Intern Odyssey: How Blue Pompoms and Feathers Changed My Life

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Never before have I purchased something as useful from a religious institution as the blue pompom-and-feathered fly swatter I purchased from Catholic Charities of West Tennessee.

Myself and my new blue pompom best friend

Myself and my new blue pompom best friend

Let’s backtrack. This was my third day in Memphis and I woke up bright and early, ready to seize the day. Being one of the few car-less Memphians, and the only non-tourist in all of the state to take the trolley as an actual means of transportation, I called up ‘Lyft’- a community initiative in which individual members looking to make an extra buck pick you up and take you where you need to go. It is also a great way to meet interesting Memphians who are involved in community and, more often than not, they know more about the place you are going to than you do. That was the case for me as my Lyft driver described in detail all the incredible services that Catholic Charities of West Tennessee offers. His vivid explanations made me even more excited for the day to unfold.

Lyft cars are marked by pink fluffy mustaches so that customers can easily identify them

Lyft cars are marked by pink fluffy mustaches so that customers can easily identify them

After saying goodbye to my new Lyft friend, I arrived at CCWTN and met up with Kat, an awesome Volunteer Odyssey participant who recently returned to the U.S. after 3 months living in Peru with Catholic nuns. Needless to say, an awesome person to volunteer with. We immediately hit it off and were ready to rumble. We met up with Al and Ronny, two longtime Fig Tree volunteers who know the ins and outs of, well, everything Fig Tree related. Together we drove to the Mid South Food Bank-a  non-profit that works to fight hunger through the collection and distribution of wholesome food, and through education and advocacy.

Kat and I meet and form an immediate friendship

Kat and I meet and form an immediate friendship

After listening intently to Al’s description about the Food Bank’s distribution methods and partner agencies, we later transitioned into a game of “Who-can-find-the-weirdest-food-here?” Kat ended up bringing home the gold with a tin of powdered goats milk. Delicious.

Kat's winning item: Powdered Goat Milk

Kat’s winning item: Powdered Goat Milk

Then, after loading the truck with an array of foods ranging from canned vegetables to starches to soy proteins, we headed back to CCWTN. Back at the pantry, we were introduced to Gloria, the food pantry’s only employee. (It was hard to fathom that such an incredible organization that did so much in the community only had one employee. Goes to show the power of volunteers!) Together we created small bags of food that would be handed out daily to individuals experiencing homelessness, as well as bags of food for families in need.

The bag packing crew!

The bag packing crew!

What made the bag assembling experience so memorable was having the chance to hear Gloria’s life story. As a cancer survivor, Gloria’s journey and struggle to stay positive in the face of adversity, and how she turned to her church and faith in order to help her through it, was truly uplifting and inspirational. It never ceases to amaze me how faith and service can serve as such a light in times of darkness. Hearing Gloria explain the importance of attitude, staying positive, and doing good for the community, and the effect that it can have on an individual in terms of not only the spiritual and emotional, but also physical health, was incredibly moving, and a message that I took to heart and will remember as I move forward in life.

Myself, Kat, and Gloria!

Myself, Kat, and Gloria!

At the end of the day, Al and Peggy Stehling, the Fig Pantry’s volunteer coordinator, gave us a tour of the building and showed us some of the other services that CCWTN provides to the community, including an awesome clothes pantry, services for veterans, immigration services, and more! She also spoke about the different ‘day of service’ opportunities that CCWTN hosts. During its last ‘day of service,’ the CCWTN had hosted a community craft project that involved ‘beautifying’ fly swatters with pompoms and ribbons, and selling them as a fundraiser for CCWTN. Of the hundreds that were created, fewer than 15 remained, so I quickly pounced on my opportunity to purchase one! Let me tell you, not being a native ‘Southerner’ made getting used to the sheer size and persistence of the bugs in Memphis one of my biggest challenges. Needless to say, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to buy something I needed so badly, while also contributing to an awesome cause. Now every time I look at my fly swatter, I am reminded of my volunteer experience with CCWTN.

