Friday, January 22, 2010

Somedays I'm Glad I Didn't Go To Law School

Like most English majors I knew, I was thisclose to law school.  It was that or teaching, since the goal of (I assume) most English majors - writing professionally - can seem woefully unrealistic and out of reach when walking past the podium bearing the university's official seal.  Once crossed, I opted for teaching.  I'd been substitute teaching throughout undergrad, and on the days that teachers left me actual lesson plans instead of a movie, I would drive home ecstatic, (except for that day in the kindergarten glass - between the crying, the pottying, the penguin play, and the fisticuffs over stickers - I almost kicked in the door to the playground to run away screaming). 

Today I had to wake up early for what is termed "food run Friday."  At 9AM I go to one of our sites in East Austin to get on a moldy bus, drive to Capital Area Food Bank, and pick up boxes and boxes and boxes of canned food, frozen meat, drinks, etc, to deliver to all of our other sites so that the kids can have dinner and snacks for the upcoming week, (every staff member does this one Friday a month). 




Capital Area Food Bank also delivers.  Every Friday morning that I've pulled up to our East site, CAFB has had a large truck parked on the lawn, folding tables set up, and a long line of people waiting to get a few free bags of groceries.  I am always overwhelmed by the urge to ditch the warehouse-to-kitchen delivery, and instead jump behind a table to help pass out the grocery sacks. 

Now before I begin to enter Polyanna Sunshine Vomit mode, let me talk about a few of the things that make me really cynical about my job:

1) I hate it when loads of logistics and administrative work go into giving our kids free things, and there is not a thank you in sight.  For example: we are able to give free, BRAND NEW expensive tennis shoes (they seriously gave away the same pair of New Balances I bought for $160 last year), to kids through the Shoes for Austin program.  Rather than look happy, there were some kids who complained they didn't like the style of shoe they got.  I wanted to throw a shoe at them. 

2) Sometimes we are able to give away daily bus passes to kids to get home after programming.  Bus passes, even though discounted for our program and AISD, are still expensive.  Yet once word gets out that we have a fresh batch, there are ten kids surrounding me, stating that they need a bus pass, now, as though sleeping at school is the only other option.  The stipulation for getting one is having participated in one of our programs.  If they haven't met this requirement by my standards, then all hell and whining breaks lose, and sometimes a helpless chair gets shoved around in anger.

3) Free dinner, three times a week, and snacks on the non-dinner days.  How many plates of food have I had to go around and throw away because they were left throughout our facility?  Um, lots.  It's gross, and I get quite bitter about it. 

4) Ok, is my point made?  Trying to be giving isn't always easy, cheerful, or fun.  But that's true of everything.  If I was to stand on my cyber soap box and talk about how beautiful it is every day to work with disadvantaged populations, I'd hope everyone would label my writing as one-sided, false, and (dare I write it) falling into, in literature, what we call the "noble savage" syndrome, which would be a disgusting viewpoint. 

Now that I've got reality in check, I do want to talk about how awesome my job is sometimes, and how no amount of money can pay for the feeling that comes along with seeing someone else become empowered in a positive way. 


Girls Rock Camp is close to my heart and a perfect example.  Last night they had ten girls, most of them shy and nervously giggling, get set up with a drum set or a guitar, possibly for the first time in their lives.  No boys were allowed, despite several of them begging for a chance to come in during the girl's time, and (brace yourself for what sounds like cheese but isn't), the smiles on the girls faces when they had their instrument in hand was a month's paycheck.  Having been (still am?) a shy girl, I knew exactly what they were feeling when being told that they are talented, even if that talent hasn't been fully developed yet, they have a right to make noise, and have a supportive and eager audience of peers and adults.


Emily Marks, Heather Webb, and the other ladies of GRC really do rock! 

The "I Can" attitude is what we try to instill in all the programs we run.  "I Can" make good choices, "I Can" succeed at something constructive and beneficial, "I Can" interact with people who have my best interests in mind, "I Can" move beyond whatever has felt limiting in the past, "I Can" solve conflicts without self-destructive behavior or straight up quitting everything.

