Epilogue 2… what happened next?

I really enjoyed my Volunteer Odyssey. I was able to meet and mingle with creative minds and trailblazing leaders! One of the most rewarding aspects was getting outside of my comfort zone and exploring new possibilities. I was encouraged and offered the possibility to network with top business men and women from our city. I was able to sit with them and ask questions regarding their beginnings and the experience of going from “ground-zero” to unsurmountable success. All of which could not have been done without the coaching and support from Volunteer Odyssey.

To be more specific, outside of your work schedule, you are connected with leading professionals in your career field and interest. This connection is usually made through email and it is left to you to follow through with your contact. If you follow up, a meeting usually takes place and this is when you are able to shine. At this moment you can ask questions, lead a thought-provoking conversation, and share your experiences and how this may relate to the work they’re doing. From this meeting, you may find yourself with a new job or a mentor who can positively impact your career goals and aspirations. This is exactly what happened to me. With the coaching and support from Volunteer Odyssey, I was lead to a local entrepreneur who is really making waves in our city. I had the awesome opportunity to assist with the Untapped event at the Tennessee Brewery.

The Tennessee Brewery Untapped event was a six-week event. A group of local entrepreneurs reactivated the Tennessee Brewery to show how historic sites can be transformed into fun, exciting, innovative spaces for a good ol’ time! This was truly an amazing experience to be a part of. I met tons of people passionate about our city and enjoying the spaces worked by their great grandfathers, grew up around, or people who just appreciate the historical architecture or significance that once represented Memphis. I also enjoyed making new friends, learning new trades, and eating scrumptious food!

I hope others will be able to gain as much as I did, even more, from their Volunteer Odyssey. It can be a lot of work, but your Volunteer Odyssey can be personally rewarding, educational, and a great professional development opportunity.

Epilogue: A New Beginning

I really enjoyed the time spent on my Volunteer Odyssey. I’ve always been the type of person who is eager to learn and volunteer. After my Peace Corps service and receiving my master’s degree, I pledged to make it my life’s goal to become a humanitarian who is well poised, educated, and experienced to create sound solutions to meet the demands of today’s challenges.

I have demonstrated my passion for service during my time as a student through extracurricular activities, and I will continue my passion for service throughout my career. As an undergraduate student I was President of the Urban Studies Club, Vice President of the Gamma Rho Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, AmeriCorps volunteer, and Habitat for Humanity volunteer. As a member of the Urban Studies Club I was able to complete service-oriented projects with groups like the Rotary Club and Sierra Club. Each of these experiences afforded me the opportunity to be of service to those who are less fortunate and serve as inspiration for younger generations. During my time as a graduate student, I actively participated in Synoptikos (graduate student organization in the department of Urban and Regional Planning at Florida State University) and was elected by colleagues to be an officer but, unfortunately, was unable to accept the position due to my invitation to the U.S. Peace Corps. I also participated in several campus clubs and organizations including the Azúcar Dance Company, Black Graduate Student Association, American Planning Association, and the FSU Sustainable Campus and Community Committee.

Fast forward to the present, I have completed a Volunteer Odyssey. A Volunteer Odyssey that allowed me to lend my skills and talent to some of the most impactful nonprofits in Memphis. Not only were relationships formed, I was able to expand my network and establish myself with a nonprofit dedicated to helping others Stand Out and Give Back. From this point forward, I am no longer viewed as a transplant, but as the young professional who was willing to freely give her time and talents for a greater cause: Building a stronger city through the development of its people.

From this experience, I was able to gain valuable work experience that will last a lifetime. Much of what I learned during my Volunteer Odyssey will prove beneficial in my career and personal life. Volunteering in roles such as translator for refugees, feeding the urban poor, practicing rudimentary mathematics with adults with disabilities, have all exposed me to the many facets of urban development. It is my goal to increase my knowledge and volunteer experiences so that my work will help to reduce social inequalities and the overall welfare of mankind. I will take what was learned and build upon it. I will build my network. I will build my relationships. I will build my outreach to those who are less fortunate. Everything I gained and learned during my Volunteer Odyssey will expand and grow. This is not an end, but a new beginning.

Thank you Volunteer Odyssey.

