Archive for September, 2013

It’s Not About the Destination…

Earlier this afternoon I got back from an adventure like no other alongside the amazing individuals of St. Louis AmeriCorps Emergency Response Team (AC STL ERT or the ERT for short).  I not only learned a lot about navigating through the woods and utilizing a map and compass to get from point A to point B, finding evidence of overgrown trails and signs of what once was, and the essentials to camping in the woods, I learned the value of teamwork and cooperation, the strength of numbers and positive attitudes, and what it truly means to trust others and accept the mistakes that are bound to happen.

The adventure of Quest began as we were broken into teams, packed out bags and headed out to a local Wildlife Refuge where we did some team building activities, packed more food into each bag and were given mystery gifts that we were to keep safe throughout our travels.

:::NOTE:::
Several important details (names, locations, etc) are being left out for two reasons: 1) I’m not exactly sure where we were (to be honest) and 2) this activity is utilized by the ERT almost yearly, so I don’t want to give away any details.

We handed over our technology (watches, cell phones, GPS trackers, etc.) and headed out into the unknown with just the basic tools. We stumbled through the darkness, got lost time and time again, but never lost heart.  Even when we were still hiking through the woods at 0230, we were still laughing and having a good time (we didn’t know it was 0230 due to the fact that none of us had a way to tell time except for our leaders who were there to make sure none of us got completely lost, suffered grievous bodily or mental harm, or died).

While out in the woods, each of us learned something about ourselves, our individual teams, and the group as a whole.  We talked about how the experience of wandering through the woods with little to no help is like surviving through the first couple days of a disaster.  We talked about the long hours and the stories that will come out of the experience of this year.

We learned what it meant to come together as a team to make decisions.  To both lead and follow.  To trust.  To make mistakes.  And to learn what it means to become a member of a community.

It was a chaotic 48ish hours where we encountered forgotten trails, old boundaries.  Changing terrain.  Outdated maps.  Beautiful rock formations.  Cowboy camps (under the stars and/or sheltered under overhangs).  Hives of yellow jackets.  Poison ivy.  Uncharted wilderness.  Bushwacking.

It was a challenge that we all accepted and we all rose to meet.  In some ways, it was a test of leadership, teamwork, and perseverance.

It was a journey that none of us would give up.

One of the things my team (11 Shades of Green) talked about was the fact that we had a lot of fun working our way from one point to the next.  While we were attempting to get from point A to point B (and eventually point C and D), it really didn’t matter that it took us forever to find the first location (approximately 3000 feet off the road where we started).  It didn’t matter that we were wandering through the woods in the dark of the night, lost in some way.

We came together to support one another.  We came together as a team.  And when all the teams came together, we realized that we were not the only group that got lost, but we all shared the same experiences (though, some groups were more lost than others).

We all returned to St. Louis refreshed (although a little sore), ready to dive into the next adventure.  And as we prepare to head out to Montana for a month of training, we will all take these experiences with us.

“I can’t rightly say I’ve ever been lost, but I have been mighty perplexed for two or three days runnin'” – Davy Crockett

God Bless and PEACE

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The Meaning Behind the Ink

Several years ago, I departed alongside 11 other young men and women and made my way into the depths of the dark continent of Africa. We went as young people with a mission to serve with all our hearts and everything we could ever become.

In the months leading up to the trip with Akia-Ashianut, I was asked to help draw out some designs for a t-shirt. Alongside several drawings of the clinic and two hands holding one another, I included a motto that soon became something that defined out trip: “We Live, We Love”.

For years these words haunted my sketchbook. More than words, they haunted my heart, reminding me every day what it means to both live and love.

Through loving, we learn to live. And through living, we learn to love. We cannot separate the two, no matter what the pain, the sorrow, or the hardships that come across our paths.

Two years ago, I wrote these same words on my wrist the first time, testing out a theory of my first tattoo. In the days off of work, they could be found settling on my skin, thinking and waiting. Several people commented that if I wrote it enough times, it would probably stain the skin permanently. I laughed. And waited.

A week ago, I got these words written on me for the last time.

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“We Live, We Love” is more than a way of life. It is the memories of Uganda. Of friendships. Of bridges burned and rebuilt. It is a constant reminder that there is something bigger, and through our lives we live out the love of our faith, be we Christians, Muslims, Jews, Atheists, or Buddhists (or anywhere between or that I missed).

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These words cross the lines of faith, of race, of ethnicity, of culture. We all live in the hopes of loving, and love so that we can live to the fullest.

