Epilogue – Brendan Larkin

When I discovered that I was going have a friend come to visit Memphis just a month after pulling a U-haul up my driveway on Young Avenue I frantically brainstormed how I could entertain him. The frenzy subsided as I realized how well I knew Memphis relative to how long I’ve called this city home. It may sound corny, but because of Volunteer Odyssey and everyone I met during the process I feel connected to Memphis.
If I didn’t have my daily blogs to reflect on, I might remember the journey as a dream, blended into one unique experience instead of seven individual days. Regardless of how I look back on my adventure, it will undoubtedly be my first memory of Memphis. The smiles and greetings of the men and women on both sides of the soup kitchen line exposed me to the soul of the city. Hours spent working under the sun in Shelby forest gave me a picturesque sense of a hard days work in the Mid South. The spirit of southern hospitality was embodied in everyone I worked with throughout the week. It was a lot to take in a week, but I appreciate the cultural submersion I received.

My friend’s visit was a success and I’m convinced I could pass has a full-fledged Memphian (I hope to erase the biggest blemish on my Memphis resident resume by attending a Grizzlies game in the up coming season)! After my Volunteer Odyssey week I jumped head first into my job hunt. Job hunts are daunting, but a throw in being new to a city and desperation beings to creep in. The resources and community I received with Volunteer Odyssey gave me the confidence and determination to achieve my goal of landing a job with a small local business. Next week I’ll start at Quality Incentive Company and couldn’t be more excited for my next adventure in Memphis!

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Searching for my Grit and Grind

Look who I found.

Look who I found.

There might not be anything more exciting to a ten year old then an inflated bounce house. The laughter from the Grizzlies’ play place competed to drown the sound of the event’s music. On this overcast day I was assisting the Memphis Grizzlies “Claw Crew” at the 8th annual Church Health Center’s fundraising Rock For Love concert. This was a crowded event, both in participants and volunteers, and unlike the other days of my odyssey, I had to hunt for parking. This was the first large event I had volunteered at, and instead of being short staffed, the magnitude of the concert along with the prominence of the organization, made for many helping hands and an overabundance of volunteers.

I was directed to my volunteer station staffed by the Claw Crew, the NBA organization’s field marketing team. They are an affable bunch, along with being hardworking. I had recently read that Tennessee is one of the hardest working states, and it seems that the “grit and grind” play of the Grizzlies is a rallying force in the city. The members of the Claw Crew each had full time jobs, and worked part time with the group “for fun.” I was humbled telling them that after my week of volunteering I would be officially unemployed. I can relate to the sentiment as I didn’t leave my full time job because the work was too difficult, in fact, I desire a challenge like the residents of my new state.

Band getting warmed up.

Band getting warmed up.

After familiarizing with the guys on the team I went over to check on the kids in the bounce house. I was surprised to find a fellow Volunteer Odyssey participant working the same day as me. Krista was just beginning her adventure on the day mine was coming to a close. She was excited to start, smiling ear to ear and interviewed me on how my week had gone. I explained to her how great it was to meet so many people in the city while helping multiple organizations and those in need. We shared a new feeling of connection to the city. Having just completed my week of working and writing, I was able to give her some insight that was fresh in my mind. I told her to heed our instructions and express your emotions instead of simply sharing the details of each day. Explaining that for me, one of the biggest challenges was breaking the idea of a narrative in my memory and instead presenting what was on my mind throughout the day. I assured her that approaching the recaps this way, she would have more than enough each day. Krista and I shared in the excitement of the Volunteer Odyssey program, and we spoke about our respective job hunts. In the past three weeks I’ve been surrounded by my girlfriend and all of her first-year teacher friends; it was a relief to share with someone the stress of craving a full schedule. I appreciated hearing a parallel concern for wanting to start a new job promptly, while not sacrificing the desire to find something you love; which is one of the paramount reasons we joined this program.

