During July 2011, I served as a volunteer with an organization called Common Venture from Iowa. http://www.osfdbq.org/venture_volunteer.php
I chose San Antonio TX because it coincided with my dates of availability and arrived at a place called Inner City Development in the heart of a not-so-well-off Westside section of that city. That it is located on Chihuahua Street should have given me a clue. It is principally a center for services which offers summer programs in recreation/education for neighborhood children, gives out food to those who need and does intake for information and referral for the myriad problems that plague society today, from alcoholism to homelessness to violence. http://www.innercitydevelopment.org/home.html
I stayed at the apartment of one of the sisters who lived in San Antonio and had the luxury of a daily ride to the premises by another volunteer, a NYS ex-pat originally from Upstate who had moved to Austin, Texas as many do to pay less in cost of living expenses and resources. We got along famously concocting dishes of risotto con funghi, buying quality Chianti and Pinot Grigio for a small glass at mealtimes and reminiscing about our Italian heritage and culture in the midst of the drought-ridden Texas flatlands. Before the end of the three-weeks, she became a sort-of sister-of-the soul that has endured to the present.
The founders of Inner City Development are a psychologist and his educator-wife, both active in local politics and members of a variety of boards that oversee resources for the city. I was later delighted to learn that the wife belongs to a peace and justice group with which I have some connection in my travels – Fellowship of Reconciliation. Although I teach language, I have a love for the arts, and have done art programs for kids in city recreation programs since my college days. So, I was placed in charge of the art room and given free-wheeling reign of the materials and projects to implement. As expected, I felt very comfortable with the arrangement.
All kinds of children and adolescents arrived – as young as 5 and as old as 17 – to dabble in creative crafting in the arts. We offered certificates of achievement for those who “completed” their projects, since the tendency was to be without a fixed schedule, kids would just drop in whenever they so chose, do some work and many times, leave projects unfinished to move on when their lack of attention span skyrocketed. Those with the most certificates at the end of the summer session would get a prize – extrinsic motivation that ended up producing intrinsic results, (the hard way, but it did work).
As the time passed, I saw children whose hygiene was, shall we say, less than desirable. In fact, I recall one little girl’s arm with a thick layer of dirt that was a dusty white, leaving a dry, grayish unnatural color to her skin. So many children had metal replacement teeth instead of their natural teeth. I thought it may have been a trend particular to the area or a fad, instead I was told that dental hygiene was so poorly monitored and the kinds of foods so unhealthy with sugar overload that rampant tooth decay is prevalent, as is tooth loss and therefore, inexpensive metal replacements are the only considered options “The State” can supply. Education seems to be a long-term, long-shot solution, especially when everyday realities contradict the packaged purism of advised change.
Behaviors ranged from rampant to respectful and it was difficult as a Long Island teacher with a certain conservative upbringing, to allow rampant to continue on its uncontrollable, unaccountable path. Yet keeping it in check was a Herculean feat since as soon as the children were out of the control zone, (my domain, the art room), all Hades seemed to break loose and kids reverted back to their behavior learned since birth. That is, until an aide or junior leader caught sight of the lack of discipline and intervened. It sure was so much easier for someone in the neighborhood to mandate control than a “gringa” from so far away. Yet somehow, the word, “New York” did manage to attract a certain level of respect in and of itself. I’m afraid “Long Island” wouldn’t have held the same shock and awe for the kids of that neighborhood, so I used NY regularly, just to gain a few moments of undivided attention.
After three weeks, it was time for me to return to Sinatra’s New York, New York. I still couldn’t fathom how mothers could let their children go in public for days without washing, or instruct kids not to push other kids and grab to get whatever-it-is-they-wanted first. I had mistakenly thought that possibly by my example and by giving them the attention, structure, freedom of creative expression they seemed to crave, these children would bend a bit to see another way, what I had perceived to be a better way.
The flame of consciousness sparked when a young man of twenty-something, a homeless volunteer at Inner City participated in the Talent Show finale, an annual goodbye event at the end of the session and exhibited his explosive slam poetry talents with a piece that gifted me tears and an aha moment of reckoning. His verse was shouted through the life of a child whose mother was addicted to methamphetamines. Through the beat of his increasingly louder rhyming words, his child-within lashed out at the public for staring, at others who pitied him because he was poor, but whose mother still held his hand as she waited in the addict line for the hit of the drug, never letting go of his hand. In a light-year flash, a swelling of comprehension humiliated me and my judgments.
For most of my life, I have been fortunate, privileged to have had a decent upbringing, even if fraught with its own difficulties, somewhat of a childhood and an education that has helped me profoundly to open a few doors. Without even realizing, I had been considering myself in a more exalted position. Instead working, being next to people with whom I have little in common, my heart was opened to the reality of blessings, mine and those of others. Seeing things from another perspective just as valid as mine affects incredibly and can sometimes work miracles that come from a mandate much more powerful than my three weeks of volunteering for a summer.
Three summers have passed including the summer of 2011. I have found myself still grappling with the issues of trusting the Universe and my path that I want to believe is guided. I wrestle with my judgments that still seem to sprout so easily due to convictions of my own life and upbringing. I find myself meditating, praying, reflecting daily, sometimes just talking to that part of the myself who will listen, Spirit, all my deceased relatives, parents, grandparents, former students…in the hope that some connection on a totally ephemeral plane will manifest itself clearly and reassure me that the Path On Which I Travel is definitely one chosen for me in this lifetime by a Force much stronger than me. And living up to that standard of measure hopefully should and will faithfully mean a satisfying fulfillment of self and mission.