Experiencing a New Lifestyle: Urban Education-Milwaukee

I am a participant on the Urban Education trip to St. Anthony School in Milwaukee. It has been such an invaluable experience working in the urban school setting, especially as a pre-service educator! I was able to teach an entire lesson as well as really dive into a completely new environment.

Working with the students at St. Anthony helped open my eyes to a different lifestyle. The students at this school are so resilient; they come to school every day ready to work regardless the circumstances they may be dealing with. These kids go through incredibly tough situations, yet they are dedicated to high performance at school!  Each day I learned something new, made a new connection with a student, and grew as a future educator.

One day, I had the opportunity to teach my first lesson, and it was an experience I will never forget! Putting the skills I have been learning about into action, while also providing a service to those in need was amazing.

I definitely had a few misconceptions about the urban education environment, and volunteering at the school helped me open my eyes to the truth about Urban Education!

-Megan Merkel

Lessons Learned: Friends with Disabilities

Throughout our week at L’Arche Clinton we were blessed with being able to share life with some of the most humble, funny, beautiful, inspiring, and happiest group of people we will ever meet. Through sharing life, we learned many things that will shape and impact the rest of our lives. Here are some of the things we learned:

  • Taking a drink of water/walking is a very big accomplishment. L’Arche celebrations are for both big events, such as birthdays, anniversaries, and funerals, but they are also for what we might consider everyday tasks, such as standing up and printing a new picture from the computer.
  • Love can be found at first sight. We walked into three new homes knowing no one, but were loved by all of the core members and assistants immediately. Through these experiences, we were able to find what real radical hospitality means, such as going out of their way to make vegetarian meals and opening their homes to six complete strangers. They didn’t care about the circumstances of why we were in Iowa, they just cared that we were there to share life with them.
  • Happiness is experienced best in the present moment. When we were able to not worry about the past and the future, we could just focus on all the happiness that was surrounding each of us. We hope to take this back to the SNC campus and be able to focus on happiness and the present moment when the stresses of school, jobs, and organizations once again enter into our lives.
  • Happiness can be found in the small things. It can be found in mundane things that we don’t normally think of. In our society, happiness comes from material goods, such as money, cars, or clothes. However, to the L’Arche community, happiness can be found in shared happiness. It can be found in toys (such as puzzles with missing pieces), spending time with their friends, and singing songs at the dinner table. We learned that material items do not buy happiness; it has to be found in the little things in our life.
  • The present moment is a gift. Since we were not worrying about the past or the future during this week, we were able to really live in the present, allowing us to live in the moment and allowing us to really enjoy our time spent at L’Arche Clinton.
  • The focus should be on abilities, instead of focusing on disabilities. We are all disabled in some way; some disabilities are simply more visible than others. We learned that we should not focus on a person’s disabilities, but instead see the gifts that everyone has to offer – and we all offer different gifts which make our community both unique and wonderful.
  • Relationships are important. We learned to really appreciate the relationships that we have because these relationships will bring true happiness and joy into our lives.
  • Simple touches can be the biggest affirmations.
  • Being with each other, especially at dinner, allowed us to bond with each other. With no phones or other distractions, dinner became sacred and we looked forward to this time to learn about each other and appreciate the time we had together.
  • Finding others likes and interests allows us to appreciate and celebrate them.
  • By providing a safe place to share and reflect throughout the day, people open up to you. People came and talked and shared personal things that most would not share unless they felt there were in a safe and sacred place. Our presence allowed them to open up and teach us more than we could have imagined and vice versa.

L’Arche became another home to us. We will truly appreciate and cherish the moments that we experienced at L’Arche Clinton. Each of us formed strong bonds with the core members and assistants. We will live with these memories in our heart for the rest of our lives. The founder of L’Arche, Jean Vanier, once said, “To love someone is to show to them their beauty, their worth and their importance.” This is what L’Arche did for us, and we did in return.

The Final Day: Homelessness and Poverty

Friday, January 23, 2015

Today was heartbreaking and difficult as it was our last day serving in DC. It was a day of lasts; last day at Food and Friends, last ride on the Metro together, last family dinner, last dance routine by JT, and the most significant last: our last dinner and night at the Center with the guys.

