Volunteer Bound: Kick Off

I had the idea for Mission Memphis long before I had it planned, shared it, or knew its name. In that regard, Volunteer Bound is very similar. A week ago, all I had was an idea, a few believers, and a plane ticket to Portland.

As I write this, I’ve just settled into Portland and I’ll be leaving here in less than 36 hours, which makes this the longest stop on our volunteer adventure.

I’m so excited to be making this trip with Rebekah Kioschos, one of my very favorite people. Rebekah (who will blush when she reads this) is one of those people who can fill a whole house with light and happiness. Imagine what she can do to a small car! Rebekah is bringing her dog Cornelius as our official mascot and the three of us will be off on our great adventure tomorrow morning.

Our gracious hosts in Portland, the Storm Family, have put us up in their wonderful home. It’s a little crazy – two in-laws, two parents, three dogs, four boys, Rebekah, me and a partridge in a pear tree, but it’s full of energy and warmth compared to the damp and foggy Portland. I just told Rebekah that I’m sad to leave this incredible family and this really comfortable bed. Here’s part of the adventure: right now, I don’t know where I’ll be sleeping tomorrow night. Here’s the thing – I don’t know where we’ll be sleeping, but I know that we will have a warm bed in a safe place, which makes us more fortunate than many in our country.

Until now, Memphis has been my bubble and even within Memphis, I stretched way beyond my comfort zone with the hopes that I could create positive change. As an introvert, it’s exhausting to spend 30 days in a row at a different place, with a group of strangers, doing something I’ve never done before. With that in mind, it is simply amazing what transpired. Each new place became familiar. Now when I drive past one of these places, it’s no longer strange and foreign. I’ve learned so much about my city. The group of strangers I met became friends and familiar faces. But most importantly, my own stereotypes and reservations are steadily melting away.

I have been trying to predict what this trip will hold, and again, I’m totally out of my comfort zone. I’m away from home in December and I really hate the cold. Apparently we’ll need snow chains for Idaho, which is uncharted territory when you grow up in the South. Most days include volunteering, every day includes drive time and each journey means talking to new people, going new places and having your beliefs challenged. Here’s something important that I’ve learned: All the good stuff happens outside your comfort zone.

The incredible and inspiring thing is that everyone who learns about the project wants to talk about it, share their volunteer experiences, and follow along on the journey. Even in the airport, someone asked why I was going to Portland and as I was explaining the trip, I realized that everyone around us was listening.

Most people ask if I’m doing this as a school project. When I say no, they ask where I’m working and who I’m doing this project for. I tell people that I believe this is important and I’m just finding a way to make it happen. I explain that I’m doing this project for everyone so that every potential volunteer will be inspired to give back and change the community. We need to be reinvigorated and to care about something beyond our own lives. Because here’s the thing – this project is not about me. It’s about you.

If you like our work, please support Volunteer Bound on IndiegogoFacebook, or Twitter.

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Mission Memphis Day 30: Hospitality Hub

The Experience

I’d like to challenge the term “homeless people.” Instead of thinking of them as homeless people, I ask you to think about them as people who are currently homeless. As long as we continue to define people by their current situation rather than their potential we will mistakenly attribute blanket stereotypes and erode their hope for something better.

The Hospitality Hub is in the core of downtown Memphis. If you’re like me, you’ve probably driven past that building 100 times and never noticed it. If you’re homeless in downtown Memphis, you know exactly where it is and how long it will take you to get there.

Kelcey Johnson met me in the back parking lot, walked me to the front of the building, and pushed the bell next to the door. We entered the small lobby and made our way through the narrow halls to the back room where the counseling intake happens. I studied Kelcey and noted that he could probably keep order pretty easily. He seems formidable…until he smiles. I bet Kelcey is full of surprises.

Kelcey Johnson of the Hospitality Hub

Kelcey Johnson of the Hospitality Hub

As Kelcey showed me around the Hospitality Hub, he talked about the services they provide for their clients. He said that they connect people with housing and job training to help people prepare for and find jobs so that they can get out of their current cycle. He mentioned several of the organizations they work with to place their clients and I was surprised to learn that one such group is Trident Seafood in Alaska. If you’ve ever watched the show Deadliest Catch, you’ve probably heard of Dutch Harbor where the fishing boats offload their crab catch. So far, Hospitality Hub has placed two of their clients at this location and it seems to be a great match – on top of good money, the employees receive room and board plus clothing from their employer.

As Kelcey showed me around, he pointed out the lockers they offer for the guests explaining that you can’t show up to a job interview carrying all of your worldly possessions. You’d either have to take it in with you, which I would imagine definitely hurts your chances of landing a job or you’d have to hide it somewhere and hope that no one steals it in the mean time. It seems to me like it would be pretty hard to be confident during the interview if you’re carrying trashbags full of your clothes. If you decide to go the route where you hide your belongings, for me it would be really hard to concentrate knowing that the last of my worldly life might be stolen while I’m trying to plead my case for a job.

Lockers for clients at the Hospitality Hub

Lockers for clients at the Hospitality Hub

If your home is like mine, you’ve got a lot of stuff. What of that is really important to you? If you could only keep what you could carry, what would you take? Important papers like birth certificates and passports? Would you hold onto pictures? How much clothing would you carry around? It must be cumbersome to lug your winter coat through Memphis when it’s 100 degrees outside. Would your guitar make the list?

Lone guitar at the Hospitality Hub

Lone guitar at the Hospitality Hub

During my time at the Hospitality Hub, I shadowed volunteer intake counselor Sandra Chandler, which is how I met the very interesting man with a voice made for radio – Mr. Marcus Clark. According to Marcus, he was laid off from his job in October, which was enough to force him out of his apartment. As Sandra walked him through the intake process, he “yes ma’am’d” and “no ma’am’d” his way through the interview questions. When she asked his birthday, I noticed that he was only a few years older than me, which made me feel inexplicably sad. I still harbor my own stereotypes even though I try not to. But little by little, like today with Marcus, those perceptions are slowly changed.

