Archive for July, 2011

Thoughts from Graduation

Early this morning, the members from the Denver campus of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) were roused from their sleep and finished clearing and cleaning our rooms.  As we prepared to depart on our individual paths, many of us were exhausted and, as we waited out on the lawn, a number of Corps Members (CMs) and Team Leaders (TLs) took the opportunity to catch up on sleep. 

Over the past ten months, we have lived side by side, and now we were preparing to depart from all that we have learned to love and cherish.

As the time neared to walk across the stage, we headed over to the big theatre to line up, practice and continue to wait until we could walk across the stage.  As the ceremony began, words were exchanged and stories were shared, but none of us were really paying attention.  Our minds were distracted by the fact that in a few short hours, we would be leaving all these individuals that we have come to love and care for. 

These teammates, friends have become our family.  We have come to know one another’s strengths and weaknesses, our hopes and dreams, as well as our fears and stories.  We have shared these experiences and our paths now have parted. 

Tears were shed and embraces were exchanged as we gathered on the lawn afterwards.  Family and friends watched on as we broke down, held one another and exchanged well wishes and our final good-byes. 

We parted our ways, returned to the places we once knew.  We are no longer the people who started this project ten months ago.  Those at home are not the same as when we left almost a year ago.  People have grown and so have each of us. 

We cannot expect to go back and fit right back into the life we used to have.  We cannot expect to find the same people as we left them, nor can they expect the same person to return to them.  Our lives will never be the same. 

We have come to love.  To serve.  To grow.

God Bless and PEACE

Can We Walk Away From This?

Throughout these past ten months, the members of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) based out of Denver have come together as teams, families and friends.  We have grown to love and care for one another through serving side by side, gathering as community and experiencing the world with new eyes together. 

Our paths part ways on Friday morning, as we graduate and go our separate ways.  Some of us are hoping to come back to the AmeriCorps family as TLs, members of other programs, or as alumni.  Others will move on to school, other jobs, or wander through life looking back with a smile.  There will be some people we will keep up with, others will fade away, while a select few we may have the honor of serving beside yet again. 

As the campus has been preparing itself for departure, many individuals are asking themselves if they can actually depart from this program.  This has become our lives.  These people have become our families. 

The other night, one CM stated:

As much as I need to be home, how am I supposed to walk away from the people I’ve spent every waking minute with for the past 10 months? How does that just… happen?

This statement has echoed across campus in the past couple days.  Individuals are wondering if they have the strength to return to their past lives, to leave behind their friends and the life that they have come to know and love. 

After what we have been through, after all the friends that we have made, after all these experiences, we cannot just turn our backs and walk away from all of this.  We have been changed.  We are no longer those individuals you once knew ten months ago, when we all came trickling onto campus. 

To walk away from this would be to cease to acknowledge that these past ten months ever existed.  We would be turning our backs on who we have become, all the friends we have made and all the lessons learned.  We would be throwing away all the experiences that have shaped us, all the struggles, difficulties, and bad times, as well as all that which was good. 

It is simple, we cannot walk away from this.  We will carry these past ten months of service throughout our lives.  They will always be held within our hearts, minds and souls as we part paths with one another.  We will take these experiences back home, to our next job, throughout our years, always looking back on them. 

And as we pack, we must take the time to cherish everything that we have learned…

God Bless and PEACE

Choosing Your Shot

Throughout my last project with AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) I rarely took my camera out onto the work site.  It wasn’t that there were not shots to be taken, nor were there not opportunities to capture some good images.  I felt that it would be inappropriate for me to pull out my camera while leading middle school kids through wilderness camps. 

It’s a conflict of morals, ethics and personal judgement.  Others on my team took some amazing pictures while working camp.  I didn’t due to the fact that it didn’t feel right. 

As an artist and a photographer, I understand the desire to capture that perfect image, but there are times when my personal beliefs outweigh the urge to document everything around me.  There is a code of ethics that many journalists follow that makes me struggle to lift my camera.  I saw it in Joplin where the call to capture the emotions of a scene ment that the photographer in question acted like he had no soul or feeling.  Without being asked or warned, many individuals found a camera lens in their face. 

I struggled with this knowledge day after day in the field, where I often refused to lift my camera, despite the visually striking image of emotions.  Ethically, I feel that those grieving should be given their space, that if a photographer takes specific images, they are loosing a part of their soul.  I am not willing to sacrifice that which makes me who I am as an artist and individual.

Working at the Lake Houston Wilderness Park, I found myself unwilling to lift my camera yet again.  I felt that my taking out my camera and taking photos of camp would lead me away from why I was there; Serving those kids. 

So, lo and behold, I do not have any photos of camp.  In our four weeks on project, I pulled out my camera three times and only used it twice…

One afternoon, before camp started the next day, a number of us got the opportunity to help set up the archery equipment and received a crash course on how to shoot a bow and arrow.  After that, we enjoyed an hour of relaxation and shooting at targets. 