A couple of mornings ago, I was rereading Gregory David Roberts’ Shantaram and came across a passage that has stuck with me these past couple days:

One of the reasons why we crave love, and seek it so desperately, is that love is the only cure for loneliness, and shame, and sorrow. But some feelings sink so deep into the heart that only loneliness can help you find them again. Some truths about yourself are so painful that only shame can help you live with them. And some things are just so sad that only your soul can do the crying for you.

While not exactly the same message as the ink that now ordains my wrist, it speaks of the power of love that drives us all to experience life to the fullest. Without love, we can never truly live to the fullest.

And although life can be brutal at times, love is what keeps us going through the darkest of days.

God Bless and PEACE

From There to Here

In a few short days I begin the next phase of my adventure with the  AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team (AC STL ERT).  It’s always a little nerve wracking to arrive in a place where you know nobody, but have committed yourself to see it through for a period of time, and although I have done this several times throughout my journey, it never gets any easier.  So, I arrived in St. Louis, Missouri a couple nights ago, concluding my road trip that took me across the Southern States to see “long lost” friends, professors, new sights, and to prepare myself mentally for this next year of service.

I left Edisto Beach, SC after spending an amazing week with my family.  Between the crashing waves of the ocean and time with cousins, grandparents and my niece and nephew, there were adventures every day.  Playing in the sand.  Kayaking in the waves.  Storms over the ocean.  Dolphins.  While it was chaotic at times, it was a relaxing way to spend the last remaining week with family.

From Edisto I traveled across to the Upstate where my old stomping grounds of my Alma Mater, Anderson University, reside.  While I have continuously traveled non-stop over the years, Anderson, SC will always hold a special place in my heart as some sort of “home”.

While there, I stopped by to visit the Campus Ministries Staff, sharing my adventures with the individuals who have helped me to develop in my faith and challenged me to step out and live a life full of happiness.

I also dropped in to visit several of my professors and after leaving several messages back and forth I was able to catch a majority of them.  While our meetings were short due to classes, meetings, and family obligations, it was good to share words of encouragement and catch up for a moment.

While in town, I got the opportunity to catch up with several good friends that I had lost touch with over the years due to my travels.  After a couple short awkward moments of not seeing each other since graduation over three years ago, we were able to pick up almost where we left off and catch up over dinner.

That evening I stayed with my cousin in Clemson, where she invited me over for game night with a group of grad students.  It was slightly awkward when we started playing Cards Against Humanity (a dirty, adult version of Apples to Apples), mainly because I didn’t know any of them and they didn’t know me.

I left the next morning as game day traffic started to pile into Clemson and I joined the throngs of red that descended onto Athens for the UGA – USC game as I made my way past the frat and sorority houses to my grandparents house.  There I joined my sister, niece and nephew, and my Aunt and Uncle who had come in for the game.  While everyone was tuned into the game, I visited with my sister and grandparents for the evening before crashing on the couch.

As my sister and my Aunt prepared to depart for Shreveport, LA the following morning, I headed in the same direction towards Vicksburg, MS.  After stopping together for lunch, I found myself in the small city  that I was based out of for my year with FEMA Corps where I crashed with several of the campus staff that rent a house a few miles from campus.

The following morning, I followed them up to campus where I participated in the Monday morning Community Meeting, visited with several staff members, caught lunch at the Tomato Place down the road, and assisted in the Member Development Training, answering several questions about FEMA’s online training courses through EMI and FEKC behind the firewall.

While several staff members were not there for various reasons, I enjoyed the visit and was glad to see the changes to the FEMA Corps program.  From the looks of it, there is more information, better expectations, and an excitement about the program that was refreshing to see in just a few short months since I graduated from the program.  While there are still some frustrations with FEMA, I believe there is potential for growth and development into an amazing program.

That afternoon I departed campus and made my way down to NOLA where I spent the following day visiting the sites and hanging out with one of the Team Leaders who is now working for the American Red Cross out of New Orleans.  We visited the St. Louis 1 and 2 cemeteries (the oldest in NOLA), the French Quarters and the outdoor market, and made our way across the city to get tattoos.

While the tattoo artist that we went to visit was not there, we stopped in to Hell or High Water Tattoo where I received my first tattoo.  In remembrance of my time in Uganda, I got the “we live, we love” design and motto that has come to define how I live tattooed onto my wrist.  While it stung at times, I now have a constant reminder of my experiences at the Agule Community Health Center and with Akia-Ashianut.

Later that evening we joined another fellow TL for dinner where we shared what we have been up to since departing Vicksburg and gossiped about friends that we shared.  It was good to catch up with them and to share stories and remember that there actually is Life After AmeriCorps.

After a quick visit to the ARC offices, I departed NOLA and made my way across Lake Pontchartrain before heading up to Shreveport, LA to help my sister move into her new house.  Mainly, my job was to entertain my two year old niece and nephew while she unpacked, painted and got the house completely livable.