After Marcus answered Sandra’s questions I had an opportunity to talk with him and learn more. Marcus has had a hard life in many ways and he talks about all the loved ones he’s lost over the years. He told me that he’s working on a degree in computer technology and that he eventually wants to open his own business. He also talked about why material possessions are not important and how crazy it is to see people trampling each other on Black Friday to get “stuff.” Marcus had a great idea “I’d love to see ‘Black Friday’ commercial about helping others. ‘Hurry hurry hurry! Today only! Here’s your opportunity to get up early and go help someone else! Don’t miss out on your chance to be part of something important.‘ That’s what I’d like to see,” he told me. I’d like to see that too! Maybe I can get Marcus to lend his booming voice for the commercial. I loved talking with Marcus. I wish you could meet him too.

Marcus Clark and I and the Hospitality Hub

Marcus Clark and I and the Hospitality Hub

Kelcey and I talked about reasons that people become homeless and he said, “People are homeless for as many different reasons as there are flavors of candy, but ultimately many people end up in this situation because they’ve made bad long term decisions and burned all their bridges. If you [Kelcey was talking about me specifically] lost your job, had your house burn to the ground and had your car break down, you still wouldn’t end up on the street. Even if the same thing happened to your parents at the same time, you’d still be ok. Many of us have 20 layers of support – lots of safety nets – so that we don’t end up here, but many of these people have long since lost their relationships.” Kelcey explained that as part of the intake process they always ask for an emergency contact number “and you’d be amazed at the number of people who can’t give me a single name.” He said that he’d try to clarify and explain that they’ll only reach out to their emergency contact if it’s a true emergency like being hospitalized. He said that many people still say there’s no one to call. They’ll respond, “I can’t think of anyone who could care if I was in the hospital.” I stopped writing. “Can you imagine that?” Kelcey asked me. I can’t. I can’t even begin to imagine how lonely it must be to believe that there’s not a soul in the world who cares if you live or die.

After Marcus left, I talked with Kelcey and told him about the gift bags my family made on Thanksgiving Day, which he said was a great idea. I asked if they could put them to good use and as I’d hoped he said, “Ya we can!” I marveled at his enthusiasm for a few bags filled with socks and food. I stopped for a second to reflect on how much I’d learned this morning and how much Kelcey sees day in and day out. I wondered about his work and asked if it was hard to do this job. Kelcey said, “Job’s easy. Sleeping at night is the hard part.” For the second time that day I stopped writing and looked up at Kelcey.

Kelcey walked out with me to pick up the gift bags from my car and on the way I complimented him on not only the range of programs, but also that many of their services are designed to help people create better lives. He nodded and said, “Our goal is to help people permanently exit homelessness.” I’d never heard it put that way before, but I think it’s the perfect explanation and should be something that we all strive to achieve.

How to Help

Volunteer!

  • You can sign up to be an intake counselor, where you get the opportunity to interact with the homeless of Memphis – connect them with housing, employment services and provide hope.
  • Create gift bags for the homeless. See their wish list for idea
  • Participate during “clean up” weekends throughout the year to keep the facility clean and functional
  • Set up fundraising drives

Donate!

  • Make a financial contribution. Your money goes a long way!
    • $35 Pays for 8 night-time shelter vouchers
    • $50 Pays for 2 pairs of work shoes for 2 Job Program participants
    • $75 Pays for 50 MATA bus passes
    • $100 Pays for 11 Tennessee State I.D.s for our guests
    • $450 Pays for a day of services at the HUB
    • $1800 Pays for a week of services at the HUB
  • Donate items for the guests (like reading glasses and socks), donate items for the jobs program (like black pants) or give items for the Hub (like hand sanitizer and pens)

Give something from their big wish list:

  • All day bus passes for MATA
  • Video surveillance system
  • Controlled entry system
  • A women’s shelter (While I was there, a woman and her son came in and did not have a place to stay. It’s incredibly difficult to find a shelter that will accept a female and a teenage male child. The few shelters were full and unless a church or individual would donate the funds for night, this woman and her son are sleeping on the streets tonight).

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

What comes after the 30 Days of Mission Memphis? Volunteer Bound! I’m traveling across the country to promote volunteerism and I want to take you with me!

Follow the project on:
Facebook http://www.facebook.com/ConfessionsOfAVolunteer
Twitter @spetschonek

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Mission Memphis Day 29: Catholic Charities Mobile Food Pantry

The Experience

Did you know that 39% of children in Memphis live in poverty? That means more than a third of our children worry about things like having a warm coat and getting enough food each day. According to Therese Guistatis at Catholic Charities of West Tennessee, that’s twice the national average.

In June of this year, Catholic Charities started a Mobile Food and Clothes Pantry, which visits four different churches in the Catholic diocese (which includes all of Memphis and over to Jackson, TN).

Mobile Food and Clothes Pantry from Catholic Charities

Mobile Food and Clothes Pantry from Catholic Charities

I love the idea of a mobile pantry for many reasons. First, there is a lot of poverty in the suburban and rural areas of Memphis, but most of the services are located in or near downtown. It can be difficult for families to access these resources because of the travel involved and because many of these places are only open during regular business hours when people are working. Providing a mobile service in the late afternoon means that Catholic Charities will be able to reach more people across the Memphis area. I joined this incredible effort on their visit to Resurrection Catholic Church in the Hickory Hill area of Mendenhall and had an opportunity to learn about their mission and the families that they serve.

