those afflicted by it. Before arriving here my perspective on homelessness was very different than it is now. I never used to think about how homeless people got into the situation that they’re in. I would walk by homeless men and women and feel bad for them, but assume that the reason they were there was because there was something that they weren’t wiling to do to get themselves out of their situation. I never blamed them for being without a home, but I never took the time to think about what got them there. Largely, I just ignored the issue, preferring not to think about it. While we were in DC there was no way that I could’ve just continued to turn a blind eye to the situation. Confronted every day with two or three homeless people per city block I walked down, and knowing that I was in the city to help combat the issue, it was hard to not immediately feel a connection to people who I had intentionally disconnected myself from for so long. Working at food, clothing, and wellness centers throughout the city allowed me to identify with the issue of homelessness on a much more personal level. I was able to meet individuals and ask them for pieces of their stories. I learned a lot from everyone who I talked to, and rarely found myself judging anyone as just lazy, mentally ill, or unmotivated. Most of the individuals who I met had been living perfectly ordinary lives not too long before I met them, some people who I spoke to were actually new to life on the street. I learned so much more than the numbers of this issue. I learned that there are solutions to assist with putting an end to homelessness, and that it only requires us to open our eyes in order to see them and invest in those solutions. Living chronically without a home is unacceptable and preventable in this country, a lesson that speaks loudest through the people who have lived a marginalized life on the street for too long, and are ready to reclaim the lives they once had. After my short week in DC my perspective has been changed in a way that I don’t see changing back anytime soon. Think deeper about how you react to seeing somebody without a home the next time you pass someone on the street, and consider how you might be able to brighten their day.

 ImageToday we passed out lunches we had made guided by Bread for the Journey. I was nervous at first. We were a loud group and I felt meek, hiding behind grocery bags and city scowls. The first lunch I gave out I set beside a sleeping man. The next two I offered were rejected. One man only seemed interested in money. He questioned me, “How you got food if you go no money?” I had no explanation. These were simple questions proposed by what some call simple people. And the privileged intellect cannot answer. The misconceptions people foster astound me. The simplest questions in life require time and patience. Why do men walk by other men in need? How is it possible for a human to neglect a fellow human this way? We walked the Main Street flanked by brand name stores, and impressive businessmen, and flashy tourists. We walked the Main Street seeking what society always told me to avoid. The hobo. The panhandler. We reached a park and asked around. One man turned his head from me, pretended as though I did not exist and I was not offering him lunch. He reciprocated what he others like me doing as a whole. Now I was invisible. Now I was ignored and not worthy of a response, a smile, a moment of eye contact. I walked away rejected and I felt in my core that I knew why. The man was justified. How many people asking for loose change, beggars, pairs of eyes had I intentionally shifted my vision from meeting? Each encounter with the people here in D.C. taught me something and gave me a different and unique perspective on life.

 This morning I woke up to a kitchen in need of 75 bananas.  We took a group trip to the closest grocery store and all had something we needed to find.  I quickly counted out 75 bananas with a friend, while others grabbed bread, deli meat, cheese, desserts, juice, and chips.   As you might have guessed, we were going to be making a lot of lunches.  We were participating in an activity called Bread for the Journey, where one makes bagged lunches and walk along the streets handing them out to the homeless.  After finishing all the lunches, I grabbed three and my own and headed out on the streets.  This activity was hard because all the stereotypes of the homeless that we had been working all week to diffuse were now helping us decide if someone got a lunch or not.  As we walked, we spotted a man who was most definitely without a home as he lay underneath a window, surrounded by umbrellas.  I approached him with a pounding heart and sweaty hands because my nerves had taken over.   I made my friend do the talking since I was so nervous I’d do something wrong.  The man gladly accepted the lunch and water. The group continued walking and my nerves quickly settled, so I decided I would do the talking for the next one.  After handing out a few more lunches, we came across an abandoned cart outside of a restaurant that obviously once belonged to a homeless person.  My friend and I placed the lunch and water on the cart hoping someone would return with a smile.  We then looked at the clock and realized we didn’t have much time before we needed to be back, so we headed to the bustling park across the street.  There, we found many people asking for lunches and gave out just about all we had.  I believe my group returned to the house with only two lunches left, meaning we provided lunch for 16 people who might not have otherwise eaten.