 

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Bike for a Cause

SW_UBFM

Have you ever been panhandled by someone in downtown Memphis? I certainly have and always feel guilty if I didn’t give them something even though I knew the experts say we shouldn’t. On Day 3 of my Volunteer Odyssey, I found a way to do something positive that doesn’t involve giving money! Urban Bicycle Food Ministry delivers burritos – yes burritos! – to those in need around the downtown area. In summary, (1) you get a great workout by biking downtown, (2) give back by passing out donated items and burritos to those in need, (3) AND you get free pizza and a chance to hang out with some of the kindest people in the Mid-South! How’s that for an awesome Wednesday night??!?

The idea began in the small duplex of the coordinator, Tommy Clark. He loves to bike and wanted to combine his two passions – biking and serving his community. Put the two together and for almost 2 years, we have the ever-growing and very popular Urban Bicycle Food Ministry, aka UBFM. I helped chef Brent prepare the food, helped load backpacks, picked up a bike and went for a bike ride while feeding and serving those in need.

SW_Food_2 IMG_2985SW_Food_3 IMG_2988

It was a bit strange, shocking, uncomfortable, and then enjoyable. Let me explain. When you’re not used to interacting with homeless people and all of a sudden, on a Wednesday night in downtown Memphis, you decide to make a change, it can be strange at first. I was unsure how everything would play out. My group members were very friendly and seemed to have a relationship with most of those to which we gave burritos and donated items. Their interactions and pleasantries helped me to transition out of feeling strange to enjoying the experience.

Along our two-hour biking journey, we encountered not only homeless people but also those who appeared to be low income. They didn’t have the appearance of being homeless. This made me a bit uncomfortable as I thought we would only be serving homeless people. Those who seemed to come from a low-income family looked like people I’d come into contact as some point – be it through friends or family from low-income neighborhoods or HBCU’s I visit, which are usually in low-income neighborhoods. I was prepared to give out burritos and donated goods to the homeless but not to people hanging out on street corners or in front of gas stations. It never occurred to me that they, too, might not have eaten that day for whatever reason. They’re usually viewed as hustlers, trying to make $1.00 out of $0.15.

Once I was able to get past my discomfort, I was able to enjoy the beautiful night air while biking in downtown Memphis. The night was gorgeous and the weather perfect. I began to refocus on the mission, enjoy observing the relationships between people (I love to people watch), chuckle at the fact that I was burning the calories I would soon consume from the pizza, and reminisce a bit on my biking days in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. That moment could not have been more perfect. By the end, I was grateful to have experienced so much in just one night. I made some new friends, dug a bit deeper into the world of ministry and its key players, and restart one of my favorite hobbies – biking! My soul was fed with the ministry and fellowship, and then my body was fed with yummy pizza. I plan on making this part of my weekly routine on Wednesday evenings from 7:00 – 9:00. Won’t you join me?

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The Difference A Clean City Can Make

The finale to my Volunteer Odyssey concluded with Clean Memphis. Clean Memphis is a grassroots organization founded in 2008 by a group of concerned citizens who believe that a cleaner city will help to reduce crime, promote a sense of pride in out community and cultivate economic prosperity. They are able to do this by supporting community partnerships and zone collaborations, high profile clean up projects, and service learning projects. I had the opportunity to work with two of their initiatives during my day with them.

The day began with a clean up project near the LeMoyne Owen College. Janet, the Executive Director, and I met in the office and then headed to the neighborhood. We assisted two other volunteers with trash pickup in that area. During this time, I was able to learn more about Clean Memphis and Janet’s passion for her work and family.

Janet and I

These markers are placed to warn individuals about keeping our drains clean

These markers are placed to warn individuals about keeping our drains clean

The second part of my volunteer experience consisted of assisting Andrew with the educational component of Clean Memphis. We met at the office and then headed to KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. Andrew and I worked with a couple of classes, engaging students in environmental science. The topic was clean water and the labs consisted of watershed and landfill/recycling demonstrations. The students were very excited and were very knowledgeable on the topic prior to our discussions.

eager children love to learn

eager children love to learn

IMG_3012

A new motto for me

A new motto for me

I had a really great time working with the students and learning about our environmental footprint. Andrew did an excellent job explaining the importance of environmental leadership and the kids learned much more than I ever expected. I will definitely try to recreate the class lecture and labs with my nieces and nephews! IMG_3018