God Bless and PEACE

Landscape of Scars

Today, as we traveled out of Texas and through New Mexico, we passed through some areas that had been scorched by wildfires.  Just south of the Colorado border, along the side of I-25, trees and soil had been turned black by the flames that passed by several weeks before.  You could see how the fire had changed the landscape for years to come. 

Every action leaves its mark on our lives.  Just as each fire burns through the landscape, taking the life and turning it black, each of our actions leaves its mark on who we are.  It may not be as drastic as burning the skin or changing us physically, but deep within each of us, we have changed. 

For the several hundred Corps Members at the Denver Campus of AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC), our lives have been shaped and formed by the last ten months of service.  We have worked side by side with one another, worked with sponsors and site supervisors, argued, fought and tried not to kill one another.  Each day was a struggle and a challenge.

These past ten months have made us into who we are. 

Like the landscape that we passed on our journey back to Denver, our lives are a patchwork of scars.  Some of them have come from simple words, others from experiences with people, teams and individuals, still others from life’s experience. 

Looking back on life, we can all see what makes us who we are.  Unlike the scars from the wildfires, we are the only ones that can see everything that makes us what we have become.  Nobody knows the things that we faced in our lives.  They may never know. 

When we look back on our lives, on our experiences, and the lives and experiences of others we must remember these hidden scars that few will ever see.  Be aware of them, acknowledge them, respect them, for they are part of who we are. 

God Bless and PEACE

The Ripple Effect

Have you ever thrown a pebble into a lake and watched as the ripples radiate out, moving across the whole surface of water?  Or, think about this, your life is the pebble. 

Too many times, I’ve heard people complain about how meaningless their lives are.  How no matter how much they do, they will never make a difference.  It just doesn’t make any sense to me, how people can live like nothing they do will ever make a difference. 

Over the past couple years, I’ve traveled across the globe and have met hundreds, if not thousands, of people.  Before that, I was a Wyld Life leader (Young Life for Middle School) and worked two summers at Saranac Village.  I was an Resident Advisor (RA) for a year.  My life has come in contact with so many different individuals, some just by a glance, others with a crash and bang. 

In each interaction with others, we cast a ripple through their lives.  Some, it may just be brightening (or darkening) their day, lingering for moments at a time.  With others, we may alter the path of their lives, through constant and daily interactions.  In the moment, you may never know how you have changed someones life, nor how they changed yours. 

Last year, while serving aboard the M/V Africa Mercy, I met hundreds of crew members, their families and children.  I spent the following three months serving them.  In turn they served me.  Their kindness helped to point me towards God. 

Three individuals, children of crew members, became a constant joy in my life.  Constantly trying to steal my sketchbook, throwing wads of paper, and provoking me when all I wanted to do was ignore the world and put my nose into a book.  These three girls, young women and children of God, showed me that though life may not look so grand, you can always bring joy to your life through your attitude. 

Looking back on all my experiences and everyone that has passed through my life, I cannot begin to understand how much I’ve affected each individual.  No matter how much I look back, I will never comprehend the lives that I’ve changed, both for the good and bad. 

Each life is a ripple across the surface, changing who each of us are.  So, never underestimate the power of a single life. 

God Bless and PEACE

Voices of Joplin

After the Good Friday Tornado hit the northern neighborhoods of St. Louis on 22 April, Sun 6 (my AmeriCorps NCCC team) and EArth 2 responded alongside the St. Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) and the Washington Conservation Corps (WCC).  A month later, to the day and almost to the hour, an EF-5 tornado slammed into the city of Joplin, MO. 

It is being called on of the worst tornado in history, whipping out almost 30% of the town, ripping it apart and throwing it miles away.  The double vortex cut a path a mile wide and over six miles long, right through the heart of the town, flattening homes, destroying businesses, tossing cars and scattering the debris and lives of the residents as far as the eye can see. 

That night, the AmeriCorps St. Louis ERT responded, arriving in Joplin a few hours later, followed closely by the members of the WCC.  The next morning, Sun 6 and Earth 2 received the call to respond.  After a frantic scramble of packing, logistics with the St. Louis HQ and organizing the caravan of four vans (3 NCCC vans, 1 van with the ERT) and two ERT trucks (‘Pickles’ and ‘Buck Hunter’), all of us arrived, less than 24 hours after the tornado had left the city in ruins. 

In the first hours of our arrival, we learned of the massive damage, the initial response and the chaos that follows a disaster.  As we worked into the night and through the early hours of the morning, we were placed in charge of different functions of the Volunteer Resource Center (VRC) and became vital links in the organization of the relief effort.  While many of us were put out into the field, leading groups of volunteers in the initial clean-up and clearing of the roads, some of us found ourselves behind the scenes, working the call centers and the databases. 

As the thousands of volunteers and support poured into Joplin, so did the 130+ AmeriCorps members from around the country and from many different programs.  From the NCCC out of Denver to the St. Louis ERT, the Environmental Corps out of Texas tot eh Iowa and Minnesota Conservation Corps, and the hundreds of smaller programs that came as well, we all became a force, a family, a team that began the healing process of this community. 