People enjoying the festival

People enjoying the festival

Today’s volunteer experience didn’t require a lot of sweat like many of the other organizations I had helped this week, but like all the other non-profits I aided, Church Health Center needed volunteers in order to assist the community. The profits raised at the concert would fund the center’s mission to promote wellbeing by providing healthcare to those working uninsured. While the relief was less tangible at this event, I know my presence helped the organization fundraise in order to work towards a healthier Memphis; a mission I can certainly rally behind. During the festivities, the rain began to fall; Memphis proved itself relentless as the band played and people danced through the rain shower. I still haven’t discovered if soul music makes Memphis or Memphis makes soul.

Real Food and Real Men

Trunk full of groceries.

Trunk full of groceries.

It took me six days of volunteering and driving to new parts of the city on my odyssey, but the Memphis roads finally got the better of me. Despite getting turned around, I entered my destination only a few minutes late. I felt concerned that my tardiness may delay the food drop today, but upon arriving I was relieved to discover we would still need to organize most of the food into bags allotted for families. The Dozier House serves those in need in a variety of ways, and our current mission was to drive to a low-income area and deliver a mix of fresh and packaged food. On my tour of the facility I saw real food everywhere, and this excited me. While there were also plenty of canned fruits and vegetables, the boxes of fresh produce outweighed the prepackaged items.

Stick to the plan.

Stick to the plan.

The process of packing bags was simple and structured, but I was surprised by the amount of time it took. Although I made sure I worked as efficiently as possible, a great deal of time was required to create these packages, as there were no helpful shortcuts. When the task of packing bags was completed we loaded the vehicles with food and clothing. As we drove south to deliver the food I began noticing numerous out of state license plates. Our South Memphis destination was only three miles from the Mississippi border. In the expansive states of Texas and California, that I previously called home, the idea of commuting from another state was impossible, but here in my new home, it is a common practice to cross state lines.

The pantry.

The pantry.

The three men I worked with for the deliveries were of varying ages; all much order then me. Despite my best efforts to do all of the heavy lifting they continued to participate with ease. I hope that after I’ve seen a few more decades come and pass I am both as active in the community, and have the ability to physically participate as these men did. Many of the volunteers had already retired from their respective careers. I can see the potential difficultly of continued engagement with the community once I have a new job and other commitments in my new city. That is why hope to find a career in Memphis that allows me to support the community I live in. This hope is idealistic and I know that I may need to make an extra effort to help enact positive change in my new home. During those times I hope to look to the men and women I met today as community role models.

Took less than a day for them to find this guy a home.

Took less than a day for them to find this guy a home.

Following the initial rush I was able to chat with my fellow volunteers. The small talk moved from food to up coming trips, but it would inevitably return to what the men could do to continuously help the community. Just this morning one of them had found a puppy near the Dozier House, picked it off the street and found it permanent home. Collectively the group helped homeless families in their parish, aiding them in finding jobs and a place to live. They even tried to determine how they could help me with a job while committing their own day to delivering food. I could not find one thing unlikable about this group.

Unlike some of the other beneficiaries I have had the opportunity to help this week, I don’t have immense pity for the group I helped today. Not because I thought that they deserved to be hungry, but because they had a community that supported them. Carpooling was the standard amongst food recipients. The son of a church volunteer was willing to deliver bags those who were working during the pick up time. I discovered the families of many men and women that picked up food were still in the countries they emigrated from; however, they were not alone, they had this tight-knit community. Being new to Memphis I often feel isolated. The experience this week has provided had expedited my integration and helped dissolve my seclusion. Assimilating into a new community often takes thousands of baby steps, but I’ve taken a giant leap forward.

Bean Cheese and Bikes: A Burrito Deliver Service

Burrito's eye view

Burrito’s eye view

Bikes, tattoos and Mexican-style food are all effects I associate with my former home of Austin, Texas, much more than I do with Memphis. To the contrary, the kitchen I worked in tonight might have given ATX a run for their money in these regards and I was glad I hadn’t shaved since the beginning of my Volunteer Odyssey. When I arrived downtown it was already getting dark, but this did not slow the pace of everyone pitching in for Urban Bike Food Ministry (UBFM ); despite each person’s own full day no one showed a post-work lull.

