Friday, March 14, 2014

Coming back from Chicago

Spring break. A whole week of being able to turn my brain off. Seven consecutive days where I could finally relax. This is something that I personally look forward to for the entire school year- and I have ever since kindergarden. This time around, I am proud and extremely thankful that I get to say that I have never been so mentally, physically, and emotionally engaged for an entire week of my life. Spring break this year is something that I am never going to be able to duplicate. Getting the chance to participate in such a meaningful mission and meeting so many compassionate people has changed my life.

This week was all about the mission of combating hunger, food insecurity, and homelessness in an area where it is of great importance- Chicago. I was able to get a more clear and concise vision of how these issues need to be addressed on a larger scale, and how I can make a difference. I need to be the change that I want to see in the world. I need to take the first step to inspire others to help. I need to be the one to help others redefine their definitions of what it is to be in poverty. I need to take the step and I need to make sure it is large enough so that others can follow along with me.

A group of fifteen MSU students set out to see Chicago, maybe meet some new people, try and help a little and make a difference. What happened was much more; this same group of fifteen people became a family and challenged each other to redefine how you look at poverty. We encouraged and rallied around each other. We questioned and pushed the boundaries. After every service, we were able to come together to process and understand the full weight of what they had just done. We were doing so much more than serving, packaging, organizing food- we were empowering, understanding, and connecting with people who desperately needed it. This group of people helped bring me to the realization that I had been so naive and in the dark about the issue. Hunger is real for millions in this country. Many don’t know where they will be able to get their next meal. People fall on hard times and it is not up to me to judge them. It is up to me to look to myself and see how I can lend them a hand to be able to stand tall again.

It is easy to see someone on the street and blame them for their place there. It is easy to look at someone who is in need of help and think that they first need to help themselves. This trip has taught me that what I need to do is to not question why they are there, but how I can help to make sure that they don’t stay there. How can I make a difference for that person? 

- Can I start a conversation with them and show a genuine interest?
- Can I give them some leftovers from a restaurant meal I just bought?
- Can I give them a couple of dollars that I intended to spend on a latte?

These things are so minute but it is the smallest step in the process of change. I don’t know what events lead this person to this place in their life, but I can be the small step in the chain of events that puts it back on track. I can empower. I can encourage. I can understand.

It is so much more than just handing out money or a hot meal, it is reminding everyone that this is still a person. Asking for help is not something to be ashamed of or frowned upon, it is something that should be encouraged. If we cannot be there for each other during the worst times, then what is the point? We need to get down and dirty and pull these people from the trenches of hard times so that we can revel in their successes with them.
I come back from Chicago with fifteen new, wonderful, caring, genuine, compassionate friends. I come back from Chicago with a new perspective and a new purpose. I come back from Chicago with a new understanding and a desire to help others challenge their perceptions of hunger, poverty, and homelessness in America.

Kirsten Hendrick

Six Days

We can solve the issues of hunger and homelessness in this country. And it will be my generation that will do it. I have no doubt in my mind. What convinced me of this? Six days.

I spent all of my spring break in Chicago volunteering with organizations who focused on the ever growing hungry and homelessness populations in Chicago. I worked with a team of 5 Chinese students, 1 Vietnamese student, and 10 American students.

 I want to be honest to whoever may be reading this, I didn’t want to write about this trip. I didn’t think words could describe the transformative experience I went through these last six days.

I became family with the members on this trip. Nobody really knew each other before the trip; we had met twice to talk about the logistics of the trip, but that was it. We all grew up with different cultures and backgrounds and adversities, but in six days made bonds that will last a lifetime.

We learned so much from not only from each other, but from the agencies we did volunteer work for. We were challenged to ask the tough questions: Why are so many people hungry? Why are people hungry in the first place? Why are they homeless? Why is it so easy to ignore these populations? Why, in this country, can we not figure it out?

We dove into these questions all week long while serving meals to the hungry and homeless. It’s one thing to read about hunger and homelessness, but to experience it first hand with a diverse group of people is something else.

We looked at the root causes of these issues, which required more thinking than simply “They must be drug addicts, they must be lazy, they are just abusing the system.” We became educated, through direct and indirect service and research of our own.

The biggest thing we discovered was every story is different. We can’t just focus our blame on the person in need and think that is the problem. We need to blame the lack of funding we give to public schools, the lack of funding we put into social welfare programs, we need to blame us. We created this monster of hunger and homelessness by ignoring the cries of help by so many for so long.  50 million Americans rely on charitable food donations.