 

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Charity for All

Day 5 of my Volunteer Odyssey was spent with Catholic Charities of West Tennessee (CCWTN). They are one of the largest nonprofit, multi-social service providers in the Mid-south. They have five main ways of community outreach; Food pantry, immigration services, homeless shelter, counseling, emergency services programs, and a new Veterans program. I had the pleasure of meeting Al, who’s a volunteer for CCWTN. He was very energetic and excited to tell me all about CCWTN. First we introduced ourselves, and then he gave me a tour of their office. He was very enthusiastic about the organization and explained how you never know what’s in store for your future or how your skills will be used. Al is a veteran and he never expected he would be a volunteer and with an organization such as CCWTN.

I helped Al load the CCWTN van with food we were to distribute to families. Be on the lookout for their van – it’s really cool, great pictures, and partly written in Spanish. On this day, we were to provide food for 21 families from a Jubilee school. Several other volunteers met us on site. The families we served seemed very happy and grateful for receiving the food. The majority of the families were Latino, so I was able to use a bit of my Spanish. The children were excited to receive candy, and the mothers (who made up the majority of individuals picking up the food) gave many thanks for CCWTN’s help.

We're preparing grocery bags for families in need We’re preparing grocery bags for families in need

I really enjoyed my volunteer experience with CCWTN.

Teamwork! Teamwork!

Their programs are tailored to reach a broad range of individuals and the volunteers, who make up the majority of the “staff” since CCWTN has only three paid staff members, are giving people with really big hearts. My hope is that CCWTN continues to grow and reach many more people that may have been forgotten or difficult to reach.

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Refugees in Memphis

On Day 4 of my Volunteer Odyssey, I had the opportunity give back in a way to return some of the help I’ve received over the years. Have you ever been in a situation where someone helps you so much that you profoundly pray for a moment where you can return the favor or at least pay it forward? Well, throughout my life I’ve been blessed to be in the presence of great and wondrous people with giving hearts and willing spirits, especially during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer.

My opportunity came as a volunteer with World Relief Memphis. Background (their words) – World Relief is a refugee resettlement agency. They are funded largely by grants to help refugees start life in Memphis who have fled persecution from countries such as Iraq, Somalia, and Sudan. World Relief is responsible for providing housing, social services, cultural orientation, and pathways to employment. I was asked to assist a Cuban couple, who had been living in Memphis for a little over a year, with their Department of Human Services (DHS) appointment. I was to pick them up from their house, drive them to the DHS office, and take them home.

When I arrived at their apartment, their 14-year-old son greeted me. He was very pleasant. I was soon introduced to the couple, Mr. and Mrs. Telz (name changed to protect their privacy). No one spoke English, so I delved right into my Spanish skills, which definitely needed sharpening. The couple wasn’t ready, so I waited in the living room with their son. We chatted a bit. He told me how he loves Memphis, i.e. USA, because things are so much cheaper than in Cuba. As our conversation ended, he thanked me for helping his parents and told me “goodbye” in English.

The drive to the DHS office was quiet and hot. This would be the first day I would use my AC in quite some time. Of course it didn’t work properly. I was a bit embarrassed, but the Telzs reassured me it was fine and it reminded them of the heat in Cuba. We all laughed, and they began to tell me more about Cuba as I told them about Memphis. The DHS office was full of people, and I thought it would be hours before our name was called. World Relief said DHS had a language line but when it came time for them to see their DHS representative, neither they nor the representative wanted me to leave. The Telzs said they felt better with me around, and the DHS representative said things would be much easier with an interpreter. It was at this moment when I was reminded of the family I lived with in Guatemala during my time as a Peace Corps volunteer. They were my rock, shield, and confidants in a strange land. It was at this moment when I knew and could relate to how they were feeling – unsure, nervous, excited, and so much more. I happily accepted the task. This was my opportunity to show the gratitude and thankfulness of my Guatemala family’s 2 years of hospitality, love, friendship, and helpfulness happily given to me with open arms and kind hearts. I was not going to miss this opportunity.

My brain was on super power! I’ve never been an interpreter and was unfamiliar with DHS services. I had to learn the programs offered by DHS, apply them to the Telz family’s situation, and then translate to Spanish. It was very tiring yet extremely exciting because I knew both parties were really grateful. After all was said and done, (i.e., Telz family understood their options and received benefits) everyone left happy, smiling, and with much more clarity of opportunities of support for the Telz family.

