Saturday, December 27, 2008

It is what it is

I am in the airport. My flight is delayed. It’s going on six hours now. People are angry, people are frustrated. But I can't recall when I've felt more at peace. With no where to go, nothing to do, all I can manage is to sit here and reflect about the whirlwind that has been life since returning to the United States in July. These are my initial thoughts.

A few months ago, Michael Phelps went for an amazing eight gold medals. History was being made and me, being the good American I am, all I wanted was to share in it with someone, anyone! To feel connected to something big in my country in ways I had not been able to these past two years- what a thrill! And yet, I couldn’t. For reasons I can’t understand, partly my fault and partly the result of a lifestyle stateside I am yet to master- the friendships and love I specifically sought to return to LA for have been mostly MIA in my life. People changed, I changed, and now I don’t really know where I fit into a world that I was MIA from for two years. And so calls went unreturned, friends contemplated getting a beer to watch it versus missing a rerun of the Hills and medal after medal was won, with me sitting on my couch watching- alone. And so Michael Phelps, American hero, is forever emblazoned in my mind as a symbol of my loneliness and my struggle to find kinship in a city that once provided so much for me. It is what it is.

I have these dreams where I am back in Ecuador, peaceful and in tune with my kids and then wake up, alone in a dark and empty room far away from those that I love the most. I miss them. I want to go back to them. And I can't. It is what it is.

My adventure into the dating world, has been, at best, horrific, a far cry from my days at the suave gringo who could chat up any girl in South America with confidence and ease. And I just kinda have to laugh after each date here, each stupid mistake and just smile and think how funny it really is. It is what it is.

Stuck in this airport and hearing people grumble provokes contrasting emotions. A part of me wants to shout to gain some perspective. I want to spew out stories about kids sleeping six to a bed and shinning shoes for a quarter. And yet, another side of me yearns to respond with care and compassion to their exasperated frustration. To simply say I hear ya, this sucks and then let them continue to complain, but at least feel as though at last someone is listening.

If I have learned anything from my service and from my five months feeling like a stranger in the midst of familiarity- it’s that people want to be validated. We want to be heard, we want to know that others recognize our inherit dignity- be it in our right to have food on our table and a stable job or simply in our petty moments of frustration, to voice exasperation and simply feel someone cares enough to acknowledge that what we are saying, what we are feeling, means something.

I have been back in my country for five months. And you know, I’m still searching for my voice in my experience, my story in my current setting.

I watch people hustle to and fro really going nowhere. I smile at a little kid in the airport who smiles back at me, oblivious for now to the argument his parents have above him. I watch a couple romantically whisper to one another and find myself rooting for their love to conquer all obstacles.

In a city where I have few friends left, I feel connected to the human story in an intense way I never before felt. I yearn for connectivity in ways I never before my volunteer time did. I feel at once genuine and alive! And though I have not found as many connections as I would like to call my own back home, and though I frequently question how and where do I fit into this world- I can’t help but wonder how blessed am I? In volunteering I found a story not my own that moved me to make my own life one more intentionally lived. I am alive and in good health, happy and confident that the best is yet to come. How truly blessed am I? It is what it is.

If this photo doesn't scream my mantra "it is what it is" then what does?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Time to Say Goodbye: The Last Post

For a few weeks now, I have been waiting for it to hit. “It” being reality: I am leaving. It mystified me to say I have lived in South America for 700 some days, and in my final days, I had yet to really feel like I had internalized it was drawing to a close.

Saturday my moment of realization came. The center hosted a despedida, a going away party for us. From a soccer game of Gringos vs. Ecuadorian dads to fun and games with the kids to most moving of all, a program full of dancing and singing, poems and meaningful words of praise and love from the people we have worked with all year long. “We have no money to give you proper gifts for all you have done,” explained one individual, “and so we give you all that is us through our song, dance, and word.”

At the end, we were surrounded by laughter and tears. Kids came and wrapped their little arms around our necks and legs, some cried, others said thank you. Many did their best to put into words how much they loved us and would miss us and in their innocent child like way, pleaded with us not to leave or at the very least, “nunca me olvidas.”

And it was all very moving, all very real, all very final. I’m coming home and instantly fear set in. I don’t know what home is anymore, because home in my heart is my life in Ecuador. I’m hugging people and talking to them and now wondering if this will be the last time I get to do that. What’s next for these children I have grown to love? I many never know. That’s hard. People ask when I am coming back here, and I don’t know what to tell them. Invitations are being passed out left and right to visit this family and that family one last time in their homes, and there aren’t enough days to meet all the requests.

A lot of things finally clicked Saturday afternoon. The most pressing was that I am leaving and my time is limited. Now what do I do with it? The next thing was that this transition back home will not be as easy as I had silently hoped it would be. Living in a foreign land has made me foreign and perhaps even a bit odd. A friend doing JVC explained her thoughts on her experience to me saying: I will have to reintroduce myself to everyone I once knew because they won’t know me anymore. I don’t know what awaits me when I get back, I don’t know if who I have become can sustain who society will call me to be. I’ve already faltered on this, and I haven’t yet returned home.

This much I can say: I made a decision a little over a year ago to leave a program in Chile that was not working out for me and come to Quito for a year. In the two years I have been gone, I have experienced the single handed worst year of my life and simply the most incredible year of my life. What they hold in common is the love both given and received that allow me to say I have had two life giving years of growth.

As I say my goodbyes, I reflect on that frightening decision to come here, and with much uncertainty surrounding my current status, I say without doubt or trepidation, it was the single best choice I have made since graduating college. And so, thank you Working Boys Center, thank you to the wonderful people of Ecuador, thank you to my friends and family back home, and thank you to the members of the center who, with nothing to offer but song, dance, and word that have filled my heart with a soundtrack, movie, and moving poem by which to remember this inconceivable experience where I lived amongst an incredible people. No te olivdare.

Seeing as how I leave Ecuador July 18th, this is most likely my last post. I will do a few travel specials after this, but nothing service related. I can´t guarantee I won´t pull a Brett Farve, but I´m pretty sure this is it. Thanks for taking the time to read it and God Bless!

Getting mugged at our goodbye party by some of my favorite students.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Living in the Moment

Living in the moment. I’m almost two years into this moment, and as I think of one of the things I am most ashamed of, it’s this: I’ve yet to master just living in the moment. It feels like for months now, I have been living in Ecuador with my eyes set on my future.

I heard a saying: if you wait for the future, it comes. If you don’t wait, it comes just the same. And so what is this obsession with my future that I can’t put on hold? I’m in one of those moments I truly should be alive and present to, and I can’t will myself to do it. When I’m not at school, not around the kids, my thoughts drift to the future, my legs wander to an internet café. First it was for job searches. Now with that out of the way, apartment searches and whatever else can shamelessly occupy my mind.

And the only thing that somewhat comforts and consoles is knowing I am not alone. Tension has risen amongst the house as uncertainty looms over us all. Exasperated stories that begin along the lines of “when this ends, I don’t know what happens next” are the norm. Some have jobs or school to return to, some know what city they will call home, and yet, all of us realize at some inherent level- we can only prepare so much for life post-Ecuador.

My obsession with the future persists as a means of external validation. On one hand, an obsession with the future allows us the security of knowing that we are always upward bound. Who wants to believe they have reached the peak and have nothing further to look forward to? Focusing on the future is a way of reassuring ourselves, comforting ourselves, that the best is always yet to come. But how much do we void ourselves of the pure joy the current moment is ready to offer by doing that?

Dare I say that after two years of this game, I have yet to master what I have always known it to be about? Just be, the rock on my desk says, and at times, I have done anything but that.

People back home will invariably ask the question that frustrates me most: “how was it?” They ask about your life experience, your year, as though it is nothing more than a meal or movie. The answer is so much more complicated and long winded then what the seeker truly wants to hear. But maybe despite it all, I will have an answer to give them, one that satisfies me with its depth and satisfies them with its brevity. How was it? Love and failure, that’s how it was.

It was two years: it was the best year of my life and the worst year of my life and it spanned across three countries. It was learning how to love and be loved, and it was the constant failure to do that and so much more as much as I would have liked. It was watching the poor stumble and seeing my own stumbles in theirs.