We can speak for each and every one of us when we say that in the months before this trip, and even the days leading up to it, we did not expect to have our eyes opened and our hearts changed the way they were this week. NONE of us expected to leave the Father McKenna Center and our nation’s Capital being friends with these men that were complete strangers just one week ago.

Even though it was our final day here, it was a busy one! Our first activity was our final shift at Food and Friends. We helped out again this morning with various tasks that they need assistance with. From packing cold, protein, and produce bags, to wrapping frozen meat and fruit, to packing grocery bags that the customers receive, we were productive all around.

We also had the opportunity to work with some high school students from a Baptist high school in Maryland who were there for the morning. They were a blast to work with! After some laborious hours, we were rewarded with donuts and candy. (Treats quickly had become a tradition this week, after they gave us freshly baked snickerdoodles on our first day!) Charles, one of the head staff there and an awesome guy to work with, had us put our school name and individual names on an apron that  groups from various schools have signed. What an honor! Charles, along with two of the other guys we worked with, Les and Brandon, thanked us repeatedly for our hard work this week and told us how appreciative they were of our assistance. They also told us how glad they were to get to know us and how great we all were to work with! The pleasure was definitely ours as well, and we all hope to end up back there someday in one way or another!

After a bittersweet morning at Food and Friends, we were able to come back to the Father McKenna Center for lunch. Since all of the guys were watching Iron Man (part of the center’s Friday afternoon movie tradition), we did not get to socialize as much as we normally would, but we did run into some other familiar faces. The St. Norbert Knights For Life group that came for the March For Life yesterday set aside their day to serve the guys and help organize the pantry!

After our group’s dedication to the pantry this week, the Knights for Life’s help this afternoon, and assistance from some of the Hypothermia Men, the food pantry is organized and much more presentable! Mike, another coordinator here, is in charge of the pantry and was beyond grateful for all of the effort and time put into getting his “baby” organized! The founders of the pantry will actually be visiting next week and Mike is so excited to be able to show it off! It is also great that it is so efficient and clean for the many guests who visit daily to receive food.

Late this afternoon, we had a second opportunity to bring meals to people on the streets. On Sunday, we worked with NCC (National Community Church) to hand out bagged lunches. This time, we met a group of students from several different colleges at Catholic University of America and brought hot meals to those seeking shelter in the park and metro station of downtown DC. Seeing all of the people from the park basically line up when they saw our group coming reinforced the idea that consistency is key when serving these people. The organization that we served with delivers meals like these every week, and the people they serve certainly depend on that. When we reached the metro station, we were exposed to a side of homelessness that we had not encountered much of yet. The people there were sitting against the wall wrapped up in most of what they had. There were so many of them, and it broke our hearts to see the state that some of them were in. Each time they were given a meal, however, they thanked us tremendously and wished us well as we moved along our route.

We eventually made our way back to the center after stopping for a few miscellaneous things for dinner. Our Kitchen Crew, Elizabeth, Emma, and Bryce, prepared us some delicious sloppy joes, spaghetti, garlic bread, and French fries. Later, we joined the guys to eat dinner with them. After just a week together, we are all such great friends and each of have developed relationships with many of these guys that we will carry on far after this week.

After cleanup, Lydia announced that a family photo was happening in the church whether anyone liked it or not! So everyone that wanted to participate headed in and we got everyone set up for the photo opportunity! After the photo, we spent some time saying our goodbyes to the guys. There were some tearful exchanges of emails, other contact information, and many well wishes. It is so sad to say goodbye for now to these incredible men that we have all become such good friends with.

One of the guys that many of us had had the opportunity to get to know this week was Adrian, and one thing he said to Lydia tonight was this: “We are family, and have been from day one. The whole group just clicked.” We could not have put it any better, and all of us agree that we did indeed become a family this week. Many of the guys commented on how different we were from any group that has ever come through here. Our sincerity, genuineness of heart and true desire to serve, and overall contagious personalities made for a group that they all wanted to be around. The lessons, insights, and knowledge we have gained from all of them have changed our hearts and mindsets this week. It is hard to put many of our feelings into words because we have been blessed and inspired in insurmountable ways.

