Thursday, February 17, 2011

Straight from my Heart

This week has been incredibly stressful and difficult for me, but at the same time, extremely important in figuring out my purpose and future. The need for young children to receive quality education and specialized attention and guidance is becoming more and more apparent to me than ever before. I have had several conversations in the past few weeks about how so many children are born into unfortunate circumstances and are not getting the proper education they deserve. We cannot keep turning our back on this. I see it here especially in New Orleans through the tutoring program I am involved with each week and the conversations I have had with other people involved in educating children in poor areas. 

After Katrina, many kids had to take months off of school and as a result, were extremely behind in their reading level and other learning areas upon returning. Teachers are overwhelmed with large numbers of students especially those that are deemed as distracting and unruly. With no positive motivation and confined in the chains of poverty, each child's self-esteem plummets, and they lose their motivation at an early age. Many kids are alone in their houses until late hours of the night. Others are one of many siblings and often feel abandoned, neglected.  Furthermore, some parents even encourage their children to act out in school, so they will receive money for their kids being in Special Education. The truths are startling and have been taking a heavy toll on me these past few days. School teachers across the country are tirelessly working and making real differences during the school day, but it can be overwhelming. And that is where I come in, as a mentor/tutor to give those children the individualized attention and time they deserve and need.

Even more troubling to me are recent news articles about the government's plan to cut volunteer, and education programs such as AmeriCorps across the country. ( I am applying to be an AmeriCorp next year through a program where I can be a mentor to kids and lead after school programs. But if all volunteer/service programs are cut it will be even more difficult for me to pursue this passion and more importantly, communities will lose valuable assets and gateways to positive change. I don't want to use this blog as a platform to go on a political rant, but I will say this country needs to rethink where its priorities are. We spend billions of dollars on war and defense while our own country struggles to deliver proper education to its own people. I know it is not a black or white situation, and I understand the government has many factors to consider and debate. The truth is real people and real lives are at stake. I can't just sit back and watch their struggles fall to the waste side. So many volunteer programs provide hope for the hopeless and are drastically changing poverty and education deficits everywhere. Thousands of young people are willing to live in poor areas for no pay and in exchange receive help in furthering their own education. Think about all the good things that can come out of this for this country, its people, and the world!!

I struggle with where our money and time is going and have been praying that people will soon realize it's not even about politics or parties or taking sides. It is so much more than that. At the end of the day, after we all have gotten on our soap box (myself included) this is about the importance of individual lives and the radical idea that we can ignite hope where this is despair if we stop for reevaluation. 

I've seen it first hand. I see it, walk around with the devastation, the scars, the suffering these people are met with every day. I only wish my experience was one that everyone could go through. Seeing all the hoops people have to jump through just to obtain decent, affordable housing. Being put on hold for hours on the phone with that very real feeling of no one being there but a dial tone. Children falling through the cracks. All the myths and misconceptions that surround homelessness, poverty, and education are brought to my attention every single day. I attended a Stopping Crime panel with the members of the NOPD and District Attorney's office present. Disgruntled community members expressed their anger over the disconnect between the government and the citizens of the community. The panel said they recognize this and they are working towards fixing it. I have seen lives touch lives in New Orleans. These people have their hearts on their sleeves. I know change is possible in this city.

Despite all this brokenness I see around me, and the raw desperateness of the situations I have encountered, I truly believe my generation has the power to propel us into a new dawn. Through social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter (although they do eat my time like pacman) I see young people expressing themselves about movements they are involved in and raising their voices about issues they feel strongly about. Being a part of the YAV program, I am blessed enough to be connected to 80 something other passionate, service-minded volunteers who are currently around the world attempting to make their mark, to let people know that we are here, we are not giving up, and most importantly WE CARE. 

Don't for a second,  underestimate the power of love. Love is often difficult, love is the higher road, and love is the only way we can move forward in this world. I am not saying that tomorrow we will all hold hands across communities and nations and sing Kumbayah together, but I do think to strive for anything less than that is a disservice to humanity. If we keep taking a backseat and accepting things as inevitable and awful, we cease to live, we become faithless, and our lives are drained of all meaning. It IS possible for us to remove ourselves from our tiny sheltered boxes and look out around us with open hearts and eyes. Despite all the bad we see, there is so much good in this world, and we must hold on to that and spread it like wildfire. This world is not an ugly, bad place. It is simply a canvas of potential that cannot, will not be reached by pessimism and resistance but a constant outpouring of radical, all-encompassing, unconditional love.