What did I learn? To see the humanity in every statistic, to see my own reflection, the best and the worst that is within me, in those who remain unseen. The struggling single mother, the ten year old shoeshine boy, the alcoholic father, the fifteen year old aspiring female doctor: all my students, and all my teachers. It was here a people with nothing more than their love and their failures taught me about how to rebound from my own failures, and how to truly utilize my love. And while I couldn’t always live in this moment, it is my hope that for the many moments ahead in my life, it is these moments that will shape me and ground me in that which I have always known it to be about: failure, and love in spite of it all.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Some Fears About Transition Back to the United States

Transitioning from South America to the USA these are some pressing concerns I have:

1. Costs. A liter of beer costs $0.80 here. I don’t want to think how much a 20 oz. bottle of beer costs back home. A gallon of gas in Ecuador- $1.50. No, I don’t have a car so this means nothing to me, but it will at least supply me righteous indignation when I do have a car and pay $4.00.

2. Food. Here, fruits and veggies that are cheap and junk food like KFC and McDonald's that’s expensive. The last time I bought a bushel of bananas in the United States- it didn’t cost $0.20. Prices are going to kill me!

3. English. The other day a crazed dog attempted to attack me. This is the second time in Latin America I have had to get physical when a dog attacks I might add. I was proud of myself when I began shouting Spanish obscenities at the pinche perro! It will be weird to speak English all the time and not have to worry if I am using the right “for”- an incredibly pressing concern in my day to day life here in Ecuador. Or, what happens that first time someone upsets me and I mumble something to the effect of “you’re such an idiot and I hope your store closes down” forgetting that everyone around me speaks English now too. Ooops.

4. Busses. Call me crazy, but I’ve taken rather fondly to the challenge of boarding and getting off busses. It slows down to about 5 MPH and you grab the sidebar, hop and pray for a successful landing INSIDE the bus. Getting off, it’s much the same. The bus slows down, you survey the ground to make sure there are no obstacles such as potholes, and you jump/run cartoon style off the bus. Also, bus fare is $0.25 and they will even give you change for a $20 should you need it. I realize about 99% of my readership has never taken public transpo in LA so they have no idea just how incredibly cool it is to get change on a bus fare, nor do you realize how affordable $0.25 is!

5. Celebrity status. If I return to LA, I’ll simply just be another one in twelve million. My life here is the closest I will get to being a celebrity. Everywhere I go on the C.M.T. campus, children shout my name, wave excitedly, and sprint from all directions to jump in my arms and hug me and ask me to throw them playfully in the air. I’ve even perfected a wave any red carpet walker would be envious of. All that ends, and I am back to average Joe status. Plus, let's face it. Here, I hug any kid I want. If I try and do that in the United States, I'll be that weird guy.

6. Pay. The other day I jokingly told Madre Miguel I felt underpaid. She responded that if I felt that way, she’d double my salary. Before you get too excited, remember I make $0. You do the math of what that is doubled. 0X2= I hope you can do this better than two of my students who tried the other day. Alex Rodriguez, star of the New York Yankees, made more money than the 33 man roster of the Florida Marlins- at least before the H. Ramirez deal. There is really no relevance between my pay and that of A-Rod other than it is a cool stat to spout out to whoever will listen and it does make me sick.

7. Speaking of Nicknames, A-Rod is cool but I think I’ve managed to one up even that. Everywhere I have been in South America, my name, Patrick is most commonly translated not to Patricio but to Pato, coincidentally the Spanish word for duck. As much as I hated it at first, I have grown rather fond of Pato and will have an incredibly difficult time not necessarily returning to Patrick, but returning to the most commonly used name, that which I loathe the most: Pat. Why do I hate Pat? Three words: Saturday Night Live. So cut a man a break: Patrick, Furlong, Pato, Patricio, even duck if you must, just no more Pat!

Who would have ever thought going back home after two years who be more difficult than leaving home in the first place? And yet, so as to not be totally depressing, I am excited about some really good things. I am really fired up about my new job with an organization called City Year, a job which I start immediately upon return. I am excited to have baseball replace soccer, a micro-brew replace a Pilsener. I’m excited to watch Scrubs season eight, sit on the beach, and run 10k’s at something less than 9,000 feet above sea level. And of course to see friends and family! So in a round about way, I’m so nervous, and so excited, and so confused as to why A Rod makes more than all the Marlins combined and doubling my salary still leaves me with a net income of zero.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Airplane Lavatory: More Complicated Than It May Seem

On a flight from Miami to Quito, I discovered a few things about the airline industry that I found, well, newsworthy.

First things first- lightening. Miami International Airport (MIA) along with its compatriots LAX, JFK, DFW, etc… have managed to deliver wireless internet to all of its terminals. It appears they have the capabilities to land about one airplane every 1-2 minutes. And they’ve also managed to manipulate customers into thinking that $9 for a personal pizza from Pizza Hut really isn’t a bad deal. Throw in a $3 bottle of soda and you really got yourself a deal! And yet, when lightening strikes, they are helpless in the face of it. How do I know? Because I sat on an airplane for a little over three hours, parked a mere 100 feet from the gate that was empty and awaiting my plane. Lightening was in the area and apparently the entire airport, I swear to you, just shuts down. It seems to happen quick and without warning. And as I sat there, watching the rain helplessly fall, I was able to infiltrate this mysterious price raising industry known as aviation and learn a thing or two.

Flight Attendants. It’s a job that’s got its challenges so my intent isn’t to take anything away from these wonderful men and women who have, as far as I am concerned, been offering the entire can of soda instead of just the plastic cup a lot more as of late. But did you know it takes OVER 5 WEEKS of in class training to be a flight attendant. They cover the gambit, everything from how to properly wake a passenger up for his or her meal to simulated water landings that are practiced in, from what my inside sources tell me, a swimming pool. But over 5 weeks- really?

Third and most startling- the on board bathroom. Do you have any idea just how many American adults are helpless in operating the on board lavatory of your typical airplane? And no, I’m not talking etiquette rules like no peeing on the seat or no leaving paper towels all over the floor so I don’t walk out with something stuck to my shoe. I am talking the basics here people.

I had a seat near the lavatory and noticed the frequent and disturbing number of passengers who entered the bathroom after dinner was served who would enter, look around lost, and then press the help button to ask the flight attendant how to turn the light on. I once thought the bathroom was as standard an operation as the seat belt. For anyone who hasn’t been in a plane since 1963, you enter, you close the door. You lock the door, and just like that, a light is triggered to automatically switch on.

As I sat observing, I decided in honor of my Political Science degree to do a little statistical research. This may have been because due to the delay on the tarmac my IPOD was out of juice and sadly, the in air entertainment console in my seat was broken meaning I could only watch 27 Dresses with no sound. I did for a little bit, and I do believe I got as much out of it as the woman who watched it with sound next to me. It didn’t strike me as a complicated plot. As I grew tired of the muted movie, I did the only thing that seemed natural: I could count the number of people that went to the bathroom and the people who were able to successfully operate the bathroom light challenge in under one minute. Why one minute? Don’t ask too many questions.

The results: 17 out of 20 were unable to do so. I wish I was lying; it shames me to say this is true. And in case you are wondering about the three that succeeded: all three were, in my modest estimate, under the age of 15.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

To Feel Like an NBA Rookie

I’ve heard it said that rookies in the NBA always hit a slump near the end of the season. In college, the season has something like 35 games. The NBA on the other hand, has an 82 game season.

I feel like an NBA rookie, minus the lucrative contract and groupies and mean pranks by veterans. It’s June. For my entire life, school has started in late August and ended in May. My body aches. My brain is shutting down. Every part of me is confused as to why we are still going through this process of homework and tests and all that assortment of things that just need to come to an end.

Furthermore, the kids are going crazy. I think this might prove a theory that the September to May calendar is just intrinsic in the minds of children worldwide because the kids are acting like children ready to slam notebooks down and go screaming out the doors not to be seen with anything academic for 2 months.

