Allison Brinkhorst, Grinnell Corps: Grinnell 2011-12
Allison Brinkhorst's Reports
Allison Brinkhorst, Grinnell Corps: Grinnell 2011-12
Photographer:Anne GeissingerReport 1
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.
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