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: