Week 2, Day 3: Rivers Powers at Memphis Botanic Garden

I love living in the city, but at my heart, I’m a country girl and LOVE playing in the dirt.  Gardening is in my blood, so I was very happy to have drawn the Memphis Botanic Garden as one of my volunteer experiences.

I’ve been to the Botanic Garden before for events and the farmers’ market, but it was very cool to be able to go back and work in the greenhouses.  The orchid house is simply gorgeous with so many varieties of beautiful tropical flowers, and many other plants are grown in the other houses.  My first project was to transplant young plants from their seeding pots to larger containers.  These plants are being grown for sale at the upcoming Memphis Area Master Gardener’s Spring Fling.  Some of the plants I didn’t know at all, but I easily identified the herbs we were planting; it’s much easier to know what you’re looking at when you see it every day in your kitchen 🙂

My second task was to prune some of the other plants.  It’s a fun task, especially if you are a detail-oriented person and can get into a groove perfecting the way something looks.  I spent a lot of time on the Japanese lilies, and since lilies are one of my favorite flowers, I may have to go by the flower show and buy some of my handiwork!

Manny and his crew were fantastic to work with! I got to volunteer with several other people who happened to be biologists, so the conversation in the greenhouse was very interesting.  I appreciated the help Manny gave on the techniques for transplanting and pruning, which will come in handy with my own gardening efforts, and his willingness to let me come back any other time I want.  He did tell me, however, that I was one of only two female volunteers who ever gardened without gloves.  There is a reason people do that: dirt stains and dries out your hands, but I don’t care. I can’t wait to get back and get my hands all dirty again!


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Week 2, Day 2: Rivers Powers at SRVS

When thinking of a facility for the developmentally disabled, most people probably imagine a cold, sterile institution made of cinder blocks where too many people are being watched over by a distant and harsh staff. SRVS is NOTHING like this. The facilities alone are top notch and massive; I was amazed by how large and high tech the main building was. Small groups of about 8 people gather with several instructors in different classrooms to work on a variety of skills – everything from reading and writing and learning the alphabet to domestic skills like ironing and meal preparation are taught to people highly eager to learn. I was very impressed so many people were using advanced technology like iPads and the SMART Board as learning tools.

SRVS teaches using the Montessori method, which I didn’t know a whole lot about before this experience.  Due to some flood damage, much of the building was under construction while I was at SRVS.  One of my volunteer duties was to unpack and clean all the items from a Montessori classroom, so I had plenty of time to learn about the benefits of a Montessori education.  This approach seems like a great fit for the facility and the right approach to learning for people who think in a certain way.  It also uses thousands of little pieces for each different skill.

Before I began my volunteer day, I had some reservations about my ability to work in an environment where the people could not necessarily communicate and loud, uncontrollable outbursts are common.  Honestly, I was afraid I would do or say something that would trigger such a reaction in someone, and I wouldn’t understand why or be able to communicate with them to know how to make it better.  There was nothing to worry about.  Lunch was fairly calm and quiet, with everyone focused on their meals.  Most lunch boxes contained exactly what you’d expect in a school cafeteria: sandwiches, chips or carrot sticks, juice boxes, and pudding packs.  The people who wanted to talk to me found a way to communicate with me, and my heart was warmed when an elderly woman grabbed my arm and told me she loved me simply because I closed her lunchbox for her.

I think people often hesitate to interact with the developmentally disabled because they don’t know how to act around them, but it is really quite simple: they are just people who only want the most basic things in life like companionship and entertainment, and with this commonality, it’s pretty easy to reach them.

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Week 2, Day 1: Rivers Powers at MIFA Meals on Wheels

In the 25 years or so of schooling I have, I have never thought about spending my Spring Break doing anything like Volunteer Odyssey, but after Day 1 at MIFA delivering food for Meals on Wheels, I’m very happy about my non-traditional vacation. I pass MIFA at least 10 times a week, and several of my classmates work there, but I’ve never spent much time learning about their programs. That has been an epic failure on my part. Meals on Wheels is one of the best volunteer opportunities I’ve been a part of in Memphis. I now know why so many people volunteer their time there on a regular basis: the team at MIFA is very friendly and well organized. Food is delivered in teams of two, and each team is given a methodical delivery schedule and two coolers – one for hot food and one for cold drinks. The meal recipient gets a small carton of both milk and grape juice and a hot meal with meat, steamed vegetables, a sweet cobbler-like fruit, and a slice of bread. Admittedly, today’s turkey smelled pretty amazing!

