Coming from a suburban lifestyle my first walk to work through San Francisco’s Tenderloin District (TL) stirred up many emotions, few positive. I still remember stepping over needles and feces and seeing the hopeless look on the faces of people gripped by systematic poverty and thinking to myself, “How is this possible?” I, for the first time in recent memory, was speechless. I couldn’t fathom how people were left to live like this. I couldn’t understand how in one of America’s premier and richest cities people were left living in this deep squalor. A second thought soon entered my mind, at the same time, “How am I going to make it to here?” I was half tempted to just tell the LV program they made a mistake placing me here and a different site would be a better fit. I knew I had to give it a shot and as that first week progressed, I couldn’t believe how judgmental and misguided my initial impression was.
I soon realized that I was going to make it in the TL because seeing others go to work every day to make this community a better place was too powerful to not want to emulate. Whether that was the Saint Anthony’s workers ensuring that Golden Gate Avenue was safe, the security guard next door always making sure the streets are clear for our students, the men and women at the various non-profits providing those in need essential services or the local shop owners who offer you a friendly hello on the street and at lunchtime serve the best meal you ever had is what makes the TL special. The real TL is a group of caring people united in the same cause, vested in each other’s success ensuring that the best possible care is given to the less fortunate. Then there is a piece of this community where I can contribute, De Marillac Academy.
Founded in 2001 as a Lasallian Vincentian School, De Marillac Academy (DMA) is attempting to breakdown the systematic poverty in the TL through education. The school views itself as a community partner and supports the needs of our students and families in many different ways. As an instructor, I can personally say that my students amaze me. They amaze me with their ability to work hard and overcome the many challenges that they face in order to achieve their ultimate goals. They amaze me with the pride and dedication they put into their works. They amaze me with the little acts of kindness they show to their teachers and classmates. I remember during one of my first weeks at DMA, one of my students was struggling to grasp a concept, I was struggling and fed up with why they weren’t understanding what I was saying when a different student stepped in to offer us both help. It was through her intervention that the student got the assignment and I learned that I was explaining things in terms that were too abstract for a fifth grader. I will admit to this day that sometimes I do resort back to a college level vocabulary but my students know that they simply need to say, “Mr. Javorsky stop using big words,” and I adapt my lessons.
Another example that encapsulates the power of the partnerships within the community at DMA happened in early December. I was standing outside dismissing my students when a parent came up to me and said something along the lines of “my daughter is really struggling in math and is too shy to ask for help.” I soon began to make sure I paid some extra attention to this student and realized that she really did need some help. I made sure that the other instructors were aware and as a team, we supported this student and she has made tremendous growth in math ever since. A few weeks ago, that same mother came up and thanked me for all that I have done for her daughter. It is a community like De Marillac that allows for this type of communication to happen but more importantly one where we have the ability and resources to give students the needed support.
DMA also strives to give back to the broader Tenderloin community and it was during one of these moments that I witnessed something that stopped me in my tracks. Some of my students were having a small bake sale to raise money for charity. A man clearly down on his luck reached into his pocket and gave them what I assume is pretty much everything that he had, about 35 cents. He didn’t want a treat but you could see that his day was made a little bit better by his interaction with the kids. This event blew me away and I realized no matter how small it may be we all have something to give. DMA is not only a powerful community within itself where students and families come together to offer kids a brighter future but also a place that makes the broader TL better.
Now in terms of my place in both the DMA and the TL community I refuse to embrace a savior-complex and say these communities need me but I do know I need these communities. I have become a better person while being an LV. I have gained a deep perspective into a world much different from the one where I grew up. I hope that this understanding will help me in my future endeavors by allowing me to help those less fortunate. I have also learned many critical life lessons and gained practical skills both living with the Brothers and working at DMA that I know I wouldn’t have learned without doing a year of service.
The TL is a community that clearly has immense poverty but it is also one that defies its stereotypes. DMA and TL are both communities I am proud to be a part of. The people of the Tenderloin have created a vibrant community that I think it is worth celebrating. I am eternally grateful that DMA and the TL have allowed me to be part of their communities during my year of service. If I would have gone with my initial impressions and asked to be placed elsewhere, I can’t imagine how different my life would be.
Zach Javorsky is a first-year volunteer serving at De Marillac Academy in San Francisco, California. He is a 2014 graduate of Pittsburgh Central Catholic.