BBQ style burrito

BBQ style burrito

Although I was among the newest faces volunteering, there were many others who had only been involved once or twice before, and immediately I hopped in the assembly line to help. We wrapped burritos in tin foil holsters, and conversation jolted back in forth in the room. Between the chatter of new bike wishes, and burrito-count records, I was given additions to the seemingly endless stream of Memphis BBQ opinions and suggestions. I had realized within days of arriving to Memphis that the Grizzlies are a community unifier, but the slow cooked flesh of swine might be able to defeat even the fierce NBA team.

While everyone worked in unison to churn out as many burritos as possible the rest of my fellow riders filed in for our eight o’clock departure. We wrapped the last of the meals, and it was announced that we had hit a new output record. In an attempt to get the overwhelming supply out we stuffed the food into our bags to the brim. I had brought a hiking backpack with a massive volume, and secretly won the unofficial packing contest. Throwing my pulsing bag over my shoulder and I joined the circus of bikes leaving the church.

Packed full of burritos

Packed full of burritos

Prior to rolling out a UBFM organizer gave us some advice in offering food, “you don’t have to be homeless to be hungry.” I recognized that sentiment from articles I’ve read about hunger and food deserts. When we started our ride the group split and I joined the downtown route with three other riders. We weaved our way through the cityscape and I tried to keep my eyes peeled for anyone that may be hungry. The group had a good idea in what parts of the city people congregated, and so we tried to bike towards the busy areas. Being only a few blocks from the soup kitchen I worked at earlier in my week, it came as no surprise that many beneficiaries didn’t fit the typical hungry mold.

The breeze while riding kept all of us riders cool as we made our way along the old trolley tracks of downtown. We rode down the boozy drag of Beale Street stopping along the way to hand out dinner. The elaborate motorcycles out on the famous street were setup for “bike night,” which stood in contrast to the people we were helping tonight. We pedaled as the motorcycles throttled their engines in an intimidating fashion, and we soon escaped the bright lights of the bars and trekked further on our route.

My have slipped a post-birthday cake taste

My have slipped a post-birthday cake taste

Further into our journey we found some people looking for a meal and stopped to talk to them. The UBFM crew was able to enjoy a burrito with the hungry folks, and unlike the pedestrians we offended by offering a meal to earlier. Only moments later a police car appeared, and the officer asked us, “Do y’all know where you are?” This was in reference to the neighborhood we were in and all my confidence I had around the vibrato of the motorcycles vanished. Now lights became refuge as we rode past boarded up windows and dark alleys. I meekly followed the group on the route until we got back to familiar territory where we dropped off the remainder of our burritos. It was late by the time we got back, but that didn’t stop the group from lingering together before parting ways.

All the volunteers treated tonight as more of a social or group bike ride in spirit than an obligation. We happily rolled burritos, stuffed our bags, and then distributed the food. While all the charities I’ve visited has if nothing else, been a great source of exposure to inequalities, UBFM added a fun social element to the service to encourage participation. And like the Austin breakfast tacos I was reminded of earlier tonight, these burritos are a potential cure for an empty stomach.

Working through Wasp Stings

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Making new friends

I welcomed the sounds of nature that accompanied leaving the city of Memphis behind; arriving at my destination I heard birds chirping along with the ever-present hum of the South’s cicadas. All of the murmurs of the city had vanished, and I welcomed the relative tranquility. When I arrived at the house, located in Shelby Forest, I was welcomed by a man with a smile and an outreached hand. This was Charlie and he had already started cleaning up the property in anticipation of guests tomorrow. My volunteer task for the day was helping to improve the grounds of Charlie’s household which works with Habitat for Hope. They provide an outdoor retreat for families with children being treated in Memphis area hospitals, allowing them to visit a place outside of the city, to unwind, and enjoy nature.