The Hypothermia Men, every single volunteer and staff member we worked with, and the homelessness we encountered on the streets or at another function, have shown us the true meaning of compassion. We are all the same, no matter what situation we happen to be in at the time. We have inspired each other with our stories and recognition that each of us matter for who we are and what we can contribute, no matter what that may be. We are inspired by volunteers’ and staff’s dedication to the causes of homelessness and poverty. Like we said, we never expected to leave here this changed and to actually say that we are friends with these men. They may be experiencing homelessness, but inside they have a beating heart, love to share, and hopes and dreams…just like any one of us. Humanizing this group of people has been one of the most significant takeaways from this trip.

We have already begun to prepare ideas about how we can bring these insights back to campus, the community, and our own hometowns. We plan to incorporate our newfound epiphanies of simple living and compassion into our everyday lives.

We thank God for opening our hearts to these men, what they had to share with us, and what we were able to share with them. We pray that He may continue to guide them in their lives and that he may allow us to remain in touch with as many of them as possible. As it says in Galatians 5:13-14; “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word:’You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” Amen!

We also wanted to give a huge shout out to Megan, who unfortunately had to fly home early this morning as her family experienced an unexpected death this week. She has been a real trooper and has been able to participate in everything this week despite what is going on back home. You and your family are and will continue to be in all of our thoughts and prayers.

For the last time, all of our sleeping bags are set up, our alarms are set, and our suitcases are ready to be packed. With hearts full of gratitude for this indescribable experience and sadness that it has come to an end, we prepare to leave DC and return to St. Norbert as changed individuals.

No matter how much time passes, we know that these experiences and these people will never be forgotten. Each and every one of them holds a special place in our hearts and motivates us to be better people than we were when we landed in DC last Saturday evening.

DC, we are forever grateful to you and the wonderful people of your city.

A Priceless Experience: Urban Education

My experience on the Urban Education trip to Milwaukee this past December is an experience I will never forget.  St. Anthony School completely shocked me when I first got there!  It destroyed the stereotype of a typical urban school.  The students were almost always on their best behavior as the teachers and staff provided them structure and routine that many students probably did not receive at home.

I was so welcomed by everyone! Teresa was so friendly and easy to talk to while offering a wealth of knowledge about so many different education topics. I was placed in the middle school along with five other students from St. Norbert.  All of our teachers were so kind and I looked forward to lunch every day to get their advice and talk to them about their experiences teaching.  It was amazing how open they were to having us, even though the week we were there was fairly hectic with winter break coming up.

The teacher I worked with let me start teaching his class not even 10 minutes after I got there. I had taught before in Sophomore Block so I was not very nervous, but he never made me teach when I was uncomfortable.  I taught for the majority of the day every day and my cooperating teacher gave me very helpful feedback.  He could tell when I was a bit uneasy and encouraged me that I could do it. He, along with the other teachers, helped me gain more confidence in my role as a teacher, which is helpful to me since my goal is to become a math teacher.

This experience meant so much to me! I was able to work alongside 6th grade students in math and help them understand new concepts. They were so kind and grateful for help. Most live in poverty and they still came to school every day smiling and ready to learn and participate. I will never forget their eagerness to learn about college.  A lot of our trip was about getting kids excited for college and helping them realize they can go to college if they try hard. So many students knew the year they were supposed to graduate college, which was adorable. My first day, one student came up to me at the end of class and asked what the first thing you do at college is. I could not wait for more questions and got plenty throughout the week about what life is like at St. Norbert.

I miss my trip already and my amazing and hilarious friends I made while on the trip! I know I will remember this experience for years to come and will be able to draw on the knowledge I have gained while at St. Anthony.

Reflecting on the Experience: Urban Education

In order to truly understand urban education, one cannot look to a textbook definition or a class lecture. Instead, urban education is something that needs to be experienced first-hand. By simply reading or hearing about urban education, the problems and stereotypes seem overwhelming and completely out of one’s control. How could one teacher ever make a difference in a community severely affected by unemployment, homelessness, and poverty? I have learned that simply being there for the students to learn about and understand the problems of the community is a good first step! After spending a week at St. Anthony’s school in Milwaukee, I understand better than ever the importance of exposing pre-service teachers to urban schools.