After all, the federal government just cut $8 billion in food stamps over the next 10 years. Why cripple our poorest friends and neighbors? The writer Aaron Sorkin once said, “If your neighbors house is on fire, do you help put out the flame or do you worry about the water bill?”

When I look at the group of people I worked with this week, I saw real change taking place. Change that will spread as the students I worked with blossom into leaders as they all go out into the real world. I just know that it will be our generation who champions our weakest citizens. Everyone needs to experience one of these trips. It took me six days to find optimism and hope in such a jaded world. Six days to become educated, inspired, and empowered with a group of students. Just six days.

--Alex Miller

A Heart for Chicago....

Who knew with a population over 7 billion people there would be one person that would forever change my outlook on the homeless? How can one respectable man who came in for a free lunch with such a bright smile lead me rushing out of the room with tears rolling down my face?

Danny was his name, everyone knew when he would come in and looked forward to it for the week. The workers and volunteers told us at the beginning we would know when he would come. Who knew the moment the door opened, I recognized the guy. Not knowing his background or anything about him, I them proceeded to greet him and help him get his food for the day. During this process we have to help each one individually, asking them what they would like and how many of each item. Some days they were allowed to take more of certain items, but other days not so much. On this day they were allowed to take a soup, one milk, one thing of carrots, as many oranges as they would like, one dessert of their choice, a granola bar, one apple, as many bananas as they would like and a sandwich. As I was taking Danny through the line to get his stuff for him he first began with taking one soup putting it in his pocket and then put another in the bag, which he took very secretively, but still I noticed. Next I proceeded to give him his milk, but every item he asked if he could have more. I had to say "no" for each item he asked because they were given a limit to make sure everyone had enough to go around. As I said, "no", he continued to ask. This was the hardest part of the service for me, seeing that someone needs something so much. It kills me to let them down. I could see that he needed it, but there was nothing I could do. As we continued down the line, I gave him the rest of his items, but towards the end I couldn't handle it anymore. One of the leaders covered my place in line because I couldn't look into someone's eyes, noticing that they are struggling and there was nothing I could do. I had tears consistently running down my face and couldn't stop, my hands were really shaky, and my heart was beating rapidly. When I finally calmed myself down, I went back up front to continue serving and Danny had left.

One thing Danny left not knowing was that he has forever made a mark on my heart. As I continue to serve others, I will always vision how he looked, what he was wearing, how he smelt and that sparkle he had in his eyes.

Volunteering at St. James Food Pantry I helped in distributing food to those in need. I was a part of a team who worked as a family in giving everything that had to provide blessing for those that are not as fortunate. We may not know the story of each person or where they came from, but that didn't put a stop to our team from treating them like they were one of us.

As I asked myself all these questions, I tend to let my mind wonder too much. I know that there will be a need to constantly help others and I know this journey our team had in Chicago is just the beginning for all of us.

"A little consideration, a little though for others makes all the difference." -Eeeyore

We are constantly on a battlefield, fighting against the small things that hold us back from what is really important. Are we challenging ourselves to help ourselves or are we trying to serve others? So many times we think so much of what we WANT for ourselves, instead of what others NEED. But if we each take a couple of minutes out of our day to say "hi", smile or even help someone in need it will make such a difference. We could be that one person who makes a mark on their life, and we could just continue on not even knowing.

I challenge everyone to take an opportunity to help a local Food Pantry and work with the homeless, and I hope that one day you will gain the same insight and get something out of it just like I did.

Lastly, I would like to say I feel so blessed to have been able to work with the Chicago Service Team, the leaders were spectacular, and the members pushed me to do great things. I know that we all made a mark here in Chicago and we will continue as a team when coming back to Springfield.