This year, I will have to go to school on my birthday- July 16th. Now mind you, it’s my last day of school, but it’s still school. I’ve never once been in school for my birthday, and I tell you, it’s going to be weird…

And so I take consolation in the fact that NBA rookies undergo the same stress on their minds and bodies. Of course, they are paid anywhere from the league minimum $427,163 to millions of dollars to do it, whereas I, well, yeah… I have lost money directly out of my savings account over the past year. Damn NBA Rookies, and damn the aches and pains of the homestretch of being a teacher! How badly I want to walk back to my room singing “School’s Out For Summer” and then blast Lynard Skynard’s 9 minute version of “Free Bird” and truly feel free… free from grading, free from lesson planning, free from the overwhelming realization that while I love these kids, I NEVER EVER want to be a teacher again!

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

A Lesson In Sharing

It confused me. After all, these are poverty stricken kids. I watch everyday as they dramatically duel over whether a goal was a goal and fight over who deserves to be first in line. And here they are with pizza, a rare treat. And they take a bite of it, make a comment about how good it is, and then wrap it up in napkins and put it in their backpacks.

Confused, I asked one kid why. With sincerity that only a child has, he told me his mom has never tasted pizza before. He was saving the slice so they might enjoy it together later. As the kids left I asked why they didn’t eat their pizza then and there. All told the same story but through different words: “I want my sister to try it” said one. “My brother and me will eat it when he gets out of class tonight,” said another. “My dad will miss dinner tonight and I want him to have food when he comes home,” said the last one as he smiled and left.

Just when you think you know it all, these kids do that to you. In one fleeting moment as my time here draws to an end, I saw what I guess I had always hoped I would always see working with people in poverty:

“When it was evening, the disciples approached Jesus and said, “This is a deserted place and it is already late; dismiss the crowds so that they can go to the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “There is no need for them to go away: give them some food yourselves.” But they said to him, “Five loaves and two fish are all we have here.” Then he said, bring them here to me, and he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples, who in turn gave them to the crowds. They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over- twelve wicker baskets full.” Matthew 14: 15-20

Perhaps the modern day parable would go something like this. As another dark night fell upon the world’s poor, the naysayer’s cried out “you see, we give them this and that and still those Haitians (or Bolivians or Ecuadorians or Sudanese) have nothing to show for it. This land is barren, these people prone to poverty. Let’s stop the aid and have them buy their own food. They don’t need us, so send them on their way. Only then will they eat and be plentiful.

But Jesus saw the falsehood in this and ordered the people to sit before him. As the crowds swarmed around him, he took what food he had, and shared it. “Take what you have and share with others” he pleaded. 15 cents of every $100 isn’t enough for international aid, Mr. US of A. Meanwhile some poor street kids no more than nine years old, took what little they had of their rice and beans or empanadas and paticones, and shared them. And in this utopia, the rich watched with amazement, and instead of making excuses to account for the miraculous generosity they witnessed, they created their own miracle, and slowly began to share as well. Food was not used for E-85, and so corn prices went down. “How great it is this little child no longer has to die for the luxury of my Ford Expedition” cried with joy one soccer mom.

Food prices weren’t marked up for higher profits, and the fuel companies let go of their record breaking 2007 profits to see to it that people could come from all around to share what little they had. And they discovered this: there was enough food to feed everyone. There was no reason to hoard it.

Little poor kids with hungry stomachs took what little they had and saved it to share with precious loved ones. What a world this could be if we’d all follow their example. We can do better, we must do better. There’s some second graders in Ecuador sharing what might be their one slice of pizza all year long that are counting on us matching their generosity and love. Do we hear that story, imagine that moment, and still have the audacity to ignore a world in need? From underneath the 12th street bridge to the ravaged fields of Haiti, the people are crying out. What are we to do? Matthew 14: 15-20

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Dropping the S Word on You Today

The other day I was sick. Whether it is a bacterium from food or just another head cold passed through the millions of germs we come in contact with, we always seem to be ill down here. And so, I have become pretty chummy with the medical staff at the Center.

Visiting the doctor here is a pretty straight forward process: checking the charts, taking blood pressure, temp, weight, height (still about a quarter inch under six feet) and explaining the reason for the visit.

The major difference is the financial aspect. Never have I been asked to wait while they call my insurance provider. I’ve never been denied treatment or told to go to another hospital because my insurance doesn’t stack up. I have never had a letter delivered to my mail box that surprises me by saying I owe $500 for whatever lousy treatment they gave me (thanks Mr. Knee Doctor). And never once have I been outrageously overcharged for a simple procedure. In fact, several visits and counting, I’ve yet to pay a single penny to receive care or treatment. Brace yourself for the bad words about to come out my mouth: here at the center I work at, we have socialized medicine.

And today was no different. The doctor spoke with me, did the usual steps of checking my lungs, looking in my throat and ears and nose, and then diagnosed me. We sat at her desk as she wrote out my prescriptions and gave me the typical spiel about do’s and don’ts with the meds I’d receive. As we finished, she transferred me to the nurse who asked me to sign an acknowledgement I was being given the prescriptions and then she handed them to me on the spot.

In the United States I avoid the doctor’s office at all costs; knowing damn well that to enter one might redefine the expression “at all costs.” When it becomes time to return to the United States, the richest nation in the world, I know I will be overwhelmed by the penny pinching application form full of “pre-existing conditions” that insurance refuses to help out with followed by the list of when I will and will not be covered. A wonderful attempt to help make already rich men and women in the health industry that much more wealthy. Hell, even a $10 co-pay will feel like a rip off. And it feels that way, because, maybe in our heart of hearts, we know it is. What portion of my pay check each month will go towards assuring me that co-pay?

Paul Farmer says that “Clean water and health care and school and food and tin roofs and cement floors, all of these things should constitute a set of basics that people should have as birthrights.” From all the personal experiences I’ve compiled in South America, I’d have to agree. And call me a socialist or a communist or whatever else you can spit at me, but I’d venture to say that it’s about damn time every citizen in the United States can receive the type of treatment every one of my impoverished students and their family members receive at the Working Boys Center.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Watching a Bright Star Slowly Fade

Ruined for life. Solidarity with the poor. It’s phrases like these that become so common place in your vernacular at a Jesuit university. Hearing “ruined for life” is almost as frequent as “hey how ya doin?” “Solidarity with the poor” becomes as frequent place as “it sure is beautiful today” and like I say, before you know it, you cease to grasp the power of those phrases. Until something takes it out of the ivory halls and into your own little reality.

You aren’t supposed to have favorites as a teacher, but I’ve been pretty bad at that. Many of you saw the articles in America Magazine or on the Catholic News Service that featured my blog. The authors used a photo of me conversing with my favorite student- 11 year old Evelyn.

One week in October, Evelyn stopped coming to the center. For the weeks that followed, I hoped to run into her on the streets, to better understand what it was that made her family drop out of the center. And it wasn’t until February, I at last saw my favorite student. She was walking the streets, with a bag of candy in her hand. What you fear most usually happens: the candy wasn’t for her or her family. No, instead the ultimate symbol of childhood innocence came to symbolize another childhood destroyed by the cruelty of poverty. Eleven years old, an elementary school drop out whose life had brought her back to the streets, selling nickel candies to help the family get by. Suddenly ruined for life was neither cute nor cliché.

Not long after that day, another volunteer and I went and hung out with Evelyn, her seven brothers and sisters, and their mother. The entire family shares a one bedroom dwelling in a seedy part of Ecuador, so the family asked if we’d be able to meet at a park instead. We insisted it made no difference to us, but pride is a strong thing, and the family insisted we not see their living conditions. The day at the park was perfect. A rare sunny Day in Quito, shared with my favorite student and her trademark smile. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what the future held for her.

As my time slowly but surely draws to an end in South America poverty is no longer just a cause: it’s deeply personal. It’s plaguing people I love. It forced me to look into the eyes of an 11 year old child that was once my brightest student and not know if the future holds hope for her. Wrap your head around that for a moment. We come from a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” society. Everyone can make something of themselves if they just try hard enough, or so goes the American fairy tale. What happens when you look into the eyes of someone who is poor, and you can’t paint that rosy possibility on their future? You become ruined for life, and again, it’s neither as cute or cliché as you once naively envisioned it to be.