More of the bag packing crew

More of the bag packing crew

We were also extremely fortunate to have been volunteering on a day full of celebration. As it turned out it was Gloria’s birthday and another Fig Tree pantry volunteer, Melinda, had also recently had a birthday, so the whole staff was ready to celebrate with cake, balloons, and joy. My favorite part of the celebration was a tradition that the Fig Tree staff members and volunteers have of writing and reciting a personalized poem about the birthday boy or girl. From listening to the poem and seeing how the staff members acted towards one another, it was clear that the CCWTN community was a family.

Celebrating birthday festivities!

Celebrating birthday festivities!

It was then that I understood what I loved so much about Fig Tree Pantry. It was the way that the people worked together. In my opinion, the way a staff operates and functions completely shapes the experience both for volunteers and clients. The organizational culture is core when fulfilling a non-profit’s mission, and as a volunteer, you can certainly feel the difference when a non-profit’s staff respect each other and function as a team, compared to when it functions as separate units. The end result of the team/family mentality? A better functioning and more efficient organization, as is evident by the incredible and wide reaching work of CCWTN. I will never forget the respect, love, devotion, and passion of all the volunteers and staff members at Fig Tree and I am excited to be reunited with them in the near future at their next volunteer opportunity!

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 helping to create a better and more connected community. Contact us at info@volunteerodyssey.com

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Intern Odyssey: Burritos, Bicycles, and Ministry-That’s a Wrap!

Kat and I showcasing our expertly crafted Burritos

Times like this one make me regret being the (seemingly) only person on the planet who never learned how to properly ride a bike. (“Properly” as defined by spending more time on the bike than on the ground). For years it has been only a point of embarrassment, but when I arrived at the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry, an awesome ministry where volunteers make burritos, and then take them on their bikes to give to people on the street who are hungry, I began to regret never learning how.

Here you can have your burritos...and eat them too!

Here you can have your burritos…and eat them too!

One of my favorite things to do at volunteer sites is to get to know the people who both run and volunteer alongside me. I have found, more often that not, that people who spend time volunteering in the community have extremely interesting back stories. It is almost always worth asking them questions about their lives, as their answers might shock, astound, and inspire you. It was a very interesting crew of volunteers that showed up to help prepare burritos the night I was there. As I made burritos, I found myself surrounded by people from various backgrounds, like a New York speech pathologist-in-training and an avid church goer with a ponytail. No matter what their backgrounds were, though everyone was eager to pitch in.

A few of the awesome volunteers who made the magic happen

Alongside me was my friend Kat, a Volunteer Odyssey participant who I met earlier in the week through volunteering (hooray) and who also happened to have worked at her schools burrito shop previously, so I was lucky to have such a seasoned professional guiding my movements. Each of us worked as one arm of the human burrito assembly line, creating a smooth and seamless process.

Kat and I showcasing our expertly crafted Burritos

Kat and I showcasing our expertly crafted Burritos

After assembling all the burritos we moved downstairs and began packing goody bags of snacks to give to people. While we packed, people began arriving with their bikes and the room became lively with people (both old friends and first timers) twittering excitedly, pumping up their bike tires, and putting burritos into their backpacks as they prepared for their journey.

Volunteers pump up their bikes and prepare for their journey!

Volunteers pump up their bikes and prepare for their journey!

While I myself was not able to go along for the ride (I figure the first time I experiment with bike riding probably shouldn’t be at night with a backpack full of delicious but easily squishable burritos), I nonetheless felt part of the Urban Bicycle Food Ministry community and was grateful to have had the opportunity to contribute to such a unique and worthwhile ministry. It is interesting how sometimes the simplest of ideas-such as riding around on a bike handing out burritos-can be such a tremendous impact on its volunteers and its community.

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 helping to create a better and more connected community. Contact her at mira@volunteerodyssey.com

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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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Want the insider story and more pictures? Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter!