Issue Date: November 18 2013
So far my time as the Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) Grinnell Corps fellow has been very eventful. I've found myself in an enjoyable and challenging work environment where I have been utilizing a lot of the skills that I have learned during my past four years in college on a daily basis. I have many varying responsibilities at MICA including, but not limited to, Project Home Mission which works with families to achieve goals on a long-term basis, Crisis Funds which can help families work through emergency financial situations with their energy bills, recruiting and coordinating with volunteers who spend their a lot of their time keeping the office an organized and welcoming place, and the food pantry and giving out food boxes which is an important resource for many in Poweshiek County. This has also been my first time spending a summer in Grinnell and there has been so much to do! If I had to summarize these past few months briefly I would have to say it has been an intense learning experience.
As soon as I started my term as a fellow at MICA I hit the ground running. After the heavy rains in late May, many Iowans were left with the aftermath of flooded homes: a crisis which was new to just about everyone, even MICA. The impact it had on Poweshiek County was officially recognized when it was declared a disaster area by the state government. Funds from the Iowa Disaster Assistance Grant became available to families under 200% of the poverty guideline. Mid-Iowa Community Action became the monitors of these funds and any inquiries went through the affected county's office. A new system was developed to assess what items were needed to apply and how to make many different pieces into one understandable application. Many people, who had never visited MICA before, were suddenly coming in to turn in flood applications. That's when I came in.
From my previous experiences of visiting MICA during the semester I had been expecting a reasonable number of people to trickle in each day. However, in June when it was time for me to pick up where my predecessor, Annie Pigott, left off there was a remarkable change of pace. She taught me as much as she could in a week, answered all of my questions, and left me with some great advice. However, the task of adjusting to not only the everyday tasks of MICA, but also the new influx of inquiries and applicants was challenging and my days were regularly packed with appointments. Everyone in the office, coworkers and volunteers alike, made the effort to address the new level of demand and managing the new volume of clients became less and less daunting.
Even with the intimidating amount of people who walked through the front door and all the applications piling up, I was quickly able to see the invaluable role that MICA has in Poweshiek County. It raised my spirits to see each new person, who had never come into MICA before, introduced to the benefits, and possibilities, that come from the many programs and resources the agency has to offer.
Understandably, in times of crisis it can be easy to feel overwhelmed or powerless and, initially, when a client wasn't able to qualify for resources or couldn't get the appropriate paperwork I would feel as though I had failed. However more often than not clients were appreciative and generally less stressed when leaving the office than when they entered it. After working with people on a daily basis these past few months it is becoming uplifting to see people's frustrations lighten. Even if their problem isn't completely solved, they know that someone is there who wants to help them, they can talk out the problem, and they can now see an opportunity where before it seemed like there wasn't one.
This was a very important thing to see in my first few weeks in social work: an example of just how vital an agency is to the community when that community is in need. At the same time, it is important to remember that MICA is not just a resource for a disaster, but also for needed support on any average day. This is something people often feel that they know, but I can now see how easily it can be taken for granted. In the time that I have been here I have seen just how much relief can mean to someone, and I am more moved than ever by the affect of these programs and resources on individuals and an entire community.
Now that the Flood Assistance deadline has passed, the office has quieted down substantially. Not only can I breathe a little deeper, but I feel more confident in my ability to make referrals and suggestions. Although it might seem trivial at first glance, some of my favorite parts of the day are when I am looking through paperwork with someone, going through options during a Project Home Mission visit, and reciting resources for clients, because helping someone into breaking past that feeling of being overwhelmed is empowering and also humbling. I also feel more comfortable being able to tackle more difficult and complex issues, ones that require more time and patience such as Crisis Applications. Personally, I feel that my communication skills have increased tremendously from making sure that people are clearly and properly informed of the applicable options and the procedures that they need to take.
I wouldn't be in such a comfortable place now if it weren't for the work of the previous Grinnell Corps Fellows. There are lists, instructions, and other forms with helpful information at my disposal detailing the resources and methods commonly used here at MICA. However, I've determined the best way to learn is to throw yourself into it. Furthermore, my coworkers and supervisor have been incredibly supportive throughout this interesting initiation. Every time I have a question, or when I run into a little self-doubt, they are welcoming and informative.
Something I've also really enjoyed is having time outside of work that is entirely free. I have spent a lot of time with friends who decided to stay in town a little longer. I've cooked pork loin with my roommate (a brave move on our part) and started exercising (mostly) regularly. I can commit myself to projects and take trips to the library, returning with my arms full of fiction books. I've taken several weekend trips with my roommate to places such as Iowa City, Waterloo, and Chicago and I've seen amazing friends while I'm there. Locally, I make weekly trips to the farmer's market, listen to music in the park, "visit" Dari Barn and participate in the many festivities that occur during a Grinnell summer.
However, now that the summer is almost over and classes will be starting soon, I have begun to think back over the past couple of months, and I've realized how new and different Grinnell has felt to me. It has had a distinct mood and quality about it yet it remained familiar enough that I felt comfortable. This has been a great combination for me, and although what I am experiencing now is definitely not the Grinnell that I was used to, I couldn't have asked for a better way to start my adventure outside of my undergraduate career.
As I look out of the large lobby windows of Poweshiek County’s Mid-Iowa Community Action office I can see it snowing steadily and coating the ground to the point of glistening. I have become so much more comfortable in this seat (I mean this figuratively because in truth it has always been a comfortable seat) than I was earlier this year. It doesn’t feel like someone else’s desk anymore or as though I had usurped someone else’s position. It feels more like an extension of my everyday life, and an extension of home. However, this tranquility never lasts very long, and it wouldn’t be an anti-poverty agency if it did. I hear the doorbell ring and it is up and out of the chair I go “Hello, how can I help you today?”
It has been a few months since my last report so there is a lot to catch up on and I will try to keep it chronological in order to ease the mental digestion. Earlier this fall MICA’s food pantry was running on fumes and at first the staff tried to deal with it on our own, but there came a point where the food on our shelves wasn’t enough to get people through the end of the week. This is when the executive decision was made to put out the news that MICA needed the help of the community. It was in the papers on Facebook and passed from club to organization to church, and in an amazing show of community solidarity our shelves were full and overflowing in just over a week. This was one of the most beautiful things I could have seen while working here: the effort and care shown by a community for their community. This was especially great to see after a summer of seeing some really difficult situations and seeing a lot of devastating situations from flooding.
The main event of the winter season for quite a few MICA employees is the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This program is incredibly important for many low-income families and has caused an increase in phone and foot traffic for our Poweshiek County office. The LIHEAP program provides a one-time payment to the heating bills of low-income families over the winter months. Additionally, families can qualify for a moratorium, a guarantee that their lights and heat won’t be turned off, from November 1, 2013– April 1, 2014. This will help all qualifying families to avoid a major source of financial stress during the winter and remain warm through the holidays. We have already taken so many applications and we have many more to go. Some days my coworker and I have every half hour spoken for. This isn’t even including people who walk-in or phone calls and we have to add all of our usual duties on top of that. But I’m not complaining! It’s good to be busy and it is an exercise for the mind to keep up with my schedule. It is a challenge, but one I am more than willing to take on.
You might be wondering how it is possible to do everything that we do here at MICA. The best way to answer that is by giving credit to our amazing volunteers and work-study students. Without them the food pantry would be a mess, the filing would pile up, the line of people would be all the way around the corner, and the phone would be ringing off the hook. It would be impossible to run this anti-poverty agency without the community giving their time. As volunteer coordinator at this office I am the one who gives training to new volunteers and I try to keep up with how they are doing and how they are feeling. Most importantly, I get to see all the hard work they do first hand and I am constantly impressed by their dedication. I am so thankful to the volunteers here that they probably think I’m a bit goofy. I consistently say thank you, I “ooh” and “ahh” at their work, and offer them time off so that they don’t get burned out. I just appreciate what they do so much and want them to know how vital they are to not just MICA but the community as a whole.
In other great news my caseload is up and running fully for Project Home Mission. When I meet with a Project Home Mission family it is usually the highlight of my day. This is because I am able to sit down with them and discuss possible problems and the options to help solve them. To me, this time is so vital for actually making long-term improvements. Many days I wish I could give this same time and attention to everyone who walks in the door asking for help. However, at the moment we can only give as much time as humanly possible and hope that it will be enough to help get people back on their feet and, if nothing else, out of a bad situation.
That is why the ability to refer our clients to other agencies and other programs is so helpful. Also collaborating with Grinnell College students and faculty on many different projects has really helped us take a look at some of our day to day processes with a fresh perspective. Our recent participation in a free job training program which was also organized by Iowa Valley Community college, IowaWorks, and Brownell’s turned out to be a success for all of the participating men and women looking for career skills. All of these things are different ways in which the community works together to provide options and assist those in need and it is an incredible opportunity for these agencies, organizations, and educational facilities to become more connected to each other.
Although things are more familiar and I think I have found something resembling a rhythm, there are still so many things I do not know and still so many questions I have to research. I think that is something that shocks me every day, the depth of the need in Poweshiek County and the depth of the resources. The biggest challenge for me is still giving bad news: telling someone that they don’t qualify for a program, we don’t have the funds to help, or that we do not have a program here to help them. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen very often, and that isn’t because of luck, that is because of the hard work and the care that each employee and volunteer put into the MICA mission: Helping People. Changing Lives. Building Communities.
Issue Date: September 20, 2012
Now that classes have started and students are back on campus, I've found myself having to explain what exactly I'm still doing in Grinnell more and more frequently. This sometimes proves difficult, since my job entails a variety of responsibilities, some of which change from day to day. As this year's Grinnell Corps: Grinnell Fellow I work full-time at Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA), a local non-profit that focuses on helping families find their way out of poverty and become self sufficient. MICA has offices in five counties and runs a variety of programs, including several Early Childhood Programs, Energy Assistance and Home Weatherization, and a relatively new program called Strong Parents, Strong Children which provides job coaching, relationship and parenting classes, and financial counseling. At our office we also have an emergency food pantry, which provides food as well as hygiene and cleaning supplies to families in need on a monthly basis. The food pantry seems to be one thing that really draws families to our office, and often our conversations with families who come to the food pantry can lead us to refer them to other programs.
There are also a number of ways that we can assist families who find themselves in moments of crisis—here in Grinnell, there are funds available to help with rent, utilities, medication, and gas to get to doctor's visits. However, since these funds are limited and designed to assist families in an emergency situation (not to act as ongoing financial support), we often make referrals to other local social service agencies or programs within MICA that might assist these families in becoming more financially stable. Remembering the eligibility requirements and necessary documents that families need in order to receive assistance from MICA or other local agencies was difficult for me at first—I was relying heavily on several very handy cheat-sheets put together by Allison, the previous Grinnell Corps fellow. Now, after nearly three months at MICA, I'm finally able to make most referrals without scouring Allison's notes first. Of course, I'm always learning more about different resources that are available for families in Poweshiek County and making my own cheat-sheets as I go!
On an average day, I spend time weighing and organizing donations in the food pantry, helping families who come in to get food, and answering any number of questions that families have about resources that are available at our office or at other local agencies. During the past several months, I have also spent a lot of time helping families apply for "crisis funding," which can assist families with utility payments if they are in danger of having their electricity shut off during the summer months. Beginning in October, we will start taking applications for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), which assists families during the winter months with a one-time payment towards their heating bill.
I also serve as the Spanish translator for our office, and spend a good amount of time translating for the other Family Development Specialists during their home visits with Spanish-speaking families, as well as translating for families and individuals who come into the office with questions. Starting next week, I'll also be translating in the Head Start preschool classroom, which has several Spanish-speaking children enrolled this year. I'm really excited to get to spend time interacting with preschoolers and their parents, who I know are thrilled to be starting school for the first time! Translating has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my experience thus far, and I feel like I've definitely improved my translating skills over the course of the summer. I still stumble through plenty of words and phrases, but the families I've worked with have been very patient and understanding.
Additionally, I work as a Family Development Specialist for a program called Project Home Mission, a home-visiting program that is funded through local churches. I meet twice a month with each of the families on my caseload to help them set goals and work through any difficulties they are experiencing. I also try to locate other available resources and activities in the community that my families may be interested in, which has really helped me increase my knowledge of all of the different community organizations in and around Grinnell. I've enjoyed these visits, since they are a great way for me to spend more time getting to know families and their needs. Typically, when our office is busy, I have to move quickly from one family to the next and don't get to spend more than a few minutes talking with each family. With the families on my caseload, I get to know them better and can act as a continued source of support.
I've learned an incredible amount over the past few months at MICA, from both my coworkers and supervisor and the families with whom I work. In some ways I'm very well suited for my job—I'm bilingual, outgoing, and genuinely enjoy getting to do a whole bunch of different activities on a daily basis. In other respects, I still have a lot to learn. Although I may be enthusiastic about my job and learning quickly, I frequently encounter difficult situations I've never run into before and am unsure of how to handle. In those moments, it's great to be able to rely on the advice and support of my coworkers, who have all been incredibly welcoming and willing to answer my questions. Working at MICA has given me a new perspective on the needs of the Grinnell community, and has challenged me to reevaluate my place within it.
Post-graduate life in Grinnell is a little strange—this summer felt almost like a repeat of summer 2011, which I spent interning with MICA and getting ready to start a new school year. Now it's finally starting to sink in—I'm not a student anymore! Although I miss my classmates, I can't say I miss the stress of taking two seminars simultaneously and struggling to balance academics and extra-curricular activities. Now, I have time to try out new recipes, start (and even occasionally finish) a variety of craft projects, read for fun, and write letters to friends that are starting their own new adventures all over the world. I'm thankful to get to spend more time with my siblings, parents, and grandparents, all of whom live here in Iowa and are always looking for excuses to come visit Grinnell. Though I'm occasionally envious of friends and classmates who are exploring new cities or countries, I'm incredibly grateful to make my first attempt at "adult life" in a town I already love, and now have the time to thoroughly enjoy.
It's hard to believe 2012 is over already—a lot has changed since my first report all the way back in September! There is one major difference in my daily duties here at MICA. Now that the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) is in full swing, I spend a significant amount of time explaining the program's guidelines to families and then helping them to apply. If a family is approved for LIHEAP, they are eligible to receive a one-time credit on their heating bill during the winter months. Once approved, families are also protected under what is known as the "winter moratorium," which means that their heat cannot be shut off between November 1st and April 1st of the current fiscal year. LIHEAP, like the majority of MICA programs, is income-based. For families or individuals to be eligible they must fall at or below 150% of the Federal Poverty Guideline; for a family of four, the income cutoff is currently $34,575 per year. For an individual to qualify, they must earn $16,755 or less per year. It seems that these income guidelines are higher than people might expect; I've talked with quite a few families who had no idea that they would qualify for assistance through LIHEAP. The LIHEAP season began on October 1st, and since that time I've taken just over 200 applications in all. My coworker and I have processed over 530 applications so far this LIHEAP season—and that's just for Poweshiek County!
I'm thrilled that our office has been able to serve so many families through the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the increased traffic through our office has given my coworkers and I a great opportunity to interact with families who may be new to the area and unaware of the various programs and services that MICA offers. Families who need assistance paying their utility bills are often referred to MICA by their utility company; if they are a family that has never worked with anyone at MICA before, the LIHEAP appointment gives my coworkers and I a chance to get to know the family and refer them to other programs that might assist them in becoming more self-sufficient. I really like meeting families and learning about their experience of Grinnell and the surrounding towns—the more families I meet, the better I feel like I know the Grinnell community. And I'm often surprised at how Grinnell is regarded among residents of Poweshiek County—when I came to Grinnell, it seemed absolutely tiny in comparison to my hometown of Des Moines. However, after living and working in Grinnell for several months I'm starting to realize just how many resources Grinnell has to offer, especially when compared to some of the smaller towns in our area.
Along with all the new families I've gotten to know this fall, we've also had several great new volunteers in our office who have helped our office run smoothly over the past several months. As the volunteer coordinator for our office, I've really enjoyed getting to know a number of high school and college students who volunteer at the office on a regular basis. We also have several adult volunteers who do a wonderful job of keeping things organized, both in the food pantry and in the front of the office. Volunteers also help give me some perspective on the work I'm doing—they always seem to have great questions and suggestions about how things could run more efficiently! I'm so thankful to have as many great volunteers as we do here at our office, and I'm always amazed at how generous they are with their time.
Apart from my work as a LIHEAP assistant and a volunteer coordinator, I'm also still enjoying the numerous other roles I'm asked to fill here at MICA—particularly as a translator and interpreter for Spanish-speaking families. The several Spanish-speaking students in the Head Start preschool classroom have seemed to adapt well to the classroom and are learning English quickly, so I'm not needed to translate in the classroom quite as often as I was at the beginning of the school year. I still go on home visits with several of the other Family Development Specialists to translate for the Spanish-speaking families that they work with. And another new Spanish-speaking family has just been selected for the Early Head Start program, which will mean I'll get to act as an interpreter during even more home visits!
My own home visits with the families I work with as a part of Project Home Mission are also going well, although they aren't without challenges. It seems as though every time one of my families settles in to a bit of routine or establishes a sense of stability, something unexpected comes up—a medical problem that will require surgery, a loss of employment and a steady income, or a vehicle in need of immediate repair. Although it's tough for families to bounce back from these unanticipated difficulties, I've been impressed by families' resilience. I'm certain that they will continue working toward their goals, and I'm thankful that they trust me enough to rely on me for support.
Although my outlook on the work I do is generally positive, it's sometimes tough not to feel bogged down by little things. Once in a while, I get hung up on the parts of my job that aren't as exciting or enjoyable for me—entering information into MICA's data system or keeping the food pantry stocked and organized, for example—and I start to think about whether or not the work I do makes a big difference. I wonder if it's possible for me, as an individual, to ever really change the town or state or country I live in for the better. When I think about the big picture, I feel pretty small. But this week I was reminded of a quote, which is often attributed to Mother Teresa: "We can do no great things, only small things with great love." This reminded me to think of even the most routine conversations I have with families and individuals who come in to the MICA office as an opportunity to demonstrate kindness and build a sense of community. Although I don't have the power to erase poverty or all of the struggles that come with it, I do have the chance to interact with members of the Grinnell community on a daily basis—and I have to believe that if I make a conscious effort to show empathy in even the most brief interactions, those little things will start to add up.
As I enter the last several months of my Grinnell Corps year, I've started thinking about the challenges and lessons of the past eight months or so. Although anti-poverty work can sometimes be difficult, I've felt incredibly supported both by my supervisor and my coworkers, and I'm glad that being a Grinnell Corps Fellow has given me the opportunity to reflect often on the work that I'm doing.
Recently, one of our volunteers asked me what the most difficult part of my job was—to be honest, it just depends on the day. Sometimes, paperwork feels like the most difficult task; other times, talking with clients and providing referrals seems oddly draining, and it's a relief to just hunker down and do some filing or data entry. In reality, it's probably a good thing that my job includes so many different elements. Whenever I feel frustrated or overwhelmed by one aspect of my work, I'm able to take a break and work on something else for a while, which gives me a chance to refocus.
Although my favorite and least favorite parts of my job can vary from day to day, one of the most difficult things overall is the lack of control I have over the outcome of my work. Up until last May, I had a pretty easy time predicting results of the work I was doing, since it was almost entirely academic—if I worked hard to carefully research a paper and formulate an argument, I was pretty sure I'd get a grade I was happy with. If I rushed to finish an assignment hours before the deadline, I'd get a lower grade than I would have liked and end up kicking myself for not starting it sooner. The grades I got and the way I felt about the work I was doing were almost entirely dependent on my own actions—if I put good in, I got good out.
In my work at MICA, it's not always easy to tell what the results will be. On days when I am helping cover the office (as opposed to translating, conducting home visits, or working with volunteers), I may spend twenty or thirty minutes talking with a new client, listening to whatever problems they are having and working with them to plan out a course of action. The first step is always addressing the client's basic needs—do they have food to eat? Do they have a place to stay? Are they able to get to work? Depending on their answers, I may refer them to other community resources or programs within MICA. And sometimes it works out—I've referred a number of clients to MICA's fatherhood program, Strong Parents Strong Children, which focuses on employment, healthy relationships, and parenting. This program has helped a number of families in the Grinnell community gain employment and a greater sense of stability in their lives. Other times, though, those referrals don't pan out—the family may decide they aren't interested in any other programs or services through MICA, and I may never see them again. Then I'm left to wonder whether the time and energy I put into our conversation actually helped that family in any way.
Since I don't always know whether or not I will get to see the results of my work, I've gotten better at accepting the uncertainty that comes with my job. I've started to focus less on an achieving a particular end result and more on empowering clients to take small steps towards reaching their own goals. I've realized that I do need to work hard to connect with a family on their initial visit to our office, regardless of whether or not they express interest in enrolling in a longer-term program through MICA. Even if the family works through whatever issue they're having that day on their own, I want them to remember our conversation in case they ever find themselves a difficult situation sometime in the future.
To balance the unpredictability I sometimes encounter at work, I've settled into a comfortable but full routine during my non-working hours. The evenings that used to be spent frantically running from one academic building to the next, trying to find the perfect study spot or a functioning printer, are now spent jogging around Ahrens Park or working on my latest knitting project. Although I often miss my classmates and the constant flurry of social activity and schoolwork that came with being a student at Grinnell, it's been nice to spend more time by myself and try out new hobbies. At times, the independence is exhilarating—it's so nice to be able to read what I'd like at whatever pace I'd like. Other times, I still find myself craving the predictability and comfort of a class syllabus.
Along with working to create my own routines, I'm also learning how to maintain relationships with friends who are far away, and how to broaden my social circle to include more people who are close by instead of always relying on my fellow 2012'ers for long-distance support. I don't always do a great job of getting outside of my comfort zone—sometimes, I don't quite have the emotional energy to call up new acquaintances, and I instead opt to call my former roommates. The nice thing about being here in Grinnell is that I can assure my friends who have graduated that the difficulties they are having in post-graduate life aren't necessarily unique to the new city where they've settled for the moment—even in a town that I've called home for the past four and a half years, I sometimes feel insecure or unsure of myself. I'm starting to realize that the first year after graduation is always going to be difficult in one way or another, so I'm especially thankful that I'm getting to spend my first year after graduation in a job I genuinely enjoy, in a community full of individuals who have helped me feel at home here.
It's hard to believe my time as the Grinnell Corps Fellow here at MICA has already come to an end! It seems like it wasn't too long ago that I was at training and orientation with my fellow 2012-2013 Grinnell Corps members—and has it really been a whole year since I sat in the MICA office watching Allison Brinkhorst at work, trying to take in all of her advice before my term began? As my year came to a close, I focused on completing my final home visits with the families on my Project Home Mission caseload and interpreting for Spanish-speaking Head Start parents during their final classroom conferences of the school year.
After seeing member of the class of 2013 cross the stage at commencement, I was excited to be helping Laura, the 2013-2014 Grinnell Corps Fellow, get accustomed to work at MICA. I expected my last month as the Grinnell Corps Fellow to continue much as the previous several months had, and I looked forward to gradually showing Laura various aspects of the job. I was accustomed to my responsibilities and felt extremely comfortable around my coworkers and the families with whom we work.
But something unexpected happened, as it nearly always does in anti-poverty work! In late May, Grinnell was hit with severe flooding—families whose homes had never had any kind of flooding in their basements were suddenly under 8, 12, or 24 inches of water. Poweshiek County was declared a disaster area by Iowa's governor, which meant that low-income families in our area became eligible for Iowa Disaster Assistance. Iowa Disaster Assistance is a grant available to families under 200% of the Federal Poverty Guideline, and is intended to help families with major flood-related expenses that their insurance may not cover. This grant could help low-income families pay for things like a new water heater, washer and dryer, a furnace, or even clothing or furniture.
Given that Iowa's community action agencies already work with so many of the families that would be eligible for Iowa Disaster Assistance funds through other programs like the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program or WIC, it was decided that community action agencies would process applications for Iowa Disaster Assistance as well. However, since there had never been any kind of flooding in our area, there wasn't an application process in place. My coworkers and I were receiving dozens of phone calls every day, and had the difficult task of reassuring families while at the same time trying to sort through all of the detailed information we were receiving from our supervisor as to how the application process would work, and when families would actually receive assistance.
As we got information from our supervisor, my coworker Bonnie and I worked together to type up that information in a format that would be straightforward and easy for families to understand. We drew up a list of all of the documents families would need to bring in order to apply, carefully explaining each item. We also created a "detailed damages statement," where we asked families to list any items that were damaged during the flooding and explain the extent of the damage. These documents proved very useful, both for Bonnie and I and for our counterparts in other counties.
Although dealing with the results of flooding in our area was no easy task, I was so impressed with how my coworkers at MICA and members of other community organizations collaborated to help the process go as smoothly as possible, and I'm incredibly proud of how Bonnie and I worked together to reassure families and communicate important information with members of the Grinnell community.
As I think back on my fifth year in Grinnell, I'm only just beginning to realize just how much of a learning experience this year was for me. When I started my work at MICA, I struggled to balance the variety of tasks assigned to the Grinnell Corps Fellow—I wasn't sure when to do what, or how I would get it all done. Though I honed my writing and critical thinking skills during my time as a student, my year at MICA equipped me with a different set of abilities—I'm much better now at setting my own schedule and keeping to it, and I feel more comfortable working as part of a team.
I've also come away from this year a more careful listener. My time as a student was marked by repeated attempts to understand my experiences, articulate my opinions, and find my voice—those four years gave me a chance to figure out who I was both academically and socially, but my year as the Grinnell Corps Fellow helped me learn to value others' stories. This year I spent less time trying to figure out what I wanted to say and more time trying to understand where others were coming from, and how I could best empower them to reach their own goals. My coworkers were fantastic role models in helping me understand this process of step-by-step empowerment.
Apart from everything I learned from my interactions with families and coworkers at MICA, I've also learned so much from members of the Grinnell community. I'm still not sure how to thank all of the friends, roommates, quilting and knitting buddies, karaoke partners, and radio show co-hosts that made me feel so loved and cared for during my fifth year in Grinnell. This year wasn't without its challenges, but I wouldn't trade it for anything—nothing could have prepared me better for a lifetime of loving and learning from the people around me.
Issue Date: August 15, 2011
Though my travel from Grinnell College to my Grinnell Corps position hasn’t been as adventurous as those of my fellow Fellows, my couple months at Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) here in Grinnell have been an exciting time full of jumping right in and taking some leaps of faith.
Because Daisy and Nora, the fellows who preceded me, were outstanding during their time at MICA, my coworkers and director have seemed confident in my abilities from Day 1 back in mid-June. So unlike my internship experiences in the past where it took my coworkers a while to size me up and develop trust in me, MICA invited me to jump right in and do my best to fill Nora’s shoes.
I have been answering the phones, greeting people at the door, and generally “covering the office” since my very first day, which is much more difficult that I originally anticipated. People come to MICA with a wide array of requests, questions and situations.
How do I prevent my electricity from being shut off this weekend? Where can I find affordable childcare for my kids? My house burned down; how can I get new clothes? How can I get to my doctor appointment in Iowa City? How do I apply for food stamps? Who can help me get a restraining order against my abusive boyfriend? Where can I get some food to eat until my disability check comes in 3 days? Who can help me pay a rental deposit so I can move myself and my children out of my grandmother’s house?
We’re almost always able to help these families in some way, or to refer them to another organization that can. In our office alone, we offer:
- emergency food boxes, hygiene and cleaning supplies
- assistance paying for rent, water, prescription medications, electricity, and gas to get to doctor appointments
- Head Start enrollment
- Early Head Start, which focuses on early childhood development
- Families Developing Self-Sufficiency, a program that serves families who receive FIP
- Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program
- Family Connections, which serves families with young children
- Project Home Mission, a home-visiting program under which I have a caseload of 4 families.
To remember all of these programs and their eligibility requirements, not to mention those of other agencies to whom we refer people, is particularly difficult for me. I have covered my bulletin board with post-it cheat sheets, but there are still gaps (only figuratively—the bulletin board is full) in my knowledge. I’m lucky, however, to be surrounded by coworkers who seem to have endless knowledge stored up from years of experience, so I can always pop my head over the cubicle walls to get the answers I need.
In my very first week at MICA, I also translated for 4 Spanish-speaking families during their home visits with MICA’s Family Development Specialists. Because a 200-level Spanish course at Grinnell is the extent of my Spanish language skills, this is the part of my job description here at MICA that I was most nervous about. But with encouragement from my coworkers and patience from the Spanish-speaking families, I have found that my Spanish is almost always adequate to translate families’ concerns and questions from Spanish to English and then translate the Specialists’ ideas and referrals back to the family. I often stumble over my words, but they’re willing to laugh along with me when I confuse words like cuidado (care) and ciudadano (citizen), and I feel like I’m becoming a better translator every day. There are now 7 Spanish-speaking families who work with MICA’s Poweshiek office regularly, so I’m certainly getting plenty of practice.
The part of my job that has been the most personally fulfilling during these first two months at MICA is my work with 4 families as a part of Project Home Mission. I visit these low-income families twice a month in their homes, help them identify the barriers they are facing, provide resources and referrals, and facilitate bi-weekly goal setting to aid in their transition out of poverty. This program, funded by churches and other local organizations, has much more flexible eligibility requirements than any of our other home visiting programs, so these 4 families are very diverse with regards to their demographics, their strengths, and their needs. Getting to know them and what resources they can use is certainly a challenge, but this was one of those cases of ‘jumping right in’ in which my director went on my first home visit with each family and then suggested that I seemed ready to go out on my own. My work with these families is fulfilling in part because they often have questions and concerns for me when I arrive, and I enjoy brainstorming with them how to best build upon their strengths and available resources.
With my work in MICA’s food pantry, I’ve been thinking about these methods of family empowerment on a larger scale. The emergency food pantry is intended to give families a 3-day supply of food when the necessity arises. Recently, however, many families have been coming to receive food boxes from our office every 2 weeks. For the last two months, I have been meeting with a coworker and our director to try to understand why this is happening and how best to serve families without exceeding our food budget. We discussed time and again the difference between empowering families—helping them build upon their own strengths to rise out of poverty—and enabling—simply providing sustenance to families making no strides toward independence. With this in mind, we decided that we should return to MICA’s previous limit of one food box per family per month, but this decision was not the end of our discussions. We had to consider how families, donors, and other community organizations would respond to our decrease of services. We also had to brainstorm how to make this change empowering for families rather than costly. Therefore, while we are once again designating ours as an emergency food pantry, we have begun making a conscious effort to talk to each family about more long-term and consistent options available to them such as food stamps, reduced price Iowa Food Shares, and the free Community Meal. Even with all of our planning, we have dubbed this change a “leap of faith,” because though we have the best of intentions and self-analysis, we recognize that there will almost certainly be consequences, both positive and negative, that we cannot foresee. No matter what, this is going to be a difficult transition, but I have been impressed by how deliberately MICA works to empower low-income families, and I have very much enjoyed being a part of the process.
The final thing that I recently dove into headfirst is “real” “adult” life. Though I’m living in the same house as last year, my housemates all left the day before I started my position at MICA, and living alone certainly required some adjusting. I learned that cooking good food for one person is difficult and less fun. I discovered that nighttime thunderstorms and tornado warnings are scarier when you’re the only person home and your bedroom has 3 enormous windows. But I also took these 5 weeks living alone as a time to reboot from Grinnell College. I’ve stopped checking my email hourly. I really enjoy my newfound free time, and have spent a lot of it making cards and postcards to send to friends. I work to balance exercise, social life, personal projects, and work in a way that I was never able to do while in school. And the summertime Grinnell atmosphere is taking great care of me. I go to Community Meal and the farmer’s market each week. I have cookouts and potlucks with friends on a regular basis. I’ve been going on evening bike rides to explore beautiful parts of the area that I’ve somehow never seen before. Students have just begun arriving back in Grinnell for sports practice and Student Advisor (SA) training, and being 2 blocks away from campus without being a part of that is starting to feel pretty weird. But clearly, the leaps and jumps of MICA and real adult life are treating me quite well so far, so I’m really looking forward to what this fall might bring.
