Epilogue: Kevin Nowlin

After Kevin 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?
Kevin: I volunteered with MIFA many, many moons ago. MIFA is such a wonderful organization and I was happy to deliver Meals on Wheels again.
Volunteer Odyssey: Will you continue to volunteer for any of the organizations now that your week is over?
Kevin: I would definitely love to return to all of them on a regular basis if time permits. I certainly want to honor the organizations that have given me so much inspiration over the past week by continuing to serve them.
Volunteer Odyssey: What kind of reactions did you get from your family and friends during your Volunteer Odyssey week?
Kevin: My family and friends were unbelievably supportive during my time with Volunteer Odyssey. Often I would get messages of encouragement and gratitude for the work I was doing. I think because of my experience, and the positivity of my interaction with the community, there will probably be more people wanting to sign up for Volunteer Odyssey than the small staff will be able to accommodate.
Volunteer Odyssey: How did participating for Volunteer Odyssey benefit you?
Kevin: The most significant benefit I received from the program was the networking. There are amazing people all around this city and I am convinced that I would have never been able to meet them otherwise. I have made connections with people that I will continue to share life with for a long time to come. Another notable benefit to the program is the writing. Blogs are due almost immediately so creative writing doors were opened that I thought were forever closed. Now, I look forward to writing and I don’t feel like everything I write has to be mechanical or academic. There is freedom in expressive writing. Give it a try!
Volunteer Odyssey: What did you learn from your week during Volunteer Odyssey?
Kevin: The experience has helped me to become more attractive to potential employers, which is a major component of the program, but mostly I learned that serving the community is much more fulfilling than finding a job. I look at the community in a different light and I see that people can, and should, be served daily no matter what you are doing.
Volunteer Odyssey: Would you recommend Volunteer Odyssey to a friend?
Kevin: Without a doubt. Anyone looking for a renewed perspective and a positive experience must participate.

Week 3, Day 6 : Kevin Nowlin in the Heart of Memphis

6:00am, amid winter making its final stand, is a frigid, dark and lonely time to be walking the streets of downtown Memphis. I had this idea, albeit nothing new under the sun, to spend a weekend downtown with nothing in my pockets other than my ID. What do you do when you have absolutely nothing? Where do you sleep? How do you eat? What does that experience feel like? Fortunately, I had friends advise me this was not safe and there were other ways to understand what it means to be homeless. I didn’t want to be “homeless” for the sake of some witty and brave social experiment, but because my heart hurt for people who lived on the street and I needed to feel what they felt. This was almost a year ago but the idea never really left my thoughts. Then an opportunity for a test run presented itself just before I was to start my Volunteer Odyssey. Everything was in place for my 7 day week except that Saturday’s NPO location had not yet been finalized. I mention the idea to Sarah Petschonek, the creative brain and driving force behind Volunteer Odyssey, and she loved it. Instead of a full weekend we decided that I could just be dropped off downtown in the wee hours of the morning and try to find two meals before I went home. That felt like a reasonable idea. So that was the plan and that’s what I did.

At 5:45am I find myself on my own at the corner of Union and Monroe with no clear plan or direction. All that was in my pocket was a cell phone and an ID. Most of the homeless folks have cell phones, so I have mine in case of emergency. I hadn’t eaten, showered, or combed my hair and I did not sleep much the night before, so I wore the “tired, exhausted, and disheveled” look well. I looked rough. The walk down Monroe toward the Mighty MS is invigorating and the fact that there is almost no sound brings a peace I haven’t felt in a while. There was freedom in knowing that I could essentially walk anywhere and do whatever I pleased. There was freedom in having my phone on silent and having a block of time where there wasn’t much to plan or organize mentally. I make my way through Court Square and plop down on a wet bench. There is a guy slumped over on a bench near me in what looks like an attempt to sleep. It has to be uncomfortable but it seems to be working for him. He never stirs as the waking sounds of morning slowly hum. I was hoping to meet some people here for conversation and take my mind off of the cold but I press on. Next stop is Confederate Park. It’s a scenic and tranquil spot to sit down and watch barges, or the occasional kayakers, roll on down the river; but, still there is minor activity. I see the Memphis Visitors Center down to the right and start trekking that way. I know that VCs often have free hot coffee and my plan is to score a cup. Of course, they don’t open until 7:00am and it’s now 6:45am, so I walk the path further north along what will soon be a Greenway. There’s a poster with renderings of what the Greenway will be and I think this will be a nice spot to hang out when you’re walking around with nothing to do. Free coffee is not an option at the VC so I decide to head south along Riverside Drive. Walking past Beale Street Landing and circling back by the University of Memphis Law School I gain some insight as to what I came down to discover… loneliness and boredom.