Overall, it was an amazing experience, and I would highly recommend this program to other volunteers. It is easy, only takes about an hour, and the people you meet along the way are highly appreciative and interesting individuals, who manage to show a lot of personality in a very short period of time.


Epilogue: John Cook

After John had some time to reflect on his experience, we sat down to talk with him about what it was like. Here’s what he had to say:

Volunteer Odyssey: Had you ever volunteered before for any of the non-profits that you went to during your Volunteer Odyssey week?

John: Never! They were all completely new to me. And each day during my Volunteer Odyssey week, I did something completely different than the day before.

Volunteer Odyssey: Will you continue to volunteer for any of the organizations now that your week is over?

John: I’d be more than happy to volunteer for any of the places I went to when they need help. But there are a couple in particular that I’m definitely going back to.

Volunteer Odyssey: What kind of reactions did you get from your family and friends during your Volunteer Odyssey week?

John: ALL kinds of reactions. I got a lot of positive feedback from people I had no idea would have been interested. A lot of friends I hadn’t spoken to in years started to resurface to ask me questions and cheer me on. I even ran into a cousin of mine who quoted me from one of my blog entries. So, you know what that means, right? A-list celebrity status.

Volunteer Odyssey: How did participating for Volunteer Odyssey benefit you?

John: Aside from fulfilling a sense of acheivement, meeting new people, making a few new friends (we ARE friends now, right Kevin? Rivers?), having an interesting conversation about what I did each day- aside from ALL that, I got a chance to try out this “blogging” thing I’ve heard so much about. Other than a handful of “C” status term papers in college, I had never written a thing. And now look at me “blogging” away…I’ve even been referred to as “Our generations John Steinbeck”. (by me) (I was told John Steinbeck wrote some really good stuff.)

Volunteer Odyssey: What did you learn from your week during Volunteer Odyssey?

John: Oh boy That’s a big question. I learned that stepping outside of my comfort zone is exactly what I needed to gain perspective on different issues. And something that seems so simple, like offering my energy and time, can have such a huge impact- not only on others, but myself as well.

Volunteer Odyssey: Would you recommend Volunteer Odyssey to a friend?

John: You betcha! Yes, some days are more interesting than others, but you WILL learn something new every single day. You’ll be challenged and you’ll grow and you’ll change. Ain’t that what life’s about?

John will still be involved with Volunteer Odyssey! He’ll help our newer bloggers with train and picture taking during their own Odyssey Weeks.

Prelude: Kevin Nowlin

I love people.  I relish an opportunity to connect with people of all types of personalities and experiences.  I love to serve.  I find there is undeniable personable freedom that comes from unselfishly giving able hands and undivided attention to those who have needs and something to say.  My problems seem to dissipate, and life is enriched, when I pour myself into the lives around me.  Anyone reading this, who knows me, knows my life has not been an exemplary devotion of service.  But I find myself in a unique professional situation: unemployed/underemployed; and I have the time and energy to devote to the things that most people dream about.  A day job, or life-job as the current demands indicate, affords no tangible opportunities for a service immersion.  Volunteer Odyssey is going to be one of those rare opportunities in life to actively participate with the community.

I won’t lie, there were some self-motivated reasons at first, to embrace this project.  What a great networking opportunity and chance to be highly visible to employers.  That’s important and I want that.  However, as I think more and more about the week to come, and how I define my life, I realize I don’t want my identity to rest in a job title or salary.  We can all be guilty of it.  Rather than trying to constantly define life, I’d rather just live it with the people around me and bring something to the table.  I look around Memphis and I see this beautiful city with so many beautiful people that have a heart of giving and service and I want to be a part of that.  There is a famous Chinese proverb that eloquently states: “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.”  This statement is one of the driving forces behind my desire to participate in the Volunteer Odyssey project.