These days, when friends and family ask me how my day at MICA was, I feel like a pull-string toy that only knows one phrase: “busy, but good!” Busy but good is my favorite way to be, so you won’t here any complaints about that from me.
Things certainly have been busy. In October, MICA’s Family Development Worker and I began the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). Each week, we work with about 60 families to go through the paperwork necessary to approve them for this federal program that puts a credit of a couple hundred dollars onto their utility bill and protects them from getting their utilities shut off during the winter. Often, during these appointments, families also mention concerns or ask us about other resources, allowing us to refer them to programs or options that they might not learn about otherwise, such as Iowa Legal Aid, MICA’s Head Start, or Alliant Energy’s budget billing. These appointments are also opportunities for us to teach families about how to conserve energy, and we have free kits with CFL light bulbs, water aerators, and rope caulk to fill any cracks in their homes. Having appointments back-to-back can be a bit chaotic, but I’m enjoying this busy time, especially because I know it will slow down in January. And, like I said, “busy but good” is fine by me.
The office has been buzzing with excitement for other reasons as well. We have a new Family Development Worker who’s learning incredibly fast. Additionally, MICA was recently awarded a grant to implement a brand new parenting program under President Obama’s Fatherhood Initiative. Exciting for me in particular, Grinnell College’s Center for Religion, Spirituality, and Social Justice recently received one of MICA’s annual Community Partnership awards for funding the Grinnell Corps Fellow position and the work-study students who work in our food pantry. And, biggest of all for Grinnell’s MICA team, we have a new office!!
After making do with a “temporary” office location—complete with leaning cubicle walls and hallways created by bookshelves—for over a year, we’ve moved up in the world! This past Friday, we moved into Grinnell’s old police station. The old jail cells are now our bathrooms, and the interrogation room now houses our copier and fax machine. We’re especially excited to have a much larger food pantry and a huge meeting room complete with a kitchen area, child-sized picnic tables, and a conference table that we can all meet around. I’ll miss being able to pop my head over the cubicle walls with questions or funny stories, but having my own office will allow me to serve families with more confidentiality and fewer distractions, so I look forward to settling into our new home.
Complementing my “busy but good” work days, my evenings are a wonderful balance of full, but relaxing. Living in Grinnell without the academic work and stress of Grinnell College is the best of many worlds. I get to spend time with an incredible community that still claims me as one of their own. Occasionally, I even get treated to a meal in the dining hall (which really is an exciting treat for me these days!). I’m also enjoying attending presentations, readings, films, open forums, and meetings that I regrettably didn’t have time for during my years as a student.
A couple of these opportunities have recently centered on the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, including an open forum with students, faculty, staff and community members. I didn’t feel like I had a strong understanding of what OWS actually is, so I went simply to listen and learn. In the end, I was inspired by the realization that OWS is voicing many of the concerns that I hear from the families at MICA every day. Grinnell students who spent time at Occupy New York explained at the open forum that OWS is a movement of voicing concerns, hearing the concerns of others, and only working for change thereafter. I am drawn to this emphasis on hearing and acting upon the concerns of others, and I believe that it is especially important for those of us with the privilege of comfort and wealth to really hear the concerns of those without. With that in mind, I would like to tell you about some of the concerns that I hear from families at MICA on a daily basis. I wish that I could provide you with their own words (which would better reflect the communication methods of OWS) rather than my paraphrasing summaries, but I will do my best to be true to their sentiments.
- Health Care. Iowa Cares health insurance, a popular option for low-income families, only covers medical attention at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City, requiring $20 of gas for each trip to a pediatrician or the dialysis unit or even the ER. Grinnell’s Public Health Community Clinic is only open one day per week. Free dental screenings are available for children twice a month in Grinnell, but the closest low-income option for actual dental work is 45 minutes away, costing $15 in gas each trip. Many adults in the families I serve do not have any health insurance.
- Budget Cuts Affecting the Poor. It is predicted that Heat Assistance (LIHEAP) funding will be cut approximately 40% this year. This is already resulting in drastically smaller award amounts for each family. Similarly, the Poweshiek County DHS office was closed due to budget cuts, meaning that families must drive to Newton ($10 in gas) during the application process for food stamps, Medicaid, etc.
- Affordable Housing. Experts recommend that families spend between 25% and 40% of their income on rent. For many families here in Poweshiek County, finding adequate housing that is even less than 50% of their income is extremely difficult. Many low-income apartment complexes in Grinnell have lengthy waiting lists. Families can receive substantial rent assistance from the U.S. Dept. of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), but the waiting list for that assistance in Grinnell is approximately 8 months. This wait forces many families to pay beyond their means for rent during this period, causing them to get so behind on other bills that they may take years to catch up.
As I understand it, Occupy Wall Street aims to use collective concerns such as these to demonstrate that our country’s economic system is flawed. During my work at MICA, I see ample evidence of this. I therefore attended Occupy Grinnell’s first General Assembly, held in Central Park under the gazebo. We all waved our fingers (an OWS method of reaching consensus amongst large groups of people) in support of proposals to bring together Grinnell College students and Grinnell community members to discuss and act upon shared concerns. It’s heartening to me that progress might be made in such a united way. Grinnell’s communities are becoming an increasingly integral part of my (busy but good, full but relaxing) life, and I’m excited to be bringing about social change in these communities via organizations like MICA and movements like Occupy Grinnell.
A few weeks ago, a fragile and nervous-looking woman in her 60s shyly came into MICA’s waiting room. Her hair was frizzy underneath her fast-food chain visor. She started tearing up before I could even get out my usual “Hi, how can we help you?” I ushered her to come sit in my office, and the first words she could get out were “my husband….doesn’t want to be married to me anymore. He kicked me out.” First, I just listen. She tells me she has no idea how this has happened. She says she has never asked for help like this before. She cries that she doesn’t know what to do. Second, I try to focus her thoughts in order to assess her basic needs. “Do you have somewhere to stay tonight?” I ask. “Will they let you stay there until you’re able to find a new apartment? Do you have food to eat there?” I then address these needs with referrals. “MICA has a food bank right here in this office. Would you like a box of food today? … Do you have a list of low-income apartments in the area? … Once you get moved into a new place, you can give us a call to set up an appointment for our heating assistance program, which could put a credit of a couple hundred dollars onto your electric or gas bill.” Often, this leads to a discussion of secondary needs. I learn that she is living with a chronic, disabling and humiliating illness. She tells me that she owes thousands of dollars in medical bills. I find out that she’s only working 12 hours a week at a minimum-wage, fast-food job that is 40 minutes away from her home.
And then, she realizes she is going to be late to work. She dries her eyes, takes some deep breaths, and rushes out of my office. I haven’t seen her since.
Another day, an 18-year-old man comes in because he is homeless. I know that he’s been couch-surfing since this summer, and he says he’s run out of options. He’s sleeping in his broken down car, and it’s going to get below freezing tonight. He has dropped out of high school so he can work full-time at a local factory, and he now has enough money for a deposit on an apartment, but he doesn’t know where to start. He looks at the list of landlords that I give him, and asks if he can use my office phone to call them.
Another day, a woman comes in asking about the food pantry, and I see in her file that she’s only a couple months older than me. She has 2 children, and has just left a 5-year abusive relationship. After addressing her basic needs, I tell her about a new program we have that includes relationship classes and parenting classes. She says yes, please, sign her up. She says she doesn’t know how to gain respect and authority with her kids who have watched their father degrade her their whole lives.
Sometimes, these families never come back to our office. Sometimes, they latch onto me and begin to rely upon me more than I can allow. Sometimes they cry with gratitude when I tell them we’ve put a $300 credit on their electricity bill. Sometimes they say “that’s it?! But I got $550 last year!” Sometimes I find out that they’ve lied to me. Sometimes, they ask me if they can volunteer at our office to repay us for our help.
What am I taking away from these experiences during my year as a Grinnell Corps Fellow? The lesson that life is messy. And that life is often hard. And that life in poverty is especially, excruciatingly messy and hard. Other parts of my job are neat and clean: paperwork; processing LIHEAP applications; the food pantry; my email inbox. Those are easy. But people are hard. And the work involved in empowering people is hard. Hard and messy.
In many ways, I know that my personality is well-suited for this job. For better or worse, I’m even-keeled and not overly sentimental. I’m able to empathize and build rapport with families without becoming too emotionally attached. Most importantly, I have strong emotional boundaries that help me avoid taking on families’ personal burdens as my own.
During this quarter, however, my work with one particular family has really challenged me emotionally. This is a family that I have been working with consistently, through Project Home Mission, since I began my fellowship. During our bimonthly home visits, I am supposed to provide referrals and support, and they are in turn asked to set goals related to their family needs and development. When you add in a call or two to other organizations to provide referrals to the family, I should have around 4 contacts with or on behalf of a family each month. However, during the last week of January, I logged 28 contacts for this ailing mother and her son. Clearly, my strong boundaries weren’t holding up so well.
I was incredibly concerned about the well-being of the son. With his mother spending just as many nights in the hospital as at their apartment, and because she was so weak, this pre-teen was shouldering the responsibilities of the adult in the household. He was doing the dishes, the laundry, and the cooking. He was the only person available to care for his mother when she was home, and he was staying with various friends when she wasn’t. He was walking 2 miles roundtrip to buy groceries, and 4 miles to visit his mother in the hospital. He was missing school, and his grades were dropping. I was worried about his physical health, his emotional well-being, and his future.
This wasn’t a situation in which my system of just providing information and referrals was going to work. The mother was too physically weak to hear my suggestions, and the son was too young and afraid. Plus, the situation was just plain hard. And messy. This wasn’t anyone’s fault; it was the result of intersecting factors for this sick, single mom living in poverty without a support network. But I also didn’t think it was an acceptable condition of life for a middle-school-aged boy. So I let my boundaries down. I thought and worried about the son a lot, even when I was off the clock. I began doing things for the family rather than empowering them to accomplish these tasks on their own. This is how my week of 28 contacts got so out of control; I was calling the mom, then the middle school principal, then the hospital social worker, then the mom again, then the son, then the landlord, etc. I was dropping off paperwork at the hospital for the mom and taking food boxes to their apartment for the son and meeting with the counselor at the school. Clearly, I had become emotionally invested.
During this time, I sought and received much advice and support. I talked to my coworkers who had served this family in the past. I consistently updated my supervisor on the situation and asked for guidance. The whole office even met as a group to brainstorm options for the family. And their support was immeasurably important to me. It didn’t make the situation any less hard, or any less messy. But it did ease the burden I felt and help me organize my thoughts. And with this support, I can only hope that I was able to do the same for this family. To make life in poverty a little less hard. And a little less messy.
*Identifying information in this report has been changed to protect the confidentiality of the families that MICA serves.
A couple days after the Class of 2012’s commencement, I wrote on GrinnellPlans, “The best way to graduate is to graduate twice.”
I’m so grateful that I chose (and was given the opportunity) to stay in Grinnell for a fifth year. Last May, when I walked across the commencement stage feeling very accomplished, I had no idea how many lessons the Grinnell community still had tucked up its sleeve for me to learn.
When I applied for the Grinnell Corps: Grinnell position, I was especially excited about the possibility of forming relationships with individuals in need and working with them one-on-one. This seemed to me to be the most rewarding and personal aspect of social justice work. As you may have read in my last report, I quickly learned that this kind of ground-level work is hard and messy. That was fine; as I wrote in February, I felt well-equipped for this hard and messy work with my strong emotional boundaries and supportive coworkers. That being said, focusing my energy on addressing personal, micro-level issues of poverty has left the sociology major in me feeling a little neglected. Helping a woman keep her electricity on for the next month, or feed her family for the next 3 days, is important and necessary work, but it leaves me searching for larger-scale, longer-term solutions and social change.
If the Grinnell College Sociology Department is one (beloved) ghost from the past coming back to haunt me a year later, the second ghost I face is my love of leadership. The family development work I do at MICA requires supporting the goals and decisions of the family, regardless of our own hopes and dreams for them. I also, of course, defer daily to the decisions of the MICA County Director, the requirements of our grants, etc. In these ways, my year at MICA has taught me many skills of following, and I cannot stress enough how important these lessons have been for me. But I also miss the power I had to run with my own ideas and goals when I led four different student groups during my senior year at Grinnell. In tandem, then, these two ghosts of my past are whispering in my ear, “Rally the troops! Lead all of the people to tackle all of the oppressions of the world!” (Clearly, my ghosts still have the idealism of a college student.) In all seriousness though, my desire to be a leader in addressing oppression on a larger scale has made me turn more favorably toward the idea of non-profit administration and management. I am now set on the idea of getting a Masters in Social Work, maybe combined with a Masters in Public Administration. Someday.
The other lessons that Grinnell has pulled out of its sleeve for me this year have been more personal self-realizations. For instance, in my first quarterly report, I wrote that I was excited to have more free time for cooking, crafting, and exercise. By early spring, this excitement about a slower-paced life had turned to boredom. Sneaky Grinnell taught me something I already knew; I’m not very good with free time. Luckily, I was still surrounded by engaging campus events, a lively town, and fantastic friends, so it only took a little motivation to once again fill my schedule with activities that I enjoy. In doing so though, I was able to consciously strike a balance between my overly-stressed student routine and my bored post-grad life, and I’m grateful to have (re)learned that lesson of agency over my own routine and well-being.
Another lesson came from the jolting decrease in intellectual challenges required of me in my post-grad life. I believe that this change contributed to my boredom, and it also left me feeling a bit lost. To address this, I first incorporated more stimulating reading into my stack of books (snuck in between Hunger Games and BUST Magazine). But I also realized that this was a shift in my life that I was going to have to come to terms with. I will no longer receive grades by which to measure my success in life. I’ve known for years that my sense of self-worth relied heavily upon my academic performance, so this year, I’ve taken up the challenge of widening the base of my self-identity, placing more value upon my friendships, my relationship to my community, and my artistic and physical abilities.
Perhaps the biggest lesson that has been forced upon me (and for which I am grateful) is social self-confidence. I’ve always been very outgoing in more formal situations—giving presentations, going to church, meeting with professors—but shy in informal settings with my peers. As a student at Grinnell, I often relied on a friend or significant other to initiate social interaction by “dragging” me to parties or simply inviting me over for dinner. My fifth year in Grinnell has encouraged me to come out of my shell in a number of ways. Primarily, not being on campus every day has forced me to initiate social time with my friends; I can no longer just run into them in the dining hall. Secondly, when everyone on the dance floor is at least a year younger than you, it’s a little easier to leave self-consciousness behind. The most striking change, though, has been my realization of how much I can depend upon my friends. In some “rock bottom” moments this past year, I have learned that if I ask for help, I have an entire “village” of friends willing to help hold me up. Equipped with lessons in self-confidence, trust, and extroversion, I’m now prioritizing and taking responsibility for my friendships more than ever before in my life. And honestly, this is the lesson that I am most proud to have learned this year, and I can’t stress enough how glad I am that I was able to learn this lesson in Grinnell, even if it did take me five years.
I’ve spent the last couple weeks saying goodbye to many kind, loyal, and fun Grinnellians. As they leave, I’m realizing that I’m also preparing myself to say goodbye to Grinnell College and town. At the beginning of this year, I was excited to settle down, to live a slow-paced, small-town, quiet, domestic life. That’s what I did, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But thanks to the many lessons I’ve learned this year, I’m feeling self-reflective, recharged, and ready to take on an adventure! Three days after my Grinnell Corps position ends at MICA, I’ll be flying to Cobán, Guatemala for a year of service with Community Cloud Forest Conservation, working with their scholarship program for young women from rural Guatemala.
Grinnell has provided me with such a welcoming, encouraging and loving atmosphere in which to grow and learn over the last five years. I know that the first year of post-grad life has been an important time of personal growth for many of my classmates, and I’m so incredibly grateful that I was able to spend this period of my life surrounded by the supportive community of Grinnell. The lessons that Grinnell has taught me haven’t fallen from the sky; they’ve come in the form of the pokes, prods, laughs, hugs, challenges, and unfailing support that I have received from Doug Cutchins and everyone in the CRSSJ, from all of my MICA coworkers, and from my astonishingly wonderful friends. Thank you for being such wise teachers, each in your own way. It might have taken me five years, but I promise that I’ve learned some unforgettable lessons.
Issue Date: July 30, 2010
It’s hard to believe that it was just over two months ago that I sat in training with all of the 2010-2011 Grinnell Corps Fellows. As a Corps, we discussed possible challenges for the upcoming year, how we expected to overcome such obstacles, and goals we hoped to accomplish. At every meal, we would squeeze all eleven of us (Doug included) around a dinner table set for five and bond over uncertainties about the upcoming year. Did any of us feel confident that we really knew exactly what our jobs would entail? For multiple reasons, those few days of orientation that we spent in meetings and playing outside or around the campfire seem like they happened ages ago. For one, I haven’t seen the other fellows since the end of May. Instead, I now look at pictures online of David, Nathan, and Kaitlin as they establish their new lives in Africa, where they will be serving in Namibia and Lesotho. Secondly, I have settled into my position here in Grinnell at MICA and have learned an enormous amount about the resources this organization provides to local families in need. Thanks to the patience of all the women with whom I work (and the extensive training provided by Daisy, the previous Grinnell Corps Fellow), I am really starting to become comfortable with my duties here at MICA. So, now you are probably wondering:
What is MICA?
The acronym “MICA” stands for Mid Iowa Community Action. This nonprofit organization was established in 1964 with the goal of decreasing the number of families living in poverty and ensuring that those who do live in such conditions, have a path out. MICA’s motto is “Helping families. Changing lives. Building communities.” and the organization works hard to fulfill these lofty goals. MICA independently runs a variety of programs to serve local low-income families, while also working alongside other community action agencies in the area. If MICA is not able to assist a family in need, we are almost always aware of another agency in town to which we can refer the family for help. Before I get into describing the multitude of services that MICA offers local residents, let me tell you a bit more about the organization as a whole. A board of directors governs Mid Iowa Community Action. To better serve the entire community, this board is made up of 1/3 low income individuals, 1/3 elected representatives, and 1/3 private sector representatives. MICA receives funding from federal, state, and local sources. I have been very impressed with the huge amount of local support for our agency. We receive great food and monetary donations from local residents, as well as steady funds from the Ministerial Association (comprised of local churches). MICA’s central office can be found in Marshalltown, with Family Development offices (like the one where I work) located in Ames, Grinnell, Iowa Falls, Marshalltown, and Tama. As an agency, MICA serves five core counties: Poweshiek, Hardin, Story, Marshall, and Tama. And now, at long last, a list of the services that we provide here at the MICA office in Grinnell:
Families may receive food assistance every two weeks here in Grinnell. Food boxes are very complete, with an assortment of dry and canned food, as well as fresh produce (when available) and vouchers for bread and milk at local supermarkets. We give families enough food to last for three full days. Diapers, toiletries, and cleaning supplies are usually on hand as well for families to request.
Families that income-qualify can receive free preschool for their children through Head Start! Amanda is always open to speaking to families with four year olds in order to determine if they are eligible for this wonderful service!
Early Head Start
Before children are old enough to attend preschool outside of the home, families who income-qualify can receive home visits by Roma. Roma educates parents about healthy child development and activities to boost a child’s mental, physical, and emotional development.
This program is available for families with children ages zero to five. Kelly uses a “Parents as Teachers” curriculum to educate families about child development, health, and wellness.
Homeless Prevention Program
Kelly financially assists families who are currently homeless or in danger of becoming so in the near future. Families in this program receive long term budget counseling to help prevent future financial problems.
Family Development and Self-Sufficiency Program (FaDSS)
Mindy heads up FaDSS. She goes to the homes of families who are on FIP (welfare) and works with them on issues ranging from obtaining a job to improving physical and mental health. The goal of this program is to help individuals become self sufficient.
Crisis Assistance for Utilities
During the summer, many local families are unable to pay their utility bills and run the risk of having their electricity shut off. MICA is able to help individuals financially in order to avoid disconnect. The amount of assistance a family is eligible for is based on the number of payments they have made to their electricity bill over the last six months.
If someone has a doctor’s appointment, job interview, or other obligation outside of Grinnell but is unable to pay for gas, MICA can use ministerial funds to assist the individual in keeping their appointment.
What do I do at MICA?
My favorite responsibility here at MICA is that of translating for Spanish-speaking families when our family development workers visit them in their homes. I really enjoy the challenge of improving and maintaining my Spanish while watching local families grow and learn with the help of our specialists. In the beginning I was a little nervous about my ability to effectively act as a translator, but I am grateful to the patience and understanding of my coworkers and the families that I serve. I now feel much more comfortable and look forward to these visits every week. For the past two months, I have learned the basics of running the office here in Grinnell. There have been multiple days when I even took on this task by myself! I serve families who come in to use the food pantry, as well as accept, weigh, organize, and shelve food donations brought to MICA. When we moved to our new building, I advocated for ensuring that the refrigerator was moved as well so that we could continue to receive fresh produce donated by vendors at the farmers’ market and other local gardeners. The list of office duties continues. I can qualify families for energy assistance and pledge money to help them avoid having their electricity disconnected. As an extension to my translating for Spanish speakers in their homes, I do some of that in the office as well. I translate flyers, brochures, and signs for our family development workers to help them better serve their Spanish speaking families, and I handle all phone communication in Spanish. Finally, working in the office requires one to be very familiar with a variety of other nonprofit organizations and community resources available to families that they can use if for some reason MICA can’t help them meet their needs. I regularly refer individuals to the Campbell Fund, Poweshiek Community Services, the Department of Human Services, Section 8 Housing, and Second Mile for additional assistance.
Final Thoughts on Life in Grinnell
I have thoroughly enjoyed my first summer here in Grinnell! My experience at MICA has so far been very rewarding, and the laid back pace of small town life without the stress of class work has been amazing. Some of my favorite activities this summer include swimming at the new water park, visiting the Drake library, Summerama activities in Central Park, multiple block parties and outdoor concerts downtown, the farmer’s market, Community Meal, and painting on the community mural. I think that it has yet to fully hit me that I am no longer a college student and won’t be returning to classes this Fall. I am, however, very excited about the rest of my year here at MICA, and I am sure that by the next time I write, I will have learned even more about this organization and the Grinnell community at large!
Can it really be the first week of November and time to write the second of my quarterly reports? Wow, time flies! My job and life have changed in so many ways since the last time I wrote, and I will do my best to fill you in on all of the new and exciting roles that I now play here at MICA.
I should start by saying that I still do all of the tasks that I mentioned in my last report, although I now do them with greater ease and understanding. I’ve continued to translate for local Spanish speaking families, and I am much more comfortable in this area since I know these families more personally and realize how understanding they are of my mistakes. I now frequently manage the day-to-day traffic of the office and no longer feel that nagging worry that comes from wondering if I will be knowledgeable enough to assist someone in need of help. I feel completely comfortable fielding questions from families who walk into MICA asking for assistance in a huge variety of areas. When I pick up the phone or answer the doorbell, I can expect any one of the following questions:“How can I get help paying my water bill so that it isn’t shut off tomorrow?” “My child needs a winter coat and we can’t afford to buy one. What should I do?” “I’m out of propane and I need a fill in order to turn on my heat for the winter. Can MICA help me since I don’t have the money to pay that bill?” “How can I get help with transportation to my doctor’s appointment in Des Moines?” “Who can I go to for help with obtaining diapers and formula for my new baby?” When I started at MICA this past summer, I would have been at a complete loss about how to answer any one of these questions, but now it is rare that someone asks me for assistance in an area of which I know of no resources to help them. Not only can I refer them to the correct agency for support, but if MICA provides the service that they need, I can usually provide them with immediate assistance by filling out any necessary paperwork myself.
And now, more on my new responsibilities at MICA!
Project Home Mission
Project Home Mission is one of MICA’s home-based programs and is sponsored by local churches and private donors. Its mission is to help low-income families identify the barriers to success in their lives, as well as the tools necessary to overcome these barriers, so that the family might transition out of poverty and into a life of self-sufficiency. Because the funds for this program are provided by private donors, as opposed to the state or federal governments, the program has some flexibility as to who can work under it and who it can serve. Due to the large workload of our other Family Development Specialists here at MICA, my supervisor asked if I would be interested in taking on three families as my caseload. In other words, I would serve as the sole case worker to three families and would meet with them independently on a biweekly basis. I saw this as a great opportunity to be more fully emerged in the services that MICA provides and more fully challenge myself in my work here, so I accepted!
Providing home visits on my own is my most challenging new responsibility. I must admit that along with my excitement for the start of this new task, I was also really scared that I was not going to have the expertise necessary to help struggling families succeed. I started by shadowing other specialists on their home visits in order to watch how they guide families in identifying barriers to success, problem solving, and goal-setting. After that, I jumped right in.
I now meet with three families every other week and act as a “referral specialist” who might point them in the direction of resources that will help them overcome obstacles present in their lives. One single mother, for example, was struggling with finding money for groceries, so we set a goal for her to come and use the MICA Food Pantry. Another mom was concerned about her high school age son making plans for college, so I called his guidance counselor to discuss how the school will support him in this area. I try to help families through any crises or concerns that they are not sure of how to solve on their own. Additionally, I inform families of upcoming community events and programs for low income families, such as the Christmas Share Program and Flu Vaccination Clinics, so that they are aware of and might participate in these opportunities.
This Fall I have taken on the responsibility of matching volunteers from the Grinnell Community with MICA’s needs for assistance in running the office during this busy season, and let me tell you, this job is a juggling act! I try my best to strike a balance between the extremes of having too many volunteers and not enough work and having enormous amounts of work with no volunteers to help. Our volunteers, however, are very patient and responsive, which makes my job so much easier. Last week, for example, we got two 1,200lb food donations (amazing!), and our volunteers came in during hours that they weren’t normally scheduled to help us out. Our office here in Grinnell currently has 8 regular volunteers, 6 of whom are college students. I so appreciate their enthusiasm to help, despite how busy I know they are with school.
The heating assistance season is upon us, and it is just as busy as what I had heard from everyone in the months leading up to its start. We eased into the LIHEAP season, as only individuals who were elderly or disabled could apply in October. Now that November has started, however, applications are open to everyone and there is always a steady stream of people filing into the office for appointments.
I should more fully describe what the LIHEAP program does and how one can qualify! Households who live at or below 150% of poverty are eligible for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and they will receive a one-time credit on their heating and electric bill for the winter. This year, most awards are running somewhere between $300-$600, and the exact amount that a family receives depends on their heating source, household size, income level, housing subsidy, and whether or not anyone in the home is disabled. In addition to this one-time financial award, the family’s electricity is protected under the Winter Moratorium, which means that it cannot be shut off until after April 1st even if the family is for some reason unable to pay during the winter months. This program works to ensure that families will have heat and electricity during the winter, a fact which anyone who has ever lived in Iowa knows is completely necessary for survival.
Educational Extras (Playtime and Family Night)
The Head Start and Family Connections programs here at MICA are required to provide “socializations” for their families where parents and children can meet to do fun/ educational activities. I have been attending these Playtimes and Family Nights, and I think that I have about as much fun as the children that I am helping to supervise. During these meetings, the parents learn about health, child development, and how to be their child’s teacher. The children enjoy various learning activities and of course, snack time.
More Thoughts on Life in Grinnell
Whenever I am catching up with friends who live outside of Grinnell, they always ask me about how my job at MICA is going. In explaining to them all that I do, I have realized just how much I really enjoy my job. I genuinely feel like I make a difference in someone’s life every single day, and that makes work so fulfilling. Thanks to the fact that I fill so many roles here at MICA, I am constantly doing something different, which provides a great balance of working on things that really challenge me and completing other less stressful tasks.
Life in Grinnell outside of work continues to go very well also. Looking back at my last report, I remember feeling a little nervous about the start of the school year and the fact that I am no longer a student; I wondered if I would feel out of place living in Grinnell but no longer attending classes when most of my peers were returning to school. This has not been the case! I still have a good number of friends who are students and feel very at home on campus. In the evenings I often visit Burling in order to study for the online classes I am taking. On the weekends I have enjoyed attending campus events such as IMPROV performances, Grinnell Monologues, A cappella concerts, sporting events, and the occasional Harris party. Additionally, I spend more of my free time in town with events such as MICA’s Forum on Poverty or the Grinnell Farmer’s Market. I am very happy that I decided to defer my enrollment to graduate school in order to stay in Grinnell for another year as the Grinnell Corps: Grinnell Fellow at MICA. I am learning so much about resources available to individuals living in the conditions of poverty, and I am enjoying myself at the same time!
The Busy Season
Looking back, the last three months have by far been the busiest of my fellowship. I think the constant flurry of activity here in the office was both a reflection of increased need due to costly winter heating bills and Holiday expenses, as well as the enormous number of donations provided by the Grinnell community. In November and December, our walls were almost always lined with food and toy contributions brought in by local citizens. These donations, however, were leaving our shelves almost as fast as we could get them weighed and put away.
At times, our office felt like Grand Central Station. Families were coming and going; phones were ringing off the hook. In order to picture the bustle, imagine that it is a Friday morning in December here at MICA. Every Friday is a “walk-in” day for LIHEAP applications, where families are not required to make an appointment in advance, but can just queue up in the waiting area for assistance. There are already 5 families waiting to be seen when we start accepting applications at 9am, and others show up as well over the next two hours.
Corey and I are doing our best to take people as quickly as possible, while at the same time fulfilling the other office duties of answering the door to help families needing food boxes, milk vouchers, or diapers for their children. Some families here for LIHEAP end up waiting close to an hour before they are ushered into the office for their appointment, and by this time, frustrations often run high. I start an application, only to be interrupted by the ringing phone – the parent on the line says that they missed the sign up for Christmas Share and have nothing to give their children for the Holidays. Can MICA help? I take their contact information, speedily ask their children’s ages, and promise to give them a call back if we hear from a sponsor willing to help. Now back to the LIHEAP application. After such a wait, imagine that the family sitting across from me has forgotten to bring a social security card necessary to complete the application, or in another scenario, their application is denied because their household income is at 160% of poverty, just over the cutoff of 150% used to qualify for heating assistance. Disappointment, anger, and desperation are (understandably) some of the emotions that I have had to help families work through on days such as this. I try to inform them of where they might move from here and other avenues of assistance that they might pursue. In these situations, my position here at MICA proves to be very challenging, and I am grateful for my abilities to multitask as well as connect and communicate with others.
In addition to the numerous hectic days in the last three months, however, there were many new and wonderful experiences as well. One of the greatest work-related joys for me since I last wrote was the task of helping match needy families with local sponsors who wished to receive help with Christmas gifts. One single dad, for example, called looking for assistance in buying presents for his family. When we asked him for a wish list, he selflessly refused to give us suggestions for himself, only mentioning items his two children might like. When this particular father came to pick up his gifts, he broke into tears of appreciation over the pair of brand new bikes the sponsor had purchased for his children. It was heartwarming to know that I had contributed to this success story by helping facilitate the connection between local sponsors and families.
Project Home Mission (PHM)
My responsibilities and successes in conducting home visits on my own have continued to grow. I am very pleased to report that many of my previous Project Home Mission Families have overcome large obstacles in the past few months. Additionally, I have added two new families to my PHM caseload, thus becoming the only Family Development Specialist providing home visits under this program in Poweshiek County.