The sun is well up, although completely snuggled behind a gray blanket, and I make my way back to Confederate Park. The residents of downtown (those who obviously have an established address) are milling about. Some are running, walking, drinking coffee, and just enjoying the morning. Here I get another sense of what is means to live on the street… isolation. Because I did a fair job of looking like I was a nomad, people would not make eye contact or acknowledge my existence. Some people would even cross the street as to avoid walking directly past me. Occasionally, someone would offer the courtesy of a ‘good morning,’ but for the most part people did not engage me. I don’t say this to speak ill of our citizens, I say this to address the reality that we all have been a part of. Everyone has their philosophy on this type situation and we all struggle to make peace with ourselves even though we feel disappointed when we avoid people. It’s ok. Most of us can’t identify with that level of poverty and we don’t know what to say or how to help. None of us care for socially awkward situations.

This awareness just makes me love people even more, which brings me to someone who will now forever have a special place in my heart: David. At this point I was really in need of some interaction and advice on where I could find hot meal, although I already knew of one place for sure. As I head in the general direction of said meal, David asks me for some change. Even though I may look homeless to everyone else, David senses I’m an outsider and engages me in conversation. Thankfully I am able to honestly say that I don’t have any change, or at least not the kind that jingles. I tell him I’m just looking for something to eat and he immediately takes me under his wing. David walks me toward St. Mary’s, the direction I was headed in the first place, and advises that’s the place to be. People would be hanging out there, drinking coffee, until 9:00am when lunch is served. At St. Mary’s I shamelessly grab the last cup of coffee. In hindsight, I should have given it to someone else, but I didn’t. The mood at St. Mary’s is calm and soulful. There is gospel music playing over the speakers and people seem to be in good spirits. We wait around for soup and I listen to people talk about the Tigers (aka Cardiac Cats) and Grizzlies. There is more pride in the way they talk about Memphis than I hear from other Memphians. My soul rejoices! After soup I ask David if I can tag along while he makes the mornings’ rounds. He is more than happy to have a friend by his side and we head back to Confederate Park. David tells me his only plan for the morning is to sit on a bench at the park and just enjoy the morning. What a concept! He says the secret to lasting peace and fulfillment is just “letting go;” a concept that has taken him almost 65 years to understand. The remainder of the morning is filled with talk about David’s trials and tribulations. He was once a successful entrepreneur and had more money than he knew how to spend. But, after his father’s house burned down and his mother passed away life just took one unfair turn after another; some of it his doing, admittedly. David is quite a fisherman and his expertise is confirmed to me by the details I remember from fishing with my grandfather. We laugh until we almost cry as he tells me about this turtle he caught one time and how he was trying to make sure it didn’t bite his finger off. There is quite a bit of wisdom in the way he discusses a range of topics including local business, politics, and humanity. I feel overwhelming love for David. Not in the compassionate sense, but the kind you feel when you meet someone you instantly connect with and hope you remain friends with forever.

A friend of David’s walks over and they laugh and make plans for the day. I sense our time is coming to a close, so we hug and exchange ‘I love yous’ and part ways. I promised I’d catch up with him another time and intend to make good on that. It’s close to 11:00am, and though I wanted to hang out all day, I feel I’d had enough to shift my perspective. For now.

The “walkabouts” downtown have pride and are respectful of privacy; therefore, I opted to take only pictures of what you see below.

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Week 3, Day 5: Kevin Nowlin at Catholic Charities of West Tennessee