Prelude: Rivers Powers

I’ve always been an incredibly driven person, and growing up, my days were beyond filled with school, sports, art lessons, piano lessons, homework, and hobbies. When I got my first job in Corporate America after I graduated from law school, I didn’t have time to do any of the things I enjoyed because I was working 50-60 hours a week. After years of doing nothing but work with no real down time and missing my friends and family, I made the very risky decision to pack up and move to Memphis without a job. It is so easy to daydream in your cubicle of all the amazingly fun things you will do with your free time, but the TV watching, catching up on sleep, and socializing gets old very quickly. I feel very blessed to have met one of the greatest people I will ever know during that time in my life and fortunate that my friend and I share an interest in making our community better for ourselves and everyone else who lives in and visits Memphis. So here I am, 32 years old, willingly and excitedly spending my last Spring Break on a Volunteer Odyssey, eager to see where my journey will lead me…

Week 1, Day 7: John Cook at Dorothy Day House of Hospitality Soup Supper

Wouldn’t you know it–yesterday was snowy and cold while I worked outside, and today is sunny and perfect and I’m working inside. Sarah is really testing me….

Today I am helping set up for a soup supper to acknowledge and thank all the volunteers and donors who help Dorothy Day’s House of Hospitality maintain her mission. For those of you who don’t know, the Dorothy Day House is a homeless shelter that strives to keep families together. I have seen plenty of homeless men out and about town. Occasionally I’ll come across a homeless woman, but I have never before seen a homeless family. But they DO exist. Homeless families aren’t seen very often because they are usually hiding. They don’t want to risk getting caught and having their kids taken away. The Dorothy Day House is the only homeless shelter in Memphis that keeps families together. When homeless families are able to stay together, they tend to have an easier time getting back on their feet, so to speak. The shelter is able to run with the help of donors and volunteers who help with services like education resources, child care, transportation, food and clothing donations, and legal and financial advice, to name a few.


Soup Supper at I.C.

I arrive at the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in midtown and find my way to the basement, where I am supposed to keep my eyes peeled for Sister Maureen. I’ve never met Sister Maureen, so naturally I’m looking for the quintessential nun, dressed in a black and white habit, possibly with a ruler in hand, in case I misbehave. I was a little confused when I did meet Sister Maureen. She was dressed in normal clothes. Was this allowed? The answer: Yes. Apparently Hollywood has definitely had an impact on how I pictured nuns. (Don’t act like you wouldn’t have made the same mistake.) She introduced herself, then ordered me to spit out my gum and get to work. (totally kidding!)


NOT Sister Maureen


I get assigned a few different tasks to help set up of the supper: set tables, fold programs, and make a huge vat of tea.


Brewed it like a BOSS

Before the supper starts, I get a chance to meet a few others who are involved in helping at the shelter. I met a young woman named Jaimi Cornelsen who is relatively new to Memphis. She explains that she has always been involved in volunteer work and jumped at the chance to help at the Dorothy Day House once she heard about it. I can hear the alacrity (look it up) in Jaimi’s voice when she talks about her time spent helping the people there.

The room starts to fill with people and Sister Maureen acknowledges all the hard work of everyone invited to the supper. She also shows a short documentary that explains exactly WHO Dorothy Day was. I’m not going to go into it, but that Dorothy Day is quite the fascinating woman. Talk about someone who did the right thing regardless of people standing in her way. I’m intrigued by people like her, who have ideas and actually put them in motion without letting anyone else stop them. And from what I gathered while at the soup supper, with her “can do” spirit, Sister Maureen, who is the director of the shelter, is quite a bit like Dorothy Day herself.


Setting up for the Soup Supper








Week 1, Day 6: John Cook at Shelby Farms Park and Conservancy

I woke up this morning with a terrible attitude. It’s Saturday. It’s early. And it’s friggin’ SNOWING. Do I really have to go work outside today?! The answer? Yes. So let’s just power through this and get it over with.