The successes of the families with whom I work are numerous and often include small steps that work toward a larger goal. Recent accomplishments under Project Home Mission:
- I provided support to one of my Spanish speaking families throughout the process of applying for Food Assistance. This family needed someone to translate for them during the interview that all individuals must complete in order to qualify, and I was able to provide this service. Once qualified, I helped the family to activate their EBT card and even met them at the store for their first purchase in order to ease their nervousness and uncertainty over how to pay with such a card. Receiving food assistance has relieved this single parent of at least some stress associated with trying to feed her children.
- Another of my PHM families has made strides in overcoming life’s obstacles. When on a home visit last month, the child expressed concerns about bullying at school. With the parent’s consent, I set up a meeting between the child, myself, the school guidance counselor, and the assistant principal. In this way, the student had a voice in her school setting, and I believe the meeting helped her to realize that there are adults who truly care about her concerns at school. While this sort of meeting cannot immediately resolve all problems with peers, I believe it is most certainly a step in the right direction to ensuring that the child views her school as a safe, respectful, and welcoming environment.
- A third, and final, example of my work with PHM includes the research that I do for families regarding resources for which they might qualify. When an elderly individual, for example, realized that she has been living outside of her means, I investigated the income-based housing options available in Grinnell. The two of us have spent much time discussing the pros and cons of such living arrangements, weighing financial benefits versus the fear of downsizing.
In every abovementioned scenario, I was learning right along with the family who I was assisting. I challenged myself to learn the ins and outs of how a family can apply for services through the Department of Human Services. I talked with coworkers about tips for facilitating a meeting on bullying. I made many calls to various housing facilities in order to be well informed on issues that I previously knew nothing about. A great advantage to my job here at MICA is that I have learned a huge amount about community resources available for families in need. This knowledge is immediately advantageous to those families with whom I currently work, and I am sure it will continue to serve me in my future service-based career as well.
I really love the office environment here at MICA. All of the women with whom I work are fabulous, and we have a lot of fun together! In early December, for example, we drew names out of a hat in order to select a “secret friend.” For a few weeks, we left each other small treats or gag gifts on the sly, only to reveal who had who at an end of the year meeting.
I went home around Christmas and New Year’s, and this was a much needed break! I didn’t fully realize that I was starting to feel stressed by the bustle of the office pace before the Holidays until I arrived home to family, friends, and two weeks of sleeping in. Taking the time to relax and rejuvenate definitely helped me feel better about once again starting up service work when I returned to Grinnell.
Because I took only two weeks off, while Grinnell College had a five week winter break, there was a good portion of time in which I spent the evenings alone after work. I made the most of this “me” time and really enjoyed having some time to myself! I rented movies, visited the Drake Library for reading material, and even treated myself to take-out. This was a quiet and enjoyable transition back to work after some time at home. I am, however, very glad to have all my friends from campus back in Grinnell once again!
I want to start by saying what an incredible experience it has been to serve for a year as the Grinnell Corps Fellow here at MICA. I feel deeply grateful for all that I have learned in the past twelve months, and I must thank both MICA as an organization and more specifically, the wonderful women with whom I work here in the Grinnell office. I cannot say enough about these ladies and their unwavering willingness to show me the ropes, answer questions, and talk me through stressful situations. Their ability to work in such a high need service area – constantly adjusting to change and maintaining a sense of humor – is truly an inspiration. Thank you also to Doug Cutchins and Grinnell College, who played an integral role in making the past year a wonderful experience. In addition to making this fellowship possible financially, access to the fitness center and campus events kept me sane when life seemed crazy. Finally, I want to thank the many individuals who enriched my time here in Grinnell outside of work. I feel so lucky to have spent another year with Hannah, Andrew, the women’s cross country team, the Drakes, and other members of the Grinnell College community.
And now, let me tell you a about this last quarter…
Successes! With Project Home Mission (PHM)
Working as a Family Development Specialist under Project Home Mission has been by far the most challenging aspect of my work here at MICA. Each visit is such a unique experience, so I never quite know what to expect. Facilitating a home visit requires constant adjustment to a family’s needs and obstacles, a sort of “thinking on your toes” mentality as the visit unfolds. I always prepare to meet with a family by researching resources I think will be useful, but no matter how organized I am before I arrive, there is always an element of the unknown. Will the family be in a great mood or feeling upset when I get there? Will new obstacles have presented themselves since I saw the family two weeks ago? Did the family meet the goals we talked about at our last visit, or will we need to revisit some of the same issues?
Despite, or perhaps because, providing home visiting services pushes me out of my comfort zone, accomplishments in this area are extremely rewarding. Supporting families to make and complete goals related to physical health, social wellness, financial security, and education makes me feel like my job truly has a positive impact on the world.
As I mentioned in my last report, I currently work with four families in Poweshiek County under PHM, and their accomplishments are numerous. With the stories from my last report in mind, here is a sampling of recent successes:
- As you might remember, one of the children with whom I work was concerned about bullying at school. Hoping to help increase her self confidence with positive social interaction, I informed this family of scholarships available to help cover the cost of local summer camps. The family responded enthusiastically, and we registered the daughter to attend a week of camp with a friend. Approved for a “campership,” the family paid $17 for this opportunity as opposed to the full price of $377.
- In my last report, I mentioned that I work with an elderly individual who has been struggling to make ends meet after a significant decrease in income. In the past three months, she and I have worked together to search out resources that might help lower her monthly bills. Due to health concerns, this individual finds paperwork very overwhelming. Thus, I helped her to navigate the application processes necessary to qualify her for food assistance, Medicaid assistance, and a free cell phone available to low income families. Additionally, she has taken the huge step of putting herself on the waiting list for income based housing, while considering the logistics of selling her current residence. These steps were imperative in the process of developing a sustainable budget.
- A new family on my caseload includes a single dad working hard to make ends meet after the death of his wife. In addition to informing him of mental health services available to his family if desired, I have made him aware of programs that might assist financially. With my help, he has applied for childcare assistance, as well as financial assistance with medical and utility bills. He is now aware of programs such as WIC and the Stork’s Nest that might provide support for his children’s health and wellness.
As mentioned above, working as a Family Development Specialist with PHM has been an incredible learning experience. Over the past nine months, the families with whom I work have come to trust and rely on me as an information source when obstacles arise. I know that in years to come, home visiting will be the aspect of my fellowship that I most clearly remember.
The Social Entrepreneurs of Grinnell (SEG) is a student-run group at Grinnell College that provides microloans both internationally and in the local community. Here in Grinnell, SEG partners with MICA to provide emergency loans to low income individuals in the surrounding area. Starting in March, I began working as the referral source for SEG’s local loans.
With regard to this work, I have enjoyed the chance for increased connections with the College and found the loan referral process both interesting and enlightening. In an effort to maximize the good they can do with available funding, SEG is continually examining the application process for local loans. Low income individuals are a high risk population when considering loan repayment, and many interesting discussions have emerged in trying to minimize the rate of defaulted loans in this category while simultaneously maximizing the number of people served. I have learned to listen to the needs of the SEG group while also voicing concerns about how proposed changes would affect the families we serve.
Odds and Ends
In many ways, the last three months have been the end of an era, at least on some small scale. To begin, April 1st marked the end of the LIHEAP moratorium (and the beginning of families needing crisis assistance to avoid disconnect on their utilities). Secondly, after almost a year in our temporary location at the Community Center, plans are finally moving forward with MICA’s new building here in Grinnell. Construction at the old police and fire station is slated to begin in the coming weeks, and everyone here in the office is eagerly awaiting the future move. Lastly, as my fellowship comes to a close, I have worked over the last couple of months to train Allison, next year’s incoming fellow. As is normal with change, the families with whom I work have expressed some nervousness about adjusting to a new specialist. (This is especially true of our Spanish speaking families who rely on me specifically for help with translation.) After working with Allison, however, I have reassured them that I am leaving my responsibilities in very capable and dedicated hands. I feel confident that all of our families will transition seamlessly between our two fellowships.
Fun in Grinnell and Looking Ahead
Life in Grinnell outside of work has continued to be a joy. Two of my biggest accomplishments in the last couple of months were completing my online classes and participating in the Grinnell College triathlon. I spent this semester biking, running, and swimming in training for the race this past weekend, and let me tell you, I had a blast trying something different! After being a runner for the last decade of my life, it was really fun to challenge myself with another type of event.
The coming months will be a whirlwind. I am very much looking forward to excitement of Block Party and graduation weekend, but these events will surely be bittersweet. Their conclusion will come with many immediate goodbyes, and soon after I will be headed away from Grinnell myself.
This summer I am moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I will begin a Master’s program in elementary education. I am very excited (and a little nervous) to live in a new location and once again play the role of student. After a year of study, I will obtain an Elementary Masters of Arts with Certification and be ready to enter the classroom as a teacher. I am confident that my work with MICA over the past year will only assist me in my future career. This fellowship has given me an increased understanding of the need present in all communities, as well as the resources available to provide a path out of the conditions of poverty.
Issue Date: August 1, 2009
I cannot believe it is finally time to sit down and write my first quarterly report! Part of me is really excited about documenting my experience on paper, but the other part is nervous because I have not written anything since the last day of school! Well, here I go and I hope you all enjoy chapter one of my life as a Grinnell Corps Fellow in Grinnell!!
I will begin by answering the three most commonly asked questions about my fellowship: 1) What is MICA? 2) Where is it located? 3) What are your duties there?
1) Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA) is a non profit organization that provides various services for low-income families in five counties in central Iowa (Poweshiek, Marshall, Hardin, Story, and Tama). I am working at MICA in Grinnell, which is part of Poweshiek County. MICA was founded in 1965 as a result of the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964. Over the years MICA has provided aid to families in areas of child/family development, housing, and health. Some of the programs that MICA runs are an Emergency Food Shelf, Weatherization, Early Head Start, Head Start, Energy Assistance, Homeless Funds, Project Home Mission, Project Assist, Information and Referrals, Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and Family Development. I will attempt to provide more details about each program as I learn more about them during my fellowship. Currently, I vaguely know about each program based on what I have read about them. Therefore, I would prefer to talk about them in more detail once I have hands on experience with each program.
2) MICA is conveniently located in downtown Grinnell, in the basement of the Veterans Memorial Building on Broad Street.
3) General duties for now: Help run the local food pantry, serve as a translator for Spanish speaking families, receptionist work, maintain the office tidy, assist all of the social workers and the county director with whatever they need, help families apply for energy assistance (program begins in the fall), refer families to other resources useful to them in the community, issue out vouchers from a Ministerial fund, and assist coordinators hosting MICA events.
Work at MICA so far
I have been fortunate enough to do a wide range of tasks within the first month and a half of being at MICA! So far I have worked with the following programs: Information and Referrals, Emergency Food Shelf, Early Head Start, and Family Development. One of the first projects I took on during my first week of work was Information and Referrals. I decided to start with this program because I was doing receptionist work and I wanted to be prepared to refer people to other resources available in the community. Preparation entailed reading, organizing, and updating all of the brochures we have in our office. I currently feel very confident about referring people to various resources in the community.
The next program I have become very familiar with is the Emergency Food Shelf. This program provides families with a three day supply of food items from our local food pantry. I am in charge of stocking, cleaning, organizing the food pantry. I also weigh, record, and shelve food donations. Additionally, I prepare food boxes for families who come in to utilize our services. Recently, the Grinnell Cultivating Community and other farmers in the community have kindly been donating fresh produce for MICA families! My job has been to make sure we distribute all of the produce that is donated to us before it goes bad. So far, I have successfully managed to give out all of the fresh vegetables before the end of the week!
Another program I have recently become familiar with is Early Head Start, which is a program designed to support families with children 0-3 years. Early Head Start strives to educate parents about child development, nutrition, and the importance interacting with their infants/toddler at a young age. One of the activities I have been involved with through Early Head Start is "Playtime," a socialization event held twice a month for parents and their children. I am required to attend all of the Playtime events because I am the official Spanish speaking translator for MICA in Poweshiek County. I also use my bilingual skills to translate any flyers, invitations, or handouts distributed at the event.
Lastly, I have been involved in Family Development through a program called Family Connections. This program assists families with children ages 0-5 by helping families improve their health and well-being. Family Connections provides families with a Family Development Specialist (FDS) who visits them regularly at their home to discuss goals and conflicts they may be experiencing. Essentially, the FDS aspires to provide families with the tools necessary to become better problem solvers and to empower families to habitually set goals in order improve their well-being. So now you must be asking how I am involved. Well, one of the FDS at the office has been kind enough to let me become part of this wonderful program by taking me on home visits with her. During those visits I serve as a translator for Spanish speaking families. Going on home visits is always a rewarding experience. I love being able to meet great families who are working hard to improve their lives. I am really looking forward to seeing how these families develop over the next few months.
Life in Grinnell
Surprisingly, Grinnell summers are very relaxing, exciting, and full of community activities! I found myself doing more than I expected and learning more about the beauties of Grinnell. For instance, I recently discovered that there is a beautiful Lake located near Washington and Park Street, Lake Nyanza. When I first saw Lake Nyanza at Miller Park, I fell in love. Sitting by Lake Nyanza brought peace and tranquility to my mind, body and soul. I still cannot believe I have been in Grinnell for four years and I never knew about Lake Nyanza. You should definitely try to check it out if you are in town because the park and lake are a gorgeous combination.
So what do I do with my spare time? My weekly routine consist of working, volunteering, biking and running, attending community events, shopping at the Farmers Market, attending community meals at Davis elementary, hanging out with friends, and enjoying Iowa's unpredictable weather. One of my favorite memories of this summer was when I came home from work one Friday afternoon and there was a block party, funded by the Grinnell Chamber of Commerce, on the street I live on!! There was music, people (lots of them), food, vendors, children, children riding unicycles, and genuine happiness in the air!!! Everyone was having a great time, so I definitely joined the party! That evening I met new people in the community and I learned more about Midwestern culture! Everyone was very friendly, polite, and respectful. By the end of the night I was very happy to find out that there would be another block party the following month, same time, same place. Speaking of Midwestern culture, I am going to attend the Iowa State Fair this week and I am very excited about seeing farm animals, giant turkey legs, people eating giant turkey legs, fried foods on sticks, and of course world famous Butter Sculptures!!!! I will definitely have to share my experiences with you on my next report. Interestingly, I attended the Iowa State fair in 2005 and 2006 but I was not very impressed. However, that was when I was nothing more than a snobbish city girl. Fortunately, I have blossomed into an Iowa loving woman, so I am really looking forward to attending the fair!!!!!
After working at MICA for month in a half I feel like I have learned a lot about Iowa, MICA, the Grinnell community and myself. I only hope to learn more and more as my journey continues. Until next time!!!!
Greetings everyone! I cannot believe I have been working at MICA for almost five months now! Time is definitely moving very quickly and as a result work goes by pretty fast. Part of the reason why work days at MICA go by so fast is because we have headed into the busiest time of the season. As the winter slowly approaches our services are in higher demand. Enjoy chapter two my life as a Grinnell Corps Fellow in Grinnell!!
Energy Assistance Program
My duties at MICA have slowly shifted over the last couple months. I went from multi-tasking around the office to solely focusing on one of our most popular programs at MICA, the Low-Income Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). LIHEAP is a federally funded program that financially helps low-income families with home heating during the winter. Additionally, individuals who get approved for LIHEAP are automatically protected by a Winter Moratorium, which means their heating vendor cannot disconnect them from the time they were approved for LIHEAP up until April 1, 2010. Essentially, LIHEAP is designed to prevent low-income families from living without heating during the winter. In order for a family to qualify for the program they must meet the income guidelines for the 2009-2010 fiscal year. The guidelines are as follows: a household of 1 cannot make more than $16,245 a year, a household of 2 cannot make more than $21,855 a year, a household of 3 cannot make more than $27,465 a year, and to calculate the rest of the guidelines just add $5,610 for every extra household member.
My involvement in this program is pretty simple. 1) Process applications Mon.-Fri. 2) Schedule appointments for people to apply for the program 3) Encourage families who utilize our services to apply. Being part of this program is a very rewarding experience because I meet a new family everyday and I get to take part in helping families alleviate some of their heating costs during the winter. Additionally, sometimes I get to negotiate with utility vendors and prevent families from getting disconnected! It is always very exciting to inform families that they have been approved for the program. Generally, families are very appreciative and leave the office with a smile on their face. However, there are times when families are denied assistance because they are not income eligible and it is one of the hardest news to give. It breaks my heart to turn someone down for help because they make too much money according to the income guidelines. Fortunately, we have other programs and services available at MICA for families who might be slightly over income. For instance, the Emergency Food Shelf is open to anyone who has no food in their home.
Emergency Food Shelf
Aside from LIHEAP, one of my on going duties at MICA has been helping run our local food pantry. I always have fun in this area because I love making sure that all the food that gets donated to MICA gets put to good use. My goal is to always make sure donated items do not expire by sitting on our shelves for too long. Last year MICA had difficulties meeting that goal because we did not have enough help at the office. We had an over flow of donations sitting in our back pantry because no one had time to sort and weigh them. Fortunately, this year with the help of local volunteers and staff at out office we are keeping up with donations. So far, we are doing a great job and I am very glad we have enthusiastic individuals helping out with donations. Now that we are approaching the holiday season many organization, companies, churches, clubs, schools, business and individuals have held Food Drives on behalf of MICA. It is always very heart warming to see the community work together to make sure families in need have enough food in their home during the holidays. Thanks to all who donate for a good cause! You are awesome!!!!
Speaking of awesome people, I am happy to announce that I will be taking charge of a new project involving volunteers!!!! I have been assigned the task to train and guide volunteers. I am really excited because I get to work and meet with all the volunteers one-on-one! My goal is to make sure volunteers know that they are important and that they deserve to get the most out of their volunteer experience. I want to make sure volunteers have a say in what different areas they would like to work in at MICA. I am also excited about building relationships and getting to know volunteers a little better. I want them to feel welcome and appreciated at MICA. I will keep you updated on how this project turns out during my next report!
Family Development – Home Visits
I am really happy that despite how busy I am with LIHEAP and the Emergency Food Shelf, there is still room for me to serve as an interpreter for Spanish speaking families. Home visits in Poweshiek County are really great because I get to visit families in their homes and watch them grow. I love being able to inform parents about how great their children are doing in school or to see parents work as hard as they can to provide for their families. I also like that the families I work with are no longer afraid of asking for my help. I think I have earned their trust and have become another person they can relate to in a predominately white community.
Becoming part of the community
The most commonly asked question about my fellowship experience has to be, do you like your job? YES! I love my job. I really enjoy meeting people in the community through work, as well as helping and empowering them. Recently, I have notice that I know people who access our services on a first name basis and they know my name too! Whenever people come into the office I am no longer the new girl! Additionally, people will ask for my help when they come in or when they call. As silly as it sounds, I feel like I have been accepted into the Grinnell Community. I feel like I have become part of the community because I try to do other things in the community during my off time. For instance, I attend community meal every other Tuesday and get to occasionally socialize with new people. Other days I socialize with people I already know and get to know them better. Another reason I also feel like part of the community is because people know me as the girl who works at MICA and not a Grinnell College graduate.
Well, that is all I have for this report. Thanks for reading and have a great day! Please feel free to email me with any questions or comments you may have at daisy.n.ventura[at]gmail[dot]com. Until next time!!!!!
Hello everyone! Wintertime in Iowa seems never ending! The weather has been rough on MICA families, employees and volunteers. Everyone is anxiously awaiting the arrival of spring and I can’t wait to write my last report and talk about the summer! I am really excited about seeing a green and beautiful Grinnell!
Families we served
Recently two of my co-workers compiled information about the families we served in the month of January and in the year 2009. Here are some fun numbers I thought you might enjoy!
-Month of January
- 10 households received services for a Utility Crisis*
- 96 households accessed our Food Pantry
- 65 households applied for our energy/heat assistance program (LIHEAP)
*Anyone who has a disconnect notice from their heating vendor or who is running extremely low on propane
-January1, 2009- December 31, 2009
- 146 households received services for a Utility Crisis
- 1,467 households accessed our Food Pantry
- 840 households applied for LIHEAP
-Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
- Last year by February we had processed 512 LIHEAP applications. This year we have processed 592 applications compared to the same time last year.
Grinnell Chamber of Commerce
During this last quarter I attended a very fun and exciting event, The Grinnell Chamber of Commerce Annual Meeting. The purpose of the meeting was to recognize business leaders and award them for their accomplishments in 2009. It was nice to meet and mingle with business owners in the community. In general, I enjoyed learning more about the role of the Chamber and about Chamber members (local business owners). I never knew the Chamber played an important role in this community.
The Grinnell Chamber of Commerce works very hard to promote local businesses and bring the community together at the same time. For instance, the Chamber holds various events throughout the year to help businesses gain exposure in Grinnell. Interestingly, these events also allow families to come together and actively engage in their communities. The Grinnell Chamber of Commerce holds or participates in community events such as: the Farmer’s Market, Family Weekend at Grinnell College, Grinnell College Alumni Weekend, 4th of July Parade, Homecoming Parade, Music in the Park, First Friday Fest (the summer block parties I talked about in my first report) and many more. Additionally, the Chamber holds mixers on the first Friday of every month to allow networking to take place between Chamber members and to collect canned goods for our food pantry! Overall, I believe the Chamber is doing a great job in the community. With the help of the Chamber and motivated business individuals Grinnell is slowly becoming a more visible and prosperous small town!
Learning about community resources
One of my favorite parts about working at MICA is learning about new resources available in the community! I have recently discovered that there are parenting classes available twice a month from 6-7:30pm at the Drake Library. I have attended two of these classes and I think they are absolutely wonderful! These classes are led by two mental health professionals that organize for speakers to present during class sessions. Guest speakers present on a wide range of topics involving discipline, safety, community resources, family activities, etc. Essentially, the purpose of the classes is to provide parents/guardians with the skills necessary to expand their parenting knowledge and for parents/guardians who attend to serve as a support group for one another. Some of the perks about attending the classes are free supper, childcare and gifts. Parents/guardians who attend classes receive free childcare during the class session, gifts that relate to the class topic, and $20 in Grinnell Bucks. This is definitely a fantastic resource available in the community that I am happy I learned more about. The main reason I attended this class was because I wanted to feel comfortable referring families there. I wanted to provide information for families about my first-hand experience with the class.
One of my other responsibilities at MICA is to train and oversee volunteers. Volunteer applications and background checks get processed in our central office in Marshalltown, so I have anxiously been waiting for our individuals to get approved. After a long wait, I am very happy to announce that we currently have seven volunteers working at MICA!! They are all amazing individuals who I look forward to getting to know throughout the rest of my time here. All of our volunteers are very enthusiastic, friendly, generous and hard working. We are very fortunate to have so many awesome volunteers who are willing to spend some of their free time giving back to their community. It is absolutely amazing to have them around! Our pantry looks so much neater now that there is someone stocking food regularly and weighing/sorting donations. Additionally, it is very nice to have another friendly face in the office. I really do not know what we would do without our volunteers!
Plans after Grinnell
Everyone keeps asking me what I am going to do after completing my fellowship and I finally have an answer. I have decided to move to Chicago! I am currently seeking employment in the Windy City and I am hoping to find a job before moving there. However, if I do not find employment I still plan on making the big move! Fortunately, I have been saving money and living on a tight budget since I began my fellowship, so I can definitely make this happen. I am really excited about moving in with my best friend and living in the city again!! Surprisingly, I am also excited about interviewing for a new job! I think I am ready to show the world everything I have to offer in the workforce!
During these last couple months I have discovered that job hunting is exciting, yet very overwhelming. I keep finding postings for wonderful positions in my field of interest, Student Affairs and Social Work, however most places are looking to hire someone as soon as possible. As of now I am content with knowing that I am making an effort to find employment and I am trying to stay as optimistic as possible during my searches. At least job hunting has exposed me to different search engines and networking techniques. I feel like a few months ago I was completely clueless on where and how to start. Whereas now, I am more relaxed and efficient about how I do my searches.
Well, that is all I have for this quarterly report. Thanks for reading! Until next time!!! I am looking forward to writing my last report! Feel free to email me with any questions or comments you may have atdaisy.n.ventura[at]gmail[dot]com.
Issue Date: August 1, 2008
As part of my fellowship I've come across a lot of secretaries, directors, specialists, and consultants. Their occupational titles often give me a clue as to what type of work they do and the type of information I might be able to glean from them. Yet when introduced as a Grinnell Corps Fellow, I'm often met with an awkward, curious look that seems to say, "Oh, that's nice â¦. But what the heck is that?" So for anyone who happens to be interested, let me tell you what the heck I do.
This year I will be the last Grinnell Corps Fellow to work with the Grinnell Newburg School District. At the moment I'm researching the feasibility of placing a childcare facility in one of their schools. The district is facing decreasing enrollment and wants to explore potential uses for some of its free space. In essence, there really isn't one thing I do. Some days I read through studies on childcare in Iowa and elsewhere. Other days I visit childcare facilities throughout the state that have a proven track record for excellence and see if there is anything the school district could potentially model. Eventually I will report my findings to the school board, and based on my recommendations, they will decide if the school district should get into the childcare business. Regardless of what happens, the research that I've done in the past two months has made a lasting impression on me about the value of childcare and its impact on society.
The Child Care Business
Around the second week of my fellowship I came across an article about childcare in the Harvard Business review. The article began with a facetious advertisement that stated:
Entrepreneurs Wanted: Help grow an enterprise from scratch in an industry that offers no barriers to entry, chronically low margins, massive labor intensity, no proprietary technology, few economies of scale, weak brand distinctions, and heavy regulations. Serious inquiries only.
Ignoring the economic jargon, the basic point is that childcare is a notoriously difficult field. Often childcare providers are underpaid and underappreciated. Even those who consider it a personal calling are left with little incentive to expand and improve their services to those who desperately need it. The absence of value placed on child care is shocking given the overwhelming positive evidence from studies on programs like Head Start and their long term impact. These studies often demonstrate that quality of childcare and early childhood development correlates highly with the child's outcome later in life.
With all of that being said, exploring childcare in Grinnell and throughout Iowa these past two months has been a great experience. Iowa consistently ranks as one of the states with the highest percent of families with both parents in the workforce. As consequence there are a number of innovative approaches to childcare that schools, nonprofits, and businesses across the state are taking to meet the demand. Just last week I got to visit the Children's Village in Davenport. The program is run through the Davenport Community School District, has multiple sites, and draws on many sources of funding to guarantee accessible care for all types of families. The program's management also ensures excellent salaries and benefits to employees that are unheard of in childcare and create a professional environment that makes for great childcare. These types of experiences have given me hope that despite the dismal appearance of childcare on paper, affordable, quality childcare is possible in practice.
This was my first summer in Grinnell, and in many respects it was truly an Iowa summer. When people use to ask me what it was like to go to school in Iowa I would always joke that I didn't really know. The Grinnell bubble and the sights from the Des Moines airport to Grinnell in my mind didn't constitute the most genuine representation of Iowa culture and life. I don't believe I could place myself in the shoes of a rural Iowan yet, but this summer I've done some things to acclimate myself. I started a subscription to the Grinnell Herald Register and have found that there is at least one article about my employer, the Grinnell Newburg School District, every week. This has certainly given me a greater appreciation for the level of public attention that will be placed on my endeavors for the next year. Beyond Grinnell I've made a few trips around the state to see child care facilities and meet knowledgeable folks on the subject. I've gotten to tour the countryside on scenic state highways and visit neat places like the Amanas Colonies and Oskaloosa.
It seems like most Grinnell Corps Grinnell people in the past have reflected on the odd feeling that comes graduating and then moving only a couple of blocks to stay in Grinnell for another year. Hoping not to disappoint those who take interest in the precarious situation I find myself in, I'll share a little bit. Because I transferred to Grinnell I often find that people are confused about my class year. As a consequence when I describe the research I do for my fellowship some people seem to get the impression that I have a pretty intense MAP. Otherwise I feel like I have to echo the sentiments of my predecessor Kristen Snavely in her first report when she stated, "There's no escaping Burling." Its truly strange to go through a liberating experience like graduation just to find myself a month later neck deep in books and academic articles on the third floor of Burling, attempting to educate myself about childcare. At the same time there has been something comforting about having my friends and the resources of the college nearby as I've trekked into the unfamiliar world of childcare.
Within the next week I intend to provide the Superintendent Edie Eckles with my preliminary findings for the last two months. I've spent most of my time looking at ideal models on how to supply childcare. Now I intend to further probe the type of demand that exists for childcare in Grinnell in the hopes of completing a feasibility report for the school board by October. Otherwise I'm hoping to be productive in my time outside of work by coaching the Debating Union. I might also try to take advantage of some of the lesser-known perks of being an alum in Grinnell (i.e. dirt cheap classes).
Thank you for taking a minute to read about my experiences as a Grinnell Corps Fellow in Grinnell. If you have any questions, don't hesitate to e-mail me at hauptdan[at]grinnell[dot]edu
Issue Date: August 1, 2007
This year I decided to stay in Grinnell to work at the Grinnell-Newburg School District (GNSD) through Grinnell Corps. Throughout the last five years, 7-13% of high school students at GNSD have chosen to leave school each year without completing graduation requirements. Those who do not earn a high school diploma are much less likely to secure a well paying job in today's increasingly competitive job market, and they are more likely to live in poverty as adults. This shows why it is so important for schools to prepare students to not only graduate, but also to be successful in higher education and the job market. That is why I am working to find ways that GNSD can improve the schools to increase student success. Edie Eckles, the Superintendent of Schools at GNSD, has shown me how my work is not just about dropout prevention or about raising graduation rates, but about improving student success. The graduation rate serves as an indicator that there are aspects to the school's overall culture and climate that are potentially not meeting the needs of some students. I am working to find out what these weak spots might be, and to identify what changes could be implemented to improve them.
The challenging part about engaging in a long-term project like this, is that I don't get to experience an immediate sense of satisfaction from my work. The gratification that comes when you're doing direct care and you make a breakthrough with a particularly troubled youth is very different from the project I'm now pursuing. I have to "keep my eye on the prize," so to speak, for the fulfillment that will come at the end of my year and throughout the years following my fellowship when I see what kind of difference my work has made to GNSD.
No One Knows What to Call Me
It's an interesting experience to begin a position that hasn't been occupied before at GNSD and has no easily explained title. I quickly learned this complication during the last few days of May when I was visiting each school in the Grinnell-Newburg District. I was introduced to many students and teachers and each introduction came with a two minute description of what it was I actually was going to be doing. And still many were confused. No one quite understood what role I would be playing and how I might affect what they were doing.
When I was at the middle school visiting a sixth grade lit. class, enjoying the performance of revamped fairytales, one girl came to me and, noticing my unusual presence in her classroom, asked me if I was the new principal. I had two thoughts in response: first that my new attempts at a more professional wardrobe must be paying off, and second that it would be much simpler (and an extensive career leap) just to tell her I was, because at least it was a position she was familiar with. For some at GNSD, I might just be considered "that one girl" associated with Grinnell College doing "something or other."
There's No Escaping Burling
I think most seniors finishing their final papers and exams last spring survived the experience by reminding themselves that it would be the last time they would be stuck working in Burling until closing time. I had the same thought as I finished my last work of my undergraduate education. Then I walked the stage, moved my stuff two blocks to a new apartment, and purposefully attempted to create a new "adult" lifestyle. Yet within the first week of starting at GNSD, I found myself trekking over to Burling, searching the stacks for what I needed. Books on the experience of being an adolescent, on what makes for a successful school, and on the best strategies for interviewing students. So it seems that even in my new "adult arena," Burling still has the answers I need.
My summer in Grinnell has been a very peaceful one, as summers here tend to go. With students gone and many GNSD personnel off contract for the summer, I've spent a lot of my time at the school district preparing for their return. Although I'm looking forward to the more stimulating experience of working directly with youth, it has been nice to have a calm period to become prepared for the coming school year. It's also pleasant to live in Grinnell's small, self-contained community, not to mention walking less than two blocks to get to work each day.