The difficulty is getting the kids to participate in programs - as we often compete with sports, babysitting, jobs, and the beyond-comprehension allure of walking around and doing nothing in the academic off hours.  Regardless, it's amazing how seeing ten girls with an instrument for the first time, ten boys excited about having an open forum of communication with an adult they admire, ten kids learning to knit because it looked like fun, ten people who really need food and are thankful to get just two bags of it early on a Friday morning, can make me glad that I'm not at a different job.  (Let's just not talk about the massive amount of paperwork, deadlines, and non-profit [quite literal] pay check for now...).

I don't read the bible much anymore, even though I keep meaning to sit down and do so, (and the Koran, and the Talmud...), but there is a verse from it that I try to remember when my kids are being especially moody, rude, or just all around difficult.  While not verbatim, it goes to the gist of Jesus saying to treat everyone you encounter - beggars, mean people, your mother in law - as though they were really him in disguise. 

Essentially, love all, and be patient with all, even if it's hard.   (Sometimes it's really hard.)

I know everyone is focused on helping Haiti right now, but if there's anyone looking to keep up that spirit and help out in Austin, here a few excellent places to start:


And of course...

  • The Boys and Girls Club of Austin - you want to volunteer?  You can go to this website, or you can also call me.  I'll put you to work!  And by work I mean playing soccer, pool, arts and crafts...

Arturo weeding fruit trees at Tree Folks


 LBJ Kiddo with a wheel barrow at Tree Folks


 Me!  With dirt!  And no shower yet!


What causes do you like to contribute towards?  Are there any Austine and/or national organizations that I left off?

I'm also curious how other Austinites feel about the people with signs who stand by the highways.  Do you give them money?  Or food?  I never have, and I get this horrible feeling in my gut because a) I don't want to roll down my window because I'm paranoid, b) there are homeless guys outside my apartment who sit and drink beer from large cans all day and c) I give a little money to my church, and they put a lot of their finances towards charity, including homelessness.  Somehow, I still feel like crap.

5 comments:

lazysmurf said...

There are so many places that I want to volunteer for that I get overwhelmed! I regularly do SXSW and Johnson's Backyard Garden and other things here and there. I would love to help with Tree Folks, Austin Pets Alive, and the green corn project! And I too, always give my token to the puppies at Buffalo Exchange :)

Are you going to participate in the vegan bakesale this Sunday?

Eliz said...

Nice post. You really summed up some of the challenges of our work nicely... but I think that our kids haven't necessarily been taught how to be grateful. The school system hands them everything and less and less is expected of them as they move through the grades. It's no wonder they're lacking basic stills in graciousness and gratitude. I think those are things we can teach, with patience. Mustapha learned where the Dominican Republic is!

Also, I almost never give anything to people pan-handling, especially not since A) another homeless man on the Southside told me that the bums who hang out near my apartment on E. Riverside are crackheads and B) my stereo and iPod got stolen out of my car in my driveway. I feel like I've already donated and I give of my time to my job. The other day though I did give a guy a dollar because he was holding a sign that said "just plain hungry" and I had just pulled out of Subway and had a delicious sandwich sitting on my passenger seat that I couldn't wait to get home and devour. I felt convicted, for sure.

Oookay, I'm out.

Amanda said...

@lazysmurf - I haven't heard of the Vegan bakesale. Who's sponsoring it/where is it?

@Eliz - agreed on all counts! The sandwich-on-seat scenario might have pushed me to do the same...

lazysmurf said...

The bake sale is going to be at Ten Thousand Villages on South Congress from 12-4 this Sunday January 24th. It would be super awesome if you donated vegan baked goods, you can just drop them off, or came by to donate money/ buy delicious baked goods!

Every cent is going to Food For Life which is a charity that has been feeding people for 30 years.

http://lonestarplate.blogspot.com/2010/01/austin-bake-sale-this-weekend.html

Mikhaila said...

You've put into words exactly how I've been feeling lately about my job! I've been feeling so jaded lately and I never wanted it to get to that point! I work with kids in foster care (at a residential institution) and while I always try to keep in mind what they have gone through and the struggles that lie ahead of them, sometimes it is so exhausting and a "thank you" would just be so nice to hear. The other day one of the boys was discharged and he stood up in front of kids and staff and basically told the kids to appreciate what we do for them because we're just trying to help. He went on to say that this was the only home he has ever known and he was so thankful for everything we did for him. It definitely brought the tears and reminded me why I do what I do. :)

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