Going into this experience, I can honestly say that I was a little nervous and unsure of what to expect. I had very little experience working within a classroom, let alone a classroom in an urban atmosphere. I was scared that I would not be able to connect and relate to the students and most importantly make a difference in their lives. From my first step into my classroom at St. Anthony’s, I knew that I had nothing to fear! Both the teachers and students were very welcoming and respectful. The classroom atmosphere the teacher had created was like nothing I had ever witnessed before. High expectations were held for every student, making them responsible for their own learning. I quickly realized how much these students needed our support, love, and attention. Despite the problems faced by many of them at home, every student came to school excited and ready to learn. For me, seeing the students’ eagerness to learn was incredibly eye opening. From this experience, I have taken away that every student has the ability to learn and deserves a high quality education.

Throughout my week at St. Anthony’s I gained a new love and appreciation for education. This opportunity pulled me out of my comfort zone, enabling me to experience education in a brand new way. With open eyes and an open heart I was able to recognize and better understand the struggles children of urban schools must face on a daily basis. These realizations helped me to understand my purpose as an educator as well as an active citizen in my own community!

Day 5: Homelessness and Poverty

Thursday, January 22, 2015

It is crazy to think that today was our second to last day of service.

This morning, we were able to go back to Food and Friends to pack frozen, canned, and dry meals for those who are unable to leave their home. Our friends Alex and Brandon were there again, and we were able to meet Charles, another awesome volunteer. Between the dancing assembly lines, conversations about travel, music, and who knows what else, and consistent, dedicated teamwork, we did not even feel like we were working! But the hours pass quickly when you are having fun and being productive.

After saying our (temporary) goodbyes to Alex, Brandon, Charles, and the other great people of Food and Friends, we jumped on the Metro and headed toward the Capitol for a tour and meeting with Representative Sean Duffy! Representative Duffy and his staff were super nice and genuinely interested in our work here in DC as well as the work we plan to do when we go home.

The tour, given by Duffy’s stellar intern, Zack, was so cool! As if the Capitol did not look impressive enough from the outside, the inside was absolutely beautiful! Everything is coated in such rich history, and the architecture and artwork is incredible. Thanks to the generosity of Representatives Sean Duffy and Jim Sensenbrenner, we were even able to visit the House and Senate galleries while Congress was in session. It was fascinating to watch proposals be made and witness the actual workings of the system. Rules were very strict in both places; we went through security multiple times, had to leave any electronics and bags behind, and were checked at the doors by multiple officers. There was no talking, eating, drinking, motioning, disrupting, or sleeping in either gallery. Since today was also the annual March For Life, we felt lucky to be able to hear a few different opinions on Roe v. Wade during our time in the galleries.

After an extremely informative and fascinating afternoon touring our nation’s Capital, we headed back to the Center. After traveling in chilly weather, we decided that grilled cheese and tomato soup would make for a heart (and tummy) warming dinner! Even though the 20 men in the Hypothermia program receive dinner every night courtesy of a local family who prepares and cooks it, we still make our own dinners unless we are eating off-site. It is all part of our simple living component which requires that we spend only $1.50 on each person per meal. We were glad that we were able to finish dinner just in time to sit with the Hypothermia men as they ate. Dinner conversation is always one of our favorite parts of the day!

Later on that night, we decided that it was time to have the informal talent show that we had been brainstorming ideas for all day. Earlier this week, one of the guys we have gotten to know pretty well, John, told us that if Stephanie beat JT in a dance-off, he would quit smoking. We were beyond excited that he suggested this, and we were looking forward to helping! So after some discussion and practice, rounding everyone up, and getting the a-okay from the director, we headed to our housing quarters (the old church conveniently equipped with a stage), where we would perform. Steph sang and danced to Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.” while Lydia and Markiesa did backup dancing. When it was JT’s turn, he performed a rousing rendition of interpretive dance to “Turn Down for What”. Then, after much convincing and clapping, we got John to come up and sing John Legend’s “Ordinary People” while JT looked on and danced in the background. Based on the laughs and applause we received, we think that the guys all enjoyed the show. And…Steph won the most applause at the end so John agreed to quit smoking! We hope that we can be a motivating force from afar and keep updated with his progress!

After the First Annual Father McKenna’s Got Talent show, we started to get ready for bed and settle down. We have had an awesome day and week here and are so sad that tomorrow is our last day of service! We are already beginning to talk about reorientation and the work we will do together when we get back home. The friends we have made in these men and the opportunities we have been able to experience have been nothing short of life changing for everyone in our group.