I've also started to explore areas of Grinnell that I hadn't done while in school here. I started volunteering at the Galaxy Youth Center, which has allowed me to brush up on my Monopoly and tie-dying skills, as well as teaching me what 200 filled water balloons look like. I also have a bike in Grinnell for the first time and have enjoyed staying active while exploring the surrounding Iowa countryside that I've always loved. Along with keeping up with a daily newspaper and a summer reading list, these things have helped me to feel balanced and a part of the Grinnell community. I have also been reveling in the local summer produce, frequenting the weekly farmers market. I've always been in love with cooking, and have gotten increasingly interested in the local foods movement. Grinnell is the perfect place to investigate these interests.
When Everyone Returns
Very shortly students and teachers will be returning to GNSD and my project will move from the planning and preparing stage to more hands-on activity. I'm really looking forward to this next stage as I will be starting to interview students, parents, and teachers as well as doing regular classroom and school observations. This should be the point when I can fit together all of the hypothetical research I've done about school culture and climate with the reality of what's going on at Grinnell-Newburg. I'm also looking forward to building relationships with some students and letting them know how important their input will be in the process to improve their school.
This will also be a time of adjustment socially, as friends and others in the college community start to return to town and I will be getting used to occupying quite a different role than in the past.
If anyone has any questions about my project or Grinnell Corps, don't hesitate to e-mail me at snavelyk[at]grinnell[dot]edu. Thanks for reading!
There have been so many changes that have come about in the last few months of my project. The schools are filled with students and teachers again, and the quiet of the summer has given way to the kind of energy, enthusiasm, and theatricality that only high school students can provide. It's been very exciting to get involved in the lives of students, as well as getting to know teachers and staff at Grinnell-Newburg.
Back to High School
Spending a lot of time in a high school again is weird. Of course, it hasn't been all that long since I was in high school which gives me a fairly fresh perspective for understanding the lives of the students I talk with. But still, it's weird. I find myself walking the hallways searching for the place I would have fit into, my group of friends, and the teacher I would have looked up to the most. Having also gone to a small Iowa high school, the comparisons are endless. So it is weird, but also a little fun.
The counseling offices, where my workspace is located, is an incredibly entertaining place to be. The area has a comfortable lounging space for students who are waiting to see a counselor or an administrator, and let me tell you, they feel overly comfortable to speak freely in that space. This is where I overhear all of the latest gossip, locations for the big parties, and entirely too much explicit information about their personal lives. I would say it might be the most eye-opening experience thus far.
With the return of the school year I began meeting and interviewing a group of students from a range of backgrounds, grades, and academic performance levels. In doing this I'm essentially going straight to the source, asking students about their experiences in school and their thoughts on their education and their lives. These students are the ones who can tell me what's working and what isn't working at Grinnell-Newburg. Each of them has a different perspective and I am really grateful for how open and honest they have been with me. I'm taking the information that each of them has given me and analyzing it to find common themes that emerge in our discussions. Based on those commonalities, I can make some conclusions about the areas of school climate in which Grinnell-Newburg is thriving, and the aspects that could be improved to bolster student success.
Each student I have met with has revealed a different viewpoint and their own perception of life at Grinnell-Newburg. I love that I can never know what to expect when talking with them. One student has shared with me her struggles to participate in school while dealing with a severe mental disorder. Another student talked about dropping out of school after experiencing harassment in school and tragedy in her home life. They tell me about a teacher who will drag them back into school if they are skipping, and how much this means to them. One student has told me that he has never been treated as well in school because he has less money than other students. Some of them have specific plans for their lives, to become doctors or engineers, to graduate high school, to go to college, and to make their families proud. Although I will be looking for the common threads in the information they are giving me, I want to find some way to keep intact an interest in the individuality of these students when I present my information to teachers, staff, and community members. I would like to keep in mind what it is that makes each of them so interesting to me.
Support from Many Places
As my project has continued along, I have more and more been receiving much appreciated support from various sources around town. About a month ago, a recently elected school board member approached me at Saints Rest to introduce herself and express her interest and commitment to increasing the graduation rate. It was very encouraging to feel that community members and school board members are engaged with the issue I'm working on and that they are interested in supporting me. I have also received support from Lori Francis, who at one time ran the New Horizons Alternative School and now is the Executive Director of the Grinnell-Newburg Educational Excellence foundation. I'm also benefiting heavily from the ongoing guidance of Jean Ketter, an education professor at the college. The encouragement and assistance from all of these community members is not only helping me to be more successful, but also to be reassured that what I'm doing is important and necessary. I cannot thank them enough!
One lesson has been ringing loud and clear to me lately: be prepared to adjust and change your plans! I'm the kind of person who likes to have a clear outline, to know what I'm doing and where it will get me. And I do have an outline for the year, or rather for the six months that are left (eeek!). But as I've learned, some of the things I'm doing I'm figuring out as I go along. This has been quite a challenge to me. It means that next week I might stumble across research that suggests another important element to school climate or graduation rates that I haven't yet considered in my study. I could ignore my newfound information and continue along the same path I've set out for myself, but my work would not be as accurate or thorough if I did. So I'm getting used to incorporating what I'm learning as I go along, and not to be rigid with my plans.
Throughout the next few months I will be expanding to interview teachers and parents, as well as keeping up with the students I've been talking with. Getting information from three populations will reveal how perceptions of Grinnell-Newburg's climate might differ between groups. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about Grinnell Corps or my project by e-mailing snavelyk[at]grinnell[dot]edu. Thanks!
This is my twenty-second year living in Iowa - I know, I should probably start exploring elsewhere. From experience, I can say that this is always the worst time of the year. It consists of waiting desperately for warmer days and sidewalks that aren't icy and perilous. I wake up grumpy every morning that it's below 40 degrees, which is every morning. I check the 10-day forecast on weather.com religiously, looking for some glimmer of hope on the horizon while knowing that a weather forecast for 10 days from now isn't even going to be accurate. You get the picture: it's bleak. So this is just to warn you of my current grumpiness toward the weather.
Knowing the Stakeholders
These past few months I went to a couple of events that were very revealing of some of the most prominent issues that Grinnell-Newburg is struggling with. In late December I observed a brainstorming session between high school faculty and a search consultant who was conducting the search for the new high school principal. The consultant asked faculty members to talk about the major issues they are facing at the high school and the top qualities they were looking for in the next principal. I have heard over and over this year how much of an impact the building administrator has on school climate. Observing this session helped me realize the gravity of the hiring process and made me more empathetic to the state of flux that the teachers are in as they wait to start working with the new principal. I also found that these brainstorming sessions didn't surprise me too much. The information I was hearing mirrored what I had found through interviews I had conducted with faculty members, making me more confident about my conclusions.
In January I attended a regional meeting in rural Victor that brought school board members and state legislators together to discuss the concerns of local districts. This really put our district in perspective for me. Most of the district leaders from other schools brought up the same issue, declining enrollment and shrinking budgets. The superintendent from a nearby town asked legislators how they thought it would be possible for their school to continue offering the array of programs they have without the funds to support it. Many rural Iowa communities are facing this question, and while some legislators expressed a push for consolidating small rural districts, that solution obviously poses a problem for many Iowa communities.
Poverty in Grinnell
Through my research at the district, numerous school climate issues have emerged as areas that need improvement. I presented a short summary of what I've seen so far to the school board in January, but I won't go into too much detail here about the common themes I've seen. I would like to share one big issue that students and teachers have shared with me, and that is poverty and the significant "have" and "have-not" division that plays a part in the Grinnell community, as well as the school district. I am reminded of reports from previous Grinnell Corps in Grinnell Fellow, Jane Hereth, which frequently mention the effect of poverty on local families that she witnessed while serving at MICA. I couldn't agree more with the frustrations she mentioned regarding the larger societal issues of poverty that play a role in the strife of many local families facing life barriers. These barriers are closely wrapped up in the education of many Grinnell High School students, as they face 40-hour-work-weeks, early parenthood, and unstable home situations, all while trying to earn their diploma. Many teachers and staff members at the high school work daily with those students to help them deal with these kinds of situations while encouraging them to continue their education. They talk about how frustrating it is to see the situations these students are in without being able to change those circumstances.
A significant component of my work this quarter has been focused on preparing for the administration of a school climate survey for the high school students, personnel, and parents. I have previously only been collecting qualitative information through interviews with students and staff at the high school. The potential effectiveness of quantitative, research-based data seemed clear, so I pursued existing commercially developed surveys. I was particularly impressed with the information sought by the Comprehensive School Climate Inventory (CSCI), which is produced by a non-profit organization, the Center for Social and Emotional Education. After presenting to the board numerous times and getting feedback from administrators and counselors, the board decided to use the CSCI. I will use the quantitative data that it provides in conjunction with the interview data I have already collected in order to research solutions for improving the school climate at the high school.
Still in Grinnell
Life in Grinnell is still moving along smoothly, weather aside. I worry that I've become one of those people who talks too much about their work at inappropriate times. I'll be out to dinner on a Friday night with friends and find myself going on long rants about the effect of local poverty on student success in our schools. I find myself taking a step back and apologizing for setting such a depressing mood, but everyone has seemed very interested in learning more about issues affecting Grinnell's community. I imagine that most students don't yet have a good picture of what is going on in Grinnell's community, just as I hadn't known too much before my experience this year.
This spring is beginning to feel like a repeat of my senior year, with consistent questions about what I'm going to do next, and the same fear that I felt last year when I would reply "I have no clue!" But that worked out okay, right? So yes, I'm still considering options for next year, which will most likely include time spent researching graduate programs and studying for the GRE. Hopefully I'll be able to scrounge up something a little more exciting to do along with that.
The End of a Long Semester
Because the culmination of my year at the school district is a final report of everything I have found and recommendations for potential changes, it feels similar to those final papers I wrote so often in school. Except rather than one semester, it's two, and it's the only thing I've been working on. As well as being lengthy, it has to be good. It won't just be read by a professor, it will be presented to the school superintendent, the school board, and the community. The pressure is certainly on. There are many loose ends to tie up before the end, and I will definitely be busy. I look forward to that final report and will let you know how it goes! Any comments or questions in these final months, e-mail me at Snavelyk[at]grinnell[dot]edu
Issue Date: August 1, 2006
I was surprised that, when responding to the question "what are you doing after graduation?" many of my classmates and family members were surprised to hear that I would be working for Mid-Iowa Community Action, a social service organization that serves families in poverty. An alumnus that I talked with during Grinnell's reunion weekend asked "is there poverty in Grinnell?" Like every other place in the country, Poweshiek County is indeed home to families and individuals from every income level. Walking into MICA on my first day knowing that poverty existed in Grinnell meant I was on the right track, but I still had a lot to learn. Almost three months later, I've learned so much; still, I've only begun to scratch the surface of everything there is to know about poverty in Iowa and the work MICA and other organizations are doing to eliminate it.
Learning the ropes
I volunteered at MICA during my senior year, so I at least knew my way around the office and had met most of the staff, but still, I had plenty to learn. My days as a volunteer had allowed me to get to know Marie, the 2005-2006 Grinnell Corps MICA fellow, who left me some pretty big shoes to fill (I'm speaking figuratively, of course) but kindly answered my numerous questions about MICA and the fellowship, which helped me get started and settle in.
In case you're unfamiliar with MICA, it's a community action agency that strives to eliminate poverty for children and families. MICA's mission is "helping people, changing lives, building communities". We serve five core counties (Poweshiek, Tama, Story, Marshall and Hardin) in central Iowa and also offer services in 28 other Iowa counties. At the Family Development Center in Grinnell, our staff operates a food pantry, administers emergency grants for rent, utilities and medical expenses, and oversees a number of other programs and services, including two Head Start classrooms. The staff is made up of a Family Development Worker (Paula), four Family Development Specialists (Rachel, Mindy, Melissa and our newest team member Joy), an Infant/Toddler Development Specialist (Roma) and a County Director (Dick).There's really no "typical" day at MICA that I can describe to give a better picture of what I do here; some days in the office are very busy, spent working in the food pantry, handing out food boxes and filling out applications with families for emergency funds. And some hot summer days are slow, so I've been able to leave the office to go on home visits with several of the Family Development Specialists to learn about the work they do with families. I also substituted in the Head Start classroom for a few weeks while they were hiring a new teacher. And, I've been learning about and connecting with other social service organizations in Grinnell, which allows me to quickly refer our families to the services they need and gives me a clearer picture of how community agencies form coalitions and work together. For example, I recently attended a meeting of the Poweshiek County Healthy Choices Coalition, which is made up of organizations and agencies involved in physical and mental health services or treatment.
MICA's Poweshiek County office oversees two Head Start classrooms; one is a full day program and the other half-day. To qualify for both programs, families must meet the income guidelines; additionally, for the full day program families must be working or going to school full time. During the two weeks that I substituted in the classroom, I learned a lot about Head Start and the impact it has on children's lives. By getting a "head start", these students will have be at an advantage when they get to kindergarten - they'll already know how to behave in a classroom, how to write their name, how to count and say the alphabet. The Head Start teachers track each student's progress to ensure that any student who needs extra help gets it. Students are encouraged to "make good decisions", which can apply to anything from resisting the urge to throw rocks down the slide to taking turns playing at the sand table. Although substituting at Head Start gave me great hope for students everywhere who have this opportunity, there were times that I wished we could do more. It was disheartening for me to watch as children who could barely write their own names turned blocks or pieces of wood into pretend guns. It seems as if no about of positive learning can help students unlearn the negative images and messages they are taking in outside of the Head Start classroom.
In addition to seeing how Head Start operates, I attended an Early Childhood Programming meeting to observe how decisions about Head Start and Early Head Start policies and programming are made. Policy Council is made up of parents of children in Head Start and several "community representatives" (community members who have an interest in early childhood programming). The council is completely run by parents, and while MICA staff members are on-hand to answer questions, they are not part of the decision-making process. It is inspiring to see parents shaping the policies and programs that will impact their children's Head Start experiences. It also gives me hope that MICA, by empowering individuals and communities through grassroots organizing, is actually a catalyst for social change.
Life in Iowa
Reading through the reports of previous fellows, it seems customary to make some comments about living in Grinnell after graduating from the college. Graduation was perhaps easier for me than for some of my classmates, because I didn't have to say goodbye to Grinnell, and while my classmates were moving across the country or to far corners of the world, I was moving two blocks down Broad Street. Still, many of my friends could not believe that I would voluntarily stay in Grinnell for a fifth year. But while some might think that Grinnell Corps in Grinnell is the least exhilarating and exotic of the fellowships, I have been having many exciting and eye-opening experiences. I suspected, and I have not been wrong about this, that working for MICA would teach me to see Grinnell differently. And while expanding my understanding of poverty in Iowa is challenging and difficult, during my first two and a half months at MICA I have been consistently impressed with the effective and empowering work that the MICA staff accomplishes.
Although this is the second summer I've spent living in Grinnell, it's been a very different experience. Last summer I was doing research, and although I had a little more time to explore Iowa than I did during the school year, most of my live still revolved around Burling Library. This summer, however, I've not only been able to see Grinnell differently through my job, I've also had more time to explore all of the excitement Iowa has to offer. I watched dozens of hot air balloons light up a night sky at the National Balloon Classic in Indianola, Iowa, saw a cow being carved out of butter at the State Fair in Des Moines, and made weekly visits to the Grinnell Farmer's Market, which is conveniently located right in front of MICA's office!
As students start to trickle back onto campus, it is finally starting to hit me that I've graduated. When asked what I'm doing still in Grinnell, I don't have a quick answer - I'm not a student, but I'm still connected to the college, and I work at MICA, but I'm not technically an employee. But I'm comforted knowing that I'm not the only recent college graduate to be in a transitional stage of life. And of course, one of great things about serving as the fellow at MICA is being able to bring my connections to the college to community organizations in Grinnell. For example, we are in need of volunteers in the food pantry and Head Start, so I plan on using my connections to campus groups and academic departments to spread the word to students who might be interested.
Until Next Quarterly Reportâ¦
The temperature is finally beginning to drop out of the 90s and summer is almost over. At MICA, I get calls every day about our winter energy assistance program (LIHEAP, which stands for Low-Income Energy Assistance Program), which means that soon we will be busy taking applications. Until my next report, I'd love to hear comments or questions about MICA or the Grinnell Corps fellowship! Please feel free to contact me at herethja[at]grinnell[dot]edu.
A funny thing happened while I was working on my second quarterly report about my Grinnell Corps fellowship with Mid-Iowa Community Action. After writing most of the report and being very pleased with how it turned out, I tried to open it at my desk at MICA to make some finishing touches the day before it was due, and to my shock and dismay, it was gone, unable to be retrieved from the great technological abyss. So, here is a recreation of the original. I hope that my computer-related frustration will not cloud my remarks about my experience at MICA, because the last few months have truly been rewarding and inspiring.
In September, MICA hosted community forums with candidates running for public office in each of our five core counties, and I worked on publicizing and planning the forum here in Poweshiek County. Candidates for Iowa House of Representatives and Poweshiek County Board of Supervisors were all invited to talk about the issues of poverty in Iowa. MICA asked each candidate to speak about funding and support for federal human service programs. Several of the candidates admitted to not knowing much about MICA or the programs we operate prior to the event, but all of them publicly pledged to do what they can to eradicate poverty. Additionally, the forum encouraged political participation by giving community members an opportunity to express their views about the issues that impact their lives and challenge politicians to address those issues. I was really pleased with attendance at the forum and really enjoyed working to put it together. I think that any event that brings community members together to talk about important issues is a huge success.
LIHEAP is an acronym for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Project, a federally-funded program that assists families and individuals with heating, cooling, and weatherization costs. Last year, 85,678 Iowa households received LIHEAP assistance. The LIHEAP operational flow chart for the state of Iowa works like this: the Division of Community Action Agencies, a part of the Iowa Department of Human Rights, is responsible for working with the 18 community action agencies, including MICA, that serve each of the 99 counties in the state of Iowa and are responsible for operating several federally-funded programs, one of which is LIHEAP. Confusing, and maybe a little too much information, but the point is that LIHEAP is a big operation.Flow charts and state government offices aside, LIHEAP provides eligible families with a one-time award, the amount of which is determined by various factors, such as the number of people in the family, if there are children, if anyone has a disability, and percentage of poverty. In order to be eligible for LIHEAP, household income must equal or less than 150% of poverty. To give you and idea of what that looks like, if a family of four is living on an income of $20,000, they are living at 100% of poverty. The poverty guidelines are based on an equation developed by the federal government, which, although it accounts for inflation, hasn't changed in decades, meaning that it doesn't necessarily reflect expenses that most families have today; for example, the equation includes the costs of food, housing, and transportation, but it doesn't account for childcare, clothing or educational expenses. Families determined to be at 125% poverty are struggling financial, just as families living at 95% of poverty, and for this reason, LIHEAP and many other federally-funded programs like Head Start use 150% as the cut-off. Although this does help more families qualify for the assistance they desperately need, I have had to turn away many families who were just slightly over income. When a family is slightly over income (within the 150-200% of poverty range) they can apply for a medical waiver, if they prove that they have spent the amount that they are over in medical expenses. But while families with an elderly member or someone with a medical condition might have a lot of medical expenses, some families don not, and in those cases, they will be declined. This is really frustrating for me, because, with energy costs as high as they are, the families I have to decline are no less in need than the families that are approved. I worry about what these families will do to survive the winter; there was an article in the Des Moines Register this summer about a woman in Iowa who tried to lower her heating bill by turning on the oven and opening the door, which is highly dangerous. Many of them will risk being disconnected by simply not paying their bills.But even families who are approved for LIHEAP will still have to worry about heating costs this winter. In 2005, the average award amount was $317. The Campaign for Home Energy Assistance (www.liheap.org) calculated that in 2003, an average annual household energy bill in Iowa was $1,545, and that average will undoubtedly be higher this winter. So, $317 will help, but it might not be enough.
Recently I was talking with a friend who works at a youth center about the challenges of working for a non-profit social service organization. We both struggle to not become overwhelmed by issues that are bigger than us. I think that, in order to be truly effective at helping my clients, I need to understand that the barriers in their lives, like not being able to pay their bills, get a job or find affordable childcare, are part of societal issues, like transformations in labor and the economy, rising energy costs, lack of access to higher education, and other issues associated with the conditions of poverty. It is pretty frustrating to try to help a family get over the personal barriers in their lives when I know that they are a part of larger, pervasive and prevalent societal factors, and it's defeating to admit that combating those factors is perhaps beyond the scope of what I can do in my time at MICA. However, if these problems are larger than me, than the solutions must be larger than me, as well. Looking around at my co-workers at MICA and the other social service agencies in Grinnell, Poweshiek county and central Iowa, I know that I am only a small part of a much larger solution. And after a busy day of filling out LIHEAP applications and handing out food boxes, I do often feel that the work that I am doing really is making a difference.
Thanks for reading!
Over the next few months I'll be busy with LIHEAP and other on-going office responsibilities, and I'll also be starting some new projects, including a free tax preparation service for families, which I'm sure I will write about in my next quarterly report. Until then, I welcome your comments and questions about this report or my fellowship at MICA; feel free to email me at herethja[at]grinnell[dot]edu.
For most recent college graduates, myself included, the loss of Winter, Spring and Summer breaks is one of the harshest consequences of entering the "real world". Having spent much of January in Grinnell, while most students are in exciting places enjoying their five weeks of freedom, has somehow made the Iowa winter seem that much longer. Luckily, I've been busy at MICA with some new and exciting projects!
Before I get to the new and exciting things, here's a quick update about LIHEAP. As my faithful quarterly report readers will recall from my last quarterly report, LIHEAP stands for Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, a federally funded program that helps families pay their winter heating bills. It was unseasonably warm when Paula and I started taking LIHEAP applications in November, and talking about heating bills when it was 50 degree outside seemed almost comical. But now, with temperatures dropping below zero, I am thankful that we've been able to offer assistance to over 500 families, but also concerned for the families who we couldn't help because they were over-income, and worried that even for the families who were approved, the several hundred dollars they received will not be enough to get them through the winter. It's not all hopeless, though; for many families just barely getting by, an extra $300 of credit towards their energy bill might allow them to pay off other bills or buy things they need but haven't been able to afford.
Free Tax Preparation and the Earned Income Tax Credit
I've spent most of my work days during January and February working on a free tax preparation program that MICA operates for low-income families. The program is important because it saves families the money they would have spent paying a tax preparer to complete their return, and also because it helps families claim tax credits, like the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC). The Earned Income Tax Credit is the largest federal aid program for low-income workers, and families can receive up to $4,536; however, the IRS estimates that 15-20% of eligible families and individuals do not claim the EITC, which equates to $50 million of unclaimed EITC in Iowa alone. Even people who are not required to file taxes might be eligible to claim the EITC!
The returns are prepared by community volunteers who become certified by the IRS. Last year, I volunteered as a preparer, so I was excited to help the project director, Lisa, organize the tax sites this year. Last year we prepared 87 returns and helped families claim $148,873 of refunds, an average of $1,700 per return. Thanks to a great team of volunteers from Grinnell College, Marshalltown Community College, and the Grinnell community, this year we've already helped over thirty families file their returns and claim their refunds at tax sites in Grinnell, Tama and Marshalltown.
After volunteering last year, I've really enjoyed taking an active role in recruiting and training volunteers, organizing the tax sites, and networking with other agencies to publicize the program. I think that the program is great because it helps families learn about filing taxes, and gives us an opportunity to provide some information about financial planning and management - for example, at our tax sites in Grinnell and Marshalltown, we invited representatives from Wells Fargo Bank to help families open checking accounts and answer banking questions. The program is also a great opportunity for volunteer recruitment and involvement.
Before I volunteered last year, I certainly would not have placed taxes on my list of interests, but the program as definitely piqued my interest in some aspects of tax law. In December, Lisa and I went to a training for organizers of free tax preparation sites hosted by the IRS, and I remember listening to some of the seasoned tax site organizers talk animatedly about the quirks of tax law and tax preparation and thinking that I will never be that excited about taxes. But lo and behold, last week I found myself excitedly explaining the new Telephone Excise Tax refund (the most wide-reaching refund in IRS history!) to a very uninterested friend. So, thank you MICA, for this opportunity to become a tax nerd.
Family Team Meeting Facilitation
I am currently in the process of becoming trained to facilitate family team meetings. In Iowa, family team meetings are used to develop an individualized course of action when a family is identified by the Department of Humans Services (DHS) as being at risk of child abuse and neglect. Rather than relying on the state or a DHS case worker to mandate a plan to reduce the risk of child abuse and neglect, this method of family decision-making taps into a family's strengths and past successes to find solutions to current issues. The meeting is attended by the immediate family and the family's friends, neighbors, extended family, local service providers, and other formal and informal supports. The family has an opportunity to share their story, the other meeting attendees have an opportunity to talk about the family's strengths, and together they identify meaningful goals and develop action plans that are specifically catered to the family's needs.
My facilitator's manual lists the following reasons why family team meetings are effective:
- Provides a setting for the family voice to be heard
- Adds to the family's natural support system
- Focuses on assessing strengths and needs
- Expands the expertise available to the family
- Crafts the family individual plan
- Provides for the coordination of action and clarity of expectations
- Creates lasting supports for the family
Another great thing about the family team meeting model is that is focuses on identifying and involving a family's informal supports (like neighbors, extended family, friends, etc.) rather than relying on formal supports (like the Department of Human Services, organizations like MICA, etc.). Families might not always be eligible for services from DHS or MICA, so building informal networks of support is important, both for strengthening families in crisis, and for strengthening communities. I think these meetings are an excellent example of community empowerment and development. However, I think it can be hard for service providers to step back and allow those informal supports to take over, because we want to make sure that the families we work with are thriving and the children are safe, not to mention that it is our job and responsibility to do so.
Family team meetings are often used by families within the Department of Human Services system, but ideally any community member could request a team meeting for their own family or for another family in the community. The facilitator prepares for the meeting by introducing the family to the process, helping the family identify who else should be present and preparing those individuals. During the meeting, the facilitator guides the team in managing their emotions and focusing on the outcomes. After the meeting, the facilitator provides a written copy of the family's plan of action to each person at the meeting. In order to complete the process of becoming a certified family team meeting, I will attend another two days of training, and then team up with a certified facilitator and facilitate several meetings with their assistance, and apply to the Department of Human Services for certification approval. I'm very much hoping to complete this certification before I leave Grinnell in June, but even if I don't, attending the training has been very interesting and educational.
One more report to go!
It's hard to believe that I'm only three and a half months away from leaving Grinnell and moving on to somewhere new! I'm planning on making the most of my last few months at MICA and really looking forward to completing some on-going projects and starting some new ones. If you have any questions or comments about MICA or Grinnell Corps, you better ask them soonâ¦ email me at herethja[at]grinnell[dot]edu.
This last quarterly report has been the most difficult for me to write, because I'm finding it difficult to concisely articulate my thoughts on the conclusion of my fellowship. For starters, I'm feeling a myriad of emotions about leaving Grinnell. I am looking forward to the future-moving to Chicago with my partner and attending graduate school in social work-but I'm also anxious about leaving Grinnell, my home for the past five years. When I graduated last year, I was sad about saying goodbye to my friends, but, because I wasn't yet leaving Grinnell, I didn't feel that nostalgic about graduating. Now, a year later, it's finally starting to sink in that I really am done with college, I really am an "adult", and I really do have to enter the "real world". And on top of that, every day at MICA I learn so much, but am reminded that I really know so little about the conditions of poverty. I am leaving MICA with more questions-about how to create lasting social change, how to put my own anti-oppression analyses into practice, how to use social services to empower families, how to build effective organizations, how to prevent staff burn-out-than answers. With all of these questions, it's hard to reflect on what I've learned and worked on during the last three months, but I'll do my best!
Ice Storm 2007
In February, central Iowa was hit with a huge ice storm, which caused major power outages in Poweshiek County. I live in downtown Grinnell, so my block was one of the first areas to regain power, and in total the electricity at my apartment was only out for six hours. My friends and I lit candles, ate leftovers, and went to a performance on the Grinnell College campus, one of the first areas to regain power. But I was a lot more fortunate than many families in the Grinnell area; many families were without power for almost a week, and some families who live in rural areas outside of Grinnell were without power for even longer.
For some families, living without electricity and heat, while inconvenient and uncomfortable, was not life-threatening. People made due by using battery-operated or propane-fueled heaters and appliances, going out to dinner, and staying in hotels when it became too cold in their homes. But for families in poverty, the extra expenses incurred during the storm were a huge burden. As we witnessed after Hurricane Katrina, a crisis situation caused by a natural disaster magnifies pre-existing economic disparities in the effected area; while some families are able to get back on their feet quickly, others are still reeling after months or, in the case of Katrina, years. The differences between how I viewed the ice storm (as a fun, short-lived adventure) and how many of the families that MICA serves viewed it (as a financial crisis) illustrate the realities of poverty and economic privilege in Grinnell.
In the weeks and months after the storm, MICA got tons of requests for assistance with hotel bills, groceries, heaters, and repairs and we handed out food boxes and referred families to the Department of Human Services to apply for state-allocated emergency funds. Grinnell and other small towns in Poweshiek County operated free shelters and warming stations where families could sleep and get something to eat, and when families called asking about funds to help pay for hotel rooms, I always passed that information along. I was surprised that many families did not take advantage of the shelters - one woman told me that she would rather freeze to death than stay in a shelter. This woman's statement made me think about how much strength and courage it takes for families to come to MICA for assistance. I strive to treat the people we serve with as much dignity and integrity as possible, and I hope that as I continue my career in social services, I will find ways to make accessing social services an empowering and positive experience.
LIHEAP (the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program) ended in April, and with it the moratorium on service disconnections for non-payment. Unfortunately, the two or three hundred dollars that families who apply for LIHEAP receive is only a fraction of their entire winter heating bill, and many families find themselves hundreds or even thousands of dollars in debt at the end of the winter, and facing eminent disconnection. Paula and I have been busy helping families in this situation apply for other emergency funds and utility assistance programs, but these funds and programs are not nearly as large as LIHEAP, and we can only help a fraction of the families who applied for LIHEAP. Families that received this assistance after LIHEAP last year are not eligible to receive it again, and some of our funds can only be used with specific utility companies. When I can help families pay off some of their utility bills and get back on track, I love this part of my job, but when a family isn't eligible for assistance, or when their bill is just so huge that the amount of assistance we can provide would only make a dent in it, I feel frustrated and overwhelmed.
Working on the tax preparation program has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my fellowship. There is nothing more gratifying than telling someone that they are receiving a several-thousand dollar tax refund that they weren't even expecting. All in all, our team of volunteers completed 111 tax returns at tax sites in Grinnell, Marshalltown, Iowa Falls and Tama, helping low-income families claim a total of $164,555 in federal and state returns. While many eligible taxpayers do not claim the Earned Income Tax Credit and the Child Tax Credit, news of MICA's tax preparation program is spreading, and I've enjoyed watching the program grow to serve more and more families. I also really enjoyed coordinating the tax site in Grinnell and helping to train and organize volunteers.
The Obligatory Thank You Sectionâ¦
My year at MICA has included countless frustrating and heartbreaking moments, but it has included countless inspiring and empowering moments, too, and I feel so fortunate to have the experience of working for MICA as the Grinnell Corps Fellow. I am very grateful to the MICA staff-Paula, Joy, Roma, Rachel, Mindy, Melissa, Dick, Clarissa and Lisa-who have all been amazing mentors and friends over the last year. I am also thankful for the many MICA volunteers and interns who have so graciously donated their time and talents. Lastly, a big thank you to Doug for all the support and advice this year!