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Right before I got nailed by the wasps

Within minutes of arriving I was trimming bushes. The peace of nature that had quickly come vanished as two wasps planted their stingers into both of my hands nearly simultaneously. The venom radiated across my skin as I let out an embarrassed shriek. The pain in my hands faded as the sensation of perspiration and heat took over. Growing up I had always helped with yard work, but my responsibilities, like lawn mowing and buckeye collecting were always mindless labor. Charlie entrusted me with the aesthetics of the hedges and I cautiously cut the obtrusive limbs, pausing every few minutes for reassurance. Our next task took us to the big red barn. Inside was a play place a child could only dream of. It was equipped with bikes, wooden toy trains and a jungle gym. Charlie gave me cleaning supplies including a brush to remove spider webs. I entered the maze of plastic obstacles and I contorted my body through the steps and tubes. While I scrubbed the play place clean I realized what extensive effort goes into institutions like this one, and how a little bit of my elbow grease would help the operation run a little more smoothly for Habitat for Hope.

No detail overlooked

No detail overlooked

Following a midday meal with Charlie’s family I felt the self-conscious feeling that slowed me down earlier in the day began to fade away as I worked toward my goals. The work itself became therapeutic and the day drifted by faster than it had before. After we completed the transformation of the yard, Charlie singled that the effort was done for the day. We put the tools in the shed and continued on the land leading to the stables. As we checked on the horses the two of us began to banter, it was the start of a conversation that became seamless and seemed unending. We discussed Tennessee history, and places to visit in the mid-south. When the conversation came to an an end I said my farewells to the family and Charlie, he offered me something to quench my thirst before I got in my sun roasted car.


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While the day began with an annoying trial, it could hardly qualify as suffering, and I was content to work hard throughout the day. I was helping an effort today that served to supply others with the same sanctuary I felt when I arrived. I felt harmony at this place, before and after the chance encounter with wasps, and can image the magnified effect for families in need of a retreat. As I drove back to Memphis I felt the satisfaction of a day’s work in the heat. My face was red from the sun and my lip salty from evaporated sweat. I had felt the pride of doing physical work to help a great cause. I realized the most important gift that Habitat for Hope provides is a sense of community. Between eating lunch with the family, sharing work, conversation and interests with Charlie, I really left feeling like I had new friends, and a place I could go to connect with both people and nature.

 2014-08-28 14.11.27

Cultivating a Lot to Fight Hunger

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2014-08-27 06.59.14Driving around the city this week I’ve utilize the new satellite radio in my car, today I didn’t have much time to enjoy it during the five minutes trip to the community garden. I arrived excited to get to work in the empty lot turned Community Table Garden. Upon exiting my car I realized I had forgotten my sunglasses; the morning sun cresting the horizon blinded me. Although squinting I couldn’t stay in my car and decided to give into my excitement and explore the plot of land while I still had the glowing light of the golden hour.

Shortly upon my arrival, Sarah, the supervisor of the project, arrived and greeted me. As we toured the site my knowledge of agriculture quickly multiplied and I became more connected to local farmers and suppliers like those at the local farmer’s market. Sarah and I cleared a vegetable plots that couldn’t survive the August heat. Through our work we connected over our shared interests in working the land and to the community garden mission. I was assigned this organization for my Volunteer Odyssey when I expressed interest in food deserts and nutrition. I was pleased to be volunteering in a grassroots effort, and learned that this lot, partially funded by Gaia’s recycling programs, was used to stock the local food bank. Gaia is a nonprofit focused on sustainability supported by green donation clothing donation boxes across the country.

