I must confess, I have a strange and impractical new love- kayaking. No, the love of the sport isn’t odd, but my love without an ability to swim is. Around this time last year, two wilderness-savvy volunteers took me out on the Hudson up in the Adirondacks for my fist kayaking adventure. With my heart in my throat and my eyebrows tangled in my hairline I paddled about a mile upstream, through some mild rapids and back down to the A-frame cabin. With every wave from a passing boat, every rock I scraped, and every time I lost grip of the oar a ring of panic squeezed my chest, but the guys were right there to guide me through the shallow patches and remind me that I wasn’t alone. With their support and encouragement I was able to achieve something I had previously considered impossible. After a few days I was hooked, and now I’m the first person in a boat whenever I get the chance.
Two months into my second year, I realize that God used that weekend to guide me through my volunteer experience. For many of us, our volunteer experience marks the first time that we will live completely out of our comfort zones. We’ve moved away from what is most familiar- family, friends, cultures, customs, climates, regions and religions– all of the things that together created the very unique individuals that we are. We’ve each climbed into our kayaks and set out up river, away from the familiarity and predictability of home’s shore. But we are not travelling alone. 42 kayakers set out with us, each bringing over 20 years of knowledge and life experience with them. 20 years sounds like nothing alone, but 20 times 42, now that’s some serious wisdom.
At my service site I see people every day who have also made this dive, not simply for a year or two, but for their entire lives. At Serviam Gardens I serve a predominantly elderly immigrant population. Some of my clients have been in the US for a lifetime, while others have been here only five or ten years, and others for even less. At a young age or at an old age, with spouses, with siblings, with young children or alone, these rest-seeking “weary and heavily burdened” have travelled from lands around this earth, leaving all that they have ever known in search of a better life. It is immensely humbling for me to hear their stories and realize that I am in the presence of someone who has weathered storms that make my waves look like ripples in a bath tub.
It is in working with my clients that I draw on the memory of my kayaking adventure. Clients come by my office from the moment I arrive to the time I leave with questions about any and everything. Sometimes they need help contacting a doctor’s office or the social security office. Sometimes they want help filling out a voter registration form or a reduced fare subway pass request. Sometimes they need help understanding official documents. Sometimes they just want someone to talk to. At first all of this was so overwhelming for me; all of these people trusted me to find them answers to questions even I don’t know. Every phone call to a government office or every shaky translated explanation of a document was an epic voyage into uncharted waters. But just before leaving for a final get together of east coast LVs at the A-frame, I realized that these questions and concerns were their waves, scrapes and slips. God placed me at Serviam to provide them with support and encouragement to get them through their journeys. Even just by lending an ear I was helping them be more comfortable, more confident, and more capable. Remembering how much the peace of mind the volunteers provided to me helped me reinforced my drive to make sure that every client who enters my office leaves with that same sense of peace.
This past Labor Day weekend the new east coast LVs and I made our first trip of the year up to the Adirondacks. Before long I was out on the water, this time as a “seasoned veteran,” if you will. As we paddled back up the river I heard myself sharing the same advice that the former volunteers had given me. By the end of the trip, hardly anyone stayed on land. Everyone was kayaking, both into new waters and into new life.
Jen Sneed, 11-13, Serviam Gardens, Bronx, NY