Issue Date: August 1, 2005
During my initial attempt at writing this report, I had a brain block and in my stomach came the sinking feeling "Could it be that I have nothing much to report in my two months here?". In retrospect, this report attack was probably due to not having written a paper in what seems like ages (it's actually been all of 2 and a half months actually!), because after some proper, collected reflection and a couple hours later, I'm thinking "Who am I kidding, there's so much to share, where do I start?!" So here goes my attempt to share the first two months of my Grinnell Corps in Grinnell Fellowship with you, in a somewhat orderly manner.
The Mid-Iowa Community Action (MICA)'s motto is: Helping People, Changing Lives, Building Communities. MICA was founded in 1964 in conjunction with the grassroots movement of community action with the birth of the Economic Opportunity Act under then President L.B. Johnson's "War Against Poverty" (yes, I've been learning some American history too!).
I work at the MICA Poweshiek County Family Development Center which is housed in the basement of the Veteran's Memorial in downtown Grinnell. We serve low-income residents of Poweshiek County through the following programs:
-FaDDS (Families Developing Self Sufficiency),
-Head Start (a federally funded pre-school program for kids who other would not be able to attend pre-school),
-Early Head Start (geared at children ages 0-3),
-Project Home Mission,
-our food pantry (with help from the Plant A Row program this summer) and
-LIHEAP (Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program).
The first month that I started at MICA was a tumultuous time to enter the MICA team. Change was happening in the form of staff members leaving for various reasons (maternity leave, relocation, quitting) and new folks being hired, but life had to go on, and it did so in a rather haphazard way that only now, with the hiring of the final member of the MICA team last week, is starting calm down and reshape.
So, let me tell you about the folks that I work with. Dick is our county director, and then there's Rachel, Laura, Mindy and Melissa who are all Family Development Specialists (FDSs), Roma - an Infant/Toddler Development Specialist (ITDS), Amber - the Family Development Worker (FDW) and Brandee - a work experience volunteer. There's also Kathy the Head Start lead teacher that I've come into contact with as well, and probably will spend more time with in the future.
The Initial Experience
I remember having constant headaches for the first couple of weeks. I think the most apt phrase to describe how it felt was "My brain feels like wet cotton wool, it won't absorb anymore!" There was tons of information to absorb about MICA - the different programs, their acronyms, how they worked, different roles that each person carried out, how the MICA structure is set up, how federal programs are contracted to non-profit organization to carry out â¦ and oh the jargon. Let me share with you the acronyms that I've become most familiar with:
-FIP = Family Investment Plan. It is a form of welfare, where the state invests in a family. One has to have children to qualify for FIP, and there are certain regulations to be followed in order to receive FIP such as being actively looking for a job or being in school full time, otherwise you end up on a LBP, which is a Limited Benefits Plan. In Iowa, one can receive FIP for a maximum of five years. After that, you're on your own.
-Title XIX = health insurance for those who are on welfare. Not all dentists will see people who have Title XIX as health insurance, and some of the folks that we serve have problems with finding dentists who will provide care for their children who are under the age of 3. It's a vicious circle because if these kids are more at risk of developing dental problems and if they aren't seen early on, these problems will develop and be worse and harder to treat when they are older.
-HUD= When someone says they're on HUD, it means that they have rent assistance from Housing and Urban Development. One qualifies for this if one is under a certain level of poverty.
Apart from that, I was kept busy obtaining the necessary certification to do the work that MICA folks do. I am pleased to report that I am now certified in First Aid, CPR, Universal Precautions, and Mandatory Child Abuse Reporting.
A Plug for TB testing? Where'd that come from?!
Ironically, I had just finished reading a book by Laurie Garrett called "Betrayal of Trust - The Collapse of Global Public Health". Inevitably, one of the chapters of this book covered the state of tuberculosis prevention/eradicationâ¦ rather scary stuff.
One of the requirements for MICA employees is taking a TB test within 7 days of starting work. Yours truly took the TB skin test, and came out positive. It wasn't surprising considering that in the 3 years since my last TB test, I'd traveled through 5 countries, the most recent being my trip back home to Malaysia. Thus, the chances of having being exposed to TB were pretty high.
Turns out that my positive TB skin test and lack of active TB symptoms means that I have latent TB, and to prevent the bacteria from becoming active and then potentially exposing other to TB (like someone did to me!) - I'm on medication to kill those pesky TB bacteria in my body. Antibiotics every day for the next 9 months!
That said, it was good that I had the TB test, because had it gone undetected, I could've not only gotten ill with TB (which if gone untreated is lethal) but could also have potentially spread the germs to other had the bacteria become active in my body.
So, get your TB tests done regularly, especially if you've gone traveling recently. Prevention is better than cure (or exposing others to TB germs)!
The Summer Experience So Far
I apologize for the digression -- back to what typical day (post-initiation flurry) in the life of this Grinnell Corps Fellow this summer has been like. It would start with a ten-minute bike ride from home to the MICA office - if I leave early enough it's cool and quiet yet - I get a lot of thinking time during my "commute" to work, which is nice. There are also different streets that have different scents, due to the variety of flora that people plant in their gardens, and it's lovely when the wind blows some of those scents my way.
Some days, upon reaching the MICA office, I go on home visits with one or more of the FDSs, sometimes I prepare food boxes in the food pantry, when Amber is out of the office - I am given the responsibility of giving out the gas and rent vouchers from the Ministerial Funds. Some days, I file away files, create spreadsheets, and perform data collection or other odd jobs that the FDSs might need my help with. Some days I go over to the Head Start classroom and help in the supervision of the kids there. One day I got to supervise Playtime (a socialization activity for parents and children involved in the Early Head Start program) all by myself! I've also taken on the responsibility of being the MICA representative at the Healthy Choices Coalition meetings, which happen once a month.
Going on home visits is always interesting. I am truly seeing a different side of Grinnell. In addition, my vocabulary and knowledge of towns within Poweshiek County is improving - I now know that Baxter is NOT part of Poweshiek County and that one of the county lines actually runs in between the town of Victor. But again, I digressed, what I meant by seeing a different side of Grinnell was that through home visits, where I actually get the privilege of going into the homes of the families that we serve, I am learning about a totally different demographic and way of life than that of which I've been exposed to for the last 4 years.
I've learnt to redefine what and who makes up a family - I'm learning that different folks find priority in different aspects of their lives and that even in Grinnell there are people who are struggling to make ends meet and that there is a support system there for them, that albeit, as I'm learning is far from perfect. Home visits and data collections/caseload research has also made me realize that the families we serve are all very different, no one family has the same make-up, or barriers or problems, or income level for that matter, but because of a few factors, such as being below a certain poverty level, or being on FIP, they are classified under the same umbrella. I guess this is what makes a social worker's life interesting. The people that you come into contact with and that you serve are always different each time.
Sometimes, no, most of the times, I find it hard to try to put myself in the shoes of the families that we serve, to better understand them, I mean, will I ever be able to understand what it is to live the life of a twenty year old mother of 3 kids who have different fathers who are no longer in the picture, or how will I ever be able to fully grasp what it must be like to be dependent on somebody, and not to have known a life that hasn't involved struggling just to get food on the table or hold on to a job? On the other hand, it is hard to be objective about the families that we serve, and have visits end at their doorways.
The rides between the office and getting to the homes of our clients are also exciting - I get to talk with Rachel, Roma, Laura and Mindy about the nature of their jobs, learn their stories and their philosophies and how and why they got into this field of work and why they continue to do it. These women are interesting folks and I've enjoyed this part of doing home visits very much also. Not only that, I am treated to the scenic Iowa countryside as we drive on the highways from town to townâ¦and it is absolutely gorgeous this time of the year. Some days, we'll be driving on the highway with the most breathtaking blue sky ahead of us, and just fields and fields of beautiful cornfields, with the occasional cows and horses - I feel like I'm driving through a movie sometimes!
Thoughts and Observations on Making a Difference, "Poverty" and Head Start.
I've discovered that a lot of the questions this Fellowship has made me ponder about have no answers. Sometimes I question if we (social workers/non-profit organizations/aid organizations) are making a difference, and if yes (which, according to the FaDDS program statistics, we are, because for the fiscal year 2004, for every federal dollar spent on FaDDS, $1.33 was returned in terms of welfare saved) - is the difference significant enough?
I wonder about the high turnover of workers in this field of community action, and why it seems like it's a mostly female field, with the minority of males holding the majority of positions of authority. I wonder about generational poverty, why it still happens. It irks me when some people that I talk to shrug their shoulders and say "Well, it's the nature of the beast." There must be a better answer to that, and I'm still searching for it!
One of the most fascinating things I've learnt is that "poverty" is not only very arbitrary, but it is also relative. It truly is! There are federal poverty guidelines and thresholds that differ from state to stateâ¦and guess what? Every one of us is living at a level of poverty! For example, I would be living near the 100% (no kidding!) with stipend that I have. It's not a bad place to be, at 100% poverty, I can assure you, for I have just enough. But someone with 2 kids, no job and no childcare support might be living at 45% poverty, while a family with two disposable incomes might be living at 400% poverty. I find that interesting. For most of the programs that are run by MICA, there are poverty levels that have to be met in order to qualify.
My exposure to Head Start, while meager at the moment, has been challenging already. It's been tough trying to figure out how to act around children, and also to how to interact with them. Am I supposed to treat them wee grown-ups, as human beings capable of thinking as I do? Or are they immature little beings who need to be talked and reasoned with in a different way? Some kids have been trying, and it's been frustrating - to the point where I wonder if the time that they spend at Head Start will help at all. Then, sometimes, I think of the homes that they come from, and the psychological and mental burdens that they carry already, even at their young age, as a result of coming from a low-income family and somewhere along the line, I am reminded of Carol Bellamy's commencement day speech on how if we want to make a difference in the future, to end the cycles of poverty and hopelessness, we've got to make a difference to kids' life. Children are the way to go - they are after all, our future!
Life in Grinnell over the summer.
As I write this report, it is an almost perfect Sunday afternoon. Summer in Grinnell has been pretty hot and muggy so far, but this past week has brought showers and thunder and lightning storms. Today, I believe, is the start of the gradual warm up to the usual hot and muggy days after this week of relatively cooler weather. But for now, it's pretty perfect.
That said, it has been challenging being back in Grinnell post-graduation. It was hard coming back to Grinnell with my close friends all gone far far away, and the town itself being so quiet and lonely.
Nonetheless, living with my host parents, Doug and Dixie, who've been my surrogate parents/grown-up friends since my first year at Grinnell, has been a tremendous blessing. I have my own space (I have the entire basement to myself!), yet I get to come home to a 'family'. We've adopted a kitty - his name is Mango Fandango and he is a bundle of energy and very good company. He also provides me with lots of entertainment.
The challenge of being "alone" in Grinnell this summer has made me become pro-active in many ways, such as making friends with an elderly lady walking on the other side of the road, getting to know some of the vendors at Farmer's Market and actually seeking out fellow Grinnell alums hidden in Grinnell over the summer and creating a network of friends.
Realizing that I've spent significantly more time at Grinnell than at home in the last four years, and now with my broader and more extensive ties to the community is kind of cool. Now when I meet people who ask me where I'm from, I reply that I'm 4/5ths Malaysian, and 1/5th Iowan.
Is your report almost done, Marie? Cool Beans!
I am excited to see what opportunities this Fellowship will have to offer in the coming months. Change is once again in the air with the end of summer and the start of fall coming around. Head Start begins a new school year come September, and before long LIHEAP season will start. To be honest, there are days when I wonder if I'm doing or learning as much as I could with this Fellowship but if this report is any proof, I've learnt some and still have much to go!
If you've read or skimmed this far, I thank you for sharing my experience. I would love to hear from anyone if they have any ideas or responses towards my thoughts and questions. My email address remains the same: tanmarie[at]grinnell[dot]edu .
I now leave you with what has probably been the most unexpected part of my fellowship experience so far, that is my newly acquired vocabulary of colloquialisms learnt this summer:
-"Knee high by the 4th of July" (with reference to the growth of corn in the fields)
-"Muggy" (super humid and icky i.e. "My, it's muggy today innit?")
-"O (said with an emphasis on a nice round O) yeah!"
-"Deer watch" (the role of the person seated in the passenger seat when driving along Iowa highways after dusk)
- "SKUNK!!!!!" (one of the many earthy Iowa smells that waft into the car from time to time on our many trips across the county) and last but not least,
-"Cool beans!" (substitute for "awesome", or "brilliant")
Why hello again! I am into the 1st day of my 6th month as I write this 2nd quarterly report, and this time around, it's not the brain block of "Could it be that I have nothing much to report in my two months here?" that is making writing this report a challenge, but rather, it is the opposite. Looking at my notes (yes, I made notes this time!) from the past 3 months, I am struggling to decide what I need to eliminate in order to make this report of readable length. Needless to say, the Grinnell Corps in Grinnell @ MICA Fellowship experience has changed very dramatically in what just seems like the blink of an eye (yes, summer is definitely over, and the days are flying by again!).
The Experience Sinceâ¦
Remember how I said from last time that I thought the team was coming together finally? Well, in October, Amber left us to get married and move to Des Moines (Congratulations, Amber!), and we had Paula join the team as the new FDW (Family Development Worker) just in time to prep for the Low Income Heating and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) season. With the arrival of the "LIHEAP season", I have cut down on my home visit activities and Head Start classroom and instead, have been spending more time based in the Family Development Center working with Paula to process LIHEAP applications and helping with the smooth running of the other crisis intervention programs such as the Food Pantry and Ministerial Fund distribution, among others, that MICA offers.
First off, some facts about LIHEAP: The program runs from Oct 1st-April 15th - it is funded by Federal dollars, and funds are administered across the country by various organizations including community actions such as MICA. Any person or family who is at or under the 150% poverty level (which is $14,355.00 annually for a single person household) qualifies for this program. Factors such as the number of people in the household, if any household members are elderly or children and type of heating source, just to name a few, are taken into account and a one time award payment (the average award amount for 2004 was $317.00) for is made to the vendor to help out with the heating bills for the winter season. In addition, qualifying for LIHEAP puts one under moratorium, which means that your electricity cannot be cut off for any reason from Nov 1st - April 1st. Of course, one needs to keep making regular payments towards their heating bills in order to avoid being disconnected come April 2nd!
In the last month and a half since the start of the LIHEAP program, we have processed 334 applications in Poweshiek County, of which about 150 have been for the elderly and disabled on a fixed income (the month of October was put aside to process applications for the elderly and disabled who were auto-eligible i.e. on fixed income such as SSD or SSI) According to Diane Popelka, the Energy Assistance & Emergency Services Coordinator at MICA, for the fiscal year of 2006, a total of $169,154.00 has been paid out in LIHEAP awards.
According to Diane, she never thought she would see the day that there would be more than 300 applications in Poweshiek County. For the fiscal year of 2005, 568 applications were taken. The number of annual applications has increased for the last 3 consecutive years, and this could be partly due to the fact that that there are more people who are eligible who are becoming aware of this program. In addition, due to the rise in the cost of fuel, more and more folks are feeling the pinch when it comes to paying their heating bills and are thus seeking assistance through LIHEAP. Sadly, funding for this program has not increased commensurate to the rise in heating costs, so you can bet your socks that there will be folks out there freezing their socks off this winter. 9 Interestingly enough, I've noted that few, if any, farmers have signed up for LIHEAP (There is a box where one checks off "farmer" or not - I don't recall processing any applications that have had that box checked off). It is food for thought as to why this is so- could this be due to the pride factor, the farming ethic maybe?
In any case, now that Nov 1st has hit, we have appointments booked up to 3 weeks in advance and Paula and I have been processing applications every half hour from 10am to 2pm, sometimes earlier or later, depending on when people can come in, and boy some days, it has been a nuthouse with the buzz of activity going on!
Tales of Canned Food, Life Cereal and Food Boxes.
Over the past few months, I have also become extremely familiar with the Food Pantry, also known as the Emergency Food Supply Shelf. Some days we go through 10 boxes in less than 2 hours, some days we have half a dozen sitting pretty for a while. I am now capable of not only making up multiple food boxes at a time and telling you exactly where the spaghetti sauce, pancake mix and oatmeal are with the flick of a finger, but I can also pick up and carry 7 tins in one arm without dropping a single one of them oh, about 80% of the time!
Humourousness aside, a friend recently asked me who qualifies to use the Food Pantry. I figure that some of you out there reading this might also be interested in the answer to that question, so here's what I came up with:-
"Who qualifies for emergency food services?Anybody who doesn't have food in his or her kitchen. Sometimes we get first-timers, like kids who've walked out of bad family situations who are trying to make it on their own. Sometimes we get single moms on welfare whose food stamps have run out and have no money left to spend on buying food to feed their kids.
Sometimes it's teenage parents who don't know what they've gotten themselves into and don't have formula or diapers for their newborn child. Sometimes it's old folks on Social Security that by the time they're done paying their health expenses and bill don't have enough money left to buy food to get them through till the next month.
Sometimes it's a grandma who's suddenly got extra mouths to feed because the parent(s) of her grandchildren upped and left or got incarcerated. Sometimes it's a college student who's trying hard to make ends meet. Sometimes it's the middle class family on the block who's had a sudden crisis and had to use up all their funds and suddenly don't have any money until the next paycheque comes in to buy food and or other items like laundry detergent or cleaning supplies (which we do stock up on).
The list goes on and on, and yes there are folks who sometimes take advantage of the existence of the food pantry and misuse the services it is supposed to provide - this does get me really frustrated, but the most important thing is getting food to those who are in need of it."
On a side note, it never crossed my mind that I would one day make use of my experience working with Dining Services freshman year in conjunction with the work that I would be doing 4 years later! One day we were running short on boxes to make up food boxes, and I offered to go scavenge for some. I learnt from Paula that apart from random donations of boxes, it was quite an ordeal to get them from local stores as there were set times to pick them up, and that it was never quite a certainty that we would get any boxes if any.
A sudden flashback to those days of working at Quad Dining Hall and doing box duty (breaking down and hauling cardboard boxes to the recycling area) made me pick up the phone and call Lyle Baumann to check and see if by any chance we over at MICA could get a hold of those boxes before they got taken away for recycling, and Lyle's response was "Sho' thing, young lady - help yourself!" and lo and behold, thanks to that connection, we now have a new, hassle free source of boxes. Score one for doing time with Dining Services freshman year!
While we get to order food in bulk from the NorthEast Iowa Food Bank using donated funds, the food pantry is stocked mostly by donations in kind. On multiple occasions, the uncanny precision and appropriateness with which donations arrive at our doorstep have strengthened my belief in the existence of some form of divine intervention of some sort. Just the other day, we were out of bread vouchers and down to our last package of frozen hot dog buns in the freezer when a random trucker dude came asking if this was the community kitchen and if we could make use of 6 cases of fresh loaves of Italian bread that he had transported here but the local store that ordered it did not want it because it hadn't arrived on the right day. Bring it on, man! Another day, Paula and I were getting just a little antsy about the amount of food that we had left in store and we discussed it offhandedly - the very next day, we received word that the local High School had collected over a THOUSAND pounds worth of food for us.
Another story that I would like to share is, again, related to the college. Over $3500 was made in proceeds from the Hoofin' It 5K run held last spring that was organized by Mortarboard (Grinnell College's equivalent of an honor society), of which many members were my close friends (I'm continuing your good work guys, yeah!). With that amount of money, a contract was drawn up with a local grocery store so that each person who came to get a food box would also be able to get a voucher to get $5.00 worth of fresh produce as well from November 1st onwards until the funds run out.
While we try to have the contents of food boxes as nutritious and healthy as possible, canned vegetables and tinned fruit have nothing over FRESH produce! Over the summertime there was the Plant A Row program where local gardeners planted an extra row and brought their produce in Fridays to be distributed. Now with the onset of winter, the vouchers provided by the Hoofin' It 5K proceeds are helping us to continue getting nutritious food to those most in need of it.
Of Dinosaur-Cows, Dinosaur-Dragons and Dragon-Bears.
On Monday and Wednesday mornings, I get a treat that is somewhat of a trade-off. While I love getting to live my 7 year old self's dream of observing farm creatures grazing in the pasture and the beauty of wide, open nature, I have to wake up bright (ok, sometimes, not so brightly, more like groggily) and early to ride the Head Start Bus to pick up about a half dozen preschoolers who attend the Half-Day Head Start Classroom. Although I do occasionally substitute at the classroom, it is in the bus-rides that I have found my happy medium in interacting with and learning about and from children. (An hour in the bus with six children is just about right for me!)
Earlier on, an acquaintance had made a passing comment that made me question just how much importance or difference I was making by merely riding in the bus with the Head Start kids in the morning. It was a good prodding question because it made me reflect on my seemingly insignificant role as bus monitor. I realized that even though all I did was "ride the bus with the kids" on Monday and Wednesday mornings - I was the first person (apart from Pat the bus driver) whom they saw on those mornings before they went to school and that I do indeed an impact on how their days unfold even if it's just by greeting them and prepping them to get excited for school.
I've enjoyed watching them learn to use their p's and q's with some gentle prodding on my part, and also learning to address people by their name instead of just a "Hey!" I'm hoping that I'm making a difference by helping to reinforce these skills in these kids. Maybe they will help them get stand out more in a job interview one day, or maybe just help them get along their way a little easier in society when they grow up.
Sometimes though, I am not so successful in my attempts at "teaching". For example, one day I'd just taught them was the word "crazy" meant, so they wouldn't go around using it as nonchalantly as they were doing. Couple minutes later, I heard K tell P "You and me are going to â¦" and then T chimed in and said "No. no, P and me are going toâ¦" and I leaned over and attempted to teach them the "right" way of using "You and I" instead of "You and me"â¦which admittedly I didn't do too good a job off because it went like so,
Marie: "K, it is more correct to say that "P and I" are going toâ¦"
K: "No, Teacherr, it's P and me!"
Marie: "Yes yes, I know, but it should be "P and I", instead of "P and me" as in P and you are going to go â¦" (and seeing the look of confusion in K's eyes decided to drop the issue and said to K "Oh, nevermindâ¦") to which K heaved a dramatic sigh, rolled his eyes heavenward and said in the most sorry tone to me: "Oh Teacherr, you are CRAYZEE!"
My interactions with these children have also reinforced my belief in the potential they hold for their and our future. When I take into account that most of these children come from low-income families that don't have as many opportunities as other families, and have different family dynamics and home situations from the norm, I am amazed at how resilient, and brilliant even, some of these kids are. Their imaginations and the potential in their intellectual capabilities never cease to amaze me, as does their sense of humour and trust in the world.
For example, this story that I'm about to recount takes place at the playground, it's outside time, and J's playing by the fence in a rather, shall we say, suspicious way, and Heather who's the Lead Teacher calls out to him "Hey J, whatcha doing over there?"
J: "There's a spider over here!!!"
H: "Well let's try to stay away from spiders ok?"
H: "Well, because they might bite you if you get too close or if you hit them by accident."
J: "But if they bite me then I can become like Spiderman!"
H: "No you won't, that won't happen."
*At this point, the playground becomes less noisy and the other kids are starting to get interested in this exchange..
H: "Coz it's just PRETEND!"
*A deathly silence pervades the playground and all the kids pause in the middle of their play, everybody's paying attention now and it seems like there's an interminable pause going on until â¦
J: "You mean I'll just have fake spiderwebs coming out of my hands?"
H: "Errr...yeah..." (Nice save, Heather!)
And the kids breathed a collective sigh of relief and resumed wildly running around and playing again.
I will end this section with the story about the heading that I decided to give this section of my report. One morning on the bus, we had run out of pages in the colouring books for the kids to colour with. So I suggested that maybe I could draw some pictures in their notebooks to colour in instead. Three kids requested that I draw 2 dragons and a dinosaur respectively. The final products of these artwork requests ended up rather dodgy looking due to my lack of expertise in drawing dragons and dinosaurs, so it pleased me greatly when the kids finally, in a consensus, after much debating amongst themselves (with some objections here and there from me) agreed to call their pictures respectively as "The Dragon-Bear", "The Dinosaur-Dragon" and "The Cow-Dinosaur".
Surely You've Done More than Just Drawing Hyphenated Animals, Mucking Around the Food Pantry and Processing Energy Assistance Applications?
Yes I have! In addition to the three main activities that I've expanded upon above, I've also had the chance to continue keeping an eye on local level policy making by following the Healthy Choices Coalition meetings, I've been exposed to the enormity of the methamphetamine problem in Iowa (did you know that 90% of users in Iowa are female? And that meth is a legacy of Hitler's Nazi regime?) and learnt how to manage babies and children who've been exposed to meth.
I've had the chance to experience FDW work, the real deal, hands on, feet off the ground running the MICA Family Development center independently on several occasions due to unforeseen circumstances when Paula could not come into the office. I've also had the opportunity to work with a few Grinnell College student volunteers (wonderful, wonderful individuals! Rock on!), and also done some outreach work in the community by presenting information about LIHEAP at an Energy Forum (though the sight of my former Senior Seminar Psychology professor at the beginning of the event provoked my excessive utterances of "uhmâ¦" during my presentationâ¦ *ulp*)
Thoughts and Observations on â¦
Thanks to the exposure gained from this Fellowship, I have become more aware of news of happenings at Congress. For example, if it wasn't for my involvement with LIHEAP, the little blurb in the Sunday newspapers just the other weekend wouldn't have caught my eye. But that 5 line report on how Congress had failed to pass the bill that would have allocated an extra $3 billion to the LIHEAP program (56 yes to 43 no, falling short by 4 votes of the majority 60 votes needed) caught my attention and held it because I now know what the impact of that decision means.
I know that it means that some folks will go without a lot of things this winter season so that they can have heat in their homes. It means that for some families, the parents will go without eating regular meals so their kids will have enough to eat, it will mean that some elderly folks will take half of their prescriptions so that they will be able to stretch their medicine to last them just a little longer before getting their next prescription, so they'll be able to pay their heating bills. It means that for some families, they will forgo seeing the doctor until they get really really sick because the cost of going to see the doctor for one individual from that family might mean a months worth of having some heat in the house for the whole family. It goes on and on, the scenarios that one can imagine, and what's most disturbing is that these imagined scenarios ARE reality for some.
I learnt from talking with Diane (who is THE person to talk to about Energy Assistance at MICA) that the reason why that bill did not pass was because of the other stipulations that had been tacked on to the tail end of it. That had the increase in funding towards energy assistance been passed, funds would have been taken out of the Head Start and Food Stamps program, which is a PREPOSTEROUS idea. How does it make sense to take money away from programs that are supposed to very same population of people?! Argh.
Learning about all this is frustrating. Sometimes I feel like maybe that's why there are some people who choose to remain oblivious to the goings-on of the world that we live in, because it's just that much easier when you don't know and when you do know, it is that much harder to fight the feeling of powerlessness and keep on trying to make a difference in the opposite direction, no matter how small.
Another bone that I have to pick is with the recent Child Sex Offender Act that requires all registered child sex offenders to live outside of a 2000 foot radius of schools and day-car centers. Does society think that just banishing registered child sex offenders out into areas 2000 feet away from schools and day care centers will solve the problem that is the robbing of the innocence of children? Out of sight (or out of a 2000 foot radius) equals out of mind? Hello, a child sex offender can still walk, bike, use public transportation OR drive a car to reach a destination where that individual can get to a child. How about better prevention methods like making sure that kids get signed out properly from school for starters instead (and I know from personal experience that this is something that some local schools can vastly improve on, if anyone's interested in taking that issue upâ¦)? In addition, a high percentage of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are known to the family and are not random strangers so what's up with that?
Needless to say, the motive behind the law is good and well intentioned, but it has not been well thought out and the enaction of this law has, in my humble opinion, caused more harm than good. It does more harm than good, especially to children (yes, some former child sex offenders are trying to work on making life better through working with family development programs like those offered by MICA, and some of them happen to have children too, who should not have to bear the responsibility for the past actions of their parents, and these children suffer when they get uprooted, when their father or mother loses their job because they cannot afford the commute to their work place now that they have to live way way out in the country, or worse still, spend money that they don't have to move to another county) which is a very sad irony because it is this very population of society (children) that this law tries to protect.
Indeed, I am now more able to see how policy-level decisions affect lives at the individual level and it frustrates me that more cannot be done more effectively. Sometimes, when I work through crisis intervention situations, I feel like what I am learning to do is band-aid work, slapping on the band-aids after an injury has taken place. I often marvel that in this society, "band-aids" are available even though in limited amounts, that is good in comparison to societies where there are no support systems to fall back on at all. But then I ask myself, is this what I want to do, or do I want to try to work more on preventing "injuries" from happening in the first place, wouldn't that save more money, effort, and human lives in the long run? How do I go about doing that? This line of thought has led me to apply to some graduate school programs, where hopefully coupled with my experiences at the grassroots level so far, I will learn the skills and tools that will allow me to make a difference more effectively.
Living in Grinnell Post-Grad.
I have come to realize the kaleidoscope of an experience that is living outside the 'Grinnell Bubble' in Grinnell. Can I tell you, I am experiencing Grinnell, and Iowa, like never before!
There have been experiences like the following (for those of you who are considering doing Grinnell Corps in Grinnell, heads up!); say, if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me once the academic year started "Hey didn't you graduate? What are you still doing here?" I'd have a really NICE pair of boots to wear for the winter already. Occasionally, I also do get the feeling that some of the more judgmental folks with preconceptions who walk into MICA and identify me as "one of those college students" right off the bat do not enjoy working with me that much (a perceived lack of experience due to my youth?), but, those experiences are few and far in between.
Admittedly, while there have been frustrating moments where I feel like questioning the meaning of human existence due to the actions and reactions (or non-actions) of some folks, for the most part, it has been an affirming experience interacting with the myriad of folks that I've come into contact through MICA. Truly, the human experience is what I've come to treasure most these last 5 months. I have met some incredibly strong-hearted and warm-hearted folks who still have heart, who have taught me about respect, dignity and having a sense of humour even in hard and unfair times. I have come into contact with folks who have been role models in teaching me about giving back and passing it forward even when they have little themselves. It truly has been a privilege to serve some of the folks that I have met.
I want to share a humourous interaction that I had with a little old lady came in to the office to get some information on a day when I was down with a bad cold and sounded like an old man losing his voice. As this soft-spoken elderly lady in a pink feather boa scarf was leaving the office, she turned around and said to me "Thanks so much for your help honey. Well, I hope you get well soon from whatever it is you've got â¦ I'm sure it's making you feel like what is it â¦ yes, crap. Those things make you feel like *crap*, don't they? Bless your heart, honey". And with that, she exited the office.I tell ya, if my throat and ears weren't hurting so bad I would've cracked up, once I got over being stunned hearing the word crap being pronounced with so crisply and with such clarity and vehemence by this grandmamma of a little old lady.
Outside of the MICA time, I've had the chance to take bike rides out into the country (when the weather was good), gone to Iowa City to listen to a visiting prof speak on social justice in post-apartheid South Africa, went to a wee diner called Joe's Bar & Grill in Searsboro with some friends where we had the most sinfully delish deep-fat-fried food to be found anywhere, visited the Des Moines Farmers' Market and the International Food Fair that was held in conjunction with the World Food Prize, listened to Ashanti (a local jazz group) play at Pella, visited the Neal Smith Wildlife Reserve and checked out tall grass prairie and bison, and oh my goodness, I also had the opportunity to go combining at a local farm (I drove a 8-row combine at 5 miles/hour, tearing through the cornfield and saw a pheasant and deer dart in between the rows of corn while I was at it!) and heard stories about farming and how that scene's changed. I also got told the story of a local farmer who loved his beer so much that he planted crooked rows of corn because he'd finish off a can of beer for each 10 rows he planted! I do suppose that part of my fascination with the experiences I've had has something to do with being a non-native Iowan and for that I am just a tiny bit more thankful for the extra dash of excitement it has given me.
Bye Now, Bless Your Heart!