Shayla Jenkins

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Hellos and Goodbyes

I’ve never enjoyed waking up early, or walking for long distances at a time, or having to make an effort to get something I needed. They’re selfish thoughts, I know, I can be a selfish person. But they’re feelings that everyone has at times. There may be a day when getting out of bed seems useless, or walking is something only people without cars do, or going to get something can be pushed back until later. I’m not the only selfish person out there that has these thoughts. There are an abundance of luxuries the common man takes advantage of daily.  
                People living on the streets don’t have a choice. They are unable to indulge. They are forced to wake up early because of harsh weather conditions, by the bustling sounds of early morning commuters, and in order to get in line for the local food pantry. They may not have a car, they may not even have a bed to wake up on, and they may not even have the heart to get to where they are going.
                As a society, a community, as humans, we don’t recognize the daily needs of others. We can’t blame ourselves, time has done this. Time has made us immune to the escalating issues. Homelessness, people who live in poverty and those with less fortunate conditions are often forgotten about. There is a silver lining. There are people, strong warriors who wield passion like a sword and shield to aid those in desperate need. 
There is Cathy and John, the coordinators from the St. James Food Pantry we volunteered for. They work tirelessly to ensure that every food item donated is sorted, inspected and distributed to the clients. We worked closely with them for two days. We got the insider’s look of how a respectable food pantry works. The amount of food that is donated and processed was a blessing to both me and them. The only problem they could face is a shortage of food. We bagged groceries, we interacted with clients that come in for a lunch program they sponsor, and we had the opportunity to look through the eyes of those who struggled. This time was hard for us. Having to witness all the people who needed help. Our group was moved by this and something stirred in us.
Let me take a moment to commend the people I’ve been with this past week. The sheer camaraderie can be seen for miles. From the get-go the chemistry amongst everyone in the group was palpable. All of our varying personalities played well off each other. We had heart, we had infectious laughs, we had ambitions, we had struggles, we had different cultures, we had wit, we had charm, we had pride, we had had love, and most of all we had the will-the will to make a difference.  
As the days quickly flown by, the group dynamic continued deepening to newer levels. We started as friends and we ended as a family.
We’re all humans. We all have hearts. They’re tender, fragile, and easily broken, but luckily for us they can be mended. We have the needle, the thread, and the tools, to seam the wounds that have been inflicted. It’s up to us to spark change, to make a difference, to light a flame.
Another thing I’ve never enjoyed is saying goodbye. Goodbye signals the end, but this isn’t the end. The end of an ongoing struggling, the end of the impenetrable bond we all fostered.
This is hello. Hello to new beginnings-the struggles we witnessed has incited us to create change. Hello change. Hello to a revolution that is greatly needed. Hello to new friendships. Hello to an evolving world. All it takes is one greeting, one simple smile and one simple welcome.
Time is a funny aspect to grasp. I truly believe that one week can change you. That the minutes, hours, days that you spend with people with different views, values, and morals can affect you. They stoke a small ember that has been generating heat for so long, turning it into a raging flame of passion.
As the laughter of my family members harmonize in the background over a rousing card game, I can’t help but remember every single amazing aspect about them. All of the inside jokes we made, the nicknames we gave each other, the pure love of volunteerism we shared, and the emotional rollercoaster of helping a food pantry we rode on. A week can change you. It can turn strangers into family members. It can turn thoughts about issues we had into movements we want to initiate to inspire change.

One of my favorite quotes is from Helen Keller, “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” This week has proven that statement.
Change is imminent-watch for it.
Thank you for your time and patience reading this post. Dylan Becker

Danger of a Single Story... Or any stories.

For the past few nights in reflection we have been discussing "why is Sam poor?" and really diving into the complexities of our assumptions to why individuals experience hunger or homelessness. Topics have been discussed about getting to know individual stories, understanding the danger of having a single story, and removing judgments.

Tonight McKayla brought up a good point about how we remove the stigma around asking for assistance or help. It suddenly angered me. Why do we place any blame on individuals who are caught in a system of poverty. When we discussed the first night "why is Sam poor?" we provided HIS or HER reasons. HIS lack of education or HER undiagnosed learning disability. It's really the system that has failed to provide support for Sam.

How do we change the paradigm from a single story to not about the stories and instead about the system that produces these stories?

-Patrick, co-advisor

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

New Perspectives

Take a moment to think about your day. What struggles did you face? Did you have a bunch of homework you needed to get caught up on? Were you late to work? Did you have an argument with a friend? 

I'm sure at some point today you thought about what you were going to eat for lunch or dinner. Dine in or go out? Italian or Mexican? But did you have to wonder where your next meal would come from? Did the weight of not knowing when or where the next time you would eat weigh upon your shoulders?

For many of us, the answer to those questions would be of course not. We can go home and open our fridge. We can go out to a restaurant with a friend or run over to the dining hall to grab a quick bite. Not being able to acquire food is not a thought that runs through most of our minds, but for millions of Americans, that thought is racing through their heads constantly. 