The food pantry efforts in this area go to serve many families in the Hispanic community who attend Resurrection Catholic School, which is one of the Jubilee Schools in the Memphis area. I talked with the school’s principal Stephanie Anderson and asked how the food pantry has made an impact. She explained that many of the families told her how grateful they were – not only for the fact that they were receiving food, but that the food pantry team made an effort to provide food that was familiar to the community. The team went to the school and church to find out what types of foods are most wanted in the Hispanic community and they try to tailor the food offerings based on the families’ preferences.

Mobile Food Pantry volunteers John McNary and Pat Minderman

Mobile Food Pantry volunteers John McNary and Pat Minderman

The Hispanic community is unique in several ways. Most of the families were very quiet during their visits and I got the impression that they did not want to be asking for help and were somewhat embarrassed to be receiving food donations. Mrs. Anderson confirmed this for me and explained that most of the families strongly desire to be self-sufficient and to provide for themselves. They see asking for help as a short coming and they’re very quiet about it. In an effort to be sensitive to their desire for privacy the food pantry sets up shop in a side parking lot well after the students have been dismissed from school for the day so that the parents and families have a little more discretion about picking up the food.

I was talking with some of the volunteers and they all spoke of how frugal and hard working the families are. As Mrs. Anderson described, the team makes an effort to select foods that the family is most likely to use. Back in the summer, they noticed that some of the families would return food if their family was unlikely to use it so that it could benefit another family in need. “They have a strong sense of community and they don’t want to waste anything” one of the volunteer told me. Within seconds of that statement, a family arrived to pick up their food and the mother returned the paper sacks from their pick up the previous month. Even the paper bags are treated with care. It’s pretty amazing to see.

John McNary and I carry food for one of the families at the Mobile Food Pantry

John McNary and I carry food for one of the families at the Mobile Food Pantry

While I was there, I mostly helped with carrying boxes of groceries out to the waiting cars in the parking lot. I noticed that most people were reluctant to let me help and I get the impression that they would have preferred to carry the groceries themselves as a simple gesture that they were committed to earning their food. Sometimes it’s hard to know whether your help with carrying groceries is perceived being helpful or if it’s just another reminder that they are relying on others for help.

I was talking with Felix Pesce about his role with the food pantry and why he devotes so much time to this particular effort. He said, “I didn’t want to go through life without a purpose and I’ve found that as log as you’re helping others, it’s hard to stay inside your own head. You don’t realize how miserable you are [with material possessions] until you step out of it.”

Volunteers Al and Felix

Volunteers Al and Felix

One of the amazing things about this project is that I learn about so many things along the way. While I was there, I met the “Clothing Man.” Bob Boord had been living an unhealthy lifestyle and had a heart attack several years ago. After that experience, he decided to give up smoking and spend the money on a worthwhile hobby. The Clothing Man drives around town buying up clothes at garage sales. As the story goes, he collects up the clothes, sorts them in his garage, and then transports them to a warehouse near Winchester. He periodically loads up his van and gifts the clothing to local groups like Catholic Charities and MIFA. What an incredible man! I met him briefly but learned his story from Mrs. Anderson and I hope to track him down for a future blog post!

"Clothing Man" Bob Boord

“Clothing Man” Bob Boord

It’s people like the Mobile Pantry team and the Clothing Man who are making a difference in our community. Therese Gustaitis agrees and explained that a strong volunteer base enables Catholic Charities to reach many more people even with limited resources.

Statue at Resurrection Catholic Church

Statue at Resurrection Catholic Church

You don’t have to be Catholic to serve or to be served. Regardless of your religious preferences, your help is welcome (and needed) at the many outreach opportunities at Catholic Charities. “Need knows no boundaries of ethnicity, age, faith or gender. Neither do we” – Catholic Charities

How to Help

Volunteer! There are many ways to help at Catholic Charities. Contact Therese Gustaitis at Therese.Gustaitis@acc.cdom.org for more information about volunteering. You can work with:

Donate! Every little bit helps!

Grant something from their wish list: Appliances, Furniture, Recreational Items, Linens, Clothing , Kitchen Items, Personal Hygiene, Consumables, Baby Items. Call (901) 722-4797 to make a donation.

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

What comes after the 30 Days of Mission Memphis? Volunteer Bound! I’m traveling across the country to promote volunteerism and I want to take you with me!

Follow the project on:
Facebook http://www.facebook.com/ConfessionsOfAVolunteer
Twitter @spetschonek
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Mission Memphis Day 28: Advance Memphis

The Experience

If you want to break the cycle of poverty in Memphis, go spend the day with an incredible group – Advance Memphis. This organization serves the 38126 zipcode, which was the 3rd poorest zipcode in the country in 1999. Their goal is to provide job skills, resources, knowledge, and support to adult in this community, in an effort to provide a path to a better life.

There are many programs at Advance Memphis that cater to the local community, but that also go beyond what you would normally expect for a program. For example, they offer a GED class and although they focus on the test itself, this class also deals with the social, community and individual barriers that might discourage people from completing their GED. At the beginning of the class, Mike Shaw shares a video that highlights Advance Memphis graduates as they discuss the obstacles that prevented their high school completion and that inspired them to earn their GEDs. What struck me about this video was the range of complex issues that affect high school graduation – taking care of siblings, the desire to make money to provide for family and sudden relocation. I think many people mistakenly conclude that a lack of high school diploma indicates laziness, but in many cases the opposite is true. People didn’t drop out of high school – many choose to leave because they were deciding among tough priorities. As the video played I looked at the GED hopefuls in the room and wondered whether this message of hope and understanding was touching them as well.

The GED courses are just once service. They also offer resume advice, mock job interviews, soft skills training, and financial advice. The thing that struck me, though, was the power of relationships. From the staff and volunteers, I learned that poverty extends well beyond finances. For many, this is a lifestyle devoid of hope where the present anguish is the only indication of what the future holds. Imagine that you’ve never heard any say, “You can do it” or “I believe in you.” What would life be like if every person and every place reinforced the concept of worthlessness? For many in this neighborhood, that experience and those beliefs have consumed entire lives. Imagine then, walking into Advance Memphis where a group of people reach out to you and tell you that there is a better life and your destiny is within your control. What an incredible message. It’s even more incredible when you can see that people are starting to believe it.