Our trip home was much more relaxed. The Telz family shared a bit more about their experiences in the USA and I shared my experiences in Guatemala. The family expressed their deep appreciation for all my help and offered coffee so we could chat a bit more at their home. I was unable to stay, though reassured them I could be reached if ever they needed anything. This volunteer assignment ended on an extremely happy note with the beginnings of a new friendship.

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Intern Odyssey: Spirit of the…Stomach?

Since I went through college as probably the only student to never drink a cup of coffee, it was a little strange to find myself at a beverage cart in charge of distributing hundreds of cups of coffee to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital nurses and patients. After a crash course on how to make coffee (a skill that patients found hard to believe I did not have), we were off!

When I first heard that I would be distributing coffee at Le Bonheur, I thought it sounded like fun, but not something entirely vital for a hospital. It wasn’t until I manned the beverage cart and visited each hospital room that I realized how wrong I was.

What I found to be most unique about Le Bonheur hospital is that it does more than just focus on treating health issues–it also focuses on each patient’s quality of life. This is apparent in both the specially  created artwork, and the attitude of everyone who works there. I realized that sometimes it is the little things that make the most difference to hospital patients: things like pet therapy, chocolate chip granola bars, coffee, and smiles. It was clear that some of the patients and parents just wanted company, someone to talk to, something normal in their lives. I couldn’t blame them.

As I pushed the cart through the hospital corridors, red and green hands affixed to room doors indicated that visitors were welcome or prohibited into the rooms. Walking down the beautifully decorated hospital halls, I saw a wide variety of patients from teenagers being pulled around on stretchers to beautiful little girls, one with a parade of balloons from the hit Disney movie Frozen tied to her wheelchair. Le Bonheur walls are decorated in beautiful hand-crafted and uplifting works of art, again aiming not just to keep patients well, but working to enable them to live and enjoy high quality of lives.

An example of one of the hospital's unique and uplifting art pieces

One example of the unique and uplifting works of art displayed on the hospital walls                                                                 

Joining me at the beverage cart was Gordon, the Le Bonheur volunteer who built the beverage cart himself! I loved chatting with Gordon throughout the day, and learned all about his religious beliefs. I grew up with a rabbi for a father, but have previously worked at a Lutheran church’s social justice ministry and served as the president of my college’s interfaith club, so I am always interested to learn about people’s faith beliefs and how their beliefs help form their actions and life views, particularly in regards to service.

Gordan and I Manning the Beverage Cart

Gordon and me in front of the awesome Beverage Cart

The beverage cart itself is ridiculously awesome with windmill fans, sparkles,  and streamers. Side note, Gordon first discovered his role at Le Bonheur through his daughter Timorie. I couldn’t get over what a beautiful thing this was for a father and daughter to be able to work together and it made me think back to when I was 13 and my father (being the rabbi of the synagogue at the time) said the blessing over me in front of everyone for my bat mitzvah. I was honored to temporarily ‘join’ Gordon’s family for the day. It was clear from the interactions between Gordon and the nurses that they all knew and loved and supported each other. I watched them joke around: Gordon joked that certain people were restricted from coffee and their good-natured teasing further illuminated to me how tightly-knit the community there at Le Bonheur is.

This community extends past staff and volunteers. On multiple occasions we were refereed to by patients as “a God send.” It is amazing how a cup of coffee can change the outlook of a day and as we continued, it was clear that the beverage cart’s magic was as much for the nurses as it was for the patients.  Many of these nurses had been up with patients late through the night, and this small cup of coffee was what revived them and renewed their energy and spirits.

I learned a lot at Le Bonheur and as I move forward in my own life, I plan on being more conscious of the small things that I can do for people that actually go an extremely long way. I am thankful to Le Bonheur for reminding me the invaluable impact of conversation and a free cup of coffee.

Thank you for reading! Like what you read? Mira Biller is the intern at Volunteer Odyssey and is passionate about a variety of social justice issues. She especially loves connecting people with organizations that will be mutually beneficial and help create a better and more connected community. Contact her at mira@volunteerodyssey.com

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