Ms. Gloria is a very precise person. She runs the food pantry at the Catholic Charities of West Tennessee (CCWTN) and it’s a very tight ship. CCWTN is a nutritional food source from single persons to families of 8. All of the food that comes to the food pantry from the Mid-South Food Bank, which supplies food to over 300 organizations in the Memphis area, is carefully inspected for current dates and such. Then all of the food is organized accordingly so that the freshest food goes out first. Every morning Ms. Gloria comes in and checks the refrigerator and freezer temperatures to make sure the food has been properly preserved overnight. Then she takes inventory of the canned and packaged food stuffs to see what needs to be put to use that day. It’s rare to see people who take such pride in the details of their job. Ms. Gloria is also one of the most kind and gentle souls you’d ever meet and you would trust your life to her only after being acquainted a few minutes.
We start the morning by making “walkabout” sacks to hand out to individuals. These are for people who have no home and no kitchen appliances/utensils but still need a hearty meal. I’m impressed to see that the first items to stock in the sacks are Ensure Vitamin and Protein shakes. When I think about giving free meals away too often my mind leads me to believe that the only free food stuffs to give away are lower-quality, bare-bones survival food. Oh, was I sorely mistaken and I’m sure glad I didn’t say that out loud. As we finish the “walkabout” bags we continue on to filling larger orders and I’m still further astonished by the thought and care that goes into the work. My reference list tells me how to fill boxes for families ranging from 2 to 8 members who do have access to a kitchen. There are fruit, vegetable, carbohydrate, and protein minimums that MUST go into each box. Immediately I take to just grabbing whatever I can reach and start filling the boxes because I want to get things quickly as to impress Ms. Gloria and Judy (another generous volunteer who has now joined our efforts). “Whoa, whoa, whoa,” I hear from across the room. I know that command all too well and I stop in my tracks. It’s unlikely that cry was intended for anyone else and I sense Ms. Gloria making her way over to me. “Mixing the same food from different vendors might make the meal taste weird. Would you want your food to taste weird?” I agree with her theory and I calmly start thinking a little more deeply about what I presumed to be an easy task. At the same time I’m given creative freedom as to what I stock. Ms. Gloria tells me to choose food that I would prefer and to stock those items when I’m in a stocking quandary. With that said, there will be quite a few people eating rich, pasta-based dishes this week. YUM!
Often I have posited myself in thought-based experiments where I have nothing. No home, no money, and no food. In my mind, I feel like I should just be grateful for anything I get (and we all should), but that’s not the philosophy at the CCWTN food pantry. I have learned a much needed respect for not just giving to people in need, but giving your best. I have also learned that it is ridiculous for me to look at the stocked shelves in my pantry and fridge and say to myself whiningly, “there’s nothing to eat!” I’m not alone; you know who you are.

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What will tomorrow bring?

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Proper documentation is key!

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Getting to know my reference list.

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Week 3, Day 3: Kevin Nowlin at Memphis Botanic Gardens

Polystichum achrostichoides. Say that 5 times as fast as you can. For the other 99% of us who have no clue how to decipher that conglomeration of letters, it simply means Christmas Fern. The Botanic Gardens (BG) is renowned for the rich and lush greenery that garnishes the land just off of Cherry Rd near Audobon Park. Being a big fan of gardening and all things botanical, naturally (pun intended), I was excited to give some of my time to a little “green thumbing.” My newfound partner in crime, John Cook, is with me again today. His experience at BG two weeks prior was so moving that he is now destined to become a farmer; or so he says. I kind of hope he does. We need more farmers. Maybe I’ll work as a hired hand on his farm someday.

We stroll into the gardening office, after somehow managing to guzzle 25oz of coffee in the short 3 miles from my house, ready to rock! We meet Manny, who has one of those larger-than-life personalities and after tidying up some of the morning’s details he gives us a tour of the grounds. Manny shows me an array of plants and flowers whose names I will never remember but whose beauty I won’t soon forget. When I reflect on my gardening experiences I mostly think of a tranquil and slow-paced setting (like the kind I do at home); however, after seeing all the work that has to be done at the BG in such a short window before springtime really hits is almost overwhelming. Luckily, it didn’t all have to be done that day. As Manny gets us settled into the workplace he tells us a little about his career in comedy, “the good ole days” as he refers to it and “short-lived.” Sadly, he wasn’t willing to give us any of the routine because there’s work to do and when it comes to gardening the right way, Manny is no joke. There is a precise manner in which we are to transplant the ferns and as he explains the necessity of the precision, it makes perfect sense. There is a natural and sensible order to transplanting, so I spend a little more time pruning than I probably should have out of fear of messing up a transplant. Then I remember that I came to play in some dirt and dirt don’t hurt.

The weather is perfectly warm under the greenhouse and the volunteers John and I are working with are full of lively conversation. We worked nearly an hour past our scheduled time because the work and the company were so pleasant. I have to remind myself that gardening days are not always like this and the crew at BG worked through a long, cold, and gray winter to arrive at a day like this. Either way, I would have enjoyed the work no matter what the weather was like. I suspect I will return to the Botanic Gardens. I need my botanical social life as much as I need the regular social life.