Well, I guess that's all for now. In summary, the last 3 months of the Grinnell Corps Fellowship in Grinnell with MICA has been exciting, challenging and tiringâ¦ and I am LIVIN' IT! :. Again, if you have any questions, feedback, bones to pick with anything I've brought up, please get in touch with me at tanmarie[at]grinnell[dot]edu. I would welcome any thoughts or comments. I thank you for sharing my experience thus far and hope that this report has been an interesting read.In summary, the last 3 months of the Grinnell Corps Fellowship in Grinnell with MICA has been exciting, challenging and tiringâ¦ and I am LIVIN' IT! :
Brandi and the food pantry, all stocked up (It rarely looks this good!)
The MICA Headstart schoolbus
My workarea in the Family Development Center
A MICA team meeting
My 23rd birthday celebration at MICA
With utmost sincerity, I must confess that this report has been the most challenging to date in being brought to fruition, mostly for fear that the words I string together will not do complete justice to the experience that has been such an exhilarating ride since I last wrote. Nonetheless, winter has come and gone, and finally, here is my attempt at sharing the third quarter of my Grinnell Corps Fellowship in Grinnell with MICA.
The Experience Sinceâ¦
While the I still head down to the Vets Memorial Building most Mondays through Fridays, it's in the leaving at the end of each day that I can tell how time has whizzed by. It's changed from leaving the office at 4.30pm into darkness and driving home on snow covered roads with the headlights on to walking out into the still-bright outside and driving home with the windows rolled down. Likewise, with the work that I do, while mostly revolving in and around the Poweshiek County Development Center (PCFDC), it is in the variety and scope of which I've been allowed to delve into that has marked the passing of time as well.
Again, every once in a while, I get to man the PCFDC when Paula has to take a day off, and it's always such a thrill to get to do that. It's a little scary, given the responsibility of it all, but at the end of the day, it's always a rewarding and exciting(!) experience and each time, it never fails to give me new appreciation and respect for the work that Paula does on a daily basis especially when it comes to crisis intervention situations.
Working with the ladies at the family development centre has been a blast as well. I swear, in the future, hearing certain phrases like "I'm losing my miii-iiind!" (sung out loud) and "Chocolate, where's the chocolate, I need some chocolate" or "This d*mned copy machine!!" will definitely bring back to mind familiar memories of moments of shared frustrations and the camaraderie at the office. :
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) Project (Free Tax Preparation)
For a quick introduction to what the EITC is, I'm providing a blurb of information from the IRS website: "EITC For Individuals: If you're like millions of Americans, you work hard, but you don't earn a high income, and want to keep more of what you earn. The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is a credit for people who earn low-to-moderate incomes, EITC can reduce your taxes, and can mean a refund. In simple terms, working families and individuals may keep more of what they work for."
This is second year in a row that MICA has set up free tax-preparation sites in some of the counties in which MICA serves, and truly, it was by the grace of volunteers (most of whom were students from Grinnell College and Iowa Valley Community College) that this program could fly. This program ran mostly on weekends from February to March and after the first week, it was reported that we had prepared 22 tax returns of which $21,926 EITC dollars were claimed.
It was an eye-opener for me in many ways, being involved in this project, one of which was to how insidiously tax laws dictate us in numerous ways we don't realize. Now I am aware of the tax benefits to being legally married (filing as married gets you a better return than filing single or filing together not married) and that there is a good time to get divorced and a bad time to get divorced (something like whether you have been living together for the last 6 months makes a difference in how you can file you taxes, and thus affects your return) down to how tax laws discriminate against single parents. Tax laws do dictate what rights certain people are entitled to and what others are not entitled to through almost seemingly arbitrary laws that recognize (or not) certain things.
Don't get me wrong here, I'm not bashing tax laws per se. I think it's tremendously beneficial how programs like the EITC exist, to give a boost to those most in need of it. I'll never forget the lady who turned to her 1 Ð year old upon hearing how much her tax return would be taking into account the EITC amount, saying "Now Mommy can pay the mechanic to fix the van transmissionâ¦oh we were drowning weren't we baby?". Nor will I forget how some folks used their tax refunds to pay off fines to get their driver's licenses back - meaning that there folks could now bring their children to daycare, look for better jobs, and pay off bills that they couldn't pay off before.
Nonetheless, like a lot of other things, low-income folks are at a disadvantage when it comes to filing taxes because tax laws are complicated to the point of confusion that people don't even try to understand them (which leads to not filing their taxes on their own when they would've received a refund even if they didn't make enough to have to file a tax return) and sometimes are taken advantage of by schemes (like taking out a loan on your own tax refund and paying interest on your own money!) that utilize that very fact to make money out of those who can least afford to lose it.
Involvement with Head Start
I have continued my Monday and Wednesday morning jaunts with the Head Start bus to pick up kids from surrounding towns for preschool and also subbed occasionally at the Half-Day classroom. While I enjoy interacting with the 4-5 year olds, my limited tolerance towards spending extended periods (more than 2 hours) with them has made me recognize that I am not one of those gifted few called to working with children. Nonetheless, it has made me all the more definite of my calling to work for children.
And here's why: because it is hard for me to smile and say good morning and mean it sincerely to the parent who puts his or her child on the bus in clothes that reek of cigarette smoke, especially when it's been noted that that child has asthma problems, or when a mom drops off her child at the classroom in the morning with his face still smeared with snot from sleep the night before (and a simple wiping it off with moistened paper towels helps the child breathe so much easier), because when you learn that school may be a safer environment for a child to be in versus their own home .
And then when those owners of the snot covered faces and smart mouths face you and suddenly flash you the most beautifully dimpled smile, or remind you of their guilelessness when they suddenly present you with gems like "When I grow up, I will be twenty!!!", or reveal to you just how much they understand of the world already, it makes me want to fight for the rights of children, especially those that will allow them to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation and , for now, probably the hardest of all to achieve, respect for the views of the child.
The kids that I meet through Head Start, every single on of them carries within them some form of potential, in some maybe more than others, and while they're all little people, as April (the Lead Teacher) calls them, they will all one day grow up and become big people who will engage in being a part of this world.
Low Income Home and Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP)
As we near the end of the LIHEAP season (November '05 - April '06) we have processed close to 600 applications within the Poweshiek County area. Needless to say, these numbers exceed those of the previous year, and it has been incredible to realize that there are at least 600 families out there who live below or at the 150% who qualify for heating assistance.
As the moratorium period drew to a close as of April 1st (the moratorium protects those who qualify for LIHEAP from having their utilities shut off - with the exception of those who use LP/fuel oil) we received calls and visits from folks who were facing disconnection due to lack of payment on their bills. This period has really opened my eyes to the reality of life for different segments of society - for example, those who truly struggle to pay their bills, and make the hard choices between health insurance for their kids, meals on the table, gas for getting to work, or paying the heating bills during the winter months, versus "seasoned veterans" i.e. those who choose not to pay while under the protection of the moratorium and count on using "the system" (community action agency's such as MICA) as a means to prevent disconnection when the time comes around.
Digressing just a little, I have now come to realize some of the positives of having otherwise bothersome paperwork, because it is by having a record of someone's usage of MICA's services/ or payment history towards bills that we are able to better discern how to approach solving a crisis situation that that particular person's in.
An article that may be of interest to those of you who want to know more about the current situation that low-income Iowans face concerning rising energy costs can be found here:http://desmoinesregister.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060325/OPINION...
Thoughts and Reflection
In this last quarter, one of the biggest challenges that I have found myself facing so far is not judging the people whom I serve through this experience. I know that we are not supposed to judge people who come seeking our services, but after 9 months of seeing some of the same folks over and over again, and hearing stories of similar situations, it becomes hard not to. Where does one draw the line between being non-judgmental and being a good steward of the resources that have been entrusted into your care for dispensation? Is person X more deserving, or person Y more deserving of aid when there's a limited amount involved?
Yet how many times has my judgment been proven wrong? For example, the seemingly grumpiest people have been the ones to have brought a smile to my face in the end and often the most rewarding work I have done has come from working with someone whom I initially was wary of working with.
This leads me to tell you about the various kinds of people I've met, and some to a certain extent, gotten to know slightly better in the last 9 months. There's been the most silent, huge-sized, oaf-like elderly gentleman who brought a smile to my face when I saw gently bopping on the balls of his feet to the music that I was playing on my computer while he was waiting for me to bring him his food box, there's been "that dude" who tries to intimidate with his booming voice and spins stories each time he comes into the office like no other, there's been that guy who's responded to my "And how are you today, sir?" with a "Like a bright eyed, bushy tailed squirrel and happy to be alive" in spite of the fact that he was coming in for a food box and assistance with paying his heating bills. There's the elderly lady who calls me "kid" all the time who chats so matter-of-factly about the anxiety that she suffers from not being able to make enough money to pay off her bills, which affects her ability to work, and thus she is being medicated it which in turns adds up to more bills, and oh, all the incredibly brash/brave (sometimes it's hard to tell which it is) young (young = anybody my age or younger) parents who never cease to amaze me at how they themselves are already parents when they're barely done being children themselves. The list goes on and on, I promise.
Over the course of the LIHEAP season, I've had to look at many a paycheque/printout for income verification and it's struck me how many of the folks that we serve at MICA work at places that I pass by on a regular basis, eating establishments around downtown Grinnell, Grinnell Regional Medical Centre, the numerous manufacturing plants along West Street and Highway 6, Wal-Mart, and even at Grinnell College too. Which brings me to another thing that I cannot for the life of me see any justification in at all: It frustrates me to see folks who work, and work hard, at hard jobs, not able to pay their bills. Or not qualify for certain aid programs because they make "too much" but yet are still unable to stay afloat. Someone has to do the jobs they do, and not everybody has the skills or the want for that matter to have a "cushy" office job that warrants getting paid $25 an hour. But shouldn't folks who responsibly hold any kind of job, for a steady amount of time, make enough to allow them to pay the bare minimum of living expenses such as healthcare, childcare, food, shelter, and transportation to and from their workplace?
I don't have the answers yet, but I believe that there are solutions out there that are feasible and enactable, and when I find them, oh am I going to go for it.
Suggestions for the next Grinnell Corps Fellow
--Do try to maintain a good healthy immune system. It will serve you well especially in times of Exposure to Kids' Germs when working with Head Start.
--Develop a thick skin. It will help to adopt a healthy ability see different perspectives when dealing with certain kinds of people especially during crisis situations. Remember, it's not always you you you. It sometimes can be all about things that you have no idea are going on in others' lives until the facts emerge later.
--Prepare yourself for lack of anonymity around town that will make your out of work interactions maybe more than a little interesting than usual. You will bump into the folks you serve in almost any imaginable place you could frequent around town, and sometimes, even out of town, (all in one Saturday, I bumped into MICA clients at: a community event, Fareway, Saints Rest, Wal-Mart, the Strand theatre, and at the very end of the night, even at the Down Under pub!). Be forewarned!
Living in Iowa Milestones
As a wrap up to this report, here are the some of the non-work related things that I've done in the last quarter that I'd like to share with y'all.
--Buying a truck. It's an '84 Ford Ranger, a very sweet (albeit noisy) and reliable ride. I've had fun using it to visit nearby towns like Lynville and Newton, and made a couple of trips to Iowa City with it and I absolutely (when I manage to stick gas prices at the back of my mind) love taking an impulse drive out on the country roads especially during a nice gentle sunset, or late at night right after the rain's stopped with my windows down.
--Entering Mango Fandango (the farm cat that my host family and I adopted early in the summer) in the Poweshiek Animal's League (PALS) 1st Annual Cat Show. Mango won first prize for longest whiskers. :
--With the emergence of spring weather (Iowa weather at its best!) I've made my way to the Krumm Preserve, just a little south-west of town, in the evenings after work and enjoyed walking the gorgeous prairie trail, watching the waves on the lakes and listening to the rustle wind through dry prairie tallgrass.
--Last but not least, I have but 7 more types of sandwiches left on the menu at Chandlebaum's Back Alley Deli to try. It's been hard to go on and try others once you've hit a favourite though. Mine's The Danforth (roast beef, swiss cheese, spiced and oiled, with mayo, lettuce, tomato, on wheat bread), followed closely by The Mouse (lots of cheese).
One of the things that I have enjoyed most about this Fellowship experience is the chance that its given me to explore Grinnell, and discover the many facets of this part of Iowa that I've spent the last 4, no, now 5 years in - through its people, the landscape, and the various experiences that I've been privy to. In the last three quarts of the year, I've had the privilege in getting to know Grinnell (and Poweshiek county as well) in an ever slightly more nuanced way that I do not think I would've gotten the chance to as a student. The Grinnell that I now know and will remember is more than just "the bubble" between 6th and 10th Avenue and East and Park Street. It's an amazing myriad community of people, the complexity and reality of which I struggle to elucidate with mere words.
I intend to make the most out of my last quarter here at Grinnell, some of which has slipped by already, so stay tuned for that next (and final) report! Until then, I hope that everybody stays out of situations where they find themselves having to describe using the term "SOL" (SOL = Sh*t Outta Luck) - yes, that's another one of those "can't help but laugh when you hear it uttered" (presumably Iowan) terms that I've heard used (and learnt the full meaning of) by more than a couple of rather candid folks that I've worked with through MICA.
As I write this last quarterly report, the pace at MICA's Poweshiek County Family Development (PCFD) Office has slowed down. It is hot and humid outside, the musty smell that greets me as I walk down the stairs to our basement office is back, the farmers' market is going on at full force once again on Thursdays outside of our Vets' Memorial Building - Summer is upon us, and my year as a Grinnell Corps Fellow draws to a close.
It has been a year full of unexpectedness and surprises, both personal and professional, and I find writing this report a fitting way to share what I've experienced in this past year. Nonetheless, as always, as I start and attempt to finish this, my last quarterly report, I am anxious that the words that I come up with will be insufficient to communicate precisely and completely what I want to relate to you, readers of my reports who range from family members to friends and profs, possible future Grinnell Corps Fellows and random people perusing the Office of Social Commitment website. But if it's one thing I've come to learn and act on this past year, it's in realizing that life's not perfect and you just gotta do what you gotta do when you gotta do it. There's a quote from Maya Angelou at the bottom of one of the pages from the journal that we (Grinnell Corps Fellows) received at our send-off last year that I've pasted on my bathroom mirror. It says "Ain't nothin' to it but to do it." And so, do I will.
Just the other morning, I was chatting with the grandfather of one of the children attending Head Start, and he asked me: "So tell me, do you like our country?" - and while my mind was furiously working out how to answer such a general question, he answered himself with a "Well you must - you've stayed an extra year!". His question lingered in my mind, and since then my fully formed answer would've started with "Yes, I do like your country very much indeed" and would've continued with a "butâ¦"
Coming to the US from Malaysia, an "almost industrialized" developing nation, I quickly realized that the US is indeed a land of opportunity where great things can happen. But over my four years as a Grinnell College student, and especially during this last year as a Grinnell Corps Fellow, I have come to recognize that in this land of vast opportunity, there exists poverty and social inequality, just like everywhere else in the world. What's surprised me the most maybe, has been how easy it is to be oblivious to the poverty existent in the town of Grinnell itself, not to mention other small towns in Poweshiek County. Indeed, it was easy while being a student ensconced within the unofficial 'boundaries' of college-land between 6th - 10th Avenue and East - Park Street. I have tremendous respect for the student volunteers that we've had at MICA who've impressed not only by their responsibility, enthusiasm and proactiveness, but also with their amazing time-management skills to be able to the spend time volunteering in addition to being full-time students. I'm hollering at y'all Alison, Kirsten, Molly, Jane, Patrick, & LaTona! (Unsurprisingly, one of our volunteers, Jane, is the Grinnell Corps Fellow for 2006/07, rock!)
That said, through working with MICA I've learned a lot this year about the programs available through the 'support' systems set up for low-income people and families from the Head Start program to WIC to Heating Assistance etc. I've also been witness to the generosity of the Poweshiek County community, Grinnell in particular, through their contributions and involvement towards meeting the needs of their fellow community members and in creating awareness.
However, as the year progressed and my knowledge base and experience with these programs and the people they are intended to serve grew, I have found myself asking to what extent these programs truly help the people they are intended for. There are questions that I do not have the answers to that I now think about. Why does poverty still exist? Why do some people break out of it, why do others not and pass it on to the next generation? Why does it exist in the middle of Iowa? Are these programs truly helping people become self-sufficient or are they causing them to learn to rely on the services provided instead? Will an increase in minimum wage truly help ameliorate the lives of the working poor, or will it not? It is just all about choices that people make or is it not?
To a lot of these questions, I have no answers, and indeed, for each person/family, so I've learnt, there is a different story with a different path leading them to where they are today. I did, however, (one of the perks of still being in Grinnell) get the chance to take a class over the lunch hour during the spring semester with Prof. Katya Gibel Azoulay and 5 other senior Anthropology majors. And you might wonder just how an Anthropology class over the lunch hour ties in with thisâ¦ well, through that class I was made aware of the concept of "cultural capital" - a term introduced by Pierre Bourdieu, that basically, certain cultural assets such as knowledge, ways of thinking, skills etc. that can either put someone at an advantage or disadvantage in their societal status are inherited. Not everybody starts out with the same amount of cultural capital.
For example, if two separate families were to come to MICA for help with resolving unpaid utility bill upwards of $1,000 (I'm not kidding with the figures) - they would surely have different narratives/chains of events leading to the situation, and while we 1) are not supposed to judge and 2) encourage the family to take responsibility and help be part of the solution I personally, would be more likely to go out of my way to help the family that goes about being polite and honest as opposed to if another family were to be rude, and demanding and not accepting responsibility. And yes, I know, we're not supposed to judge, but there is cultural capital at work, in addition to there being a line as to how much helping someone is truly helping them or whether it is a misuse of resources that could be used to help other "more worthy" families. And yes, we say that people are free to make choices, but this leads me to another realization, that everything is political. Those choices that people are allowed to make, they are governed by what is preferable or not so preferable by society's standards, some of which change from time to time, and other not. I want to share an except from the end of a quartet of books that I ploughed through this year (ironically, it's set in Indonesia, a region close to home) when the protagonist is finally released from prison and is asked to sign a document stating that he will not participate in any political activity at all. While the circumstances are different (colonial Indonesia versus Grinnell in 2006, say what?) I think it holds true regardless of which part of the world one is in.
This is what Minke's character from "House of Glass" says:
"From the time of the Prophet until today," he lowered his voice, "no human being has ever been able to separate himself from the power of his fellow human beings, except those who have been shunted away because they were insane. Even those who become hermits, who take themselves away into the middle of the forest or the ocean, still take with them something of the influence of their fellow human beings. And while there are those who rule and those who are ruled, those who exercise power and those who are the objects of that exercise of power, people will be involved in politics."
I've also had the chance to indulge in reading a lot and watching movies too (such a luxury!) - and some of them have challenged my thinking in relation to my fellowship experience. Here are the titles of just a few of them: books - The Invisible Heart, Freakonomics, The Buru Quartet, films - The Girl in the CafÐ¹, The Constant Gardener, Sociology is a Martial Art.
I've been made aware of the numerous faces of poverty this past year, both figuratively and literally. I've learned that 'poverty', the umbrella term to describe a mostly financially determined situation that one finds oneself it has many roots (mental health, educational opportunities or lack thereof, geographical location, luck, determination etc), and that each individual who finds themselves in it has different ways and means to get out of it, or not. And like I mentioned in one of my earlier reports, I now can walk into almost any establishment in Grinnell (no kidding), and will be able to identify at least one person (again, am not kidding) that I've served through MICA.
Meeting women/girls my own age or younger who are mothers already, sometimes of multiple children, has made me question and reevaluate my thoughts on motherhood, family planning and responsibility among many other things. I have learnt through these young mothers lessons that I probably wouldn't have thought about. I've also been witness to the dignity shown by many an elderly person living on a fixed income. Talking with some of them and listening to their stories has made me wonder about whether there's really any "fairness" or "justice" in lifeâ¦I mean, if you've worked your whole life, held a decent job, maybe even served in the military, shouldn't you not have to worry about how you're going to pay your next heating bill, or how you're going to afford the medication you need for your health when you've retired?
After living (rather well) for a year on a stipend, I've experienced what I imagine must only be a pinch of what it must be like to have to account for where every dollar is going and figuring out how one is going to pay the bills for next month when income is uncertain. And while I still believe that money doesn't buy 'happiness' or that accumulating it is the ultimate goal to strive for, I am convinced of the ease of mind and expansion of choices that having enough money can provide a person or a family.
On a more personal note spending my first year post-grad still in Grinnell has been a ball. It has had its advantages and difficulties. I didn't have to find out street names and figure out where the bank was located, or the local grocery store, at the end of each work day, I've been lucky enough to get to home to a real home, where I live with Doug and Dixie, my host parents from the first day I arrived in Grinnell (also the most awesome host parents ever!) - I even knew where the pub and community pool were, so I kind of knew where to go to entertain myself. But with all my close friends gone, scattered across the country and some on other continents, and having a new and very different role participating in the Grinnell community, it was very much like starting over in a different place in many ways.
I've made some amazing friends (townsfolk and folks associated with Grinnell College that I wouldn't have gotten the chance to know had I left when I graduated), I've just about tried all the sandwiches there are to try on the board at the Back Alley Deli, just the other night I learned how to do the Cotton Eye Joe dance in a barn, been to the drive-in movie theatre over at Newton twice in the spring, gotten a ticket for fishing without a permit at the Jacob Krumm Preserve (I was guilty of ignorance of the law), raised a fat cat, found a professional role-model - someone whom I'd like to emulate when I grow up, * ahem *, find myself in a professional arena again is what I meant to say (yes, that's you Paula!), gone 50 weeks (out of 52) without locking myself out of my host parents' house, bought and sold a truck, gotten into grad school, discovered the amazing fishpond at The Mayflower, and baked rhubarb crisp with rhubarb straight out of our backyard.
Arriving at the Des Moines airport in August of 2001, I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would end up spending 5 years in Grinnell - and end up truly calling it my home away from home. I remember accepting this fellowship with more than just a little trepidation, and now a year later, I have all these new experiences (some frustrating, other infinitely uplifting), insights (some good and others not so positive) about human nature and so many(!) questions that have no answers. There is one question that I have the answer to though. When I reflect on whether I would rather not have these seemingly unanswerable and unsolvable questions and situations to bug me as a result of my fellowship experience this year the answer is definitely NO. I started off this fellowship thinking that I would "give" of myself to MICA and Grinnell (I was a typical fresh graduate then! Now I am maybe a little more seasonedâ¦) - instead, at the end of this year, I must say that I have taken from this experience so much more that I have been capable to giving. I know better now what I want to pursue, what questions I want to find the answers to, or at least, attempt more to seek.
By the time this report gets posted, I will probably be already home in Penang, Malaysia, to spend a year at home with my family, relearning being Malaysian, and continuing to seek the answers to the questions this past year has brought up for me.
There are numerous people to thank for all the amazing blessings I've received this past year, so I won't go ahead and name everyone (for I will surely miss out someone!) but you all know who you are who've made this year a meaningful, growthful and constantly surprising one for me, so I thank you all with gratitude. It has been a privilege to serve and be a part of this special community that is, as a friend put most eloquently recently, "in the middle of everywhere".
Issue Date: August 1, 2004
I assumed the position of Poweshiek County Outreach Coordinator and Victim Advocate at a time of unprecedented opportunity and hope for all Poweshiek citizens affected by domestic violence and sexual abuse (DV/SA). I began my term as have so many other DV/SA workers, a lone worker in an inconspicuous extension office. My first few months were a time of struggle to better understand the needs of the community, to develop effective and locally-appropriate work practices, and to decipher my role in the larger network of Poweshiek County human service providers. However, my fellowship commencement was unique in that I assumed my position with a pre-established spot on the county DSART (Domestic and Sexual Assault Response Team). This team was in the final rounds of modifications and resubmissions of a grant proposal, which, once accepted, would finally provide the county with resources to combat and prevent domestic and sexual abuse on a level commensurate to the seriousness of the problem.
Welcome to the Underground
After two and a half months in position as the local DV/SA worker, I am finally beginning to feel accustomed to my new social position. Through research, volunteer work, and personal connections I had mentally prepared myself with the knowledge and skills needed for the fellowship. Moreover, I had spent the last four years of my life among Grinnellians, who have proved to be an endless source of advice on the benefits and pitfalls of social service work. However, social preparation for this type of work can not be found in books or others' stories. Acculturating oneself to the world of DV/SA advocacy is a process that each individual must experience for themselves.
One of the first projects that I pursued in my new position was to compile a directory of human service providers available to Poweshiek County residents. This activity allowed to me to meet many local professionals whose services will undeniably compliment those that I can offer. It also allowed me a better understanding of the complicated system that individuals and families in-need must navigate to obtain the help they seek. It is this system that I have come to think of as 'The Underground.' We are a network of organizations discretely nestled in community centers, downtown office buildings, and churches that deal with the problems society does not want to see-poverty, drug addiction, child abuse, psychiatric disorders, and, of course, domestic violence and sexual assault. Our budgets are often small and our staff are overworked. Yet these individuals share a profound understanding of life on all levels of Grinnell society, and are experts on the obstacles faced by those who are taught to hide their most dire problems.
Similarly The Underground has its own vernacular and working style. We speak in diplomatic yet purposely vague language about desperate situations, and work in offices with closed doors and shaded windows. These measures are essential for confidentiality in a small town. Everyone I work with from law enforcement, to educators, to crime victims are connected in a way that only citizens of small towns can be. No significant individual act can be perpetrated without its effects reaching multiple disparate segments of the population. Thus on the streets we are unable to acknowledge our clients, in our homes we are unable to discuss much of the work we do during the day, and in professional practice we are known primarily by our first names. (For example, my business cards look curiously lopsided as I was advised for reasons of personal security to list only my first name and pertinent office information.) This was my introduction to The Underground and its unobtrusive, mysterious culture.
While confidentiality is absolutely essential to an individual's healing process; it soon became apparent that social work, especially victim advocacy, can not effectively reach society at large solely from an Underground position. However, in similar organizations, I could observe the typical social service worker's bind-when case loads are high, workers struggle to maintain community education activities and play an active role in shaping public policy, both which may significantly reduce the problem in the future. I feared falling in to this trap and watching our cause become buried deeper Underground. Such a fate would be especially tragic in the case of DV/SA, as I work against a social problem which is frequently dismissed as "a personal problem" or sometimes "no problem at all." I work with women who are suffering intensely from conditions they cannot name. Although we have vocabulary for physical violence and rape, many do not recognize the chronic emotional, psychological, financial, and sexual coercion and manipulation that permeates so many 'romantic' relationships. Without a vocabulary and empathetic civil society, survivors' voices cannot be heard and their plights are not considered. Moreover, history guaranteed that these problems will continue without committed public intervention. Although DVA/SAC has always been dedicated to community education, I am becoming increasingly apprehensive about the upcoming school year, as I have not yet found the time to develop new school awareness programs or community education campaigns.
The Means for Social Change!
Those of you that followed the chronicles of Matt, my predecessor, will remember his work in establishing a spot for a victim advocate on Poweshiek County's DSART (Domestic and Sexual Assault Response Team), created in 2003 by the County Attorney's office and local law enforcement agencies and in collaboration with DVA/SAC. Among other activities, he assisted the team through the lengthy application process for federal grant money to be used specifically for the treatment and prevention of domestic abuse and sexual assault. This past August 3rd, the hard work paid off. The U.S. Justice Department awarded $185,304 to the Poweshiek County DSART! While a generous portion of the money is allotted to the improvement of trainings and technologies to aid investigation and prosecution of abuse crimes, another significant amount will be used proactively. DSART with the help of DVA/SAC hopes to facilitate community-wide education programs aimed at preventing future domestic violence and sexual assault and preparing citizens to help those in crisis. One of the most exciting events on my horizon is a First Responder Training program scheduled in October. This is comprised of intensive training courses for law enforcement officers, first response teams, and dispatchers on the complexities and procedures involved in assisting DV/SA victims in emergency situations. Other plans for raising awareness include training seminars with 'community cooperators,' such as teachers, ministers, and other public figures who encounter victims of abuse and assault in their practices.
Finally the grant money provides for two new salaried positions which will greatly augment the quality of Poweshiek County's victim services. Currently my job is a juggling act between three interrelated fields: 1.) direct service (individual peer-counseling, personal advocacy to social, legal, and medical professionals in the area, and fielding Poweshiek County crisis line calls), 2.) court service (helping victims through the legal system either through pro se petitions or criminal prosecution), and 3.) community education (helping facilitate trainings and seminars, establishing support groups, taking part in relevant community organizations to better services for victims, and creating and disseminating informative handouts, pamphlets, and articles to create awareness about our services and social cause). However grant money will now support a full-time Victim-Witness coordinator (or a local expert at court services) and a part-time advocate to work with me to meet direct service and community education needs. With the help of 1.5 more employees dedicated to the direct application of the goals DVA/SAC employees have always worked towards in this county, Poweshiek survivors and communities will finally receive the support and education they deserve.
The secret scourge of domestic violence and sexual assault are by no means incurable social ills. They are fostered by aggression and violence that resides in our national culture and are perpetrated through unhealthy and unequal gender relations. Although I know one grant will not eradicate the problem, I believe the means to foster discussion about a traditionally unmentionable topic will open the doors to community involvement, community support, and community solutions. As with any social problem, service workers do what they can to heal the wounds of those in need, yet only when our work is accompanied by community commitment and proactive prevention programming can sustainable social change transpire.
Before I conclude my update, I would like to take the time to publicly thank all those who have taken the time to mentor me over the past few months. Personally, I would like to thank the ladies at DVA/SAC: Billie Dall, Dottie Thompson, Lynn Kock, Pam Romaine, Sue Tufte, Hayley Robinson, and Melanie Schettler for their continuing support and advice. I would also like to thank the Assistant County Attorney, Becky Petig, Deputy Sheriff Lawrence McNaul, and Investigator Jeff Hughes for all the time and effort they have put into DSART; and Sergeant Randy Hanssen for his sensitivity and professionalism in investing domestic and sexual assault crimes.
Rural Isolation 101
From the hours of 8:30 am - 4:30 pm work has continued as usual. However during this last quarter, my days could not simply end at 4:30. The election season brought many political figures to town for open forums and Q and A sessions. As a state-funded human service provider, I could not remain silent while funding for our citizens' social welfare was being siphoned away; so I became a regular at campaign meetings throughout the community. Because of the willingness of educators, social service providers, corrections officers, and health care workers to share their plights in public forum with prospective and current Iowa public officials, I learned much about state and national politics-especially the causes and effects of insufficient funding for our Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Labor.
Although it is often hard for me to feel connected to state and national policy makers, the devastating effects of under-funding resound throughout the offices of human service providers across the country. Since many rural agencies operated on relatively small funds before the national budget cuts, those serving rural America areas are facing especially hard times. As alluded to in my first report, I spend most of my time behind closed doors and windows, fielding phone calls and e-mails from individuals and agencies. Despite often being connected to some form of communication technology, I spend much of my time physically alone. This lone ranger existence is markedly different from the work environment of my predecessor, Matt; but unfortunately due to our current political situation, isolation is becoming the norm for human service providers in rural areas.
VAWA Funding and Victim Services
In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act to ensure that issues of domestic and sexual assault are addressed by both the U.S. Department of Justice and the Department of Health and Human Services. Under VAWA, the Department of Justice is responsible for training and improving law enforcement responses to domestic violence and sexual assault; health and Human Services are responsible for everything else (shelters, crisis lines, counseling, medical assistance, etc.) Both departments are responsible for allocating funds to state congresses for local-level law enforcement, victim service organizations, and domestic and sexual assault prevention programs.