I ask God why a child must be born into a sufferable living situation not at all their own making? What’s a child do to deserve that I asked myself? What did I do to deserve my lifestyle other than be born on the right longitude and latitude? What makes her mom different from my own? The answer to all those questions is simple enough: nothing. And yet that neither comforts nor pacifies the emotions I am feeling right now. I asked God, with a tinge of anger in my voice. And now I ask you, pleading that you understand what this journey is all about. What’s it means to get ruined for life? It’s to ask life’s hardest questions and fail to find an answer that satisfies or comforts. 11 years old, once my brightest student and now relegated to hustling candy on the streets of Quito. Why?

Evelyn, center.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

I Retract a Previous Blog Statement

I always thought (and have said) Spanish was harder than English. I even vented about it in an earlier post. You have 30,000 plus verb forms compared to our 3,000 some. There are two ways to say the word “for” and nouns and adjectives are assigned to be masculine or feminine and the way you say the word “the” corresponds according to the gender assignment. Clearly then, my line of thought went, Spanish was the harder language.

I have since seen the light. Allow me to explain.

First, pronunciation. In Spanish, pronunciation never changes, what you see is what you get. English, we have words spelled nothing like they look. Letters in English change sounds frequently… soft a, hard a, somewhere in between a. Consider the name Abraham. Three different sounding a’s. In Spanish, Abraham has the same “a” sound across the board.

And while I could go on with many more examples (window v. widow) or the different (there, their or two, too, to, or bear, bare, OK ENOUGH!) I will close my argument with the true deal sealer: the verb get.

Consider this. In English, the verb get can be used as follows:

  1. To obtain (Can I get the list?)
  2. To contact (I got in touch with my friend.)
  3. To leave something like a vehicle (I just got off the train.)
  4. To reach (When you get to the street, turn left.)
  5. To buy (Can I get a cup of coffee?)
  6. To recover (I hope you get better soon!)
  7. To Return (He can’t wait to get back to Albuquerque).
  8. To Receive (I got the fax this morning.)
  9. To Prepare (I need to get ready before I leave.)
  10. To Begin (Let’s get started at seven).
  11. To board (Get on the first bus that passes).

I tried showing it’s complication to a friend here by writing this paragraph…

I need to get in contact with a travel agent so I can get a plane ticket and get back to Ecuador. When I get off the plane, I walk until I get to Customs. I don’t get why it takes so long. But I wait, get my documents ready, and think about the newspaper I will get at the store outside When I read the paper, I always hope the world is getting better. It’s not. I get a taxi, and get ready for my meeting. I get out and see my boss who doesn’t say hello, just asks “Shall we get started?” As soon as I get onto my office floor, I already wish I was somewhere else!

English is hard. You get what I am saying?

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Call Then Losers If You Want: What It Means To Be a Volunteer By Patrick Furlong

So this concludes my series on volunteer life. After reading all the guest authors entries, I just had to write one myself!

I always wanted to fight poverty. Sounds both weird and cheesy, I know. But while friends had weekend soccer matches, I was with my mom, walking around Central Ave. in Albuquerque passing out Egg McMuffins to the homeless. I don’t know if I ever knew how it was forming me, but slowly but surely, it was.

At LMU it felt like one ideal and cause after another, I was on the front lines. Poverty didn’t just move me, it angered me. Looking back, I suppose there were issues behind the surface motivating me as well. Poverty was something to be angry at for sure, but I think my unusually strong anger spoke to a personal spiritual poverty I had no idea how to tackle.

As graduation neared, loved ones dropped buzz words like law school, career and 401K, but all I could think about were the buzz words that had defined my college experience: poverty, Latin America, social justice. I’d browse the Peace Corps website and leaf through application packets from several domestic and international volunteer organizations. Networking, law school, and my 401K would have to wait.

I once read textbooks on poverty. I memorized facts and figures, using them in exams and conversations with like-minded “idealists” and skeptical “realists.” Today, in place of those stats are the names and stories of people I’ve come to know and love. And that makes reality all the more painful.

Those skeptical realists I battled with in college were right: I can’t save the world from poverty and injustice. When I leave South America, poverty and suffering will linger around, maybe even increase. Children I know and love deeply will still go to bed hungry and wake up forgotten. Poverty, in the lives of my Chilean neighbors, my Ecuadorian students, and my South American friends, and yes, even myself- will persist. It begs a rationale question I had long struggled to answer: why?

Until a little girl named Tamara broke her ankle the other day. A fellow volunteer and I tried to comfort her and calm her as we transported her from the park to the center, and then to the most depressing hospital I can imagine. But what most heartbreaking is what followed…

Tamara’s mom arrives. She has been crying for hours now, she's in intense pain. And her mom gets there and the first thing she asks is not "are you ok?" Instead, a curt "What the hell did you do?" is her first question to her daughter. I try and imagine being eight years old and knowing that the person that should be there to support you is instead ready to yell at you and possibly hit you when you return home.

This is what we are up against: a system that is depressing, and parents who know nothing about child care- despite our best efforts. The realists shake their heads and mumble: I told you so. In July, I return to their world, and I return with nothing to show for my time here except a depleted bank account, feelings about love that don’t mix with the societal race for success, and memories of kids that were poor when I arrived and poor when I left.

And yet, in being with Tamara, I realized why we still do this kind of work, even when the results remain elusive: I'm working with precious children who deserve better. We have no right to quit on them, in spite all that's stacked against them. Maybe someday when Tamara’s daughter gets injured and sent to a hospital, Tamara will run in and instead of being angry, be concerned. “Are you ok?” will be her first words. And maybe she will treat her own daughter better because when presented between options for how to care for children, she chose the route we teach in the center instead of the poverty stricken method her mother was raised with and raised her with.

Change is slow. Maybe we won't change these kids lives today, but maybe someday, some change somewhere can be credited to a couple gringos who cared more than most others thought was wise. This much I know, we have no right not to try. Paul Farmer, in Mountains Beyond Mountains speaks of fighting poverty as giving up our status of being on the winning team and instead uniting with the poor in fighting a long defeat. I think of his words, and I think of my life these past two years. To do service is to use every fiber of your being to tell the rest of the world, Call them losers if you want, but that makes me one too.'

In my classroom at our downtown center, La Marin.

While this concludes my series of guest entries on what volunteerism has meant to people, I would encourage you to submit a piece should you have the desire and it will be included. Thanks to all my guests writers and to all of you who have read the series. For any of you thinking of service work, I hope it helped!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

"It’s Not in the Decision; It’s in the Trust" By Mike Santa Maria

If memory serves me right this is an exciting time in the service world at universities. Decision, decisions and more decisions… It is a time where seniors begin to savor their last moments. The count down begins and you start to count meaningless benchmarks that don’t matter, your last midterm, your last convo, and your last cram jam. All to hide the heart numbing benchmark, graduating college and facing the infamous question, what are you doing after graduation? For many of you Patrick Furlong blog fans the answer is, “I am doing service!” An easy answer which get the heat off you for a second until you really think it out and realize that there is so much struggle in the world, there is so much to do, so many ways to help and so many things that you want from the experience that you don’t know where to start. You start pondering the tough question, what do I want out of my year of service? Some hunger for community, others adventure, some look for an experience of simple solidarity while others reach for an opportunity to affect radical change. After just 15 minutes of thinking you either feel like you are so frustrated your brain is going to explode or you are so overwhelmed you are going to cry. If it provides any solace at all relax! It’s all going to okay.

I know it seems like a big decision, after all it is a whole year or two of your life, but in all honesty it’s okay you will be fine. What makes serving others so beautiful is also what makes it so incredibly hard. Trust. Trust is required because in giving something to someone naturally leads to a response whether it is a thank you, a no thank you or no response at all. Since giving requires a response it requires the giver to trust that giving was the right thing to do. The same goes with service. In making the decision to serve you must learn to trust. Trust that you made the “right” decision. Trust that your community will work out. Trust that you will be accepted in your placement. Trust that you will be effective in the service that you provide. That’s a lot of trust and even in all that trust there is no guarantee. Did you make the right decision? What’s the right decision? Will you be in a good community? Who knows? Will you be effective at your job? Maybe? I hate being the barer of bad news but it is really not bad news. Saying yes to service is a great risk but comes with great reward. But you need to trust. Not to say that in trusting it will be all that you could ever hope for, but rather trust in the process which you are about to embark. Many are called but few are chosen. You were called, you answered, and you are sent to serve others. Many surprises will come along the way if you trust.