Millions of Americans cannot tell you what the next meal they are going to eat will be. Millions of Americans cannot tell you when their next meal will be. Millions of Americans are hungry.  

I was able to witness this first hand at the St. James Food Pantry the last couple of days. St. James provides foods and services to the homeless. Every Monday through Thursday the staff and volunteers hand out a nutritious meal to anyone who needs it. This meal includes a sandwich, a drink like water or chocolate milk, a fruit and vegetable, and some sort of snack like a pudding cup or doughnut. Anyone who comes in between the open hours are able to receive this meal. Every Tuesday through Thursday, the pantry offers a service where people can pick up produce and bags of food based on their family size. They are able to pick the produce they want and then are given prepackaged bags. These bags include various goods like bread, canned fruits and vegetables, rice, pasta, crackers, etc. The staff even give the option of a sharing table where clients can leave cans they don't want and take cans they do want.

I was not able to work with clients directly like some of the members on the trip did but I was able to see them as they received their food. I was in the back prepackaging bags of food. This was a pretty stressful and face paced job. At first it was a difficult task because I kept having to look at the list to know what exactly should be put in the bag but after a couple times I had the system down: corn, greens, pasta sauce, pinto beans, black eye peas, applesauce, Mac and cheese, pasta, rice.  Over and over again I put bags together and filled in the empty table as they were given to clients. Over and over again I saw the thankfulness in clients' eyes as they were handed bags of food. Over and over again I saw the sadness and anger in clients' eyes when we told them we could not give them any extra.

As much as St. James does, they cannot do everything. There will still be people wondering when the next time they will eat will be. There are still people wondering how they are going to feed their children at the end of the month. 

"Look at us with an angry heart, anger that will help you help me," -Jo Goodwin Parker.

Shouldn't this anger us? Shouldn't the fact that our fellow Americans are suffering spark some kind of fuse inside all of us? Shouldn't we feel something for these Americans who just can't catch a break? 

When you see that homeless man standing on the corner asking for change, what do you think? What do you see? Do you see a man who just hasn't tried and is expecting others to take care of him? Or do you see a man who is down on his luck? A man who one bad thing happened to and it spiraled into him living on the streets? Do you see a man addicted to drugs or alcohol? Or do you see a man who had to drop out of high school to take care of his little sister sacrificing his dream of going to college? You do not know someone's story just from looking at them. You do not know how someone came to be in the position they are. 

You do know that your fellow Americans are suffering. Your friend, your neighbor, your classmate. 

St. James does their best to give their clients second chances. They give their clients the means to feed themselves for the end of the month. They offer nutrition classes and services to find jobs with no judgements. But they cannot do it on their own. 

If anything, I hope this has changed your perspective of the way you think of the homeless. Do not be quick to judge because you do not know their story. But I do hope this has opened your eyes. I hope you feel something within your heart; anger, compassion, discouragement, anguish and I hope it drives you to make a difference. 

"Change your thoughts and you'll change your world."

McKayla Baker

Third day to Community Thread

Today we drive one hour to the destination—Community Thread. Terry, the manager there welcomes us very warmly. We are divided into several groups. What I do is to tag clothes and then sort them according to size and finally hang them out on the rack. All the clothes are donated by others and most of them are as clean as brand new. I am surprised by the attitude people have towards other people. After hours of mechanical work, I get tired and feel little bit bored. Then I realize those long-term volunteers there, who do the same work every time like what I do today. They have already persisted for two years being volunteers there without paying and complaining, still doing excellent job. Suddenly I realize that is the real spirit of volunteer. In fact, lots of volunteer work is basic one that is not challenging and everybody is able to participate if he/she really wants to do. So one of the most important things I learn from this trip is that we should not only care others by taking active part in one-time activity of volunteer team, but love others in our daily activities. The volunteer team is to lead one to something really awesome and meaningful and help one develop its attitude towards caring and helping others.

Another vital thing that I get from this team is teamwork. At beginning of this trip, I was afraid I was not able to get involved into this team because I didn’t know any one of them well. But now I want to say that I enjoy this trip very much and we are a great team together. It is the first time that I have done meaningful things with people from different background. When I have the feeling that we are connected so closely, I just want to smile and my tears roll in the eyes.

I have got lots of foreign friends who care and help me during this trip. I love them very much. And I’d like to thank our leaders Alex and Ruiling, and Peng, Kat and Yi, who back me up all the time. Thank all of them. Thank God. Good night Chicago.

--Zimeng He