While we can be thankful President Bush reauthorized the VAWA in 2000, each year of his term the amount of monies allocated to Department of Health and Human Services for the administration of VAWA programs has been significantly reduced or under-funded. For example, in the 2000 fiscal year congress authorized a combined $729 million for VAWA programs; currently the House and Senate are disputing whether to authorize $562 million or $593 for VAWA purposes. The majority of the missing $167-$136 million in funds is only possible through reducing Health and Human Services programs. (As one may assume, the amount of monies actually paid to VAWA programs by the end of any given fiscal year are usually lower than the amount originally authorized.) These decreases in funding mean staff and program cuts in shelter and transitional housing, professional social and psychological counseling for crime victims, preventative education, Batterers' Education Programs and other rehabilitative services, legal advocacy, research grants, community initiatives, national and local hotlines, quality medical treatment, assistance for immigrant families, and victim outreach services. Quietly these programs are withering, and frequently in rural communities, they are in danger of disappearing altogether.
Given the slow disappearance of confidential, secular, non-discriminatory social services and decreased research funding, it is no surprise that the number of "reported domestic and sexual assaults" remains unbelievably low. Moreover, our current prosecution-incarceration approach to crime does little to encourage domestic or sexual crime reporting, victim/witness cooperation, or healing. There is no way we can obtain appropriate estimates on the nature and the consequences of domestic and sexual crimes without the cooperation of victims, families, and communities. Individuals are NOT likely to cooperate in the absence of programs that are sensitive to the social, material, and psychological needs of the victims and later the rehabilitation of the perpetrator. Without quality research on the effects of current policy, congresses are unwilling to heed our warnings that domestic and sexual assault funding and policies are in need of change. Furthermore, governments may be less likely to give to victim service organizations when we can no longer afford the staff to assist the number of victim/survivors that we have in past years - and thus appear to be providing less of a service to communities.
Consequences of Insufficient Funding
Unfortunately VAWA programs are not the only services coping with budget cuts. In favor of individual tax breaks, more extensive cuts have been made other programs in administered by Health and Human Services and Department of Corrections. What are some of the consequences of budget cuts to rural Iowa residents affected by domestic violence and sexual assault? The consequences are a fragmentation of services, the public's loss of faith in the ability of our government to assist those is need, and the general burn-out of service workers. Currently domestic crime victims who are forced to "start life anew" are put on waiting lists to receive affordable housing, shelter, subsidized childcare, legal aid in civil matters, and social and respite worker assistance. Increased restrictions on welfare and work guidelines make the survival of a single parent family without resources uncertain. Crime victims are still able to access counselors, but counselors too are rapidly leaving under-funded (i.e. rural) areas. As if these obstacles were not enough, the increase in furlough days and budget cuts throughout the legal system have added months of delays to heart-wrenching legal battles, and allow citizens less access to public officials, such as judges.
To crime victims and their families the shortages of service workers to aid in a time of crisis feels criminal. For example, if Poweshiek county parent calls to report the sexual abuse of a child, he or she will be told that the average wait for an appointment with a child protective services investigator is three weeks to one month. (Charges cannot be filed until after an initial investigation.) During this wait the child and family will be cautioned not to discuss the abuse amongst themselves or with anyone else (especially and counselor or social service worker), so as not to taint the child's testimony. As you may imagine in a time of emotional crisis, families can not be expected to simply ignore the crisis until a more convenient time for state workers. If an individual or family feels 'the system' does not care enough to respond to their crisis in a timely manner, they will give up on the system and seek whatever solace is available. Unfortunately 'free' solace often comes in the form of returning to a violent partner or sex offender, taking up residence with 'unsafe friends' or in 'unsafe places,' abusing alcohol or drugs, or emotionally and psychologically "shutting down."  Crisis intervention services are designed for workers to intervene in the immediate aftermath of a crisis; our current situation prevents such action. To be effective aid for individuals and families human service agencies must work together to help restore the many affected areas of crime victims' lives; this coordinated effect is impossible when each organization can only act if time and money allow.
The Lone Ranger
The current situation leaves the advocate feeling similarly abandoned by the system. It is our job to assist individuals and families in crisis through the jungle of social and legal systems, while providing them with referrals, literature, and peer counseling to begin their healing process. However budgets cuts coupled with the mass exodus of qualified, experienced workers to more supportive/urban environments, leaves advocates devoid of experienced peers with whom to review difficult situations, or sympathetic individuals working for other agencies willing to take on another case. Frequently, small communities are being forced to hire replacement workers from a much reduced and often less-experienced applicant pool. The mentality that these less-experienced individuals can 'learn the ropes' alone, or that they can do their job in a vacuum of social services, is preposterous. Funding only one lone ranger to heroically rescue society from itself is an act of reckless neglect or self delusion.
P.S. DSART UpdateYou may ask yourselves, "What happened to the DSART grant that both Matt and Helen have been anxiously awaiting?" As I mentioned in my last report, we received notification on August 3rd that we had been awarded the grant. This brought a sense of optimism to the team, but unfortunately, optimism is all we have received. We are still awaiting notification as to when the grant money will become available. In the meantime we continue to hold monthly DSART meetings; however our activities remain limited as we do not yet have a budget.
 Note to Mr. Bush: White, middle-class Christianity does not appear in my list of 'free' solaces or social remedies for at least 4 reasons. 1.) Religion is frequently viewed as an option with "too many strings attached." 2.) Religion is viewed as antithetical to a woman's right to make choices about her sexuality or choices that may lead to single mother parenting. Similarly if the victim is male, especially in cases of sexual assault; "moral" or traditional gender expectations will alienate him or cause others to discriminate against him. 3.) White, middle-class Christianity is viewed as uninviting or patronizing in the face of the realities of those who are not already white, middle-class, and Christian. 4.) Religious leaders and counselors are trained in matters of religion; they are not required to study psychology, social justice, drug abuse, gender construction, etc.
By nature I will go to great lengths to avoid public controversy. However these past few months have brought class presentations, law enforcement trainings, awareness raising community events, and lobbying. Since the very premise of the work I do is controversial, public scrutiny and debate have recently become an unavoidable part of my job. These educational activities have forced me out of my familiar 'underground' role and into new and sometimes volatile social positions.
Prior to this fellowship, I had some experience giving educational presentations. In the past I had little difficulty presenting as an art instructor, swimming and Red Cross instructor, and camp counselor. However these former audience members attended my presentations because they wanted to; they thought the class sounded fun. In contrast, I doubt any of my current audience members think, "Oh boy, I bet this presentation on domestic/dating violence and sexual assault will be fun!" My current audiences are captive audiences; they consist of individuals attending church groups, classes, meetings, and trainings. My presentation is usually one of many activities scheduled for the group, and I know it is not the reason these individuals have decided to attend this particular function.
At first my new audiences' common unwillingness to interact with me caught me off guard. As a novice presenter, I rely on audiences' responses to provide me with clues about a group's knowledge of the subject, about which topics are OK to discuss, and about the best way to approach these topics. Occasionally event organizers for school and church presentations will insinuate that certain topics may be inappropriate, such as the use of the word 'sex,' a discussion of male on male sexual assault, or (accurately) approaching domestic/dating violence and sexual assault as crimes committed primarily by males against women and children. However the 'rules' are rarely clear, and often can only be discerned through visual signs of my audience's discomfort.
To ease everyone's nerves I generally focus the presentation on advocates' duties, DVA/SAC's services, and local crime patterns. Immediately delving in to a discussion of gender socialization, DV (domestic/dating violence), and SA (sexual assault) with a new audience is risky and can quickly become 'inappropriate.' However, it is almost impossible to talk about crime or crime victim services without eventually giving some insight into the motives and the experiences of the perpetrator and victim. This is where benign presentations get hazardous. As soon as my presentation moves from abstract crime statistics and DVA/SAC's services for hypothetical victims and to the more concrete realities of the crime and society's role in perpetuating unhealthy gender stereotypes, I know I can expect one of five responses from audience members. When I first began presenting I was prepared only for the response # 1. However, as I continue to see similar responses from my audiences, I have become better able to tailor my presentation to the needs of the audience.
1.) Genuine Interest and Concern
Several presentations have elicited a general response of genuine interest in the topic and concern for the safety and well-being of community members. These audiences are great! They are willing to ask me questions, and through discussion we can move beyond the abstract and begin to address actual community problems. These audiences tend to consist of adult (usually 30+ years old) professionals who work in or have had some experience with the social service sector. While these individuals are statistically less likely to become victims of DV or SA, they are often socially positioned to provide information and aid to community members in-need.
Withdrawal seems to be the most common response to the public discussion of DV and SA. In most group settings, we, as a society, do not know how to begin discussing these topics. There seems to be no quotidian consensus on where to draw the line between criminal activity and "sh*t that happens," on whether violent behaviors are committed by choice or because of natural instincts and urges (as if the y chromosome could contain a mutant 'rape and battery gene'), or if women and children over-exaggerate the trauma and occurrences of DV and SA. Moreover we have little national dialog to inform us on how to think about and discuss DV and SA. From time to time extreme cases surface in the media. When these cases are discussed, we hear about isolated incidents perpetrated by 'sick individuals' on an often stereotyped victim. Unfortunately this polarization reflects very little of the either the victim's or perpetrator's experiences, and provides the public with minimal information about the psychological nature of these crimes. Needless to say, many Americans have not come to any clear personal conclusions about the complex issues of DV and SA, and thus would rather not be asked to discuss such sensitive and divisive issues in front of their peers.
While our lack of understanding and general discomfort with discussing DV and SA certainly hinder participation, there are many additional reasons people may not wish to engage in such a presentation. For example, DV and SA are very emotionally charged topics. Rarely do I come across a woman that has never known someone who has, or herself, been in an abusive relationship. (I'm sure many men have also had first-hand or second-hand experiences with abusive relationships, however they seem less likely to volunteer this information to me.) Others who have not been affected by DV or SA may assume, "I know what's right and wrong, and I know how to protect myself. This presentation has absolutely nothing to do with me." A final example comes from several high school students who feared that by asking questions [and participating in the discussion] they may appear to be aligning themselves with the unpopular side of the debate. Another added that discussing violence against women is inherently sexist or male-bashing.
3.) She Should/Shouldn't Statements
(These statements and this section assume a female victim.)
If an audience decides to verbally respond, the third response may be vocalized by several members of both supportive and unsupportive audiences. She should/shouldn't statements direct one's attention away from the source of violence and focuses it on the victims' behaviors, in an attempt to rationalize the belief that victims in some way cause the assaults perpetrated against them. These statements are usually intended as questions, which serve to ask, "Isn't she also responsibly for the crime, since she should/shouldn't haveâ¦.?" These questions are great teaching tools, and are usually asked several times in different forms. For example people often comment, "She should have known he was violent, I mean she was dating him." "She shouldn't have stayed/thought he would change." "She shouldn't have cheated on her husband." "Everyone knows that she shouldn't have been walking alone, drinking, dressing provocatively, upset him, etc." Sometimes these questions are resolved quickly. Other times we delve into a lengthy discussion of crime (assault, battery, rape) vs. non-crime (a woman drinking alcohol or wearing sexy clothing.) With these questions we also frequently discuss the misconception that crime victims are illogical, stupid, or easily could have easily avoided the violent situation; the misconception that an abusive person will stop abusing the victim if she leaves, and the misconception that "just leaving" is easy and has no legal or financial consequences.
4.) Law and Order Questions
This response usually comes from high school and occasionally college students in student/peer audiences. These questions serve to steer the conversation towards Iowa law in an attempt to discern for which actions one can be legally punished. For example, "How could you prove it was rape, if both parties were drinking?" or "Is it still considered rape/battery/a crime if ..?" are common Law and Order responses. I have come to think of these questions as exemplifying psychologist Lawrence Kolhberg's Level I or preconventional moral reasoning. I assume this response is befitting, as I am presenting information to an age group among which preconventional moral reasoning will often "make more sense" than conventional or postconventional reasoning. Nonetheless I usually try to emphasize characteristics of socially acceptable, healthy relationships and sensitivity towards one's partner, rather than solely citing Iowa law and its many interpretations.
Although this response has been rare, several junior high and high school students have let me know that my ideas are "lame," "gay," and "a "load of crap."
Its Dirty Work but Someone's Gotta Do It
What's the best way to foster a dialog on these controversial crimes that victimize society, especially youth, at such an alarming rate? Honestly, I don't know. I'm still not convinced that one presentation inundating young people with statistics and information about DV and SA is the most effective or realistic way to raise awareness within this population. Small group discussions are much more productive and less uncomfortable for participants. Unfortunately to reach the public via small group discussions would be beyond crime victim services' current resource capacity. What we do know, however, is that without preventive education and social attitudinal change, we are destined to continue the cycle of violence. Social change and new ideas have to start somewhere, and perhaps these simple albeit awkward presentations from a nerdy counselor-type are as good place to start as any.
I am now in the final weeks of my time in Grinnell and the final weeks of my job. Over the past week I have been trying to ease myself back into a "normal" American lifestyle. Unfortunately it hasn't been as easy as one might think. Last week I took a 4-day weekend. While this was a much needed break, by Tuesday I was, in a way, relieved to go back to work. The serenity of my apartment and simplicity of my life felt deceiving and somewhat empty to me. No one I knew was receiving death threats; no one was reliving flashbacks, no one's children were being taken away. Away from the office, I found myself talking about the happenings of my day. At first simple meaningless chatter like, "I ran into Annie today; she is thinking of moving to California after graduation," felt like an imprudent disclosure of information. However I'm certain this awkward resurfacing stage will be short-lived. Graduation at the college is nearly here, and I will soon be swept up in excitement and good-byes that accompany it.
While I may be leaving the day-to-day precautions and routines of advocate life behind when I leave Grinnell, there are many aspects of my life that I do not plan to change with my job title. Through advocacy and the various campus groups in which I participate or lead, I found a way to do feminism. This was very different from the studying of Feminist thought that I had done as a student. Doing feminism entails integrating "the theory;" a fluid yet thorough set of ideas about power dynamics and normalization, into our everyday social institutions and cultural consciousness. In my job, feminism has been done in the form of law enforcement trainings, discussing the role of restraining orders with the county attorney, or talking individually with women about their experiences and decisions. However these are not the only ways to bring feminist perspectives to the world around us.
Because no one exists unaffected by issues of gender, ethnicity/race, income level, sex, social welfare, violence, etc; no individual or institution is free from the power politics that these constructs bring. However not every individual and institution are cognizant of the degree to which these constructs exists and shapes our behaviors, thoughts, and perceptions. In fact, there seems to come a point in life when we decide to either see Injustice, or ignore it. 1 in 4. Patriarchy. Greed. Learned Violence. Enforced Poverty. Cultural Colonization. Objective disciplines and institutions such as, "Science," "American History, or "American Justice," are saturated with Injustice. In many instances, whether or not you can reasonably act in opposition to these realities is beside the point. Do you see it? Do you label it as such? Or do you accept the domination/oppression dichotomy as the normal and natural order of things.
I believe one of the most important lessons I have learned from my time as an advocate is that identifying, and helping others to see the problem, in a society that has been blind to the problem for so long, is half the battle. In general Americans (or at least Poweshiek County residents), seem more than willing to come together to oppose wide-spread, critical oppressions. We pride ourselves in our morality and sense of justice. Moreover, many of us have long abandoned the notion of productively solving any problem with violence. Yet there remain certain injustices we have been taught not to see and certain voices that we don't know how to hear. Whatever projects or careers I may stumble into down the road, I know I will continue to assist those who need to speak in being heard; and those willing to work for social change in gathering the resources and knowledge to make their communities safer and healthier environments for ALL.
Before I go I would like to thank Lola Garcia, David Degeest, Deanna Schorb, Sheree Andrews, and Amy Graves for working to establish a Peer Advocate program for our college campus to be implemented next Fall. I would like to thank the members of Just Sex, especially Laura Shannon, David Degeest, Lola Garcia, Amanda Slatus, and Leslie Spring for putting on a wonderful Take Back the Night Week this year. Thanks to all the DVA/SAC Volunteer Advocates for their unwavering support and hard work for the agency. Among the volunteer advocates I would especially like to thank Lara Janson, Claire McDonough, Baylis Beard, Pat Wright, Saurabh Saraf, Atavia Whitfield, Jamie Giorgi, Catherine Hall for going beyond the volunteer advocate's call of duty to raise community awareness about our domestic/dating violence and sexual assault. I would also like to recognize Johanna Borkan who will be the interim student leader for the Volunteer Advocates on campus. Finally I would like to thank Doug Cutchins and Grinnell College for allowing me this fellowship opportunity.
Issue Date: August 1, 2003
I enjoy summer days like today, when the overcast sky provides a slight barrier between the sun and myself. The air is heavy with humidity and I can feel its moist weight, yet it is not oppressive, just a soft atmospheric blanket. I have come to pay attention to the weather recently and the feelings it evokes perhaps because I have become more attuned to the subtle factors that shape my sense of reality. My relationship with Grinnell has changed drastically and I realized this as soon as I pulled into Grinnell in late June. It was a Sunday afternoon and I was greeted with a calm silence that I had never before experienced in Grinnell; a sharp contrast to the environment I stepped away from after graduation weekend in May. Initially, I was disconcerted by what appeared to be a dearth of activity and now as students start to return, I am ambivalent to accept the influx of new people into town. I feel divided: perched on a ledge between the college community and the town, yet my goal isn't to jump from one side to the other, but rather tread between the two. The purpose of my position is to serve both communities in a cooperative manner.
Each morning I awake to a plethora of feelings based on the previous day's activities and the current prospects for the new day. I would describe my life thus far living in Grinnell and working with the Domestic Violence Alternatives/ Sexual Assault Center (DVA/ SAC) as an existence of constant flux, characterized by a dichotomy of emotions and experiences oscillating between feelings of progress and stagnation, success and frustration, and purpose and aimlessness. Accordingly, some days I pop out of bed and I am immediately out the door, while on other days I linger slightly longer in the shower. Thus, an interplay exists between assurance and ambivalence affecting my daily cycle.
The DVA/SAC Poweshiek Outreach office is new, coming to Grinnell in the spring of 2002 and has witnessed a fair amount of staff turnover since then. DVA/SAC serves a four county area, which represents a large area to serve with a limited staff. Therefore, the Grinnell Corps fellow's responsibility is to establish the agency and promote its resources within the Grinnell community. Thus far, the community has proved quite welcoming. I am currently working on a collaborative effort between local law enforcement agencies, the sheriff's department, the county attorney's office and DVA/SAC to establish a Domestic Abuse Response Team (DART) in Poweshiek County. The function of the DART team is to efficiently coordinate efforts between these agencies in order to more effectively handle domestic abuse and sexual assault cases through the establishment of protocols and procedures. I am also working with the Poweshiek County Domestic Violence Coalition and the Healthy Choices Coalition to establish a cooperative relationship geared toward enhancing communal resources and creating a more effective network of organizations.
Typically, I require a caffeine infusion and a stream of hot water to reach a state of full consciousness in the morning, yet I have learned to rapidly summon alertness when the crisis line rings at 6:30 am while working at the shelter. The character of the calls vary from questions on available resources to offering a safe space for people to share their fears. My responses to the calls fluctuate accordingly. At times I feel overwhelmed by the severity of an individual's situation and struggle with my own sense of futility in being able to offer meaningful assistance. There is a strong emotional weight that comes with this position and I am grateful to have a support staff that recognizes the importance of processing such feelings, both on behalf of the client and the staff member involved. Conversely, on other occasions a call can prove to be empowering, such as talking with a person who has decided she wants to leave a long standing abusive relationship and is taking the steps necessary to do so.
Aside from managing the crisis line, my duties at the shelter primarily include the administration of the house's daily activities and meeting the needs of the people staying there. My first nights at the shelter where challenging, as I was acutely conscious of being a male in an all female environment and the people staying in shelter were somewhat guarded themselves. However, upon a recent visit to the shelter I encountered one of the occupants and she inquired as to when I would be returning to work the night shift. Her comment gave me pause and she must have caught the look in my eye, for she continued by saying that she was initially skeptical of my presence, as men have often played a negative role in her life, but she grew to appreciate my presence. Again I paused and then smiled. My position with DVA/SAC is a challenging one. My surroundings remain the same in that I'm in Grinnell, yet I'm delving into completely new territory and progress can seem slow and difficult to measure. However, it is such interactions that strengthen my faith and give me confidence to proceed.
As we enter late summer, I have some clear goals for the coming fall. I want to increase the degree of direct service in Grinnell by communicating more with local law enforcement agencies and the court system to gain a clearer understanding of victims in order to make our outreach services more readily available. Also, domestic abuse and sexual assault awareness month is approaching in October and the organization of activities is under way. Furthermore, I am developing educational materials to be presented before varies school groups and youth organizations. Concrete goals aside, I realize the immediate importance of first forging relationships within the community and sometimes, although it may no seem germane, accomplishment comes in the form of acts such as teaching a boy to toss the Frisbee in the park after an evening concert. My position is, in many ways, an act of community building, which is a dynamic process that embodies numerous manifestations.
There's a section that appears in a weekly supplement to my hometown newspaper entitled "Say That Again," which contains emblematic quotes from the week's social and politic discourse. The quotes are followed by a brief summary that places the passage within the context of the community. Thus, to display what I've been up to for the last few months, I've created my own "Say That Again" section flavored by my experiences. A few qualifiers: Ideally, I would have begun copying quotes the day after I completed my first report, but alas I did not. Therefore, at the risk of sacrificing my journalistic integrity, the quotes provided are best estimations that attempt to summarize the essence of what was stated in the most accurate manner that memory (my memory) will provide. Also, for the sake of honoring confidentiality no names will be used.
"Say That Again": The Quarter in Review
"The staff is really like family - a dysfunctional family at the moment, but family nonetheless."
I would concur with my co-worker that commented on the familial dynamic that exists within the office. The analogy speaks to the need for compassion, patience, trust and faith among the staff in order for the organization to operate effectively and efficiently. Furthermore, I believe that intimate and personal nature of our jobs aptly lends itself to this comparison. The analogy also addresses the challenges that arise when clear lines of communication deteriorate. At the time when this remark was made I didn't feel much like being a part of the family - I wanted a divorce, really. Yet, we all have a collective responsibility and it is when we claim responsibility that problems are solved and the group becomes closer. In a similar vein, I am learning that adversity can prove to be a strong catalyst for growth.
"I'm really glad this group exists. I think there's a definite need out there. I know it's a healthy choice for me."
This observation was made at the closing portion of our first "Safe Space Support Group;" a weekly meeting that I facilitate with Nancy Gause. The group's goal is to provide a safe and confidential space for people to discuss issues related to domestic violence and sexual assault. The person's comment spoke to me on many levels. For one, after weeks of planning and logistical snags, the group was up and running. Accordingly, on a base level I was content with the knowledge that we were up and functional. Establishing such a group is demonstrative of my first real foray into the world of organizing. I find myself constantly muddling over questions such as, what constitutes effective organizing? Do people actually take the time to read flyers hanging in the loggia and on the street or are they just a haze of color and words? What is the best way to recruit membership for a group that prizes confidentiality and delves into a stigmatized realm?
Only two people came to the first meeting, but I deemed it to be a success based on the reactions of those in attendance. I've changed my definitions of success lately. For purposes of ego, part of me wanted the room to be packed on the first night. However, as I mentioned, only two people came, but I still consider the project to be a success even if membership doesn't grow beyond the original numbers. The group is a success because the needs of two people are being met and that's important.
"Why don't you guys wait up before I make you suck my big black cock?"
This comment was made by an educated white man; a person who should "know better" and probably does while walking between classes or chatting with friends in Burling Library. However, in the setting of the situation he deemed it safe to make such a remark. We all have racist and sexist thoughts, but often we censor those thoughts because we are "wise" enough not to express them. Thus, in some senses I respect this man's blatant disregard for the social milieu. At least when one is overtly racist and/or sexist there is potentially space for education and understanding. Whereas, for those of us who "know better" than to make such comments there is never space to challenge belief systems that perpetuate oppression through privilege.
It is also of interest to note that the author of this comment was challenged by his peers for making a racist remark, but the homophobic element was never addressed. I am quickly coming to comprehend that sexism is one of the most ingrained forms of repression and is continually affirmed and perpetuated through behaviors and beliefs that minimize the impact of language. For, it is commonplace for individuals to flippantly toss around homophobic and sexist slurs without being conscious of their impact. As I become more cognizant of how both I and others support both actively and passively acts of sexism, a sense of weighty awareness descends.
"Would you like to trade places?"
The waitress posed this proposition with a weary tone while refilling my coffee. She glanced at me briefly; her eyes looked tired, but contained a distant sparkle. I was initially critical of her service when she dropped a tangle of silverware and napkins on the table many minutes after the food had arrived. Her query altered my judgment. Logistics aside, what would it mean to switch places? Despite sharing the same physical space, I'd wager our perspectives on life at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning were somewhat different, to say the least.
The momentary interchange with the waitress conjured thoughts pertaining to boundaries, both constructed and projected, that stifle communication. Domestic violence and sexual assault persist in silence that enables detrimental belief systems to become normalized. Therefore, I often grapple with the question of how to open avenues of dialogue for an issue that many folks are hesitant to fully acknowledge. Sometimes personal ambivalence is a barrier to dialogue and at other times external resistance suppresses discourse. However, as demonstrated by the waitress, preliminary feelings of anger can be replaced with compassion. The potential is always present.
As a runner on the Grinnell Cross Country Team, the start of each season was always bittersweet (Actually, 'bittersweat' is a more accurate adjective). It was inevitably exciting to see the guys for the first time in a couple of months and meet the new crop of runners. Preseason started before classes, which meant for a week our only responsibility was to running. I fondly recall swapping summer stories over sultry late-afternoon eight milers. But that's the funny thing about memory: it's selective and biased. Sure, those runs were lighthearted and jovial. Indubitably so, for about a mile before my lungs decided to stop working and my body felt like it was cooking from the inside out. I wanted to quit; running seemed asinine to the point of being torturous. However, buried beneath the salty nausea of my immediate experience was a dim notion of something referred to as 'fit.' And sure enough, come November I was fit...
...Akin to late-season running, I'm feeling fairly fit at work these days. I now know my position well and have established a solid professional network in Poweshiek County. My calendar for April is filling up fast and the scheduled events/activities reflect a healthy blend of college and community involvement. My expanding sense of confidence and competence creates space for further growth and responsibility, which I will soon be given the opportunity to assume. Katherine, our Volunteer Coordinator, is leaving the agency, which means I will become the interim Volunteer Coordinator. However, it will be sad to see Katherine go, as she was my one colleague in Grinnell and proved to be a good mentor. On the other hand, the future fellow will soon be working with me to become acquainted with the position. Thus, as I enter the final months of my tenure with DVA/SAC, I feel like I'm hitting my stride and embracing my role more and more. I became conscious of this expanding sense of commitment when, while walking passed a building undergoing renovations, I envisioned a new larger and more visible location for the agency.
Fundraising is an omnipresent aspect of the non-profit world and, therefore, grant writing is critical. My initial impression of grant writing was that it is similar to writing a paper, but instead of striving to achieve a high grade, one strives to keep one's job. However, it can be a fun process. In January the Domestic and Sexual Assault Response Team (DSART) collaborated on a grant to secure funding to extend and augment our services in Poweshiek County. The endeavor proved to be a useful learning experience and also afforded me the opportunity to get to know the people I collaborate with in a more informal setting. The construction of the grant occurred after work at a DSART member's house and usually included dinner, which provided the opportunity to hang out. We are currently waiting to hear back as to whether we will be awarded the grant. Regardless if we receive funding or not, the process proved useful for it required us to create a concrete vision of what we would like the DSART to accomplish in the coming months and years. Furthermore, I think news of the grant activity spread throughout town creating more awareness about the DSART. Consequently, we were recently honored at an Eagles' Club award banquet. It felt great to be acknowledged and supported by a facet of the community that I didn't immediately assume would be overtly supportive.
Initially, I was hesitant to walk into a room of high school or middle school students and talk with them about issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. Contrary to my initial reservations, the presentations have proved to be one of the most fun and engaging aspects of the job. When given the space to talk, people are very willing to discuss such stigmatized issues as domestic violence and sexual assault, although it can take some prodding, but that seems only natural. I am excited for an upcoming project at the Galaxy in which we will be working with some youth groups on activities for Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. Often times this line of work can be draining due to the emotional weight it carries, yet working with younger folks typically proves engaging and energizing.
Life in Grinnell
As with the entirety of this document in which the expressed thoughts are highly selective, I will choose a small slice of my life in Grinnell to share here. The Main Squeeze is my new luncheon establishment of choice. However, The Main Squeeze is much more than just a smoothie and wrap shop: they have tanning. Tanning is big in Grinnell and The Main Squeeze appears to be on the cusp of tanning innovation with their recent introduction of airbrush tanning. According to their literature, airbrush tanning is much safer for one's skin compared to conventional tanning methods. Furthermore, I could conceive of airbrush tanning as demanding more skill and artistry than conventional methods. Also, the risk of burning is eliminated (I think), whereas one can receive potentially severe burns in a tanning bed, which was the unfortunate fate of my teller at the bank. However, a recent poll (sample size: 2) revealed that the traditional tanning beds at the Maytag are best because, according to those interviewed, they have new bulbs and one can simultaneously tan and do one's laundry. I've yet to try either method, but I do think an airbrush tanned tattoo could be cool.
The start of April ushered in a busy and exciting time for my final months with DVA/SAC. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and with it comes a plethora of activities. One of the most memorable for me was a workshop that I facilitated with two men from campus. The workshop was specifically geared toward men and provided men with tools on how to prevent sexual assault and also how to be supportive of a sexual assault victim. I felt it went well based on the number of attendees and their level of engagement. The results of the workshop lead me to believe that the movement is slowly gaining solidarity on campus.
With the arrival of May came a final round of presentations at Grinnell High School and I wrapped things up with the student groups and volunteers at the college. Now it is mid-June and I have officially handed the keys over to my successor and my time in Grinnell is coming to a conclusion. The following are a few reflections from my final weeks on the job.
I attempt to attend initial hearings for individuals facing charges of domestic violence and sexual assault. The purpose of my presence at the initials is to gather information for the victims involved in the cases. For example, I can relay to the victim whether the perpetrator will be released from jail and what the actual charges are. I have found this apparently straightforward task to be rather time consuming and the complexity partially stems from the way the judicial process is structured at the courthouse in Montezuma. Basically, it can be very difficult to determine when initial hearings are to be held.
Before I proceed any further, I will outline how I have previously sought to determine that an initial hearing germane to my interests will be taking place. My current plan of action consists of calling the Poweshiek County Sheriff's Office and the Grinnell Police Department (GPD) to inquire whether any arrests were made the preceding night for domestic violence or sexual assault. If an arrest was made, the alleged perpetrator must be seen before a magistrate judge within 24 hours. Many months ago I initiated a protocol with the GPD by which they would fax me the 'rap' sheet every time they made an arrest for domestic or sexual abuse. Theoretically, this procedure was quite beneficial for me, as it saved me the trouble of calling the jail each morning. However, a temperamental fax machine on my end and lags in adaptation have yet to prove the system effective or efficient. Therefore, acquiring arrest information can be somewhat of a cumbersome and ambiguous process.
Another layer of complexity is of a spatial nature: the distance between my office and the courthouse is approximately twenty miles. In other counties where DVA/SAC operates, the office and courthouse are essentially adjacent to one another. This enables staff to have a continual presence at the courthouse and stay abreast of any relevant issues that develop quickly. Additionally, initial hearings are held at a specific time on a specific day in our neighboring counties (As I am currently transitioning out of my post in Grinnell and introducing Helen Carey, we are working toward creating some office space at the courthouse for a DVA/SAC advocate. I think this goal is on the brink of fruition, which is fantastic because it will greatly augment our ability to serve victims and survivors).