I know what I am saying may sound over the top/crazy optimistic/wildly liberal,insert adj here. In addition, I recognize I have much to learn and improve upon within myself. However, I am speaking from my heart. Living here in New Orleans has opened me up to what is happening while millions of us cloak ourselves in the comforting fabric of denial. While I will never know the true horror of what some of these families have been through, felt what they have felt, I can see it written on their faces, and I will never be the same because of it. This city with all its crime, injustice, poverty, and ever present love is changing me, changing me every second. I will continue to pray and listen for God in the noise and the silence to guide me forward even if I shake with fear in every step.

It's been an emotional past few days, but I know more than ever I want to help children see that they do have potential. Helping these troubled kids living in difficult situations takes a great deal of patience and is not easy and is often a long, uphill road. However, I am one more person committed to this cause. If I can make one child believe they have a future, that their lives do matter, that they can rise above the confinements of their situations, then my purpose on this earth is fulfilled. I hope each of you continue to search your hearts and when your answers lead to more questions, know that we will get there. God is there. God is always there.


Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable... Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Discerning "The Next Step" while walking in the present.

In my last entry, I briefly mentioned figuring out "The Next Step." In the past few weeks, I have been frantically Google searching where I want to go in August. I mulled over many options in the months since I've been here (Graduate program for some kind of professional writing, Seminary, more volunteering, etc.)  Right now, I  am thinking about doing a program through AmeriCorp next year where I would mentor kids in reading and facilitate various after school programs for them. I want to go live somewhere new (California is first on my list).  I am continually praying and looking at all my options to see where I am needed most.

At the famous establishment Tipitinas seeing a real Mardi Gras Indian perform!

It's funny how God works. The more I search and discern and ponder what will happen next year, the more I am brought back to my present life in New Orleans and how much this experience is defining where I go from here. After all, it's hard to build a future without looking around and seeing what's making you happy now.  I have fallen in love and grown quite attached to the people here and can feel that New Orleans spirit that's about as loud and joyous as the brass bands that were born inside the city walls. Mardi Gras hasn't even begun!

This is Leslie, the adorable 2nd grader I tutor twice a week through the STAIR program.

The reason I want to spend a year focusing on mentoring and helping kids who are struggling with reading is because I have discovered how much I love tutoring. I tutor a 2nd grade girl named Leslie twice a week through the STAIR program. We read books together and work on basic literacy and reading comprehension skills. It can be particularly challenging at times and takes a great deal of patience but the rewards are wonderful. I love seeing a smile light up her face when I tell her she's going onto the next reading unit and cherish the overwhelming sense of accomplishment when she finally writes a sentence correctly that we've been working on together. I enjoy finding creative, interesting ways to get her to learn concepts. Making even the smallest difference by forming a positive relationship with this little girl has been a highlight of my time spent in New Orleans.

My roommate Tasha and I with our Mentors, Shirley and Catina, who both attend Faith Pres!
Furthermore, as I step back and look at the big picture of my present life, I realize I am lucky and blessed beyond believe to be a part of two unique, wonderful church congregations. These people are teaching me that it's not about doing every little thing right, it's not about being superwoman. It's about being here, being apart of these people's lives and binding my struggles with theirs, it's about presence and it's about listening (the real kind of listening that involves empathy and understanding), it's about learning things I never thought I would and challenging myself to be a part of something bigger, it's about putting my whole heart into everything I do and trusting God with everything I have. It's the feeling I get when I hear Pastor Jayne's voice leading the homeless men, women, and children in the song, "Standing in the Need of Prayer." It's about the genuine hug and smile I get from Pastor Ron as soon I walk in the door at Faith. It's the laughter of my roommates when one of us breaks the ice cream scoop in half. Oh yeah. And it's about love.  Love love love. A whole lot of love. 

And that love is not always easy. I have found that community is not something to be taken lightly, for it makes a deep mark on our hearts and people's struggles are becoming as real to me as they are to those who suffer from them. Frustration consumes me at not being able to do enough for those around me, to do it right, to fix it, to make it better. But as I search for the answers, the "next steps" in my own life, the right things to do for others, I bring myself back to here, back to now, back to God. I am but one small instrument in this orchestra of humanity. And as Rob Bell says in one of his inspirational videos, it's not a question of what song you are playing, it's about whether or not you are in tune.


"May you come to see that the song is written on your heart. And as you live in tune with the song, in tune with creator of the universe, may you realize that you ARE in relationship with the living God."
-Rob Bell