I remember making the decision for myself and I chose to serve as a teacher in Los Angeles. Many times these past years I have questioned if I made the right decision. I found myself in the same city I grew up in walking around the same LMU campus while I heard the exciting stories from Micronesia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Omak. I was failing at my job. My community struggled everyday as I searched for the support I so badly desired. I was pushed to hopelessness many times, which drove me to meet with a spiritual director. In a meeting with my spiritual director during one of my hardest moments in serving he asked me three thought provoking questions: When you made the decision to do service do you feel that it was what God wanted you to do? Has God failed you before when you have answered His call? What makes you think He will fail you now?

In praying after that meeting I vividly remembered a retreat I went to my sophomore year. I remember asking God to teach me to love no matter what the cost. Be careful what you ask for. In saying yes to serving others God was saying yes to my prayer. This past year and eight months have been one of the most beautiful experiences I have ever been through. It has answered my prayers and has taught me to love in ways I didn’t know I could. By giving my self to the service of others I was granted the privilege to learn to love. Through all the success and struggles I have experienced I do not regret the decision I made. I can’t say my experience will be your experience because you are you I am me. There is no amount of thinking, praying, discerning or meditating that will ever make you confident enough in your decision because the it is not in the decision but rather in the trust, so relax or you will give yourself a nosebleed.

You will just have to trust. Trust that you will make the right decision. Trust that you will be where you are supposed to be. Trust yourself. Trust God. Trust the experience and be open to the grace that will come your way. Just trust it’s going to be okay.

Mike, and fellow Response-Ability teacher Danielle Tamashiro (who is volunteering in Washington D.C.).

Mike Santa Maria graduated from Loyola Marymount University in 2006. He in currently finishing his second year as a volunteer teacher in Los Angeles with an organization called Response-Ability. Upon completion of the program, Mike plans to continue to work as a teacher in the Los Angeles area...

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"Why Am I Here?" By Marcos Gonzales

Growth comes from being stretched and broken open. The only way for a seed to grow is for it to break through its shell, a flower blossoms through its bud, an insect breaks through its cocoon. There’s a breaking that needs to be done. And that breaking isn’t always painless. Its difficult and challenging and most of the times it sucks. I find myself asking, “What the hell am I doing?” a lot.

A few weeks into being on the island I volunteer on I put up a question on my wall: “Why are you here?” A lot of times, the answer only serves to further my discomfort: I don’t know. I’m broken, and my time in Micronesia has served to prove that in ways I never allowed before. But I realize that all my times of ignoring my brokenness I was only stepping away from possible areas of growth, and in stepping away I have only allowed myself to live on the surface level, avoiding the problems that lie deep within me. To be at peace is to realize that the problem is there and the answer is not and that’s okay. It is through these eyes I am trying to see this world I inhabit.

To get new eyes is a difficult challenge. And more and more I struggle with the nature of why I came out here. I feel that I am taking advantage of my presence here. I struggle trying to answer the question “why am I here?” as I get these new eyes. An exercise of my privilege? To take two years out of my life, to not have to worry about money and paying loans and to go do something for “me” to have “an experience.” Then after I have received “my experience”, I get to go home and leave the challenging unjust situations that these people who have walked with me teaching me cannot. Or is it something else?

It is hard to reconcile the privileges that we have as volunteers while being here. I often think more about the negative effects of our presence here; creating dependency on volunteers, instead of us trying to work ourselves out of a job, charity versus justice type shit. We aren’t here to do charity, but rather to live in justice and to try to find the poverty that exists within all of us and realize that we are just as broken as anyone else around. And only then, with that realization, can we begin to work together to lift ourselves from our poverty. It is at that moment the new eyes work, and it is there that we find justice, and we find it together. It’s painful, and it’s hard to take a look at the ugly parts of myself that I so often try to hide. But I struggle to find some hope and value in our presence here.

The fact is that globalization is shrinking our world more and more. Even on a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that doesn’t even show up on a map unless it’s magnified a million times. Values become so distorted and money becomes the central message or goal that the youth focus all their energy towards consumerism. A term out here they use a lot is “Big Money”. They ask me, “Why would you come out here, where you can only make little money, when you could be back home, making big money?”

A tiny spec on the map, a place where once all that the people needed could be found on their land and in their sea, has changed to a land where people are chasing “big money.” And of course it is important not to write off the fact that some “things” are beneficial to life and that money in itself is not evil. But the idolization is, and I think that line gets crossed far too much. So much so that we can no longer see where the line is drawn.

And I think that if anything, it’s important to serve as very real and present response against all these twisted ideas. I find too often that there is nothing that I can say about the culture that these people live in. It is not my place to say what is right and what is wrong for these people. But I do know my culture, and I do know the evils that I see have broken down and continued to spread poverty where I come from. And if I can help people see that and in someway help prevent that same brokenness to travel to other places… then I can find importance in this experience.

“Why are you here?” That I might learn about a way of living that isn’t centered on money. Ultimately, I am here to learn more than I could ever teach. And everyday I walked into that classroom, little did my students know that I was their pupil just as much as they were mine. And together we grew closer to understanding one another, and in that understanding, kinship was born.

It’s never been easy. Growth comes from being stretched and broken open. The only way for a seed to grow is for it to break through its shell, a flower blossoms through its bud, an insect breaks through its cocoon. There’s a breaking that needs to be done. And, as painful and challenging as it is, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Marcos doing one of the things he loves most, playing the guitar.

Marcos Gonzales graduated from Loyola Marymount in 2006. He has spent the last two years with the Jesuit Volunteers International, living and serving in Chuuk, part of the islands of Micronesia.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

When Things Don't Go According to Our Plan By Genesee McCarthy

Last year at around this time I began the application process for postgrad service. I did extensive searches and found a program that I fell in love with. Their sites, their mission…everything about it seemed perfect. It had a very lengthy application that involved writing pages and pages of personal essays but I knew it would be worth it. In April I got a call from them about setting up an interview. I was so excited! I remember preparing for the interview and feeling like this was so right, this is exactly where God wants me to be, I just knew this was the program for me. And then they called and instead of interviewing me, told me they thought I wasn’t ready for international service.

I was extremely heartbroken. I had to rethink all my plans and motivations. The belief that I could live abroad was shaken to the core.

After that I still wanted to do service, but I concentrated more on school and writing my senior thesis. At graduation I still had no idea what I was going to be doing in the fall. I was lucky enough to stumble across two other programs that also had sites I was interested in and whose applications were not nearly so long. I applied to them both and waited without too much hope.

I went back home for the summer and picked up a babysitting job to fill my time and take my mind off of not knowing what I would be doing. I ended up hearing from both programs within a day.

After phone interviews with the two programs, one really stood out. The interview was great, a nice, honest chat, and at the end the director told me they wanted to send me to
Bolivia. I went to a month long orientation from July to August and I left September 8th.

I had looked over this volunteer group at first because the website seemed a little outdated and there wasn’t too much info online. But I am so glad that I ended up applying because it is the perfect place for me. I am at an orphanage with over 100 girls in a small town in
Western Bolivia that has been receiving volunteers for almost 20 years. The nuns that work here are so much fun. They have incorporated the volunteers into the daily life at the orphanage and really depend on us. It’s great having a set job and knowing what is expected of me. Also, the community is so used to having volunteers that we were incorporated with open arms right from the beginning.

I absolutely love being here and feel so blessed that I didn’t give up and found the perfect program for me.

Gen with some of the older girls she works with in Bolivia.

(The program that I found is the Salesian Lay Missioners. They are sponsored by the Salesians of Don Bosco and the website is:

Sunday, March 30, 2008

What's Next for me?