We started off today by going to the grocery store to buy sandwich makings, fruit, and other snacks.  We then headed back to the place we are staying and formed an assembly line to make five lunches for each of us.  We proceeded to break into three different groups and head out to three different locations and hand out lunches to homeless people.  This activity was stressful at first and I was a little bit unsure how people would react when they were approached, but after a while I got the hang of it.  Two people from my group and I had a short conversation with the last man who we gave a bag.  We listened to him talk for a little bit about his health problems.  He told us about his infected foot which was caused by frostbite.  This was my first conversation with a homeless person who I had met on the street and not through an organization. I really enjoyed this conversation because the man seemed genuinely happy to introduce himself and talk with us. Later in the day we gave surveys to homeless individuals through the National Coalition for the Homeless.  This survey was designed to see if homeless people were being harassed and to protect their rights.  This activity was even more intimidating than delivering sandwiches because we had to ask for a lot of personal information from these people.  Another challenge of this was I was also not always sure if people were homeless or not.  I gave one survey to a man named Charles who was a little hesitant to talk to me at first, but later seemed glad that people were thinking about the rights of homeless people.  Overall, this was one of my favorite days because of the high level of interaction with people.

 Today we worked with the National Coalition for the Homeless. After learning about the NCH’s history and big-picture goals, we were dispatched in groups of two throughout 4 locations of Washington D.C.. Our mission was to gather information on discrimination against homeless people in D.C. with hopes that this information will validate and support one of NCH’s legislative efforts. Immediately I felt uncomfortable about the task at hand – I personally avoid completing surveys as much as possible and felt uncomfortable targeting homeless people and asking them to answer somewhat personal questions. My partner and I were expecting the worse. Luckily, we first approached “Doug.” We ended up talking to Doug for about an hour and a half about the many factors that contribute to homelessness as well as potential solutions. Doug shed valuable insight on the efforts made in D.C., such as shelters, and spoke to their obvious benefits and not so obvious shortcomings. Much of what he shared was new to me and made me question if people in charge of large efforts to assist homeless people actually talk to the people they’re helping. His openness and wisdom made the conversation interesting and productive – despite the fact that we only got one survey completed.

 

Kentucky Perspectives

ImageIt was the first full day that we were in Harlan and mountaintop removal was still a pretty new topic to me.  Just from hearing about it earlier that day, I had decided that I was strongly against it and disgusted with the greedy coal companies that destroy these beautiful mountains for really only one thing – money.  In the afternoon we went to a couple’s home who make art to symbolize their view of coal mining and mountaintop removal.  The first thing I saw when I walked into their cozy studio was a large, detailed sculpture of a woman lying as if she were a mountain with her stomach being torn apart by large machines.  She had tears streaming down her face, ribs showing, and blood dripping from her side to represent the immense pain she endured.  The sculpture represented the view of environmentalists that are fighting to end mountaintop removal in the Appalachian Mountains.  After looking at it for a while, I began to take in all of its elements as a whole and realized how much I loved the sculpture.  Personally, I agreed with its message and thought the artist had a great representation of what coal companies are doing to great Mother Nature.  Throughout our time at their house, I went back to that sculpture about five times and the image of it will never leave my mind.

I did not know what to expect going into our week in Harlan, Kentucky. The coal mining industry wasn’t something I’d put much thought into, honestly. It took almost no time for me to form my own opinions though. While, the people we talked to and events we attended were mainly against coal; I saw many local people that were pro-coal. The coal industry is what provides jobs in the area, without it there would be nothing left. Aside from the coal, I met some of the nicest people I have ever encountered. Overall, the week was a blast; learning to square dance and flat-foot stand out to me. The locals were so appreciative of our willingness to learn more about the coal industry and their culture.  I thoroughly enjoyed my week in Harlan, and hope that the work we did will make a difference.

 In the big white vans, we drove up winding steep roads until we reached the highest point in Kentucky. We were on Black Mountain and between Kentucky and Virginia. The weather was beautiful and the leaves around us had just started to change color. Looking over the edge of the road into the distance was just as stunning. There were a variety of trees and wildflowers changing into the new season. There was one thing that stood out right in the middle of the picture we were looking at. It was one mountaintop that has been and is in the process of being removed. After I saw it, unfortunately it was hard to not focus in on that mountain. It completely took away from the beauty of the rest of the landscape. The aesthetics no longer made sense as we saw the wildlife and in the center, half a mountain with no trees, but instead topped off with big machinery.