And as their healing process began, stories of survivors and heroes emerged from the rubble and debris of this community.  Unspoken, everyday heroes that are just like you and me, that chose to follow their hearts and ignore their fears for the split seconds that their thoughts went silent.  It is in these stories that we find out who they have come to be. 

It would have been very easy to allow the stories of survivors and first responders to slip away into the words and emotions of those first hours, but each one dug into my heart, embedding like a thorn that could not be plucked out, that tore at me until I could no longer ignore the untold stories. 

The night after the tornado, I arrived in Joplin and was put to work running the Volunteer Data Intake Center.  We worked throughout the night, entering names, skills and emergency contacts into the database into the early hours of the morning.  Many of the volunteers that worked with me were victims of the storm, looking to do something to keep their minds off of what they had seen and experienced. 

One young man, there with several of his friends, spoke of how he had dived into his bathroom and ducked into the tub as the tornado hit his house.  He spoke of the screaming wind that ripped though the walls and tore the door off its hinges.  As he emerged several minutes later, he entered a whole new world.  The only parts of his house still standing were the four walls of the bathroom and the ceiling over his head. 

Another volunteer was biking from the east to the west coast before starting his new job in San Francisco.  His journey brought him right through Joplin, less than an hour after the tornado ripped through the town.  He joined the initial search and rescue effort, in biking shorts and tennis shoes, because he felt that it would be criminal if he kept going after all the help he received from complete strangers in his journey.   

Even more stories emerged from the chaos in the following days.  Stories of how communities came together in their darkest hours, of groups of neighbors searching for one another in the wreckage and of everyday individuals becoming heroes. 

One such individual was one of our returning volunteers that worked in the Volunteer Data Intake Center, day after day, Randy Jo.  He was up on the fifth floor of St. John’s Hospital when it received a direct hit from the tornado.  Thrown off his feet, he was slammed against the wall.  As the storm passed, he led the 15 patients and 7 nurses down the flooded stairs and out a hole in the wall of the Emergency Room.  He then turned and entered the damaged building time and time again, rescuing another 18 people from the rubble. 

He told me how in those first two hours of searching, he stepped over broken glass, rusted nails and bodies that littered the ground.  Doctors and nurses yelled for him not to enter, but the screams of the injured and the cries of the dying drove him forward with clarity, despite the ruptured natural gas line, the falling debris and the blood soaked tiles.  He knew in that moment that if he died, he would be fine because, for the first time in his life, he knew he was doing the right thing. 

We heard stories of groups rising from the debris, moving from house to house searching for loved ones, neighbors and the cries of complete strangers.  People who were more concerned with the lives of others than the safety of their own, their belongings now scattered across the city.  These are the heroes of Joplin, whose voices have reached the hearts of many. 

I heard these stories with nothing to connect to.  I hadn’t seen the damage path, the flags that marked where the lost had been found, the spray painted Xs that marked the progress of the Search and Rescue teams.  It wasn’t till after I stood in the parking lot of Joplin High School, where the staging  ground for the Search and Rescue operations were underway, till after i stood in the parking lot overlooking the building that was once St. John’s Hospital, till after my first day in the field where I tagged along with one of the Search and Rescue crews as they completed one of the last sweeps of the city. 

Suddenly the words and the images began to match up and the emotions of the stories finally came together.  I finally was able to understand the extent of the stories, the experiences of that night.  I wandered through the wreckage and debris, through the scattered lives of those that once lived there, wondering about the lives that used to be.   

My second day out in the field, I plugged into a search and rescue team, made up of several AmeriCorps members and the members of a fire department, in the attempt to document the response to the devastation.  As I moved between the ruins of building, searching not with eyes but with the sense of smell, my heart was pounding.  I shared the same hope that became the double edge sword of the search and rescue teams. 

While part of me, as well as part of everyone there, hoped not to come across the remains of the lost, another part hoped to provide answers to the living, the survivors.  Our senses were assaulted by the sight of broken buildings and the remains of people’s lives, rotting meat that oozed out of freezers and open fridges, the stench of garbage strewn across neighborhoods and spilling out of overloaded dumpsters.  We wandered between what once was and is now lost. 

Even in those moments, my spirits were lifted as I saw others coming to terms with the destruction.  Amid the spray painted Xs that revealed the initial search and rescue, signs of hope and the graffiti messages of gratitude marked each street.  Messages that read “All safe” and “God bless Joplin” to “For sale, 1/2 off” and “Basement for sale.”

I became fascinated with the words and their meanings.  How on the same house that several peopled never walked out of, there were words of hope, of a future.  How the faith of the community was something that the tornado could not take and throw across the town, but in the rubble, you could see the foundations of these people’s lives. 

As we returned to the VRC that night, I knew that none of us would ever be the same.  The experiences of wandering through the ruins of Joplin, hearing the stories of the survivors, serving in the midst of tragedy has allowed each of us to grow and learn a little more about ourselves.  The visions will eventually fade and we will eventually process everything that we had seen, felt and experienced, but we will be forever changed by the things that we have done. 

I know in my heart that the person I was is only a shadow of who I have become. 

God Bless and PEACE