I am having trouble getting photos for the next few posts in my series about making a decision to do post-graduate service. It should be straightened out by next week. Until then, here is a post about my future.

What’s next? I had been hearing people ask me what’s next since before I even departed for South America. And all along, I answered with ease, without hesitation. Well, I am hoping in August to relocate to Los Angeles, Chicago, or San Francisco. I would like to work for non-profit, preferably one that is working on behalf of immigrants or refugees. I am looking forward to a cold glass of Dr. Pepper, a colder glass of Sam Adam’s Summer Brew, and a dish of Italian Sausage Pizza, a Cubs game on TV, all in the company of people I love and miss so damn much!

In two to three sentences, what’s next? The reporters question brings me back from my day dream. I want to tell him how I once knew. How I have been dreaming of what’s next for 18 months, almost skipping over what’s here and now. I want to tell him how March 7th a child got sick, and I carried her all the way back to our center. I want to tell him about the unexplainable impact it had on me. The tears that couldn’t stop flowing, even with everyone all around, watching me.

I want to tell him about this uncontainable love that I now experience in my life. A love I had sought before I had words for it. I want him to know what it feels like to come alive, to love with heartbreaking vulnerability, and laugh with mind breaking ease. My heart is pounding within to tell a story that my mind simply can not translate for my mouth to share.

I yearn to talk about seeing Evelyn, a former student now peddling chewing gum on the street for 25 cents and how it rips my heart wide open. I want to tell him about genuine smiles and deep belly laughs. I want to tell him how I found the path to the walk that goes along with the talk I’ve embodied for years- and how more than anything, I’m so afraid to become nothing more than just talk, no walk, all over again.

I wanted to tell him what I now need to tell you. I don’t know if I am ready to leave Ecuador just yet. You’d think two years in South America would have been enough. But, I find myself strongly considering spending one more year at the Working Boys Center. I’ve found the trail that leads towards the man I want to be. I love without abandon here, and I don’t know that you can understand what that means to me. More important still, I don’t know if I can continue it if I return to the States just yet.

What’s next? In the next month or two, through continued discernment, discussions with loved ones, and prayer, I’ll be able to tell you. Either way, the decision won’t be easy. But until then, pray for me, think about me, send good vibes my way, whatever you can, to help me make sure I make the right decision.

There’s so much more to explain. So much more that could be said. But this isn’t the place, this isn’t the time. And ultimately, this is between me and the man I used to be, trying to find the best version of the man I was, am, and in the final analysis, want to be.

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Walt Whitman Song of Myself

Stations of the Cross on Good Friday with Cindy rockin' my sunglasses and Jenny, the girl who got sick, holding my hand as we walk through the stations with the people from La Marin

Monday, March 17, 2008

Seven Letter Words by Roy Pequeño

This is the second part in a series of entries about what it means to be a volunteer. The idea is to generate a diverse gathering of voices who have done or are currently doing service to share with potential future volunteers what we wish we would have known before making the leap to do post-graduate service. It’s my sincere hope that this and other posts throughout this blog might be of service in some way to those thinking of doing service. Stay tuned for more guest editorials in the coming weeks.

Seven Letter Words By Roy Pequeño

As several of my friends prepare for the GRE, I have recently begun to become of aware of vocabulary. Honestly I must say that I am very intrigued by all the words out there. Some words look like someone just put letters together (i.e. syzygy). Some have cool sounds or are fun saying (i.e. cinnamom). Some just look intimidating (i.e. floccinaucinihilipilification). There are so many words that I am slowly becoming aware of and it’s quite frankly overwhelming. How am I suppose understand all these words my friends are teaching me, when I am still having a hard time comprehending a simple seven letter word? Service.

My experience with service – I realize now – had been very limited. Before my experience in Chile, my volunteer experiences varied: helping at a soup kitchen, a food pantry, volunteering at the hospital, and a project at a local park. In each location, I would volunteer a number of hours a week/month and reach a goal. In the soup kitchen, my goal became serving food. In the food pantry, my goal became organizing the donations. In the hospital, my goal became running samples to the lab as quickly as possible. In the park, my goal became building an animal enclosure. Even though, my “service” was done in a variety of areas it was limited to yet another seven letter word. Results.

As I prepared to embark on a two-year service commitment in Chile, I was told time and time again, to arrive without expectations. Since I did not know what, where, or how I would be providing a service to my community, I took the advice of my program mates and arrived to Chile without expectations. Or so I thought.

After about six months of living in Peñalolen and working in various place in Santiago, Chile, I realized a truth in myself. I had arrived in Chile with expectations of service and they were not being met. As mentioned earlier, my experience with this seven-letter word of “service” was related to another seven-letter word, “results.” My “service” in Chile a majority of the time had no physical “results” – something that I was accustomed to seeing after volunteering. I was not building houses, organizing food, running samples or anything like that. My greatest service that I found in Chile is being a person who listens.

Call me naïve – or completely out of sync with people – but I never realized how important listening to people really is. It was not until I began to pack my bags to leave Santiago that I realized the importance that people placed on the time we shared. Not necessarily the conversations – because for the first year or so I stumbled my way around Chilean Spanish – but the time that was taken to listen to people. People who I would talk to for five minutes a week, a child who would tell me her concerns, a student in the middle of a confirmation process talking about his struggles in faith, and several others, expressed their gratitude for my service. For my role as an individual that listens. In this world there are several things that people can always get back; however, time is one thing that passes and cannot be relived.

Mother Theresa once said, “The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted.” I must agree. By giving a listening ear, we give immeasurable amounts of dignity and respect to people. In my humble opinion, it is the time spent with an individual - listening to their stories, opinions, and concerns – that reveals that someone’s service has a purpose.

I doubt that I will ever learn all the GRE words that my friends are learning, but I am willing to try. And maybe I can teach them a little something about a seven-letter word that can knock the wind out of you. Service.

Roy Pequeño, pictured right, with just two of the many people he lent a listening ear to during his tenure in Chile.

Roy Pequeño graduated from St. Edwards University in 2005. He spent two years with the Holy Cross Associates in Santiago, Chile. He is currently living in Austin, Texas, working at his alma matter as a Resident Director.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

You're Weird by Caitlin Early

“You’re weird,” the words hit me hard. My cover is blown. Years spent trying to fit in and to earn my place at the cool girls’ lunch table is undone by two dreadful words. To make matters worse, it is coming from my 15-year old brother who effortlessly navigates hormones and high school, dressed in the latest Ed Hardy jeans and retro edition Jordan’s. Yes, ladies, he is the epitome of cool. I, unlike my stud of a brother, am not.

You may be wondering why a less than hip 24-year old is so concerned about what her pubescent brother thinks of her. If I could maintain some semblance of a self-esteem through high school and college, why all the sudden was I looking to a teenager to be my barometer of cool? I hit a low point. I recently returned from a two-year service program in Latin America. I went from Tuesdays in the parish kitchen, cooking gourmet meals with colorful, Chilean señoras to Tuesdays in my pajamas, unemployed, and living at home. I am the only person I know who can wake up at noon and not be late for work. I do not have places to go and people to see. I really am weird.

Yet there is something to be said for being weird. I have lived a life that most will never know. I had the chance to live in a poor, working class Chilean neighborhood, far from the touristy spots in the city center. I worked with people from all walks of life, rich, poor, young and old. I learned to speak another language and to create a life for myself in that new language. I made friendships with Chilean women that welcomed me into their homes as their hija, or daughter. I challenged myself to live a simpler life and to better define needs and wants. I learned to thrive in community with other volunteers, to confront conflicts and frustrations, and to find some amazing friends. Most importantly, I grew to know my true self, which in essence brought me into a closer, deeper relationship with God.

While my transition from Chile to the U.S. has been bumpy, I would not have it any other way. Upon leaving Chile, a dear friend told me that my tears and sadness were signs that the experience was not a two-year break from my real life. Chile was an important part of who I was and who I was becoming. If asked to do it again, to live the experience with its mixed bag of highs and lows, I would; I am a changed person because of it. To my friends and family, I am weird. What I chose to do was not normal and I now I am left to deal with the rewarding consequences of lasting friendships, emotional maturity, spiritual growth and a new perspective on life. Not too shabby if you ask me.