Today in Harlan Kentucky Gap Semester went to an activist conference in Virginia. We didn’t know a lot about the groups there and what they do other than that they are activists who oppose mountain top removal. We walked into a big room, completely bare other than a huge curtain drawing. A man was in the middle of explaining the significance of the drawing when we sat down. I’ve never seen drawing on a scale like this – the sheet was chronologically covered corner to corner with detailed representations of the coal industry and its effects on the environment. We all listened in, and once his explanation was over, most of us bought a copy of the drawing for our future dorms. We then split up into different groups for classes. I went to the biodiversity class. I learned about different species of plants and animals native to the area’s forests and mountains. Afterwards, we spoke to a panel of people who live in the area and have been personally affected by mountain top removal. What they had to say was shocking. Hearing devastating stories from the people the group aims to help was powerful. We then ate dinner and learned how to square dance.

ImageSo messy, today we weather proofed an older lady’s house to help lower her cost of energy. I had a caulking job and man did I make a mess. I got that stuff all over me, but I quickly figured out how to be efficient. After a ton of paper towels and a couple hours later not only were the caulking jobs done but everyone else’s jobs were done as well. It was a cool reminder at just how effective our group has become. We finished weatherproofing a house in one morning. We have definitely come a long way together and I hope we only continue to improve.

 The week in Harlan was really interesting. We were able to become highly immersed in the community functions, which was a ton of fun. The time I most enjoyed was when we went to a local gathering for dinner and music. We learned how to two-step and our group sang a song for all the people there. Some people tried flat footing but it was really hard to keep the steps with the rhythm. It was an amazing feeling being able to interact with the local community on a more personal level and I’d love to be able to do something like this again in the future.

Our week in Harlan County, Kentucky exposed me to a culture, people, and various issues that I was previously unfamiliar with.  The interactions with the local people that were facilitated through the numerous trips to local community centers, businesses, and organizations gave us the opportunity for us to become truly immersed in the culture of Appalachia.  At the beginning of the week, I set a personal goal that focused on gaining knowledge and understanding of the people in Appalachia in order to be able to brainstorm effective ways to potentially diversify the economy of Appalachia.  As the world moves away from the use of coal as a primary source of energy and electricity, it is incredibly important that the area of Appalachia is supplied with the means to once again stabilize their local economy.  We heard throughout the week, from various sources, that Harlan County, KY has the potential for economic development in the fields of agriculture and tourism however, through the interactions with the local people it was evident that no concrete plan was in place to help the area achieve the set-up of even a foundation off of which these industries can grow and expand.  I am extremely passionate about facilitating a program that can educate local youth about the economic issues that surround the coal industry in Appalachia, with hopes of giving the local people the tools needed to diversify their economy away from a heavy reliance on the coal mining industry.

This week has presented tons of information that has completely changed my view point on Kentucky. The economic conflicts involve the state changing its source of revenue from coal to tourism. For a vast majority of the people, who were born into coal mining communities, changing jobs is removing a way of life. I entered this experience wanting to compare the conditions of the people at Pine Ridge to Harlan. Harlan had a strong economic history because of the mining industry, therefore I did not consider them having as many troubles as the Lakota. Throughout the week I began to find many similarities between the areas and understood the distress Harlan must be facing. My most enjoyable parts of this week were dancing at the community center, using the mining simulations and working at the house.

 After spending a week in Harlan exploring the complex issue of coal mining, I have come to realize that mountaintop-removal mining and the problems that it brings is an issue far more complex than I originally thought. In my opinion there are three main types of people in respect to the mining controversy in Harlan. The majority blindly promote all forms of mining claiming that “Mining is the future” for Harlan, and the only way to save its floundering economy. Then there are the nostalgic few who recognize the disastrous effects of mountaintop-removal mining, but still cling to the mining industry as the sole panacea for Harlan’s poverty problem. Finally, you have the minority, the activists. A select few (approximately 6,000) residents in Kentucky who lobby for the removal of the mining industry entirely, because they are aware of all of the numerous destructive long term effects that it brings to Eastern Kentucky. These three groups have their niches in Harlan’s political sphere, and yet there exists a fourth entity with more influence than all three combined. The Coal Corporations. The corporations exist outside of the citizens of Kentucky, in fact over 90% of all of the mineral rights in Kentucky are owned by non-Kentuckians. These corporations blindly disregard the countless ramifications their operations have on the citizens of Harlan, and continue to abuse their influence here. Harlan is a broken place, and unless we as citizens continue to spread the truth about the decades of abuse they have received from coal companies, change is impossible.