A week after departing Edisto, I headed out on my last and longest day of travel.  Traveling North through Arkansas on my way to visit Joplin, MO, I passed more road kill than other people on the road.

The last time that I saw Joplin was 13 days after the storm had swept through, cutting a six mile path a mile wide through the heart of the town.  I was lost, for after two and a half years, all the landmarks that I remembered (St. John’s Hospital, Joplin “Hope” High School, and the ruins of homes that rose from the ruins) were no longer present.  New homes filled streets that once held debris and scattered memories of lives.

I made my way to the Memorial Park that held a monument to those 160+ individuals who lost there lives that evening and to the outpouring of volunteers who made up “The Miracle of the Human Spirit”.  It was a special, silent moment to stand there after all this time and reflect on where I was and how much those 13 days changed who I once was.

I met up with one of the CMs who survived the storm and she showed me where the hospital and high school once stood and where they are rebuilding the new ones.  We talked about how much had changed over the years since as she showed me where she was that fateful night and where her mother met her as she made her way home through the wreckage.  Over an early dinner, we talked about our experiences in FEMA Corps and how the city wasn’t the only thing that has changed.

As I departed and made my way across Missouri to St. Louis, I couldn’t help but think of the countless trees that still dotted the landscape.  The last time I saw them, they were like broken bones emerging from the corpse of a dying beast, but just a few short years later, signs of life were emerging through the green sprouts of leaves.  I smiled as Mother Nature revealed the spirit of Joplin, once broken but slowly coming back to life.

After a week of traveling, I made it safely to St. Louis, ending another road trip.  Life with me is always an adventure…

Life’s a Beach

Today, while enjoying the Atlantic waters along the beaches of Edisto Island, my two-year old niece (and god-daughter) got stung by a jelly fish.  The tentacles caught her hip and wrapped completely around her thigh and caught her ankle as well.

Later in the afternoon, while playing in the surf of high tide on my fathers 8 foot sit-on-top kayak, I got caught by a wave, put the nose of the boat into the sandy bottom and slid out of the boat as it flipped over my head, narrowly avoiding major injury.  I escaped with a bruised tailbone and a sore knee.

As we continued to play out in the surf, after beaching the kayaks, I laughed alongside my sister, brother-in-law and cousins from both sides of the family as we got pummeled by wave after wave that crashed onto the beach.

The beach has always been a special place for my family, especially Edisto.  In a world of high-strung personalities and crazy schedules, it is a place where we can escape to relax and recover from the weight of the world.  It is also a place where many valuable life lessons are learned.

While waiting to catch a wave into shore yesterday, someone made the comment that there were no good waves.  It was true.  Due to the changing shelf of sand, the waves are breaking right along the shore as the beach drops off sharply into the ocean.  This makes playing in the surf a little more hazardous than usual (especially if you are trying to ride a wave in on a kayak).

My nephew (the twin brother of my two-year old god-daughter) learned the hard way when a wave caught him playing in the sand and knocked him off his feet.

The power of the waves comes from their constant pounding on the beach.  Over the years I’ve learned to watch the waves as I try to catch one to ride in.  It isn’t that there are no good waves, it’s the simple fact that we may not be in the right place to catch the one that is perfect for us.  Many waves are ‘too small’ and break to far in.  Others are above our comfort level (yet we catch them anyways or get thrown unexpectedly towards the shore).  It takes a little bit of patience and skill to find the right wave to ride to shore, and even then, there is the risk of flipping.

Several years ago, I caught a wave that was just too big for me to handle.  I had a spectacular crash onto the shore that left me bruised and shaken.  I sat out for a couple of minutes to recover, but the pull of the ocean brought me back out, kayak and all.

On the next wave, I was scared out of my mind.  The waves were still huge and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was going to crash yet again.  Lo and behold, I found myself tossed into the surf, no longer on the kayak.

The surf has never been a place to be safe, it’s a place to learn and grow.  I have been tossed numerous times by waves big and small, but that doesn’t stop me from jumping back in and trying again, and again, and again.

After getting stung, my god-daughter cried a little as we put vinegar on the sting, but within the hour, she was back at the water’s edge, unafraid.  I got back into the kayak (somewhat more carefully) and caught several more waves in.  And while we got pummeled over and over again, we laughed and enjoyed the company of family, friends, and the salty ocean water that continues to teach us that we are not always in control.

My brother-in-law and cousins joked that we should start a spa and therapy center on the beach, to remind ‘patients’ that they were not always going to be in control of their lives, but forces more powerful than they are (aka: waves) were going to push them around.  I think we should all remember that, and enjoy the never-ending assault of waves that crash into us.

Just some thoughts….

God Bless and PEACE