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: firstname.lastname@example.org .
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")