This week in Harlan has been more fun that I would’ve ever expected it to be. Between learning how to two-step, flat foot, and square dance and learning about Appalachian culture, there’s been a lot of laughter and great memories. Though not all is fun and games. The root of Appalachian culture is lies in the coal mines and the current issue of Mountain Top Removal (MTR) mining has the town (and what seems like most of the state) turned against each other due to the varying opinions. On one side are the pro-coal supporters while on the other are the activists trying all they can to stop MTR mining. As we learned about the severe negative effects of MTR, all I could think about was the fraking going on in my state and all the problems caused by that process. As I look around Kentucky all I can see is another Pennsylvania. Split by opinions on energy and money and land. And while Harlan has been a lot of fun, seeing the similarities of here and my home state hasn’t.

 

Wednesday was our final morning in Kentucky.  We visited the Kentucky Coal Academy, a center that educates miners on how to safely use coal mining equipment.  After a week of learning about all the unsafe working conditions in mines, I thought giving miners proper safety training was a step in the right direction towards less hazardous mines.  This was the first pro-coal location we visited, so it was interesting to get a different perspective on coal mining.  Also, a large percentage of the citizens here in Harlan are pro-coal, so talking to the director of the Kentucky Coal Academy gave me some insight into the local opinion on coal. After hearing the director speak, we all had the opportunity to try out different mining simulation equipment; possibly my favorite experience during the Kentucky portion of our service!  We used three different simulators: a coal mining machine, a safety beam-placing machine, and a truck driving simulation.  The coal mining machine had a very complicated remote which was identical to the actual remotes used in mines.  The buttons on the remote controlled turning on the blades, turning on the conveyor belt, moving up and down, and a few other features.  The safety beam-placing machine was equally as complicated, involving many different buttons and levers.  In real life safety beams are placed in mine ceilings to prevent it from collapsing on miners.  In the truck driving simulation it was a bit hard to park backwards, but pretty straight forward.  All in all I really enjoyed this day because it allowed me to get as involved in the mining process as I could without actually entering a mine.

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St. Louis Blogs

ImageComing into this week I was incredibly ignorant on the subject of hunger in general, but even more so pertaining to the issue of domestic hunger.  I wasn’t aware of the significant and growing numbers of Americans that are going hungry every day.  This led to two major revelations for me this past week: the first was just becoming aware of the major problem that hunger is in the United States and the second was culture shock of being exposed to hungry individuals from Saint Louis and the surrounding areas.  With that being said, I enjoyed every part of this past week.  From working at City Seeds Urban Farm to participating in Operation Food Search’s backpack initiative, it was all a lot of fun and did a lot of good in the Saint Louis community.  When I arrive on the Elon campus in January, I will definitely be looking for opportunities to work with the Campus Kitchen to help feed local families and end hunger one meal at a time.

 

Since reading our agenda, I’d really been looking forward to our week in Saint Louis. Not only have I visited the city before, but a lot of my family is from the area. Because of these reasons, I already loved this place and couldn’t wait to experience even more. One of my favorite afternoons we spent at an elementary school. The fifteen of us waited out in the field while the different grades took turns coming out to join us. Half of the class would stay at the garden and pick tomatoes. The half would come with my group. We sat in the shade and read educational books about flowers and plant life. I let the kids choose whichever book they wanted and then helped them read it out loud. Each group was unique and amazing. The kids were so cute, and so smart, too! A majority of them had a great sense of humor as well. We laughed together and learned about flowers and seasons all afternoon. Spending such a carefree afternoon with the children of this elementary school was so much fun!

 

Today for our first day of service in St. Louis we went to City Seeds Urban Farm, a plot of land composed of several vegetable-producing garden beds. For most of the morning I did some weeding at the ends of the garden beds. I was able to interact a little bit with the clients who were also working in the garden. These clients were part of a therapeutic horticulture program provided to individuals who were dealing with a number of possible issues. I spoke with one man about where he grew about and about how he got involved in the program. After lunch, we traveled to a local elementary school. The purpose of this visit was to teach different groups of children about growing healthy fresh food in gardens. We also helped them harvest some of their ripe vegetables. I was in charge of showing the children sweet potatoes and lettuce. Because there were limited vegetables to harvest, we had to work hard to keep all the children occupied. There were difference people at each garden bed to tell them what was growing. In addition, some of us read books to the children and played games with them. Overall, this day was tiring but enjoyable. We got a good introduction to gardening at City Seeds and we were able to educate children about healthy eating habits.