Among their many programs and services, Advance offers a “Champions” program where a volunteer meets with a small group for 12 weeks and provides the crucial relationship support aspect to the program. I have the opportunity to sit in on one of these sessions and to be perfectly honest, I was really nervous. I’ve worked in numerous homeless shelters and food banks, but I have never had a long conversation and I wasn’t sure what to expect. You know what I found? They’re people just like me. Their names are Ptosha, LaTasha and Kynertria. I found that I related to them quickly and that all barriers and nervousness melted away after just a few minutes. While I’ll always be a little nervous about meeting new people, I’m realizing more and more that we’re all just people. Deep down I know that already, but it’s easy to let anxiety cloud that fact. The more people you meet and the more communities you see will help you see past and ultimately eliminate these barriers. During the champion meeting, each person shared the obstacles to their success and I was touched by their poignant stories. I found myself wishing that I could do more to help, because although I was there to volunteer and to give, I truly believe that I received more than I gave.

Advance Memphis is very upfront about the fact that they are Christian focused and that they actively promote Christianity through their programs. Many of their programs and volunteer opportunities like Champions (mentioned above), counseling, and the Faith and Finance Allies require that their volunteers sign a statement of faith in order to volunteer because the topics center around Christianity. However, there are also many opportunities do not require this designation. For example, if you want to teach computer classes or interview skills, you are welcome regardless of your background. I asked their Director, Steve Nash, for clarification on this point. I shared with him that there are many volunteers who do not fall under the Advance Memphis statement of faith, but who would still want to help and make an impact. I asked how they regard these volunteers and what he would say to someone who wants to help, but without declaring a Christian affiliation. He said “While we have never backed away from who we are and what we believe, we are respectful of the fact that others may not share out beliefs. We’re not going to tell you what to believe and we respect your space and your beliefs. Regardless of your beliefs, we want to get to know you and your interests so we can find the best way to put your skills to use.”

How to Help

Volunteer! Regardless of your religious beliefs, you can make an impact here! Even something as simple as providing lunch can enable someone to focus on their mission in life. For a complete list of volunteer opportunities, visit their website.

Donate! Every little bit helps and your money will be put to good use!

Grant something on their wish list!

  • More employers to hire graduations from their Job for Life program
  • Assistance in remodeling. If you can resurface the floor, help with build outs, provide HVAC/electrical services, etc. they would be eternally grateful!
  • Upgrade phone system. They need help determine the right phone system for their business. Once that is nailed down, they’ll need donations to make it happen.

Follow them on Facebook.

Screen shot 2012-11-30 at 12.42.46 AMIf you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

What comes after the 30 Days of Mission Memphis? Volunteer Bound! I’m traveling across the country to promote volunteerism and I want to take you with me!

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Volunteer Bound

I’m going on a trip across the country and I want to take you with me!

After the the conclusion of Mission Memphis, I’m embarking on a new journey: Volunteer Bound!

Screen shot 2012-12-02 at 7.06.19 PM

Timeframe: December 2012

City 1: Portland, Oregon: Blanchet House
City 2: Boise, ID: Boise Rescue Mission
City 3: Salt Lake City, UT
City 4: Denver, CO
City 5: TBA
City 6: Kansas City, KS
City 7: St. Louis, MO
City 8: Nashville, TN
City 9: Atlanta, GA
City 10: Jacksonville, FL

I’ll be volunteering and blogging my way across America with the goal of promoting volunteerism from coast to coast. As with Mission Memphis, I’ll be chronicling these experience in real time so you can be part of this cross-country volunteer adventure and learn what you can do as a volunteer to combat hunger in America. Volunteer Bound starts from Portland, Oregon the first week of December and ends in Jacksonville, FL shortly before Christmas.

We need your help to make it happen! Here’s our wish list for the project:

  • Hotel rooms for each leg of the journey (hotel sponsorship or hotel points)
  • A 4 wheel drive SUV to get us through the mountains in December (pick up in Portland, drop off in Jacksonville Florida)
  • Plane tickets or airline miles
  • Donations for expenses IndieGogo

How to Help

  • Sponsor Volunteer Bound! We’re looking for sponsors to fund our project and we’d love to have your support!
    • You can donate on IndieGogo. Our goal, $7,241 will fund this project and future work promoting volunteerism. If this seems like an odd amount, you’re right! This figure is meant to remind you (and me!) that every dollar makes a difference and every little bit helps!
    • Sponsorship levels and details coming soon. Email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com to discuss sponsorship opportunities.
  • Help us promote Volunteer Bound:
    • Social Media: Facebook and Twitter #VolunteerBound
    • Media contacts along the way (list of cities coming shortly!)

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. – Margaret Mead

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Mission Memphis Day 27: SAVE Mobile Vision Unit

The Experience

When I was in the 6th grade, I noticed that it was becoming increasingly difficult to see the board at school. Because I was shy, I didn’t tell my teacher about it and I wouldn’t ask questions during class. Mid year, my teacher rearranged the room so that the trouble makers were up front and the well-behaved kids were in the back. The little bit of the board I could still see was now completely obsolete from my position in the last row. My school work suffered because I couldn’t fully participate in class and I wouldn’t bring it up because I didn’t want the extra attention.

Fortunately, my parents were quick to get glasses for me when I finally mentioned my difficulty seeing the board. With my new glasses, I walked outside and remember thinking “Wow – the trees have individual leaves!” There are many kids in the Memphis area who don’t have the option to see an eye doctor as easily as I did. Consequently, their education and self-confidence suffers because of it. That’s where SAVE’s Mobile Vision Unit rolls in.

The School Advocates for Vision and Education (SAVE) has a custom-made RV that provides on-site eye screenings at schools throughout Shelby County. Schnika Brown said that the bus is named after their mascot – a dog with glasses named Seymore (very clever, guys!).

SAVE’s Mobile Vision Unit – Seymore

The bus is packed to the gills with equipment for eye exams. There are two exam rooms and even a display case for children’s glasses. Despite all the equipment, it feels spacious and fun – it’s brightly decorated and they play educational movies for the kids as they wait for their appointments with the eye doctor.

Students waiting for their appointments and testing for color blindness with Schnika Brown

News Channel 3 is running a segment called Bright Spot and they’ll be featuring Mission Memphis: 30 Days of Volunteering. Markova Reed came to do a story on my volunteer work and she talked about volunteerism in the Memphis area. To round out the story, she dug into her purse and pulled out her own glasses. “Alright I’m going to wear my glasses on the air!” she told the kids.

News Channel 3’s Markova Reed on site. She even wore her glasses on air for the story

I met a very shy, soft-spoken eight-year-old girl who told me she was excited to get glasses. When I sat down beside her and asked why, she said that she’s been wearing glasses since she was five years old, but that she had accidentally fall asleep while wearing them and they broke. She seemed pretty sheepish about it and I told her that I had done the exact same thing! I described how my glasses split in half right down the middle and that I’ve been holding them together with glue and tape like Harry Potter. She gave me a big smile after that!

Dr. Amar Sayani examines Emily Shaw

I asked Dr. Amar Sayani about the importance of pediatric vision screenings and he was clearly enthusiastic about the topic! He explained that most parents believe that their children’s regular check up includes a sufficient eye exam; however, these exams are only meant to check for extreme problems and often over look the most common issue in children: amblyopia. He said it’s critical to make sure that children get eye exams early in life and it’s best to visit a pediatric optometrist, who will have the right equipment and expertise to diagnose and treat children.

I talked with Emily right after she saw Dr. Sayani and she described the eye exam and how strange it was to have her eyes dilated! Shortly after this picture was taken, Schnika gave her some sunglasses to wear outside while we escorted her on the short walk from Seymore the bus back to the school building.

Emily and Sarah in SAVE’s mobile vision unit

I also had the opportunity to talk with some of the teachers at guidance counselors at the school. One of the teachers, Jessica Buddy described how glasses can impact the students: “They feel good about themselves and they feel a sense of confidence when they can see and learn like everyone else because they can actually see what’s on the board. It changes their performance – they can do a lot more just because they can see.” That comment from Jessica is what jogged my memory about my experience in 6th grade. Their guidance counselor, Sandra McDurmon added “they’re so excited when they get their glasses – they want to pick up stuff and read it!” which is exactly what I noticed on the bus. Lauren Mitchell elaborated: “It really makes them feel more confident and makes them want to participate. Sometimes you might think they don’t know an answer, but it’s really that they just can’t see the board and a lot of times they’re not vocal enough to say anything.” That’s the group I feel into – I was too quiet to say anything so I would avoid participating all together. I asked whether Sandra and Lauren thought that students could go for years without being able to see the board if it weren’t for the mobile vision unit and they both said “Absolutely!”

Emily shops for glasses

I talked with SAVE’s Director Sharon Kauerz and asked her what she hopes their volunteers will take away from the experience and she replied, “I would like them to understand that we can have the greatest schools, the best teachers, the most money thrown at education…but, none of that matters one bit if the child cannot see. Every child should have a comprehensive eye exam before they enter school. They don’t know they can’t see. And, if the child cannot see they will not be successful in school OR life!”

Director Sharon Kauerz and a one of the students

During my time with SAVE, I walked the kids to and from the bus Seymore and talked with them while they waited for their appointments. I did some paperwork for Schnika and restocked the glasses on the display case. If you have a few hours to give and you like working with kids, this would be a great project for you!

When I asked Sharon about why she finds this work rewarding, she said, “It’s amazing to have a child put on his first pair of glasses and hear him say ‘I can see the leaves!'” I can definitely relate!

How to Help

Volunteer! SAVE is looking for volunteers to escort the kids to and from the bus, help with paperwork and other simple tasks throughout the day. No knowledge of optometry required! They are especially in need of volunteers on the days when both exam rooms are running because they’ll have twice as many kids to examine. Contact Sharon Kauerz at 901-277-3835 or skauerz@memphisvision.org. You can also visit their website for more information.

Donate! You’ll be able to see your investment put to good use (I couldn’t help myself).

Follow them on Facebook

Give something from their wish list:

  • Credit cards to use for gas for the mobile vision unit (credit cards, gift cards)
  • Office supplies
  • Educational DVD’s for viewing in the “waiting room”

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

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Mission Memphis Day 26: Mid-South Food Bank

The Experience

For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to feed people who were hungry.  When I was young, my parents and I would organize food drives in our neighborhood and collect donations in our little red wagon. The salient part of this experience was not just going door to door in the Florida summer heat, but the fact that my parents took the time to explain why we were doing it. They told me that I’d be surprised by the people who visit the Mandarin Food Bank. They might be the people next to us at the park or even one of the kids sitting next to me in class. Their message was profound – you never know what hunger looks like. As if that wasn’t already a lot to absorb as an eight year old, they explained that there are many people who work really hard, but still can’t feed their families. It’s not for us to judge. It’s just our job to help.

Someone once told me that other cultures have the reverse of our birthday traditions. Instead of getting on your birthday, you spend the day giving and I loved this idea. Each year, I like to spend some time volunteering on my birthday and most recently I decided to spend that time with the Mid-South Food Bank.