We had a productive reflection tonight and were able to share some of the “ah-ha” moments we have had this week. Several of us talked about how pleasantly surprised we were by the relationships we formed with the men we served. Kiley admitted (and we all agreed) that before we left for this trip, she figured we would be giving people some lunches and hot meals, doing jobs that the staff of these organizations would typically have to handle, and just helping out where we were needed. None of us expected to form such strong bonds with the men, but now we all know that it is going to be so hard to say goodbye to these guys tomorrow. During reflection, Davey made a statement that perfectly summed up our feelings about the impact this trip has made on us. He said, “If you would have told me that I could tour the Capitol, sit in on the House of Representatives and Senate, see the Washington Monument, war memorials, or the Lincoln Memorial at sunset and it wouldn’t even be the best part of that afternoon, I would not have believed you.” The service and touching conversation are always the best parts of the day. So true, Davey. So true.
Stay tuned to find out how our last day of service goes tomorrow. We will also have to say goodbye to the Father McKenna Center and our friends…but we will not talk about that yet.

Day 4: Homelessness and Poverty

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

First of all, thank you all SO much for all your positive feedback to our blog posts! We are so happy to keep everyone updated on our whereabouts. It is so nice to hear from everyone’s parents and relatives about how much they enjoy reading the blog. We are so thankful that we are in everyone’s thoughts and prayers.

Today we stayed and helped out in whatever ways we could at the Father McKenna Center. Steph, Bryce, Lindsay, JT, and Lydia were in the kitchen the majority of the morning and early afternoon. (Lindsay and Lydia got the intense job of peeling turkey meat off of turkey legs and necks! Ah!) We helped prepare the morning’s breakfast, made lunch (turkey stew), prepared bread for future meals, and made peanut butter cookies for desserts for other meals that week. We also did dishes and any other work the staff had for us.

Markiesa, Kiley, Davey, Emma, Megan, Danielle, and Elizabeth started the daunting task of organizing and sorting food pantry donations and reorganizing them into the pantry. They did an awesome job at this task at have made some serious progress on it! It is so nice for the staff to have an organized pantry for their guests to shop in. The Center serves guests each day so it is a busy task to keep up with donations and organization!

During Lydia and Lindsay’s work in the kitchen, they were able to hear Raymond, the Center’s cook, tell the story of how he came to the center and how his life has been turned around the past several years. Out of all the experiences we are having this week, a definite highlight is getting to talk to the Center’s staff and volunteers about how and why they got to the Center. It is inspiring to see their passion for service and for the men!

Every morning the guys have a mandatory 11:00 meeting. Cortez, the Center’s Services Director, gave an inspirational talk about humility, commitment to volunteering, and gave the guys a lot of motivation to move forward and work out of their current situations. Unfortunately, not everyone in our group was able to hear it, but those that did were in awe of his speech. It is very cool to see how much the guys respect Cortez because, in the words of Ned, “He doesn’t just talk the talk, but has walked the walk.” Cortez formerly experienced homelessness, so he is able to give the guys motivational advice based on his own experiences.

Later that afternoon, we had a meeting with a woman from Good Faith Communities Coalition (GFCC) which is a faith-based community organization. They focus on social injustice and work to advocate for those experiencing homelessness and poverty. Visit https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=6FDklD8bZ40 for a video that they created to share their cause!

Tonight was an exciting night because we got to work with Holy Redeemer Church, which is located in a part of D.C. that we had not visited yet.  The amazing volunteers there serve delicious, hot meals to those experiencing homelessness every Wednesday night through a program they call “Peace Meal”. They have been doing this for over 25 years. Tonight we filled over 100 hungry tummies! It was awesome to be able to reach out to people that we had not yet had the opportunity to interact with and meet some more incredible volunteers. Even though we were only there for a few hours, we all left feeling inspired and reenergized by the passion of the parishioners.

After another long, rewarding day of service, Stephanie and Bryce agreed to a late night grocery store run for some celebratory ice cream. The rest of the night consisted of another reflection on another great day, and some quality entertainment from the entertainment committee of Davey and JT (AKA J-Train Railways). We can always count on JT to make us laugh when all we want to do is sleep!

It has been another fulfilling day here in DC. We are so blessed and thank God for watching over us here and opening our hearts to being changed by those we serve and those we serve with. As much as these men inspire us, we hope we have touched their lives as well. We cannot wait to continue to learn the rest of the week!
That is all for now!