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Something that I had a ton of fun with this week was work at Operation Food Search packing backpacks for children who don’t have enough food to get by on the weekends. We worked in an assembly line fashion to pack these backpacks with lots of different snacks and foods. I personally had the glorious job of gingerly placing mac and cheese and soup in the back pack and passing it on. Sounds easy right? Wrong. It took us awhile to figure everything out and get the line flowing smoothly. We had a lot of pileups because the line was set up so certain jobs went faster than others. However, we got everyone one on the same page and started pumping out backpacks and in that matter of a few hours packed 1,149 backpacks to be delivered to kids in the area. This activity stuck out for me because not only was it fun but I couldn’t personally imagine having to go home on the weekend and wonder whether or not I would get to eat. I felt glad that I got to give someone out there the same security I take for granted every day, even if just for a little while. I only wish I could have done more.

 

This past week the group and I ventured to St. Louis to tackle the city’s longstanding bout with poverty and hunger. In order to combat these issues we teamed up with organizations predominantly centralized around using gardening as means to heal both people and the city. We spent four mornings working on City Seeds Urban Farm, a program designed to train homeless and underserved individuals in green jobs. Not only does CSUF serve as a gateway to finding work for their clients, they also include a therapeutic program, to assist in tackling mental illnesses, PTSD, and drug addiction. Interacting with clients and swapping personal stories allowed me to make a more intimate connection with the issues we were there to help combat. All of the clients received us very well and were grateful for our assistance.

We also worked with Food Outreach, the only organization in the greater St. Louis area that provides food to underserved individuals suffering from HIV/AIDS or cancer. This unique experience allowed me to experience the humbling feeling of interacting directly with people who are terminally ill. I entered the day expecting to leave with a heavy sadness due to sympathizing with the clients, but instead I left with a greater appreciation for everyday that I’m alive; inspired by their vitality and hopeful outlooks on their situations. During the week we also worked with a campus kitchen that repurposed food that could no longer be sold, and cooked it into meals for low-income persons living in the nearby area. Ultimately, I took away from this week that there a multitude of ways to give back to those in need in my community, and I plan to reach out in the future.

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Wednesday the whole group went to spend the day at Food Outreach. There we had the options to work in the kitchen preparing food as well as working in the front of the center with the clients. Fortunately, I got to work in both areas. For the morning, I was in the back working in the kitchen washing and cutting vegetables for clients to bring home for salad as well as vegetables to go into soup. The coolest part about the vegetables was that they were ones we had harvested earlier that week at City Seeds Urban Farm. We got to see where the food ended up. The second half of my day was spent up front mini mart style. Clients came in and filled out an order as we gathered that order and documented what they got in the computer. Being able to help them even in this small way was very enlightening as well as rewarding. Every single client I worked with was extremely appreciative of the little help I offered.

The highlight of my day was right after I was assigned to work at the computers. I was very slow at ringing up what the clients had ordered; finding the sheets to scan them in as, counting all of the items, and documenting it into their files. The second client was so friendly, I explained to him that I was still trying to get the hang of the register and to my surprise, he knew more about it than I did. As I was ringing in the items, he showed me what buttons to press and what barcodes to use. In his spare time, he volunteered to help at Food Outreach. I found this inspiring that during the infrequent free time he has, he gives that little time to help out the organization he and others, some terminally ill, depend on.

 

Willingness and determination was what I saw in the people I worked with on my service week in St. Louis. I have never seen such kind people accepting of the work we are doing to help them.  My favorite part of the week was being a grocer at Food Outreach, a program that helps clients with HIV/AIDS and cancer. I had the opportunity to talk to people as I scanned and checked out their food for the week.  One woman I talked to thanked me about ten times before she left my counter because she was so grateful that we were able to provide her husband who has cancer with food that is nutritious and will help get him through the week.  This made my day that I was able to help people in a very big way.

The speaker this week was very knowledgeable about hunger and homelessness which game me a new look on this ongoing issue in the United States. She works at Washington University in St. Louis to council people on this issue and help them through their problem of homelessness and hunger. I had a very rewarding week working on the City Seeds Urban Farm, helping kids at a local Elementary School, Food Outreach, and Campus Kitchen. This was my favorite week so far and I hope all the weeks to come are this rewarding in the end.

 

My week in St. Louis has been the best week for me, so far. Although, the days were jam-packed, I felt that we impacted a lot of people in one short week. From harvesting giant sweet potatoes at City Seeds Urban Farm to packing over 1,100 food bags for children in an afternoon at Operation Food Search to making giant vats of chili at Food Outreach to be served to people suffering from HIV/AIDS; I felt we covered a lot of bases.  I really enjoyed getting to know the clients at City Seeds Urban Farm, as well. They had experiences and stories that everyone could learn a lot from. The biggest thing I will take away from this week is to take nothing for granted.