Deciding on a post-graduate service program can be a scary and overwhelming time in your life. Not only are you leaving the college comfort zone, saying goodbye to friends and contemplating your next step, but you are also trying to convince your parents that you are not crazy and that someday you will put your hard-earned degree to use. There are no guarantees that a service program will be a good fit for you or that it can live up to your expectations. Like any other major decision in life, you go on what you know at the time, you take a leap of faith and you hope for the best. It took me a long time to learn that life is just as unpredictable and messy in the U.S. as it is in any far off place. Trust yourself and take comfort in the fact that you do not know where this road will lead you. Buckle up, enjoy this roller coaster of a ride and keep an open mind.

I am also entering into a new phase of my life and once again nothing is settled or certain. I am not shielded from the scariness of life in spite of an amazing experience in Chile. I am just as vulnerable as any other twenty something that does not know where he or she is heading. The difference for me lies in that I can draw on great strength and support from my Chilean friends and from the life lessons I learned with them. The experience I lived cannot save me from fears or anxieties I have about the future; it empowers me to continue to live a life that is a real witness to a loving people in a thin country.

Caitlin saying good-bye to a close Chilean friend and co-worker, Marta.

Caitlin Early graduated from The University of Notre Dame in 2005. She volunteered with the Holy Cross Associates from 2005-2007 and lived in Santiago, Chile.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Calling All Current and Former Volunteers

I am trying to use this blog as a resource for college students contemplating service after college. Seeing as how we are almost in March, a time traditionally where college students make the decision on whether or not to commit to volunteer work, I am asking for your help to help with their discernment!

I am looking to get new voices with differing perspectives to write a 300-500 word entry on what their volunteer work has meant to them. It can be an affirmation of the choice made, a "wish I would have known this" entry to give people insight you lacked, or an overall philosophical reflection on the value or lack thereof of volunteer work. The forum is open... I want to allow people room to use their creativity and if there is response to this, hopefully get a diversity of views and topics discussed.

If you are interested, please email me at pjfurlong at

Also, if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass this onto them!

I will put the first post up beginning next week and hopefully will have more to follow!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Black History Month: In Ecuador of All Places!

“I have a dream” proclaimed Martin Luther King Jr.. This, being Black History Month, I have to ask, how many Americans can say exactly what he said his dream was? In other words, who can finish the quote?

Last Monday, my high school students stopped me in mid-lecture. “Tell us about the elections in the USA” Wendy said. With every ounce of my might, I tried to side step it: there were grammatical rules of English to be taught and learned. But they persisted. I became suspicious, wondering if they knew of my obsession with American politics. When they successfully named the three candidates in the race, I relented (is anyone really counting Huckabee anymore?). Our discussion of the candidates eventually took us into a history of America I feel too many young people my age don’t know enough about: black history. I tried in a short time frame to cover Martin Luther King Jr, Malcom X, Rosa Parks, Carter G. Woodson,Thurgood Marshall, the Black Panther, the Little Rock 9, Frederick Douglass, and more...

The questions flew from every direction. Everyone was engaged and voicing their opinion. I gave an impromptu lecture about race relations in the USA and moderated a conversation about relations between blacks, those of Spanish descent, and indigenous here in Ecuador.

I happened to have a mixed CD with the song “We Shall Overcome” on it. I played the song, roughly translating it. As class ended, no one moved. Eventually, one girl spoke up. The voice of the singer was sad she told the class. And it frustrated her that after these powerful messages of “walking hand in hand”, “living in peace” and “we shall overcome” were always followed by the same phrase: algun dia. Someday. It’s an issue of inequality, a universal issue these kids know well. Why not “now” she asked me and her classmates?

In America, more black young men will go to prison than college. Consider that “For every $1.00 earned by a man, the average woman receives only 77 cents, while African American women only get 67 cents and Latinas receive only 57 cents.” Hate crimes rose by 8% in 2006. “African Americans and Hispanics are more than twice as likely as whites to be searched, arrested, or subdued with force when stopped by police. Disparities in drug sentencing laws, like the differential treatment of crack as opposed to powder cocaine, are unfair.” *

There is a great columnist at the Miami Herald, Leonard Pitts Jr. Not too long ago, he wrote a piece entitled "When You're Right Beyond All Questions." I wish all white people could read it so they might understand me better when I say there is still so much to be done. Despite all the progress: the Civil Rights Act, affirmative action, a black man running for president with a viable shot at winning- we still have so far to go.

Oh, and as for what MLK said in that famous speech: "And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!."

I’m reading To America by historian Stephen E. Ambrose. He noted how Jefferson, despite the many great things he did for America, followed convenience over conviction by leaving the next generation of Revolutionaries to end slavery. It took until the 1860’s. It took another 100 years to push through Civil Rights thanks to brave men and women of all walks of life. Let’s not wait until 2060 to take that next step: that one day our children will not be judged by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

* Obtained from Barack Obama’s Blue Print for Change on his website,

Sunday, February 17, 2008

How I Became a Morning Person

I hate early wake ups. I talk to my alarm the way an abusive coach talks to his most undisciplined player. Curse words are thrown its way, it beeps back at me, I take a swing at it to shut it up and then… reluctantly, I get up.

A few minutes later I stumble downstairs, grab a cup of strong black tea and a bowl of cereal. Out the door and towards the bus by 6:55 AM, and proceed to try and sleep for the 50 minute trip through the congested, loud and polluted streets of Quito.

It doesn’t have to be this way ya know. The center operates three campuses: one next to our house, and two downtown. And somehow, 1/3 of us were selected to be on the early wake up crew. I prayed with every ounce of my being, expended all my capital with God- begging for the shift that would allow me to sleep in an hour later. No dice.

And yet, I have taken a special liking to my kids that I work with downtown in La Marin in the mornings. They are more urban- more edgy, spunky, and full of so much attitude. And there is something about that which makes me love them even more. Sincerely.

While the early morning clamor of the kids has the ability to devastate some, it somehow ignites a flame in me. That first moment I see some of my students, the whole morning does a brilliant 180 degree turn.

You have to picture it: the kids spot us entering, and all the cacophony ceases and a beautiful symphony begins: beautiful little voices screaming your name as they try and position themselves first in line for hugs. And I am not talking little hugs here. I am talking about the type where they run full sprint, fling themselves into your waiting arms and wrap their little hands around your neck and seem to never let go.

And as luck would have it, these kids are only there in the morning hours when we are. If I had the afternoon shift instead, our paths would never cross.

It’s 7:50 AM, there are hoards of screaming children, giant bear hugs, and some of the freshest cut sarcasm being dished my way from some of the tiniest children. This is my life, these are my mornings. An hour of extra sleep would be nice. But at the cost of missing this? No thanks.

Keely getting some of that early morning love from the kids.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Voting Tomorrow

He looks like me. I passed around a photo the other day of the leading candidates for president on both sides. The kids wanted to know about the United States, about war, about so much, and I figured it was a good seg-way into what was going on. One kid stopped at the Obama photo. He refused to believe he was possibly going to be President of the United States of America. I insisted until we got to the core of why he couldn´t believe it: but teacher, he looks like me. How is that possible? Immediately, not even knowing who was who, these kids liked him. Why? Because they saw a bit of their own story in this man running for the most powerful post in the world.

Tomorrow is super Tuesday and I just urge you all to vote. Living abroad for a year and half I have seen the power of our nations politics on that of other nations. Our decision impacts their economies, and impacts their own dreams and hopes.

I hope you go out and vote, and yes, I hope you go for Obama. It´s given me tremendous hope down here, and it´s given these kids hope too! I wonder how many other poor people around the world look at him and think... he looks like me.

Make your vote count tomorrow.

Finding Your Post Graduate Service Placement: Domestic or Abroad

This blog is meant to be a service, an insight into the life of a volunteer “in the trenches” one might say. It is not a glossy advertisement or endorsement, but rather a true telling that would hopefully leave readers to decide for themselves if a step into the volunteer world after college is for them.