Mid-South Food Bank

As part of this project, I went back to the Mid-South Food Bank to help and learn more about their organization. A lot of parents have asked me about volunteer opportunities for their children at the Mid-South Food Bank, but sometimes sorting cans in a busy warehouse is not the best way to help children understand the concept of hunger. Thankfully, Paula Rushing, the volunteer coordinator at the Mid-South Food Bank, understands this dilemma – the desire to expose children to hunger and poverty in a way that is salient for them. Paula offers a program called the “Budget Experience” where children are given play money to spend during the course of the exercise. Then life happens from their tight budget, there are unexpected expenses – a hospitalization, a roof leak, car repairs – which eat into their budget. After shelling out cash for the necessities, the kids are asked to shop for enough groceries to feed their family for a week. After they complete their trip to the grocery store, Paula helps the students assess their spending habits, and their food choice: do you have enough food and did you purchase healthy food.  In addition, the students watch an excellent video from Sesame Street and PBS called Growing Hope Against Hunger, which presents the idea of childhood hunger in a way that’s accessible for children.

While I was at the Mid-South Food Bank, I had the opportunity to talk with their Director, Estella Mayhue-Greer. Estella is very polished: poised and confident, each word is selected carefully and each sentence is constructed thoughtfully. Everything about Estella says confident, capable, and passionate. When I asked her about the mission of the food bank and the importance of their work, I expected her to quote some stats about hunger in the Mid-South and how many pounds of food they distribute. Instead, she opened with a story. “When I was in second grade, I remember eating dinner and asking my mom why she wasn’t eating with us” and it wasn’t until later that Estella realized her mother was passing up the opportunity to eat in order to make sure her children were fed. I looked at Estella intently. I would never have guessed that about her. And that’s the point – you can’t assess need and hunger just by looking at someone.

Within the first two minutes, it’s easy to tell that this is more than a job for Estella. “I feel like everything I’ve done and learned in my life has prepared me for this role” she told me. She’s on a mission to change the way people thing about hunger. She described instances in the past where some food pantries would try to hang on to food as if each recipient were required to pass judgment in order to receive their meals. I could tell that this scenario – judging and withholding is one of her hot button issues. She recanted one of her famous speeches:

We need to start thinking differently. The face of hunger has changed. Many people are doing everything they’re supposed to do to make ends meet and they’re making hard decisions about how to spend their money. Stop holding onto their food. It’s not your food and you’re not the food police.

I said the only thing that came to mind: “I hope I’m never on the receiving end of one of your speeches.” She laughed. I meant it!

“We’re only feeding about half of the people who are hungry and we need to start thinking about the big picture” she said. Estella went on to explain that their mission is about more than extinguishing hunger: “It’s about moving people from hunger to health.” The Mid-South Food Bank is committing themselves to providing as much healthy food as possible to their customers, but it’s not without challenges. For example, fresh produce is a staple of a healthy diet, but it spoils quickly, so there’s a huge push to acquire, sort and distribute fresh produce efficiently in order to get as much as possible into the hands of their customers. She explained that their new emphasis on produce has generated additional demand for volunteers. I asked what would happen to their mission if they had no volunteers. I wish you could have seen the look on her face. For the first time in our conversation, Estella seemed to be at a loss for words. After a long pause, she eventually said, “We would be lost.”

Now I feel that I should confess something to you. I volunteer in different food pantries around the city and I am always quick to carry groceries for someone, because it gives me an extra opportunity to get to know people. Recently, I took food to someone’s car and noticed that their car was really nice and I made a snap judgment. I remember thinking “Why do you need the food pantry if you drive a car like that.” I’m mad at myself for entertaining that thought for any length of time even if it was only a split second. . As Estella reminded me, they might have borrowed that car from a neighbor in order to pick up their food. That car might be their last possession. It might be their only source of shelter. Sometimes I make snap judgments even when I don’t mean to, but I’ve realized that the more I volunteer and the more people I met, the more compassionate I become.

I asked Paula what she hopes volunteers will take away from their experience with the Mid-South Food Bank. In addition to understanding their mission and the scope of their operation, Paula said, “I want volunteers to know that no matter what they do at the Food Bank (sweeping the floor, stuffing letters or working with food) they are helping to feed the community.  The gift of one volunteer hour enables the Food Bank to distribute 44 meals!”

Do you have an hour to give?

Refrigerated truck at the Mid-South Food Bank

How to Help

Volunteer!

  • There are so many ways to volunteer at the Mid-South Food Bank! You can work in the warehouse, on Saturdays, as an individual, or as a group. You can also do clerical work, help with the backpack program, or help with special events. There are many rewarding ways to be involved.
  • It’s important to note that the Mid-South Food Bank does NOT have client-facing volunteer opportunities at their main headquarters. If that’s the experience you’re looking for, please contact a local food pantry – they’re in every area of the city including Collierville and Germantown.
  • Help Paula facilitate the “Budget Experience” courses for kids, with more than 5,000 volunteers a year, this coordinator could use an extra set of hands to help with some of their programs.
  • Contact Paula Rushing prushing@midsouthfoodbank.org about volunteer opportunities.

Host a food drive! Their most needed items are:

  • Money to purchase wholesome food
  • Canned meats, including tuna, stews, chicken and dumplings, chili, Spam, soups
  • Peanut butter
  • Canned fruits
  • Canned veggies
  • Canned 100% fruit juice
  • Any non-perishable item, but no glass containers, please

Donate! The Mid-South Food Bank can stretch your dollar! For every $1 you donate, they can purchase $4 worth of food! Can you spare a dollar? How about ten dollars?

Supply an item on their wish list:

  • Bob trucks (large refrigerated trucks like the one in the picture above)
  • Freezers
  • Forklifts
  • Palette jacks

Educate! Teach yourself, your family and your friends about the widespread problem of hunger insecurity. Learn the facts about hunger.