 

Today was our last day in St. Louis. After a week of volunteering all day, we were all eager to see more of the city. We went to the Tower Grover Farmer’s Market in a beautiful park right next to where we were staying. When we arrived at the market, a few of us hopped into a yoga class. Yoga was a lovely way to start the day off! Vendors at the market sold everything from fresh baguettes to hand-made bags from Nepal. There was also an awesome band that filled the bustling park with a soothing, catchy rhythm. After a few hours at the park, we drove into the heart of the city and went to the Taste of St. Louis. The Taste of St. Louis was crowded and the afternoon sun was sweltering but we all enjoyed a variety of foods and some free time. After about 3 hours at the Taste, we drove to the Gateway Arch. Most everyone took the tour to the top of the Arch. I decided to stay comfortably planted on the well-kept landscape around the Arch and enjoyed its splendor from the ground. Everyone arrived at the bottom sufficiently worn out from our long day of fun. We hurriedly found dinner. By 8 P.M. when dinner was finished, we went to the City Museum. The City Museum is a 10-story amusement park of sorts in an apartment like building – a gigantic, magical universe of adult-sized slides, tunnels, caverns, and unidentifiable climbing structures. We ran around like children at Chuck E. Cheese’s until 10:30 P.M. Once we finally arrived back at our “home”, we all climbed into bed and instantly fell asleep.

 

                Today was our day off in St. Louis. We started off the day at the farmer’s market where we got to see the vegetables we harvested through City Seeds being sold to the public. There was also morning yoga, live music, and so much food! It was great to see the finished product of something we worked so hard on and to experience the community of St. Louis at the same time. From there we went to a giant street fair downtown called A Taste of St. Louis; a festival about, you guessed it, FOOD. There were hundreds of stands for local restaurants selling samples of their best foods and everything was amazing.  After reluctantly leaving Taste, we headed off to do the one must in St. Louis- going up into the arch. The whole thing was cramped and nerve-wracking, but very cool. We then ended the night with a trip to one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen, City Museum. City Museum is a 3-story indoor/outdoor maze/funhouse/cluster of ever fun thing known to man. The rooftop offers a similar setting with a fully functional ferris wheel as well. We were like kids at a playground! Definitely the best time I’ve ever had at any museum ever. All in all, this week in St. Louis was great and I can’t wait to see what the coming weeks have to offer.

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Today was awesome – one of the best days of the semester so far!  We began the day by going to the local farmers market, where we spent the entire morning.  We ate breakfast there, did yoga with the community, played some frisbee, and then relaxed in the park.  Next we ventured to a festival that was going on downtown called the Taste of St. Louis.  We got lunch there and walked around for a few hours.  We then went to the famous Gateway Arch and got to ride up to the top.  It was really cool to see the city from that high up (630 ft.); we could see the entire baseball stadium, the Mississippi River, and the rest of the city’s skyline.  After that we had our last stop at the City Museum, which was not a museum at all.  It was so much fun; there was a ferris wheel on the roof, a slide that went down 10 stories, crawl spaces throughout the building that led to random places, an art room where we drew on the walls, and a ball pit for adults.  I honestly could have stayed there for days without doing anything twice.  It was such a great day, I could not have asked for a better ending to the week and I loved seeing the city that we have been helping.

Service Week 1: Pine Ridge, SD

Working with RE-MEMBER was truly a unique experience that I don’t believe I could have had anywhere else.  The poverty and overall harshness of the living conditions of the Lakota people of the Pine Ridge Reservation was shocking and unsettling.  The long days of intense physical labor, combined with the emotional effect of our surrounding environment, left the group exhausted at the end of every day that we spent on the reservation.  Pine Ridge2No matter how tired we were though, I was encouraged to see the amount of active listeners that were engaged in the phenomenal speakers that we were fortunate enough to hear from.  Even with all of this in mind, the most memorable moment came from The Porcupine School.  One of the little girls in my second grade class, named Lynsey, approached me during our lunch time with a series of statements that have since changed my life and my outlook on such.  She looked up at me and said, “You are perfect.”  Not understanding what she meant by this I asked her if she could clarify.  Her response to this request was that people on the reservation say that “the white man is perfect.”  I was completely and utterly shocked.  In the moment, I experienced a brief moment of extreme dissonance.  I was unsure of how to respond to this assertion from such an innocent, eight-year old girl.  I told her that her statement was extremely far from the truth and that the color of your skin does not determine how good or bad you are.

I will always RE-MEMBER the experience I had on the Pine Ridge Reservation and all the people I helped. What I remember most about the experience was seeing the poverty and the houses that were broken down and small. Multiple families had to sleep in one house which was concerning to me because there was no space for them to live. This experience has made me want to go back and help the people of Pine Ridge so they can have better lives and futures. The work we did ranged from helping fourth graders to painting lockers and digging holes. Even though this work was hard, we made it through and I am proud of what we accomplished. The people who see our work will look back and be proud of the work we did. I plan to return to RE-MEMBER to help out the Pine Ridge Reservation in the future and raise awareness of the problems they face daily.

One moment that sticks out to me the most after staying on the Pine Ridge Reservation was at our visit to Wounded Knee. After we listened to a speaker educate us about more of what happened during the massacre, we were free to roam around the art venders or the memorial. I browsed through all the vendors before going over to the cemetery, or so I thought. On the way back towards the vans, a family started setting up their goods for us to see, so I headed over with another student. The table they were using was filled with hand carved key chains, hand strung necklaces and bracelets, and beaded pen covers. As we were admiring what they had made, we got into easy conversation about how they made the treasures or how long it took. One thing led into another and we were quickly talking about what happened at Wounded Knee. This began the personal conversations we would have with the couple. Wounded KneeAs we shared our thoughts, they shared their personal stories of what happened to their tribe. They brought out a newspaper of one of the ‘anniversaries’ of Wounded Knee and we read together significant facts and looked at vivid images. This prompted the wife to tell us of how her husband was bitter before she met him. The reasoning being mostly because of what occurred at Wounded Knee. She explained that he had gone fasting at Bear’s Butte for 4 days as recent as three years ago. That is when he took over the conversation, these days of fasting seemed as though it was the most pivotal part of his life. This is what changed his outlook and perspective to a more positive view, as well as what helped him find his soul mate. This surprised us at first that this couple had only been together for a few years as we watched them speak for one another and finish each other’s sentences. Soon we understood it all. During his days fasting on the mountain he felt cleansing as well as peace upon him. He saw spirits, which pointed him in positive directions that he chose to take on for the rest of his life. Spirits also showed him visions of his soon to be wife particularly focusing on her face. They were calling him to her. A year later, they did meet and of course he shared the experience he had at Bear’s Butte with her. What he wasn’t expecting was her response- all her life spirits brought images of him into her mind. They were meant to find each other.  This story stood out because it is a great representation of the culture and beliefs of the Lakota Tribe. They are very spiritual persons and have practiced that for decades. This was the most memorable part of my experience on Pine Ridge Reservation, leading to my understanding of the Lakota culture and the power that spiritual forces have on all of mankind.

This morning I was woken up by blinding sunlight that shone through the window of our bunk bed rooms at Re-Member. It was a lovely sight, and I had a prime view from my pillow. Each morning after breakfast, the Director at Re-Member shares “words of wisdom” from Lakota and other indigenous elders. This morning he read a quote from Crazy Horse. It reminded us of the settlers’ role in Lakota History and the painful influence they had upon his people. After, we went to a Renewable Energy School. The school itself will open for the first time in October. In addition to this, the site functions as a resource to the community, auditing energy to individuals in need. Before the school can be opened, much work must be done on the site. Our group assisted workers with projects such as digging septic pipelines, making adobe bricks, and preparing housing facilities. It was a long day but it felt great to give back to a community that I had already learned so much from. Then we went back to Re-Member and heard an influential Lakota  speak about the importance of youth and the potential we all have to change the world. Afterwards, I made a point to thank him for nurturing a new confidence within my peers and myself. I went to bed later that night exhausted and satisfied with the fulfilling day.  

There was so much to be done at Pine Ridge. When we drove in a few days ago, my eyes were glued to the ramshackle mobile homes with roofs being held down by tires and blankets hanging in place of where window panes should be. There was just so much to be done. Yesterday we met a man who told us about how his plans for improving the use of renewable energy sources on the reservation. We then spent the rest of the day working on minor construction projects for the on-site school being built for reservation students. Earlier in the week we got to visit an elementary school on the reservation. The third grade class I was assigned to was just like any other nine year olds, groaning at the prospect of more math lessons and begging for more snack time. Despite all of the hardships the Lakota have, there is an undeniable sense of hope among the children and seeing their hope unearths the hope I have for Pine Ridge. I truly believe that as a team we ca   n work together to really make a difference at Pine Ridge.

Today we went on a tour to see the rest of the reservation.  We visited KILI Radio Station, Oglala Lakota College, Red Cloud Indian School, and had lunch at Bette’s Kitchen.  I loved getting a tour of the Indian School because I learned a lot about what they value in education, such as keeping their culture alive, and how they offer a variety of great opportunities to their students.  Pine RidgeThe school has a large campus because it is Kindergarten through 12th grade. I also loved getting to eat at Bette’s kitchen; the food was so delicious and she had awesome cupcakes.  When we got back to the RE-MEMBER site later that afternoon, there was a vow renewal ceremony getting ready to begin for some of the other volunteers.  I decided to go and see what it would be like, and boy am I glad I did.  I had never seen anything like it!  They first renewed their vows in a Christian manner, and then begun the Lakota traditions.  They were smudged (have smoke from a ceremonial plant waved around one’s body), wrapped in a blanket, and had their hands tied together as a Lakota Native played traditional songs on a drum and sang.  Then, everyone that was at the ceremony was given dried meat and juice as they shook the couple’s hands and congratulated them.

Pine Ridge, South Dakota will forever have a place in my heart. It will forever stick out to me as being totally unique; unlike any other place that I’ve ever been, or may ever travel to. Statistically speaking, it is one of the most depressing and desolate locations on earth. With an 85% poverty rate, nearly ubiquitous alcohol abuse among adults, and the second lowest life-expectancy in the Western Hemisphere, it’s difficult to imagine that one could leave with a lighter heart. Yet my experiences with the Oglala Lakota people that I met outweighed all of the depressing statistics. I was welcomed by a culture that exemplifies the values of hospitality, dignity, and equality. From the very beginning I never felt judged for my socioeconomic class, my race, or how I appeared. People judged me based on my intentions, what I spoke of and what I did, nothing else mattered to them. To them, all people are just people, and always have been. Despite having barely any material possessions, everyone from Pine Ridge who I met gave me so much. Their generosity with love was overwhelming. The many times I was thanked were so genuine, and the stories I was told were cathartic and heartfelt. Yes, the conditions on Pine Ridge are absolutely terrible, and their situation is in dire need of support. However, the hope that I felt after hearing a class full of 7th graders’ dreams, or how a young man my age chooses not to drink so that he can make money for his family, managed to outweigh any feelings of despair that I walked in with. Gratitude was always expressed for the help that my peers and I were giving, and none of us were ever treated as an outsider. For these reasons, along with the intimate relationships that I developed with so many individuals, I plan to come back to give what I can next year, and the year after that. I also plan to help in any way that I can while I’m not there, such as encourage you reading this right now to look up some statistics about Pine Ridge. Take 15 minutes and watch Aaron Huey’s Ted Talk about it. Listen, and absorb. Share what resonates with you to your friends, and assist with giving these silenced people their voice back.

At the beginning of this experience my intended major was business with a minor in marketing. If you were to ask me now, I would give you a different answer.  I would now say I am undecided, because of one day spent on this journey. I have always loved working with kids, but never had put any serious thought into being an elementary educator. Our first day on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation was spent at The Porcupine School, which houses grades K through eighth. We were broken into groups of two and got to pick a grade to work with. For me, the choice was very simple. Second grade is my favorite age to work with, so naturally, that’s what I picked. The students were having recess when we arrived, so we immediately got to go outside and play with them. From the moment we walked up they were giving us hugs, asking for piggyback rides, and initiating intense games of freeze tag. Their energy was absolutely incredible; the looks on their faces beamed with pure joy. We spent the day teaching them how to use greater than or less than symbols, then taught them aboutPine Ridge 3 minerals, soil and plants. They also had several recesses and lunch scattered in between. Needless to say, at the end of the day I was absolutely exhausted, but I felt like I had made a difference in our second grade class that day, even if it was just by letting a little girl braid my hair.  My major is now undecided because of the day I spent with the Lakota children of the Pine Ridge Indian reservation. I am now considering becoming an elementary educator because the life of a child can easily be shaped with the help of just one influential person.

Of our week stay at RE-MEMBER and the Pine Ridge reservation the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center was probably my favorite experience. While we were there we did work that left me with a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. We did everything from digging out holes for water faucets to digging the foundations of homes to even making home-made bricks. My group was able to make 200 bricks in a single day. We spent two days at this location and it was where I felt I gave the most to the Lakota people, who I learned we owe so much to. If anything I wish we could have had more time to give to the center as everything accomplished there helps someone in need in the reservation. And that was another thing, it was cool to see just what this place was doing for the community. They made solar panels, bricks, and taught us how to make houses from straw. They also host learning experiences in which people come to learn and stay onsite in buildings made by the workers. I felt like this center was a shining example of hope and promise in a place where those two things are all but lost.