Site: San Miguel School, Back of the Yards Campus – Chicago, IL
College: Saint Mary’s College of California
What do you do?
I form part of the Family and Graduate Support Team, working mainly with graduates of the middle school, aiding them to ensure they get all the way through high school.
What have you discovered about poverty from your work?
What I have discovered about poverty is that it goes far beyond the lack of finances. It is easy for mainstream society to blame the poor for not seeking opportunities, for not making the most of their situation with all the benefits that this country has to offer, etc. What gets forgotten, and is the most difficult to understand without experiencing it, is that not everyone has the same opportunities out there. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to bite my tongue, because I am suddenly aware that I can’t assume that these students are legal, I can’t assume that they always have parental supervision, I can’t assume that the recent shootings aren’t affecting their behavior. It’s more obvious to me than ever that I may not have grown up with money, but that I always had opportunities available to me. Poverty is not something that people seek out, it’s not something that can be overcome, it’s something that is created by society and that you are either born into or not.
Have you noticed any signs of success in your work? What are they?
Working with graduates is not the easiest job in the world. I don’t have the advantage of seeing “my students” in a classroom every day, or on a court a few times a week. In order to really work with them and be effective, a relationship has to be built. Being “the rookie” on my team, I really have to make an effort to get the students to open up to me and let me know when they need help. For the most part, I have been nothing but a staff person to them, someone they go to for help with logistical stuff “Can I use the phone to call my mom?” or do you know where (insert any name) is?”. Last week, on one of the days when I wasn’t running tutoring, I came in to get some students to sign thank you cards for donors. To my surprise the students started to ask about me, and say “How’s it going Ms. Betty?” and “Why aren’t you working today?”. Suddenly, I’m not just a staff person, not only do I have a name, but they acknowledged my presence without me having to approach them first. Certainly bigger moments of trust have occurred, and deeper conversations have taken place, but in that moment it was totally unexpected and made me feel like I haven’t turned them away yet.
Which of the core values (Faith, Community, Service) are most important to you? Why?
While all three core values have been very important and present in my experience as a volunteer, I feel that Faith has really been the one that has gotten me through my adjustment to my life as a volunteer. It has been hard for me to be away from home, to adjust to “new roommates”, new schedules, a new job, and on top of everything to live in a very rough neighborhood. There have been multiple times when going home and giving this all up would have been more than justified, but since the beginning I’ve truly believed that I am meant to be here, that there is some greater purpose to the tough times, and that despite it all, I am in a good place.
What would you say to one of your students/mothers/clients/guests who came to you discouraged about a particularly troubling problem?
What I find myself saying to both graduates and their parents when they are discouraged is “that’s completely understandable”. I think it’s important to provide some sort of consolation, but it’s equally important to never feel pity, or to try to make it seem like you know exactly what they are going through. When people come to you with a problem they usually just need for someone to acknowledge that the problem does exist, that it does (for lack of a better word) suck, and that there isn’t something completely wrong with them for not knowing what to do or getting into that situation in the first place. Regardless of how the point gets across, it’s important to me that after we talk they get the sense that if I was in their exact situation, with their resources, with their attachment to the problem, I too would feel the same way. Once that common ground is established, it is much easier to work together to try to find a solution, or if there isn’t one, to at least provide a sense that someone else “gets it”.
What might you say to your Principal/Supervisor who appeared negative about the recent behavior of the person just above who had recently confided in you?
I think it’s important to communicate that the student or parent or whoever came to you seeking help. In some situations it isn’t appropriate to share all or any of the details, but it really helps to re-frame the behavior for the other person. It’s easy to forget in the mechanics of the day (especially when working with teens in a school setting) that people exist within their environment. A behavior is never simply a behavior, it’s a response to what they have experienced and what they’re trying to deal with in that moment. Working with the population we’re working with, it’s important to continuously check-in on family life and happenings in the neighborhood, sometimes you forget to take that into consideration, but an easy reminder usually puts people back on track.
What would you say to a friend from home who questioned why you chose to live with the Brothers?
People who don’t understand why I live with Brothers, typically don’t understand the entire Lasallian Mission. So first you have to go into what a Brother is, what they do, and then you can go into why they live in community. Then they look at you and think “you’re a young, un-vowed female, what does that have anything to do with you?”. Then you can go into the type of work that we do and how draining it can be. While the days are rewarding, you are still often left with the sense that the world is unjust, that so few people are trying to help those that are obviously in need, and that regardless of how many hours you put in, you are still barely making a dent towards change. Living in community is about experiencing these feelings along with others, it’s about being able to talk about your job without people giving you that look and thinking you’re crazy. Community is not always fun, and it’s not always enjoyable, but it gets you through the tough days.
Why would you recommend the LV program to a college senior considering volunteering?
Strictly speaking from a career point of view, the LV program is a really good option for a college senior. It never ceases to amaze me that I have a real grown-up job and am treated like a real grown-up employee. It seems like something so simple, but to find a job straight out of college, without having much experience, without necessarily knowing what you want to do with your life, and with a really manageable commitment (you can do one year of anything), is pretty amazing. Even if my placement turns out not be to fulfilling, and life-altering (which I think it will be), it’s going to look great on my resume and my grad school applications for the future.
Why would you recommend a contribution to the LV Program from a prospective donor?
There are a lot of really good volunteer programs out there to donate to, nobody is going to deny that. I would recommend the LV program specifically to donors because in many ways it’s very unique. Everybody wants to donate to that group that sends people into the poor villages in “developing countries”, it’s easy to think that the places that are very far away are the ones that need the most help. The LV program stays right here, in the most common cities of the United States, taking on the challenge of that neighborhood that everyone wants to look away from, places that so obviously need help, that are so obviously not being served. There’s also the aspect of community. It exists not only within each site, but within the entire network. Each site is different and each volunteer has a different experience, but it’s really obvious that even if you’re in a southern state you can call a volunteer in California and they’re going to be able to relate. Our connection to the Christian Brothers and the traditions of Saint John Baptist De La Salle are also very unique and give us a very real, very effective model that at the core has the very best of intentions.