Recently, a colleague informed me that one can hear all the arrests made in Poweshiek County during the KGRN 7:30 a.m. news broadcast. This offhanded piece of information was of great benefit because it means a middleman is eliminated: I can stay informed of everything I need to know just by listening to the news (Genius, I know). It's still a wise idea to communicate regularly with the Sheriff's Department and GPD for the sake of maintaining relationships, but this way when rushed I needn't rely on taking the time to make phone calls. Moreover, on a personal level, a recent news broadcast by a KGRN deejay functioned to validate some of my frustrations in navigating the judicial process. At the conclusion of his report on arrests made the night prior, he said, to paraphrase, initial hearings will be held within 24 hours of an arrest at the discretion and pleasure of the magistrate judge (my emphasis). So now, after determining that an initial hearing will be held, I just need to call the clerk of courts office in an effort to determine what the discretion and pleasure of the judge might be that day.
(Drum role please) While pondering my life after Grinnell, a friend said to me, "Matt, it's fairly simple. Interstate 80 is just down the road. All you have to decide is left or right, east or west." Thus, a choice for the immediate future is easily resolved; I'm turning right, heading west. But seriously, although I am being serious, one aspect of my position that I've truly appreciated is its multifaceted nature. I've worked with the legal system and law enforcement, organized community events, spent time working directly with victims and survivors and entered the local school systems to give presentations. Through these various charges I came to learn how I react in different settings. I've come to realize areas of work that I find to be an invigorating challenge and, therefore, energizing and, conversely, spheres that are draining. Situated in an office by myself, the development of a professional community; the meeting of individuals with whom I can bounce ideas off of and process issues with, has played a tremendous role in determining how I evaluate the success of this year. In the same manner that domestic violence and sexual assault doesn't happen in a vacuum, responses aimed at forestalling violence must be coordinated with all disciplines involved to be effective.
That said the area of work that I have found to be the most energizing and rewarding on both a personal and professional level is education. Originally, I was somewhat mortified of returning to high school and middle school, but the experience turned out to be wonderful. Moreover, if one can challenge the belief systems that operate to support violence at an age when those belief systems are still being formed, the chances for reducing the incidences of violence are greatly enhanced. Accordingly, I can see teaching in some capacity on my horizon.
Issue Date: August 1, 2002
Two months into my position as the director of The Galaxy youth center, I held my first "Youth Council" meeting. Just imagine five middle school and three high school kids sitting silently in a circle around the Pagliai's pizza I ordered to help "break the ice." I feared that I was going to have to jump on tables to pull them from their silence and inspire conversation. With the knowledge that getting Youth Council members to even attend meetings in the past had been a struggle, I was hard-pressed to make a stunningfirst impression on these kids, give them reason to want to stay involved, and instill in them the message that they are essential to The Galaxy's success. Amazingly, something cliqued. Following introductions, I broke out a wipe-board for brainstorming. Within fifteen minutes, they filled it with ideas I had never even imagined. Eighth graders had my wheels spinning and by the end of the meeting, they were telling me that it would be necessary to meet every week, not twice a month! This was a definite turning point. After a difficult summer of professional and personal navigation, and a couple of discouraging weeks, I couldn't stop smiling. I am reinvigorated by their enthusiasm, ideas, and willingness to give The Galaxy their time and energy, and once again, reminded why I am here, and whom I am here to serve.
It is incredibly hard for me to imagine what it was like for Delphia, the former Grinnell Corps fellow, to walk into this space, white-walled and furniture-less, without an office, computer or Internet access: virtually directionless. While Delphia had to literally get this place on its feet, I had the privilege of picking up where she left off, turning on a computer full of "contacts," entering into relationships with kids, the community and board members already built on the foundation of respect. Despite this difference, however, her first report written one year ago speaks to a lot of what I've felt in the last two months. It is "extremely difficult to work in a situation where success has no measure.where there is no clear idea of what success may be." Although I came into the directorship with a definitive starting place, the concept of "success" remains just as abstract. Yes, the word takes on new meaning in The Galaxy's second year - It encompasses bigger, better things: more of everything from events and fundraisers to grants and greater attendance. But "success" is still hard to measure at the end of the day. Was the second event that I held this summer a success with only 37 middle school kids present? It definitely was, in light of the fact that the first event I offered this summer drew none. The challenge of this job lies in the idea that there is always more that I can do, things that I miss in the process of learning, and the possibility that any given event, interaction, or moment could have been better had I approached it from a different angle. Within the environs of a work in progress, everything is relative. But with a new focus on securing what is already established, building, expanding, and most importantly, preparing the community to take The Galaxy on as their project, this position provides me with an absurd amount of daily challenge, frustration, and most important, daily sense of reward and accomplishment.
As we approach the first of October, it becomes increasingly difficult to write about June and July - actually, its just difficult to write period in light of all that's changed at The Galaxy since I began working my way through everything *new*. At this point, the weeks I spent figuring out the office computer and programs, creating new files, meeting board members, attending my first meetings, getting to know some of the regulars, organizing my first events, etc. seem hardly mentionable since I've settled (or somewhat settled) into a daily groove. Rather than detail single events that stand out in my mind, such as the 4th of July (which was a great success!) I want to delve into the forward motion I feel now.
Before I talk about progress, I suppose I should back up. The month of August opened my eyes to The Galaxy's need for a new beginning. Rather than re-create particular events that so clearly pointed toward this need, I'll stress the potency of the negative energy I began to feel circulating through the space. In its first open year, the primary goal was to get The Galaxy up and running, strike interest, draw groups of kids here for "open hours," and hold events. The Galaxy was hugely successful in this respect. In its second year of operation, with a strong focus on preparing the community to invest themselves in The Galaxy, it seems crucial to me that we revisit our original mission: to provide a safe, welcoming, and educational space for kids in grades 5-12.
Over the course of the summer, it became clear that we were not operating in accordance with our mission statement; That we were hosting "youth" much older than 18 on a regular basis, favoring the needs of one group of kids over the needs of an entire youth community, and failing to require responsibility and ownership within the walls of our youth center. The only way I thought we could move forward was to first stop, step back, and reassess our mission and our role in this community. How could I re-structure The Galaxy to create that envisioned safe space, and encourage all youth members of the Grinnell community to understand it as their resource? One of the hardest things I did this summer was close The Galaxy for this purpose. On August 10th, I hung a sign on the doors that read "closed for restructuring." Two months later, I'm still working through the process of reconciliation with the kids who were seriously impacted by my decision. And although the repercussions of closed doors have been extraordinarily trying, I am sure that The Galaxy is moving forward, incorporating more members of the community, addressing and dealing with the issues that would have kept it from success in the very near future.
On September 16th, I completed a mailing to 1300 hundred kids in our community. For the first time, every parent/guardian of a middle or high school student received a letter home from The Galaxy, in which I detailed our move toward a "Membership System." Within 4 days, over 100 kids registered to receive the benefits that accompany membership, along with their Galaxy I.D. card. I don't believe that a youth center like The Galaxy can succeed without the support of its clientele: the youth of the community. Therefore, the board of directors and I have implemented a system whereby kids are encouraged to take ownership over a resource directed specifically toward their needs. This is not a method of excluding kids - everyone in grades 5-12, at the Middle School, High School, New Horizons Alternative High School has been asked to register. This, is, however a way of involving kids at the next level, inviting them to become a part of The Galaxy, to invest themselves in its future.
Since I re-opened on September 20th, I have received a lot of positive feedback. It was no surprise that the first 5th Quarter drew 112 kids, but what did surprise me was the number of high school kids (who I had never before seen at The Galaxy) who brought their registration card to the door - talk about feedback! The middle school event I held the next night drew close to 120 kids - we had a great 5th and 6th grade turnout, and 60 new middle school members by the end of the night. In addition, I have received a lot of positive response from parents, and what's more important, communication that they want to get involved. Parents are not only sending in registration materials, they are calling to volunteer! Though I know this is just the beginning of a process, it feels incredibly good to have figured out a path toward bettering what The Galaxy offers the youth of Grinnell. I've learned along the way that change is all about patience, self-trust, trust of others, and communication.
Right now I'm working on getting the after-school Homework Help program up and running.to date, I've only had a few kids come in for tutoring, so its once again all about timing and advertising! I am incredibly lucky, however, to have 3 Federal Work Study students and several college student volunteers available for kids when they do come pouring through the doors! Several months ago, when the membership system began to materialize as an idea, I wrote a proposal to the Board requesting that we hire Nancy Gause to work with me part time. She and I have since held several "open forums" for kids wanting to speak out about change, are working toward bringing "Circle" back to The Galaxy full-time, brainstorm on grants and fundraisers, and focus on restorative methods of mediation and conflict resolution. I'm also scheduled to attend the Peace Institute's "Basic Mediation Training" on scholarship, which I'm really excited about.
News of the month: Earlier this summer I wrote a grant proposal to the Ahrens Foundation requesting a Jukebox for The Galaxy, and we've just received our new "Saturn II" (a very fitting name and style within the whole Galaxy theme!). The kids are really excited about this addition, despite the fact that at the moment, it seems to have a mind of its own. Other new additions since I began: new air hockey table, three vending machines, and a magnetic poetry wall. Additions to come: big screen T.V., refurbished computer lab, alternative library, art corner, and more! As a newly avid reader of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, I've realized that funding for The Galaxy is definitely 'out there' - we just have to ask for it.
Nearly six months have passed since I began my fellowship as the director of The Galaxy. As I approach the midpoint, I am beginning to fear that the second six will evaporate before I find the time to accomplish all that I envision possible. I am officially attached to this place, this project, and these kids to a degree that I had not imagined back in June. All in all, I love what I do. And who knows when I'll find myself in another position with so much responsibility and freedom. So I hope that Time will cut me a little slack in these upcoming monthsâ¦
Since I last reported, The Galaxy is running on the energy of a new group of "regulars." I think that the combination of the membership system, our extended afternoon hours, and the general change in atmosphere have allowed a group of middle school kids to claim their piece of a space previously dominated by 18 year olds (perhaps our plugs at the middle school health fair didn't hurt!). Not only to we have a solid group of individuals coming during our open hours, but we are opening our doors to groups like G.A.T.E.S and S.A.D.D. as regularly as they want to use The Galaxy as their meeting place. It is really great to feel the energy of 45 kids bouncing off of the walls on early-out Wednesdays! Though it was incredibly hard to lose the interest of last year's regulars once we instituted an age cap, I understand this shift as one crucial to the future success of Grinnell's youth center. If we can establish a solid group of kids who appreciate the space early on and want to invest their time and energy into its development, they will carry it forward.
It has been a discouraging 6 weeks so far as High School attendance goes. This quarter, I learned a lesson crucial to my understanding as the director of The Galaxy: high school football isn't a game in this town it's a way of life. It didn't take long to figure this out, as The Galaxy's 5th Quarter plummet paralleled the Tigers' losing streak. The feedback that I got from kids and parents alike was that kids don't celebrate after losses, they go home. This blows my mind! And although it was discouraging to watch our attendance fall from 120 to 2 after the team lost homecoming (and every game thereafter), I was far more frustrated with the apparent "group think" going onâ¦if football players and cheerleaders didn't pave the way, no one would come to "5th Quarters" after the games. Where does one go from here? Essentially, I put the season behind me, thinking that attendance would rise again out of season. Recently, however, a group of college volunteers threw a H.S. Karaoke night, and three kids showed. So I'm at a loss. Ideally, I'd like to arrange some kind of Galaxy talk-back assembly at the high school, and give kids the chance to offer their input directly. In the meantime I've been brainstorming ways in which to empower the high school kids to design and execute their own events. Part of the problem is that not many of them are currently involved in the process. We have 3 active H.S. youth council members, and 12 middle school representatives. Hopefully, our plan to ask student-run groups to throw their own events as fundraisers at The Galaxy will get them involved, excited, and create a trickle-down effect. In the meantime, I'm trying not to get too bummed, as we continue to have middle school kids lining up at the door.
Although there are too few hours in the day for me to dedicate as much time as I would like to grant writing, day to day donations and small fundraisers do add up. I was amazed at how well we did with G.C. home football game concessions. We raised over $2000 for The Galaxy. That kind of money covers small operating expenses, but our focus is now on raising the funds to support next year's director, and any additional staff necessary. Recently, I've been focused on our annual mailing aimed toward this purpose, and am excited that it has finally gone to press! If I have learned anything in this whole process, it is to allow several extra weeks for things like proofing and printing. As soon as the brochures are closed, labeled, and mailed, I'll begin to think about The Galaxy's first annual golf benefit, to take place on May 10th. Oh man - "Fore!"
Ask Luke why he likes me then tell me what he said, then I will ask him and if he tells me different, then that would be two reasons to break up with him. But are you going out with Brittany for real or do you want to go out with me or Mandy? Well, I would be glad to. One thing I have to know before we go out, how long do you think our relationship would last? Well once me and Luke break up me and you can finally be together. Remember our secret I love you and you love me too.
Imagine a world where relationships are molded and quickly disassembled by notes scribbled on scrap paper, passed from the best friend of a girl named Allison into the hands of a 6th grade boy named Jimmy. Does one have to travel to Nepal, Nanjing, Namibia, or Lesotho to navigate an entirely new cultural context? Ten months into my fellowship serving as the director of Grinnell's youth center, I would say most definitely not. When my co-worker found this note on the floor after open hours the other day, it not only brought back junior high memories that I would just as soon forget, but struck me as an artifact symbolic of youth culture; a "reality" highly foreign to outsiders. This note embodies the potential for a never-ending conversation with kids about the impact that their thoughts, words, and actions have on others. Although it didn't shock me - I have become somewhat desensitized - it did remind me that when filled with kids struggling through the social challenges of middle school, The Galaxy can seem like another universe.
Many Grinnell Corps fellows take on the role of educators working in traditional classrooms, and reflect on the challenges of teaching. Although I'm not situated in a school, I often feel like some kind of alternative "teacher" working desperately toward the goal of making The Galaxy a safe space for everyone. Lessons on respect for people and property, anger-management, non-violent resolution, and the importance of friendship take place many times throughout any given day. Initially intimidated by the process, I left a lot of this to my co-worker who has tackled these difficult issues with kids for years. But after awhile of watching what I consider a unique art, I began to feel like I was missing out on the crucial process of relationship-building. This got me inspired to work at it, and although these issues are not easy to approach in such a relaxed, "non-educational" space, I am growing more comfortable within this role. Education in this context is all about being real.
A great daily challenge lies in fighting the punitive response. I suppress the urge to meet destructive behavior with negativity almost every day, especially when my stress levels are up, matching my equally high expectations for angelic "inside energy" (ha ha). It is all too easy to yell, intimidate, and use the fear factor to battle behavior that drives you insane. But what can anyone take from that kind of response? Surely they are fed the same at school and sadly, in many cases, at home. I want The Galaxy to be a space where conversation guides youth and adults through tough situations. One of the most important things that I've learned over the months is that I can't truly control another individual. I can work my hardest to control what goes on in a space, within the environs of The Galaxy, but I can't ultimately control another human being's actions. This thought always brings me back to the power of conversation. Through these conversations with kids, we illuminate choice. Although there are nights that I leave my office thinking "I don't want to be these kids' parentâ¦these aren't the kinds of lessons I'm prepared to teach," much more frequent are the evenings that leave me feeling incredibly full.
What is that Brittany Spears song? "I'm not a girlâ¦not yet a woman?" I've found that a 22 year old "Director" is a contradiction to many. It is difficult to be considered a "college kid" (especially a Grinnell College kid) when talking to parents, and even more of a challenge to assume the role of "boss" over youth 4 years younger than myself. Parents often walk into The Galaxy and ask to speak to "an adult" or "the person in charge." I've found that they are far more comfortable approaching my co-worker, who has been a member of the community all her life, put kids through school and worked within the school system. There are definite positives to having a fresh graduate on the job, but I think that the community would more readily support The Galaxy if it were run by a community member with a well-known history here.
Enough of the challenges! Sure, the year has been packed with them, but I feel like Nancy, the Board and I strive to meet our obstacles, often (though not always) transforming challenges into successes. One example of this was the implementation of a membership system. Although I'm sure there are more organized ways to get kids to sign up, follow up with parents, make cards and keep track of our members (at times my desk is a mound of business cards and Contact Paper; the key ingredients to grassroots membership creation), we currently have close to 250 middle and high school members. Its an ever-evolving system, and we've just created a new letter to send home to parents explaining the fee, the process, and the benefits of membership, but it hasn't yet ceased to get kids' and parents' attention.
I would say that growth in membership represents an overall increase in attendance, both at events and during open hours. In a recent tally, we counted roughly 3,000 visits over the last 11 months, with numbers doubling each month since February. I guess you can attribute this kind of growth to word of mouth, but publicity is worthless if you don't have a good program, and our program would be nothing without the additional "staff" we gained throughout the year. Nancy and our three Grinnell College work study students helped to create that positive, supportive space I imagined possible back in June.
We have gained a really neat addition in the last couple of weeks which I thought I'd mention. Two of our work study students created a student group called "Galaxy Task Force," and applied for $300 to put towards improving our board game collection. They were granted the funds by SGA, and we now have an incredible stack of everything from Pictionary to Taboo. The interest in games seemed to have taken off earlier this quarter, when another Grinnell College student began teaching kids how to play chess at The Galaxy after-school during open hours. The move away from in house dodge-ball (an at times dangerous game not well supported by our limited space) to a focus of mind games seems really positive.
Finally, I think we may be headed somewhere in our fundraising efforts. Although we face serious competition in the face of hospital and school fundraising, the community continues to support our efforts, and (I thinkâ¦) they will meet the challenge to match the $15k grant offered by the Ahrens Foundation. This money will go towards funding the new director's position. Additionally, we recently had a very positive meeting with a representative from an anonymous donors group out of Des Moines. The incredibly intricate application for funding has become my new project, in addition to finalizing the Maytag Grant, which I will complete before I hand over the keysâ¦
Life in Grinnell Post Grinnell
I haven't left my college town. But life definitely changes post Grinnell. Although I lived in a downtown apartment as a senior, this year is markedly different in that I spend more time working out at the PEC than studying in ARH or Burling. Grinnell certainly feels farther and farther away as the months pass, albeit only a few blocks from home. If it weren't for my attachment to INSLAB's computers and frequent visits to the CDO, I don't know that I would spend a whole lot of time on campus.
Every morning I wake up to those bizarre, though occasionally charming renditions of musical tunes like "In the Mood" resonating off of downtown stores and businesses, look around at my incredibly spacious, light-filled apartment and think, "Never again will I live this well for so little!" I have, to some extent, integrated into the Grinnell community, although I am convinced that my image would still scream *Grinnell College student* 5 years from now. I may feel like I've made the leap from student to community member, but I have to admit that I am constantly being asked how my classes are going, what I am doing for break and what subject I've chosen for my major. The Maytag is a wonderful venue for this kind of exchange. While I am constantly qualifying myself to others, though, I am just as frequently running into kids, parents, or community members who want to hear the latest on what's happening down at the center.
In the evenings, I fall asleep to the sounds of "loopers" "scoopin' it," and wonder how many of my kids will be out there screaming around the corners, holding conferences in alley- ways in years to come.
With less than 8 weeks remaining, I'm feeling the pressure of transition weighing on me. Board meetings have become a time to talk about the future. We focus a lot of energy on the search for a new director. At times, I feel like a ghost looking in. But as I begin the process of "phasing out" of my position, I think a lot about the future of The Galaxy. What does it take to make a youth center like ours a long-term success? First off, in working with the Board of Directors, comprised of dedicated but equally over-committed community members, I have realized the importance of organizing a group of volunteers to take on various projects and responsibilities. There have to be people out there looking to commit time to this kind of service. In the future, I imagine a network of people organized into branches of interest, working cooperatively with the new director and sub-committees to produce the many valuable ideas put forth by everyone involved. I also hope for a consistent community presence. More mailings! Newsletters! Public Events! An elaborate website! Galaxy, Galaxy, Galaxy, everywhere you go! We've improved, but there's so much more to doâ¦
As for my future, it is really hard to say where I will be in five months time when I return to Grinnell to present my Grinnell Corps fellowship. This year has enlightened me as to my own strengths and weaknesses, doubled, if not quadrupled my skill set, and prepared me to work in a variety of contexts. Right now, I'm plugging patiently along at the job search, in hopes to find a position that will challenge me to this level. I do know that wherever I finally land, my work will be fueled by the many lessons I have learned here.
Issue Date: August 1, 2001
I think the first thing you notice when you become The Galaxy Director is the sudden loss of privacy. No more quiet dinners out, no more quick runs to the grocery store, no more anonymous student identity in town. Instead, you become something of a celebrity-everyone likes you-who wouldn't like the Director of the town youth center? And everyone is asking: How's it going? Are there a lot of kids there? What do you have planned? Has it been at all like you expected? And the worst, What type of kids are there? Being constantly on the spot, and forever putting a positive face on a project you are overwhelmed by and under-prepared for, is difficult. Everyone asks in earnest, but there is only one right answer: It is going well. It is going beautifully. We have a strong group of kids coming, and we have lots of great stuff happening. It's a huge success.
One of the most common questions through this first part of the year is, Is it what you expected? And the answer is absolutely, completely, entirely, and totally no. I anticipated difficulties, but I never dreamed the forms that they would come in. The challenges you face in a position like The Galaxy Director come from vastly different directions, and are subtle and nuanced in ways you cannot anticipate until you experience them for yourself. So yes, I expected it to be challenging yet rewarding, tiring yet inspiring, and complicated yet straightforward. And yes, it has been all those things. But I was unprepared for the combination of so much self definition and local control, with so much public accountability, and an unclear set of expectations throughout-not only of my role, responsibilities, and capabilities, but of The Galaxy itself. I thought that I just didn't know what was going on because I wasn't fully involved. The truth is that no one knew what was going on. It is extremely difficult to work in a situation where success has no measure, and the difficulty is exaggerated in a situation where there is no clear idea of what success may be.
I opened The Galaxy on the same day I began working. Big mistake. Huge mistake. If I could give only one piece of advice to the next Director, it would be (so far) not to open The Galaxy until she had a little understanding and experience under her belt. I felt it was important to have The Galaxy open and to get the ball (BALLS!) rolling. The summer was split into two distinct periods. The first month and a half, I opened The Galaxy five nights a week with the best guess of good hours that I and the Board could come up with. We started with a strong crowd of middle school students, but absolutely no high school students. I shouldn't say none--there were quite a few who came in and walked straight back out. It was discouraging. Then I realized that kids already have places to hang out, what they need is stuff to do. So in August, I began a focus on activity oriented planning. Which was a great idea. But because I didn't really have a feel for the town, I didn't know that everyone goes on vacation in August, so even if there are cool events, very few people (especially high schoolers) will come. It was discouraging, and I didn't understand why more kids weren't coming. What made the situation more awkward was that I didn't have anyone who was closely associated with the groups that I was trying to reach with whom to talk.
Originally I had thought that my Youth Council would take initiative and be very proactive. After three or four meeting where only one or two people came, I was frustrated and irritated. After all, they had signed on for this-why weren't they participating? Once again, I had no feel for what the Youth Council was like, who was on it, and what their schedules and feelings toward The Galaxy were. When they finally told me in August to stop trying to plan anything until school started, I felt some strange combination of relief and failure. But they were right-kids don't hear about this stuff during the summer, and no one wants to go anywhere without their friends. And they focused on an important point: With something like The Galaxy, you are always walking the fine lines between working up to a full schedule slowly and risking fizzling out, and having a big bang and risking its failure.
Although I could talk about particular events and happenings, I feel like they are secondary to beginning to understand and work within the culture of Grinnell's youth. Really, the numbers are not as important as the quality of time kids have at The Galaxy, and the planning and preparation are always subject to revision, change, and sometimes a complete scrapping. Although, just for the record, the event I've been counting on since before I started was a huge success, and drew about 110 kids (not that numbers matter . . . of course). Words of the first quarter? Flexibility, growth, networking, challenge, learning, laughter, and YOU CAN NEVER BE TOO POLITE OR ASK FOR CHAPERONES TOO FAR IN ADVANCE.
The second three-month period has gone by too quickly. It must be because I have 10,000 things to do on any given day. It's hard to find time to take off, and it's made harder by the fact that I love this job. I do. I love it. I've settled into a groove since you last heard from me, and I love it. I love the pace, the freedom, the ideas, the kids, the . . . well, just the everything about it. It just gets better and better and better. Plus I've got all these really exciting ideas that I want to put into action, but every day only has 24 hours and (more importantly, I'm learning) "X" amount of energy.
The 5th Quarters went well, each drawing well over 100 kids. It seems that The Galaxy has become the place to be on post-football game Friday nights. We have an entirely different crowd coming on Wednesday nights, with the majority being involved with the Alternative High School or 'scooping the loop'. I've written my first newsletter, and I'm getting ready to start on my second one. This one will be longer, I think, with four pages instead of just two.
Youth Council meetings have been going well and most of the kids have come (thanks to the reminder postcards!). They're a really good group of kids, and I'm enjoying getting to know them a lot. Still not actively pursuing leadership or planning responsibilities, but I suspect that may be partly due to how I interact with them (I see similarities between my relationships with them and my FWS students). Our high school swing dancing class has had a hard time getting off the ground, as the first two nights were scheduled against play rehearsal and a concert choir. We tried to avoid some awkwardness by not requiring a partner, but I've heard that a lot of girls are interested but won't come without a guy partner. It's a tough situation.
I've also started a journal for next year's director. It's full of hints, copies of invitations and publicity, phone numbers, costs, time schedules, advice, and possible ideas and revisions, and everything else I can think of to make the second time around easier. It's a combination of computer documents and a three-ring binder. And, a very exciting thing, I'm learning web things, and have put up a web page for The Galaxy:www.thegalaxy.org and IT'S AWESOME. You should check it out. I wanted to make sure it was up by November 10 for the Fall Open House (which, by the way, was a lot of work, but also a huge success on many different levels).
A big struggle for me this quarter? Learning to manage people. I have five federal work study students that help out at The Galaxy, and discipline is so hard! I think I started out too relaxed, and that set a tone where a couple of them felt that it was OK not to show up, etc. So I'm working on that, and working on open communication, but it's hard, and I'm gaining more of an understanding of and appreciation for every good boss I've ever had (and will have).
OK, on to things that I'd still like to do. In March, I'd like to host something of a Mid-Iowa Youth Center Convention to share ideas and network. I want to more actively (read: aggressively) pursue fundraising and funding opportunities. I would also like to partner with Bikes to You and a number of local kids, to support and campaign the idea of a bike and skate park somewhere in Grinnell. I think it'd be popular, and I know a number of kids that would take it on as their own project and would do a great job. Also, I'd like to have a student film festival, similar to Grinnell College's Titular Head, for the high school and/or middle school. Make your own movie, five minutes max, and we'll project them on The Galaxy wall. Prizes, entertainment, involvement, and fun, fun, fun! And finally, the kids have requested that we open up on Saturday nights, and I really want to do that for them. Unfortunately, with holidays coming up, and things being so busy, I haven't done that yet. I wish that The Galaxy could afford to pay someone part-time. We could work together and split the open times so that not only one person was responsible for everything all the time.
Quote of the quarter: The Galaxy has given me the chance to do the things I really want to do. I got to DJ, and I never would have gotten a chance to do that anywhere else. And I got to perform, and I loved it, and I never, never would have been given that chance anywhere else by somebody.
Well, I've made it this far. And I feel two things: 1) very young and 2) like I could do 100% better next year. I can't believe I'm wrapping stuff up and getting things ready for the new director, Hilary Minnick. Where did my time go? And yet, every time that I write a quarterly report, it takes a long time. How to sum up three months in a few pages?
The first six months were spent desperately trying to figure out what I was doing and frantically planning events for each week. Now I've spent the last three months doing long term planning, working on big projects, and settling into the groove. For example, I developed a year-long calendar for The Galaxy. I even have some semblance of a social life now. (And I'm a little worried as I begin job searching, because I'm having a hard time finding another job where I'm my own boss.)
So, big things in the last quarter. My sister, Tessa, interned at The Galaxy throughout the month of January. It was great to have her here because I love her, of course, but she was really wonderful. She was at all the open hours and special events and got to know the kids. They loved her and always ask about her now. I realized, though, how much I have learned since I began because I had to show and explain so many things to her. After the first day she was exhausted from walking around so much while I apologized for having such a slow day. But by the end of the month she had caught on to the rhythms of The Galaxy and felt free to offer me advice as she saw fit!
I'm getting out the second newsletter a little late. OK, maybe a teensy bit more than a little. But it's four pages instead of two, and I had contributing authors, so the whole thing doesn't sound like a letter from the director. That should be copied and packaged up tomorrow, but who knows about these things since life seems to take at least two weeks longer than I ever expect it to. For the record, if you're one of my board members and reading this, I don't think that this will take me two weeks.
On the other hand, something I've been really on top of is the work I've been putting into increasing The Galaxy's focus on enriching programming. I thought it was important to draw kids in with fun activities, but I think that with a regular attendance at events of about 100 kids, The Galaxy can afford to move into less popular venues than karaoke. So here are my ideas: regular arts and crafts programming during open hours; extended open hours from 7-9 pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays for studying, tutoring, and group work; art classes/workshops on Sunday afternoons; scheduled homework times during regular hours; a student-made movie festival; a student radio show on the Grinnell College radio station (KDIC). Some of these are already in the works, and some are more popular than others (ie. Radio show rather than study hours). But it'll get better. It's just going to take a while to convince kids that they really do want to study . . . at The Galaxy.
I'm working on this really neat idea for a grant proposal. Have I ever written a grant before you ask? No. But you gotta start sometime. So here goes: If we want The Galaxy to appeal to lots of different kids (which we do) and provide not just pure entertainment but enriching activities as well (which we do), then we need to have the resources to accomplish those goals. So I propose a three point plan. 1) New computers in the computer lab. Computers that work and have up to date software. Computers that have photo, movie, music, and other programs on them. Computers that kids want to use and are comfortable with. 2) A resource library. Not only your basic reference books like an atlas, dictionary, thesaurus, etc. but also books that provide help with resumes, interviews, cover letters, job searches, and college applications. In addition, I want to have books which provide students with useful and accurate information regarding personal issues in their own lives: peer pressure, self-esteem and image, drugs, being at home alone, mental and physical health. Not only will these books help us tutor students and be study resources, but they will also provide another avenue for students to get personal information that they might not be comfortable getting at the public or school library. 3) An art corner. An established art corner would allow students to have regular arts programming during open hours as well as special classes or workshops. It could provide students with another activity option at The Galaxy and appeal to students who perhaps aren't taken in by pool and foosball. In addition, the art corner (while always in one place) could fold up and move into the closet for dances and big events. I think that all three of these ideas will increase The Galaxy's appeal, usefulness, and utilization.
I'm also working on the first annual "Mid-Iowa Youth Center Conference" tentatively scheduled for the afternoon of Friday, April 12. Wish me luck.
I've fallen out of touch with the newspaper this quarter, so I'm trying to make up for it with a concentrated effort on a regular advertising campaign, a number of big articles, and a letter to all the town "clubs" offering my services as a presenter for their meetings. Hopefully all these things will pay off. Oh yeah, and the aforementioned newsletter. And the spring open house on May 4. And other, smaller things.
What else? I'm beginning to work with the new director, Hilary Minnick. We've made some decisions on dates, stationary, and things like that, but we'll really get into the meat of The Galaxy after spring break. She'll have to remind me that she's still a student so that I don't try and take all her time. I think I'm going to miss this place when June rolls around. She may have to kick me out once she's the boss.
Interesting facts of the quarter: In January and February, over 800 kids attended Galaxy events and open hours (actually, it's pretty close to 1,000). And, at the youth center in Newton, they employ two adults full time, four adults part-time, and 10 high school students. No wonder I'm busy!