Participate in a special event like one of their upcoming food drives.

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

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Mission Memphis Day 25: The Nashville Food Project

The Experience

I lived in Nashville for about a year and when I first moved there, I knew I wanted to spend a good bit of time volunteering and learning about my new city. Through the extensive calendar at Hands on Nashville, I learned about an organization called The Nashville Food Project, which quickly became one of my favorite volunteer opportunities.

The Nashville Food Project is designed to create healthy food and deliver it by truck to the low income areas of Nashville to ensure that everyone regardless of their income has access to a nutritious meal. They food the turn out of that tiny kitchen is amazing – Like summer stir fry with beef or vegetarian lasagna. From the minute I walked into their offices I was hooked! There was fresh produce on every shelf and everything was incredibly well organized. It was clear that the team had fully embraced the idea of providing a rewarding and seamless experience for their volunteers. After a couple times of volunteering, one of the project leaders suggested that I look into becoming a volunteer leader myself so that the Nashville Food Project in cooperation with Hands on Nashville could offer more meals each month. After a little arm twisting (ok definitely no arm twisting required), I signed up to run the project on the fourth Sunday of every month for six months. Two months in, I moved back to Memphis, but I love the project so much that I continue to drive to Nashville each month to work with the project. If my count is correct, Day of Mission Memphis marks my fifth time to lead a group for the Nashville Food Project.

This incredible project is housed in a small, unassuming building in the corner of a church parking lot. When I walk in for the project, there is a row of clipboards and one has my name and the date for the delivery. On a nearby shelf, another sheet displays what I’m supposed to prepare and take for the trip that day, and tells me the places we’ll be visiting.

My shelf at The Nashville Food Project

About 70-80% of the food served is hot (like the veggie lasagna mentioned above), but on the weekend shifts stick to sandwiches and fruit.  Shortly after I get there, the volunteers start to show up to prep the sandwiches for the trip, which usually involves making 60-80 turkey sandwiches. One of the volunteers, Brittany is there consistently each time I’m working, despite that fact that she was working two jobs and putting herself through school. While you can’t see all the sandwiches in this picture, the wonderful volunteers assembled 60 sandwiches for the delivery.

Tram Giroir, Brittany Orpurt, Lisa Freeman

Generally, I experience a volunteer opportunity from the perspective of the volunteer, rather than the volunteer coordinator. This project is one of the few instances where I feel like the volunteer experience is up to me – that it’s my responsibility to make sure that each volunteer feels valued and appreciated. It always makes me a little nervous because I put a lot of pressure on myself to provide a meaningful experience. It’s nerve racking because you never know who is going to show up (or if they’re going to show up), and most of the people I interact with are new to the project. When we get new volunteers, I make an effort to point the map wall (as I call it), which highlights the different areas served by the project and includes a brief description of each location.

Map wall at The Nashville Food Project headquarters

When we have it, I also like to point out all the fresh produce that’s donated (hundreds of pounds) or grown in the garden out back.

Homegrown and gleaned produce at The Nashville Food Project

Before we leave, we take a few minutes to talk about guidelines for the volunteers and what to expect from the experience. I explain that most people will be very gracious and friendly, but sometimes people are grumpy and that’s ok. I tell them that I’ve never had any trouble on one of the deliveries and that it’s likely to be a rewarding experience, but sometimes people can be unpredictable and if anyone feels uncomfortable that we’ll leave. I just want to make sure that everyone feels as prepared and comfortable as possible especially if this will be their first client-facing experience in the area of hunger and poverty.

After prepping the sandwiches and covering the basics, we grab the fruit, hardboiled eggs and any special produce and load up one of the two trucks for delivery.

Ready to roll with The Nashville Food Project truck

Once we get to the site, we’ll set up and assembly line to hand out the food, which on this run included turkey sandwiches, string cheese, apples and oranges, and hardboiled eggs.

Lisa Freeman, Adam Anghilnate, and Jessica Summers assembling a bag of food

Usually we also take bananas and those tend to be the most popular. I quickly learned that the soft foods tend to go quickly because many of the people who receive food might be missing most or all of their teeth. The first time I realized this I was shocked – not because their teeth were missing, but because it was so hard to tell! Many people alter the way they talk in an effort to hide their mouth. I’ve had entire conversations without realizing that someone was missing their teeth.

One of the many amazing things about this project is that I get the opportunity to visit the same sites each month, which gives me the opportunity to build relationships with the people we serve and to learn their stories. For example, one of our regular characters is Jack – an overweight Chihuahua who rides around contently in his owner’s wheelchair. Jack’s owner has a cowboy hat and a long beard and he seems happy to let Jack steal the show. I’ve seen them on every trip. Everyone knows him, but no one knows his real name. We all call him “Jack’s owner” and he typically peppers us with jokes on our visits.

The other incredible thing is what the experience does for the volunteers. When we leave from the church parking lot, everyone is pretty quiet, because they’re strangers to one another. So, I tend to run my mouth and ask everyone lots of questions to get them talking. On the ride home, my poor emcee skills are thankfully not needed – everyone talks about their common experience and swaps stories about the trip. The whole process is designed to build community in more ways than one.

I love this project for many reasons. I think there are two main things that really got me hooked in the first place. I love the idea that everyone is deserving of a good, nutritious meal rather than the scraps and cheapest food available. Everything that comes out of the kitchen at the Nashville Food Project is thoughtfully prepared to be good! It sends the message that we’re all equal and that everyone is worth the extra effort necessary to offer wholesome food. Second, this is a wonderful experience for volunteers because it gives you the opportunity to interact with the clients and it challenges your perception of what poverty looks like. It’s a rewarding experience for everyone involved. I wish I could duplicate this group and drop one in every city.