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Everyday I be shuvelin!

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Wisdom from an experienced gardener.

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Classic Manny

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Week 3, Day 2: Kevin Nowlin at SRVS

SRVS is one of those places when you walk in, you immediately feel the positive energy flowing.  While I was signing in at the front desk, and exchanging smiles with the employees passing by, I knew it was going to be a great day.  Cheryl greets me in the lobby and takes me on a tour of the facility.  The facility is under construction due to some flood damage that occurred a while back but it still looks great.  I see the modern classrooms that are adorned with current learning technology and I wave at many people I have never met before.  There is happiness and joy on the faces of EVERYONE I encounter.  Cheryl explains to me that SRVS has recently adopted a Montessori style curriculum to better engage and enrich the lives of their clients.  I think it’s a great plan and I will be excited to hear about the continued success of the curriculum.  Because of the flooding, the classrooms had to be cleared out so that new flooring could be laid and walls painted.  This is where my mission for the day comes in: to move the boxed up classrooms into an area where they can be unpacked and rearranged to go back into the classrooms.  Even though my work is mostly behind the scenes, I know it’s important, so I accept the mission.

Fortunately I won’t be alone in my work, I have Astrid and Allison keeping me company.  It’s instantly clear to me that they are both people with big hearts and a passion for working with the clients at SRVS.  I’m in good hands.  Another part of my day that I’m stoked about is seeing my good friend, Laura Tumminello.  Laura is a board member at SRVS and her son, Gabe, is a client.  I’ve wanted to hear more about her story with SRVS for quite a while and I knew today was that day.  As Laura puts it, “SRVS saved my son’s life!”  Since I could write a book on her story (and I probably should) I will sum it up this way: SRVS is a rare, full-service facility that has the capabilities to give the attention and augmentation to disabled adults that they deserve.  The story impacted me so deeply I could scarcely write about it the same day.  It made me realize how much I take for granted with my son.  Not anymore.

I made several new friends, laughed a lot and gave a few hugs.  I can’t wait to go back when the classrooms are finished and work on some art and music projects.  If you want to meet some of the greatest people in Memphis, spend a few hours at SRVS.

Hard at work reorganizing

Superheros at heart!

Kevin and Laura

Laura is truly an inspiring person!

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Restocking Shelves

Restocking the shelves.

 

 

 

Week 3, Day 1: Kevin Nowlin at MIFA

MIFA is one of those longstanding beacons of goodness in the Memphis area. It would be difficult to find a Memphian who hasn’t at least heard the name and it’s almost assured that those Memphians have passed the “hard-to-miss” building where Peabody Ave wriggles into Vance Ave. The weather is cold and gray with some rather ominous clouds lurking just over the Mississippi, but I’m “running on Dunkin” so, the world is right. I walk in to meet a tall, gentle natured and well-spoken man named Rick. He is expecting me and proceeds to give me a quick orientation of the task at hand. Did you know that MIFA employees show up at 3am to start preparing hot lunches for the delicate citizens that do not have the ability, one way or the other, to get them? This is some serious dedication. Rick identifies two coolers, and their contents, that will be traveling with me that day. They are filled with hot veggies, meat, milk, bread, and pudding… I was actually getting hungry just looking at it all. By this time, I’m getting a little antsy about where I’m going and the best way to reach the people I will be serving. I’m a logistics kind of guy; I NEED to know these things. Rick continues to impress me by handing over a line-item sheet that has names, addresses, cellular telephone numbers, succinct directions from one location to the next, and specifics on which food stuffs will be delivered at each location. MIFA could not make the process any simpler and this puts my mind at ease so I can keep my focus on service.