“Whistle While You Work” is a volunteer program at the Shelby Farms Park Conservatory. The first Saturday of every month, volunteers meet at the park to help repair trails and perform maintenance projects like: spreading mulch, gardening, and removing dead limbs. The park’s forest attracts an array of wildlife, however, much of the forest is fragmented and severely threatened by invasive species, like Chinese privet and kudzu.


Ain’t whistlin’ yet.

I show up at 9 a.m., still in a sour mood, and notice a huge group of people hanging out at the parking lot. Why are these crazy people here so early on a snowy Saturday? Ohhh, they were here to volunteer too. I was pretty impressed by the commitment of all these volunteers. But was it enough to change my attitude? No. I’m cold and tired.


Kevin, lookin thrilled to be here.

I meet a volunteer named Kevin, who tells me more about what we are doing today: planting trees. Kevin and I become quick friends and walk to our tree planting site together, both of us using shovels to navigate through the un-level terrain. Once we get to the site, (about a 15 minute walk)(in the snow) we are given a quick demonstration on how to properly dig a hole. I’m no stranger to digging, so I didn’t pay any attention.


Can ya dig it?

We are freed to start digging and suddenly I have a digging partner. Her name is Tara (which I’m just now realizing means “earth” or “land” in Latin [terra] which is ironic because we were brought together to plant trees in the “terra”. Man! I am SO deep!) Tara is volunteering with her club from the U of M. She also explains to me that she has never used a shovel before in her life. You couldn’t tell though. She was a natural. I guess you could say I “dug” her shoveling skills. She also told me that her “method” was exactly the way they demonstrated a few minutes before we started digging. I guess I should have paid attention.


She can dig it!

After we planted a few trees, Tara and I decided to make things a bit more interesting. How? By timing ourselves. The first few trees took us about 7 minutes each, but once we started timing ourselves we got done to 3 minutes per tree. (that means Tara and I are badasses) We continue digging and planting and talking for the next few hours.


A 3 minute tree

Needless to say, it was a tough day. But there came a point during the cold, unceasing wind in my face, shoes and socks wet from melted snow, and snot pouring out of my nose, when I felt a sense of euphoria. I guess because I had convinced myself that the day’s task was going to be so wretched compared to staying in my warm bed, that I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. I swear I’m not lying when I say I felt–get ready–invigorated. There is something very satisfying about getting dirty and being sweaty and cold all at the same time. Plus, what better way to make new friends AND do your part for the environment. The day turned into something NOT to be endured, but experienced. It was as if I had taken my bad attitude and buried it in one of the holes with a tree. (that tree is going to be a total jerk.)


Bad attitude tree

The conservatory’s master plan is to plant one million trees and restore the health to the park’s forest. So, there’s a lot to do! Maybe I’ll see YOU out there next time.

“Don’t judge each day by the harvest you reap, but by the seeds you plant.”- Robert Louis Stevenson


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Week 1, Day 5: John Cook at Make-A-Wish

“The Make-A-Wish Foundation has enriched the lives of children with life-threatening medical conditions through its wish-granting work. The Foundation’s mission reflects the life-threatening impact that a Make-A-Wish experience has on children, families, referred sources, donors, sponsors, and entire communities.”


Today, I got a behind-the-scenes look at how the organization ran. One thing is for sure, these people stay busy. As soon as I get to the Make-A-Wish office, I meet with the volunteer coordinator, Marcy. Marcy explains all the different projects and fund raisers the foundation is working on and then hands me the reigns to the “Wishes in Flight” project. This is a program that offers people a chance to donate their frequent flyer miles to children whose wishes involve traveling. It’s perfect for people who want to donate but may not have the funds to do it. My job is to spread the word of this new program by mailing letters to selected companies in the area.

After I finish with the letters, I move on to my next assignment: putting together training folders for “wish granters”, which are volunteers who present children with their wish. Can you imagine that?! I get excited just bringing my young nephews ice cream, so I can’t even imagine what it would feel like to be able to grant a child their ultimate wish.

The foundation is always looking for good volunteers and I’m planning helping out with a fund-raising event that caught my eye: “Fishes for Wishes”, a silent auction and crawfish boil which takes place at the Snowden House in Southaven on March 23rd.


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