I could go on about this project forever. I love The Nashville Food Project. But instead, I’ll leave you with my favorite parting words from the Director of the Project, Tallu Quinn:

“The daily story of the meals we serve reminds us of what we can do with that excess, of how we can reconfigure our lives with imagination so that we might be more concerned with others around us having enough than with making sure we ourselves have plenty”

The Nashville Food Project Approach

How to Help

Volunteer! There are daytime, weeknight, and weekend volunteer opportunities with this amazing project. You can cook, garden, prep, deliver or any combination of these activities. For more information about volunteering, check the Hands on Nashville calendar or contact The Nashville Food Project’s volunteer coordinator Nathan Dryden at nathan@thenashvillefoodproject.org.

Donate! Every little bit helps and they can stretch your dollar a long way!

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

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In the News: The Daily News (Memphis)

I’m so honored to have Mission Memphis featured in The Daily News today. Thanks, Richard Alley for the great write-up:
Volunteer State: Memphian gives back to community every day in November.

Check out In the News for more press about the project.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed!

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Mission Memphis Day 24: St. Vincent DePaul

The Experience

The St. Vincent DePaul soup kitchen has been running in an old radio station on Cleveland and started from humble beginnings. Local church members handed out a few sandwiches from an old popcorn stand.

The demand has grown and 200 people a day come to St. Vincent DePaul in search of food and clothing. As you can imagine, you need a large kitchen and a lot of space in order to feed so many people and this organization has been looking to expand, but the process was complicated for many reasons. First of all, they wanted something within easy walking distance of the current location because so many people have come to rely on the services in that area. This restriction dramatically limited the viable options for expansion. In addition, many of the businesses in the area will protest the addition of a soup kitchen because it “draws the wrong crowd” and “scares the customers.” After a lot of searching, St. Vincent DePaul secured a space (within walking distance of their current location) on Monroe just off North Cleveland.

Future home of St Vincent DePaul Soup Kitchen

Future home of St Vincent DePaul Soup Kitchen

The great news is that the building will be large enough to provide for hundreds, but there’s a lot of work to do, including constructing a kitchen from scratch. I spent the morning washing down the walls so a team of volunteers from GE can paint this week. The work was straight forward, but the highlight was talking to the other volunteers.

While I worked and scrubbed with Marsha, I noticed that there were two teenagers there helping. To be honest, I expected to hear them grumbling about the fact that their dad had dragged them in on a Saturday to get their mandatory service hours. What I found was something entirely different!

Merryn, Logan, and Fritz Ruthling volunteering at St. Vincent DePaul

I told the group about my project and asked if I could talk with them for my blog and they agreed right away. I learned that Merryn (12) and her brother Logan (17) really enjoy volunteering and that they participate regardless of the service hours. I was so impressed with both of them! They were so focused and mature! When I asked about why they enjoy it, the responses came pouring out. Logan said “We come from a really privileged area and we don’t normally get to see a lot outside of our bubble.” He said that he’s been volunteering for several years and talked about the first time he remembers seeing true poverty, “I had no idea that people could live like that. People with nothing would come in with a smile on their face to get their only hot meal of the day. They didn’t just leave smiling – they came in smiling. If I was in their position, I’d be coming in grumpy” he told me.

I asked Merryn volunteer experience and she said that she really enjoys helping people. “I believe that the people we’re caring for are Jesus in disguise” she said. One of her favorite projects was working with Project Outreach (featured earlier in Day 20 of this project) because they adopted a family and shopped for the things on their Christmas list and then delivered these gifts to the family. Merryn described in detail what gifts they bought and what the home looked like. It obviously made an impression on her and I assumed it was a recent experience. I thought to myself that she must’ve done that last year when she was eleven. When I asked how long ago it was, Merryn said, “I was five.” I was stunned at how much she recalled and what an impression it made. I asked it she also remembered how she felt after their visit and she recounted, “I remembering thinking that I felt so lucky to be able to help them and luck to live in a nice neighborhood.”

I looked at their Dad, Fritz, in awe. Almost without thinking I asked what he did to get his children to turn out to be such incredible people. He looked a bit bashful and uncomfortable with the praise, although just below the blushing I could see that he was beaming at his kids. He explained that they tried to raise their children to be compassionate and grateful. He attributed a lot of it to prayer, church, and talking with them about empathy and helping others.

After a short pause, Logan jumped in. “I’ll tell you what did it for me. When when were younger, Merryn used to call me a ‘little boy’ and it drove me crazy because I wanted to be a grown man. I looked to my dad and he talked about what real men do – helping others but not for honor or glory – when no one else sees you but God sees you.” This comment from Logan prompted Frtiz to add that he and his wife used to donate and volunteer very quietly – so quietly that even their kids didn’t know the extent of their work. “But we realized that while we don’t want the glory, that it’s important to model the behavior that we want from them. Sometimes we see Logan sneak money into the basket at church. I think he thinks that we don’t see him do it but we know.” I looked over at Logan and realized that he had inherited his dad’s bashfulness.

Merryn echoed Logan’s sentiments about looking to their parents as a role model. “I know Dad doesn’t like the attention” she told me. “He’s humble and modest.” I looked to Fritz to confirm this to see that he was definitely embarrassed. I think was flat out astonished when Merryn said, “When I think about helping others, I ask myself WWDD – what would Dad do?”

Sometimes the most incredible thing about a volunteer experience is someone you meet along the way. In this case, three amazing someones.

How to Help

Volunteer! Contact Dan Label danieldjl@aol.com to volunteer at the current soup kitchen. Contact Peter Giannini gian57@bellsouth.net to renovate the future soup kitchen location.

Donate! Every bit helps and your money goes to a very worth cause. Contact Peter Giannini to donate kitchen supplies or equipment to the new facility.

If you’re thinking about volunteering with this organization or in general, but aren’t quite ready to jump in, email me at sarah.petschonek@gmail.com. Thinking about helping is the first step!

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