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And we’re off! John Cook, a veteran Odyssey volunteer, is my chauffeur for the day. Even with clear directions, some of the locations have hard to read street numbers, if any at all. Even though our first stop is down the street from MIFA, it takes us a solid 10 minutes to figure out where we are going. Knowing this is not the time for machismo; I get out and ask a sweet elderly woman for directions. She doesn’t seem to know where we are going but is certain we are in the vicinity. With a big grin on his face, John waves me back over to the car. Apparently, directions are useless if you don’t actually READ them. Needless to say, we realize the error of our ways and quickly make amends to our navigation. I’m invited into the first domicile. We exchange pleasantries and I ask if there is anything else I might be able to help with while I’m there. My invitation is politely declined but it is clear the woman is in pain and cannot get up. This is only the first stop and I just want to forego the rest of the route to stay and help her with routine tasks that we take for granted. At the next stop I walk around an apartment complex for a couple of minutes searching for the right number. As I’m handing the next person their meal I open the security door too far and accidentally unhinge the hydraulic that pulls the door shut (you know, the mechanism we put a penny or quarter in to hold the door open). The gentleman gives me the appropriate glance and I proceed to rectify the situation. I’m smiling, but inside I’m feeling the fluster that comes with maintaining composure while exerting great strength and precision as fresh caffeine courses my veins. The repair happens quicker than I expect but not as presently as I want. Graciously, I am sent on my way with an approving smile that can only come from years of experience and wisdom. The rest of the journey is placid. The genuine smiles and ‘thank yous’ make the whole experience worthwhile. The gratitude these people have for something that most of us acquire so readily is enlightening, to say the least. If you can spare at least one hour out of your week, you should. Meals on Wheels is a simple task, yet vital to so many people. MIFA has done a phenomenal job of implementing a timely delivery system that anyone can take part in.

Week 3, Day 7: Kevin Nowlin at Dorothy Day of Hospitality

Today was my final day of the Volunteer Odyssey. This week has afforded opportunities that I never would have had otherwise, and I’m a better person on many levels for it. I reflect on the week as I drive over to the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality (DDHH) and I wonder how I will be serving when I get there. Sister Maureen greets me at the back door and says that she has been anticipating my arrival and invites me in. The very first room to the right, when you walk in through the back, is a large kitchen that has an expansive island-top and multi-eye gas burning range stove. This is where I figure I’ll be working even though I’m not entirely certain what my serving capacity entails. We continue on through this large and beautiful house to the main sitting area and take a seat on the couch to wait for the others to arrive. Sister Maureen has a tranquil and tender countenance and she gives me the history and current progress at the DDHH. The DDHH of Memphis was founded in May of 2006 by a group concerned citizens that wanted to fill in some of the housing gaps for the homeless. The DDHH’s mission is to keep homeless families together during times of hardship until a more solidified financial situation is formed. The DDHH has particular set of guidelines for the families that they accept. For instance, they will not take in people that have a problem with drugs, alcohol, or domestic abuse. As Sister Maureen puts it, “we are not social workers, just caring Memphians.” The type of families living at the DDHH could be anyone of us who have experienced some type of uncontrollable catastrophe rendering us completely vulnerable with nowhere to turn. Sister Maureen also explains to me that on any given day there are approximately 214 homeless families in the Memphis area. That’s a difficult fact to digest, especially when I see so many vacant homes on the market for months and months and even longer still. Sister Maureen regretfully turns away up to 100 families a year. She is working on compiling grant writing resources in hopes that a financial windfall will allow her to purchase the two rather large homes across the street for further family housing.
At this point the sitting area fills with more people, some living there, and some visiting. I meet the families living there and others who are they to just share time and fellowship. A circle is now forming and we are all handed a sheet of paper with hymns and prayers to follow along with and read out loud. I now realize I am not here to serve in the sense that I have served most of this week, but to offer my time in spirit, prayer, and conversation. That is a service with which I am well-versed and grateful to give. At the end of prayer and scripture there is time to reflect and offer thanks for our blessings. One of the single moms offers thanks for her new job at FedEx and we offer thanks with her. She had been on the job hunt for a while and had several promising positions fall through at the last minute. It was clear that this job came at the right time and her smile spoke more than I could write here. We close with the Lord’s Prayer and move on to dessert. I spend the majority of the remainder of the evening in the kitchen talking with two of the single moms that live in the house as the kids play outside in the freezing cold and blustery winds. One of the moms looks soulfully out the window as the kids shoot hoops and throw the football. She explains that this season of life has been difficult because she does not have transportation and her kids are two different schools and the process of getting student bus passes has been tumultuous. The strain wears her out but she is hopeful about the future and excited to finish her continuing education in a few weeks. Even though the transition is difficult for the families, I see they are happy to have each other and that life is heading into a positive future.

Keeping families together is so important. I offer thanks for the DDHH.

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Sister Maureen

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Silly faces for the camera!

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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.