Rain water from the nieghbor

Rain water from the neighbor

Removing my gloves to water the plants, I was able to breathe the wholesome aroma from the dirt on my fingers. This action filled my mind with images of my childhood weekends helping with yard work along with my family, and the smell of fresh-cut grass that would stain the knees of my jeans. I was delighted to discover the water we used for the community garden was rainwater collected from a neighbor’s roof. This neighbor donated his time to construct a system to feed natural irrigation into collection barrels, which were fashioned with antique Coca-Cola syrup nozzles for spigots. Everything about this effort and atmosphere seemed wholesome and shared by the community. Even the sign for the location was created by a local Memphis advertisement agency just a few miles away. We watered the plants and filled the hydration system, which consisted of buried pots that held water for the root system, Sarah said this hydration system was built in Austin, Texas. Before moving to Memphis, I called Austin home; a reminder of the overlapping connections in my new community; we were both here to help these plants feed the community.

2014-08-27 08.14.17As the morning ended, I exhaled a sigh of summer air. I recalled a passage I recently read which advocated, “getting off your butt and doing something.” Today, I did just that and was finally exposed, and then contributed to an effort that has interested me for a long time. Community gardens are a trending topic of late; my experience today reinforced my opinion that they are an integral part of a solution to the malnourishment our society faces. I look forward to getting my hands dirty again, and seeing what’s growing next to Huey’s restaurant at Gaia’s Community Garden Table.

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Chicken Soup and Soul Music

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When I think of “volunteering” I first think of a soup kitchen, I imagine an industrial scene where an assembly line of men and women in drab uniforms, ladle cups of soup to a procession of hungry people in a line wrapped around the block. However, what I experienced was a stark contrast.

I arrived at breakfast and the smell of coffee enveloped the area. I brought with me my own thermos of coffee I had been nursing since I left home. There was general sense of unity with soup kitchen guests; both men and women similarly drank their morning brew, in this universal early morning ritual. I was thrilled to teamed up with two Volunteer Odyssey alumni upon my arrival at the old gothic church.  Not only does Saint Mary’s Catholic Church feed the souls of its parish but also the hungry of Memphis.

 

I was able to speak with a fellow volunteer before today, and this helped to prepare me for the journey. My first task, which I immediately began, was assembling cold cut sandwiches; I had been forewarned that our task was to simply fight hunger, not to provide a perfectly balanced meal. The diversity of the hungry people who waited in line for a meal surprised me. There where people who pushed their possessions in shopping carts in addition to well dress man in a suit on his way to work and men in hard hats who appeared to have finished a redeye shift on a construction site.

 

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Still morning, we began passing out lunch and the gratitude from the line was endless. I felt slightly guiltily as I was simply the person they saw deliver their food. There were others forces that had been passed through me to the patrons; the parish of St. Mary’s that provides the kitchen, the community that donates to support this institution and the committed people that give their time to utilize these recourses for continually fighting hunger. Representing this collaborative effort I smiled and issued a good morning to everyone who passed through.

I  happily embraced my new home and its blues influences as one of the guests encouraged me to empower my welcoming greetings with more soul. The dining tables were harmonious with gospel music filling the area. I recognized the hymns from my Catholic upbringing but admitted to another volunteer that I’m unfamiliar with the gospel classics. I was delighted discovering to be titled Memphian as a nonnative I had to learn some history. Elvis history specifically and the sounds of gospel and blues played an integral role in his story. As lunch finished the designated volunteers and many of those who came to eat helped clean and prepare for the cycle to continue tomorrow.

This experience reminded me that benevolence isn’t just about the big actions, such as building schools or changing policies; it’s also about the small actions that add up to something greater. It hasn’t taken long for Memphis to start to feel like home, at Saint Mary’s I was able to see people leave the gathering with a strong sense of community, something I too am seeking in my new town.

Waiting, but not in Vain

The famous waiting room. Image was cropped to conceal the identity of Yusuf.

The famous waiting room. Image was cropped to conceal the identity of Yusuf.