That said, I want to provide some resources to find volunteer programs, as well as make note of programs I am familiar with- either through personal experience or from word of mouth of others in the programs. Click the blue links to get to what I am talking about.

First, the website links…

Notre Dame University’s Center for Social Concern has a great website that lists categories: domestic, international, teaching, and secular. It is an awesome resource for anyone, not just ND students.

Response is a publication by the Catholic Volunteer Network that is comprehensive for faith based programs. It provides a search engine that will allow you to fill parameters such as where and for how long you would like to volunteer among other issues. If you are looking for a faith based volunteer program, this is a great place to use a search engine to discover options that meet certain criteria you may have.

Connections 2008, a search engine hosted by Saint Vincent Pallotti Center is another great search engine. The website of Pallotti is also a great resource for those pondering volunteer work, as well as current and former volunteers. I personally find this website to be incredibly useful and resourceful.

Aside from that, my opinions on other programs that I am familiar with... Keep in mind, these are only my opinions based upon my personal experience or second hand knoweldge from people who have done them.

First, The Working Boys Center. The Center itself is an incredible mechanism. Providing education, technical training, medical care, three meals a day, as well as microcredit, childcare and a host of other needed responses to poverty, it´s hard to find a place more wholistic in its battle against poverty. I love the participants and the employees of the center and am very satisfied with my decision. A downside might be community insofar as we are not really a community so much as we are a group of people living together and working together. No binding decisions need to be made as a group and many elements of community living as I experienced with the Holy Cross Associates are missing. And depending how you feel about your service, a call towards simple living is largely absent. All that said, I would not hesitate to recommend the program. I am in love with the place! The work here is a one year commitment with an option for two. The Spanish skills of volunteers vary.

Next would be JVI and JVC. I hear strong things about JVI and I visited a JVI community in Bolivia and was impressed. They seem to have a healthy mix of life giving work that benefits both the community and the volunteer while at the same time doing a great job with simple living, community, spirituality. Most of all, I have heard great things about the support staff and retreats and the like. As for JVC, the reviews remain a little more mixed (not as much support and stability) but as far as I have heard from people in Domestic programs, they fare better than most.

Rostro de Cristo, based in Southern Ecuador is a program I visited for a week my junior year and for a few days this past year while living in Quito. If you can look past the heat and humidity, I would say I love this program. It’s a one year program that requires good Spanish skills. It’s a program on the rise as volunteer programs go: it is divided amongst two houses in neighborhoods about a 15 minute walk apart and has a large volunteer corps who works on a variety of issues usually splitting time between a job in the morning and one in the afternoon. It’s also got an awesome English speaking library- a huge plus when living abroad. Downsides might be that the work is somewhat more fluid than say a JVI or Working Boys Center, but some might enjoy the flexability and variety of working at two diferent places each day.

The Inner City Teaching Corps is a program based out of Chicago. A smaller program as far as teaching programs go, I have heard nothing but good thing from participants who have served two years. A master degree is included in the mix. Emphasizes simple living, unlike some other volunteer teaching programs.

Place Corps- based out of LA is also another program I am familiar with. Simple living is not a tenant but teachers work as teachers in Catholic Schools in inner city Los Angeles and receive a Master’s Degree as well as a pretty generous stipend and if my friends are telling the truth- brand new Mac Laptops to each teacher. Needless to say, simple living is not a tenant.

Holy Cross Associates
, my former program in Chile, is, as far as I know, closed down for 2007-2008. But should it re-open as planned, it was a pretty good program. The biggest thing it lacked on internationally was solid work placement but most people in the Domestic version of the program seemed to enjoy. I wouldn´t put it above a JVC, but if you are looking for other options and moving away from the Jesuits but still being with a big Catholic order of priests- this might be the place.

Peace Corps, most people are familiar with. 27 month program that emphasizes “flexibility is the greatest asset” of their volunteers. Run through the government, the awards and incentives for life after Peace Corps are pretty big. Also helps in that placements are world wide. If there are complaints, it is usually based on disorganization or volunteers being placed in job placements that require a certain expertise or experience they lack. But most Peace Corps volunteers I know and have encountered on my own journey are happy and have a range of diverse experiences despite the occasional and long lasting bursts of frustration with support and placement.

So there you have it. I also have on my sidebar links to blogs of people I know doing service. As well, should you search on google for something like ¨blog volunteer¨ or ¨post graduate service blog¨ you will be amazed at the number of blogs that show up from anyone from a Peace Corps guy in the Dominican Republic to a volunteer in Tanzania.

Lastly, research and investigate programs. Think of things you want, things you don’t want, and when interviewing, remember, you’re not JUST trying to market yourself to them- they too are trying to market themselves to you. So don’t be afraid to be honest and ask the right questions, rather than try and solely impress them and telling them what you think they want to hear. You rather get rejected from a program they know you wouldn´t fit into then manipulate your way in and find yourself unhappy and unsatisifed for one year, maybe two! Nothing is worse than a mismatched program and volunteer.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

A Chilean Blast From the Past: Roy

He wouldn’t shut up about Texas. I kept using this word passion to infuse everything I did. We were miles apart, geographically and symbolically, and we both made our decision before we ever met: we wouldn’t exactly be the best friends.

Arriving in Chile, tensions increased. He’d read a couple of my pre-departure blogs and grew more convinced he wouldn’t like me: too much uninformed passion When he picked me up from the airport looking aloof and wearing goofy slippers that should have never left the house that rainy day, I knew as well, Roy Pequeno and I were two men who would never get along: he was a tool.

Months later, we would sit down in our living room regularly over a plate of Spicy Spagetti and a dubbed episode of “24” or some other quality programming. Besides the turkey sandwich and eggs (both of which we lavished with hot sauce), Spaghetti was about all we made. There, in the simplicity of our house we would sit, reminiscing about the past, talking about life and the funny stories of the day, every once in a while pausing to shout at the TV or pull a prank on Natalie. The hate we shared for each other before August lasted all of about 1 day… ok, and maybe one other day in December when I surprised the group and showed up early from language school- sorry! But really, I never could have imagined back in July that Roy would not only become my roommate, but a role model and a close friend as well.

In Chile, I was nothing short of worthless. My Spanish stunk, I was jobless, and I felt vulnerable and truth be told, in over my head and afraid. My whole community was wonderful and supportive, but, it was Roy who read through the lines and helped me keep my head above water, and to do it with dignity no less. It was Roy who sat next to me on community nights and joined me in hushed jokes. It was Roy who went with me on a house visit or to this place or that when my confidence was shot and I struggled to be my own man. Again and again, it was Roy, in the most subtle of ways that kept my spirits up. He had a way of supporting me, carrying me really, but in a way that allowed me to maintain my dignity and pride. It was a unique gift, one I pray for the grace to receive. And through his example, it was Roy who helped form me into the servant I am today.

It’s in the way I try and speak the language with a local zest (fresco man). It’s in the way I interact with the kids. And in the ways I now deal in a healthy way with the stress that overwhelmed me in Chile. Roy taught me that a hot oil incense burner and a little bit of silence and journaling can go a long way in maintaining your sanity when all the forces around you are attempting to destroy it.

I laugh about our quest, seen on Youtube, to kill the rat that invaded our house. I laugh about the stupid pranks we pulled, mainly on Nat and Michelle because no one messed with Caitlin or Ryan. Cait just because she was Cait and she was too nice and you felt like crap. And Ryan, he’d get us back 10 fold. Long live the time we cut the electricity and ran into Nat’s room dressed in black and with flashlights swinging everywhere!And I laugh when I think about the two of us walking to the neighborhood fast food cart, simultaneously shouting to no avail at our three legged dog who insisted on crossing the street without looking. Never mind the fact that is how he became three legged Jack in the first place.

When you first think about community, you obsess on the possibilities of what can go wrong. Personality clashes, detestable people and the like. You never imagine it’ll somehow become your rock when everything that was supposed to go right goes wrong. And what’s more, you never imagine the guy you thought you’d detest most is the guy you’ve since strived PASSIONATELY to resemble most… other than the ridiculous pony tail and absurd talk about Texas!