I couldn’t put my finger on the exotic smell that filled the house of the newly transported Memphis family I met today. I previously lived in a melting pot of an apartment in the culturally diverse mecca of Los Angeles, and because of this experience I was surprised by the naïve nature of my intrigue. My day’s journey began at the World Relief Memphis, where I was assigned to help a refugee from Somali, a country I have never met someone from. I also am new to Memphis, only having been a resident for ten days. I was told that the man I was assisting spoke English, but it was ignorant of me to think we would have an easy flowing conversation, during our drive. I took Yusuf towards downtown Memphis to the health department, this was his first time, and he would be receiving a Tuberculosis test. As we drove I unsuccessfully attempted to make small talk while successfully managing to miss every other turn on our trip. After scrambling for parking in a part of the city new to me, we hastily made our way into a room labeled “TB,” this is where the waiting began.

The first step was to assist my new acquaintance with filling out forms; this is where I had my first real chance to start communicating directly with him. We talked about geography, he knew which state Los Angeles was in, but had to explain to me the region where he had lived. My new friend was from Somalia, but had fled at one time to Uganda. Somalia lies to one side of Kenya, and Uganda to the other; which means an entire country separated his home land of Somalia and his displaced home of Uganda. I am a self-proclaimed geography wiz, and the need for a lesson on this part of the world bruised my ego.

Despite the waiting and hurried manner of the other patients, Yusuf smiled all day, even cheerful when posing for his identification picture. When he was called back for his examination I passed the time feeding quarters to the parking meter. It didn’t take long in the muggy heat advisory of the day for my shirt to become saturated. Between rounds of his appointments our conversation intermittently continued; our small talk got easier as we chatted about the weather, I even won back some amateur geography points. As he made his last trip into the clinic room, he gleefully showed me we were done with a thumbs-up sign.

As we hopped in the car that had been roasting in the heat all day he said it felt like the hot dry African climate he was used to. I turned on the radio after a long day of the dreary health department and asked if he liked American music. He smiled saying he was a supporter. I found out his favorite artists were rappers 50 Cent and Tupac. He was also a Bob Marley fan and I was treated to a few a-capella bars from Marley’s, ‘Buffalo Soldier.’ As I changed radio stations, we discovered Bob Marley singing, in which we both nodded our heads back and forth with the windows down, as we made our way to his home. At the end of our journey he turned to me, and gave me a big three-part handshake before he exited the car.

Being new to Memphis myself, I can empathize with the man and his family, but it is hard for me to fully image what it would be like to be transplanted from across the globe. This family was fortunate to be taking under the guiding hand of the World Relief operation in Memphis, which assists hundreds of refugee families every year. I can sympathize with the challenges that the family will endure adjusting to life in a new country, but I am confident in the aid that World Relief will provide and most of all in the friend I had made today. With a contagious smile and unending gratitude, I completely expect for him to thrive in America. Only one day into my Odyssey Forward program and I’m all ready day dreaming about getting to help this organization and this family on a regular basis, if all the organizations are this great I might not have much free time in my new city.

Prologue: Brendan Larkin

Growing up charity and volunteering were always synonymous with church service and resume builders in my mind. It was not until I met a young women who had overcome many disadvantages only to decide to give back to low income communities instead of pursuing a more typical American dream that I realized not only how many advantages I had, but how easy and fulfilling giving back to a community could be. Memphis is such a unique city with so much pride that volunteering here will be an immediate way to become embedded in the community while helping foster it.

I am incredibly excited to have the opportunity to do just that, not at one organization, but at seven different non-profits all in the span of one week. While there are many more great non-profit organizations with volunteer opportunities, I believe that these seven will give me a great spectrum of knowledge on volunteer opportunities in Memphis. I will get the rare chance to be able to see what issue needs the most attention and what group, cause or community I am really am passionate about. I know that this adventure will drastically alter my knowledge and understanding of the city and the community in a positive way.

I am excited to build and refine my skills in many new, exciting situations. While I know the demands of this week will be challenging, I look forward to coming out as not only a more informed individual, but more well rounded person that can bring a lot to the table at any organization. My hope is that the main achievement of this week is a renewed sprit of empathy and erosion of past ignorance for me and anyone that follow experience.