Epilogue: Rivers Powers

After Rivers had some time to reflect on her experience, we sat down to talk with her about what it was like. Here’s what she 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?

Rivers: No, I hadn’t volunteered before at any of the non-profits of my Volunteer Odyssey, and some I hadn’t even heard of before I went there.

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

Rivers: Most definitely! Before I left several of the organizations, I filled out their volunteer forms, and I’m looking forward to returning to them and helping out in a more meaningful way than just a few hours on an isolated day! In fact, I’ve already been back to one!

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

Rivers: Pretty much everyone – family, friends, strangers – I have told about my Volunteer Odyssey project has been incredibly supportive of me and the project as a whole. I was really surprised at how much one of my grad school professors wanted me to share my experience with my peers.

Volunteer Odyssey: How did participating for Volunteer Odyssey benefit you? What did you learn from your experience?

Rivers: I really enjoyed my Volunteer Odyssey. 4 of the 7 places I went to were within 5 miles of my house, which is the average distance I run on a given day. So, it was nice to go out into my community and make an obvious impact with organizations and people who live and work in the same neighborhood where I live and work. This gave me a natural connection with others I might not have otherwise felt I had similarities with. For example, I am not Catholic, and I can count the number of times I have been inside a Catholic church in my life, but I pass St. Mary’s all the time (usually when I am running), and it never occurred to me to go in there because I am not religiously affiliated with that church, but as I learned from Volunteering, that is certainly not a prerequisite or even really thought of the people who work there. Yes, many volunteers there are members of St. Mary’s, but plenty of people are not, and a very nice Jewish woman from East Memphis comes to downtown at least once a week to help with St. Mary’s outreach efforts. Faith-based organizations play an incredibly important role in the physical and emotional health of our communities, but that impact isn’t about the denominational affiliation identified by a sign in front of a building, it’s because there are groups of people who fundamentally believe in helping their neighbor who is in need, which is I think at the crux of the pleasure of my Volunteer Odyssey and helps put it to words. I get asked all the time why I do this, and the very simple answer is because I can, but more to the point, I believe in the moral/ spiritual imperative that if you have the ability to help someone, you should.

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

Rivers: I would and have recommended Volunteer Odyssey to a friend, and hopefully, you’ll be reading her blog posts very soon!

Week 2, Day 7: Rivers Powers at Dorothy Day House of Hospitality

Everyone knows that homelessness is a problem in America, but what most people don’t know is how the system works to combat the problem. Homeless shelters exist and are supported by governments, faith-based organizations, and non-governmental organizations. However, many shelters have very specific requirements for who they allow to reside in them. Some are gender specific, substance-free, number restricting (per family unit), time limited, or religiously affiliated, but very few allow families to remain intact or allow male children over the age of about 6. This is where the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality comes in: to fill this void and prevent families from being separated just because they are homeless.

Dorothy Day House of Hospitality is a great place for families, who can’t get into a typical shelter, to stay while they are getting back on their feet. Some families who have come through the Dorothy Day House are homeless due to traumatic life events, financial circumstances, or rebuilding their lives after incarceration, but the common thread they all share is a willingness to be self-sufficient and needing some assistance figuring out how to do that. Dorothy Day House has social, instructional, technological, and occupational resources available for the families to help them with school and the life, job, and financial skills they will need for independent living. Because these resources are available to women with children of both genders, regardless of age, the Dorothy Day House is filling a vacancy left by the system.

The Dorothy Day House offers several social opportunities each week for its residents. On Sundays, there is dessert and spiritual social during which time a volunteer brings desserts and scriptures and prayers are read by the group. This is a fun way to get to know new people who may not get to socialize often or may feel disconnected from the world around them. I totally failed to take photos when I was there, but I really enjoyed the Rice Krispy treats and fruit with my conversation on Sunday.

Week 2, Day 6: Rivers Powers at Dirty Girl Run

I am a runner. I am what some would call a long distance runner, but for plenty of my running buddies, my half-marathon max distance is very short. I’ve participated in dozens of races, which require lots of training, but I’ve only been out to Shelby Farms at 6am 2 or 3 times for training runs, and it’s always been cold when I have.

The only reason that rivals a training run for best reasons to be at Shelby Farms before the sun rises is to help out with a charity run. The Dirty Girl Run is a girls (of all ages) muddy 5K obstacle course whose proceeds benefit the National Breast Cancer Foundation. Maybe my favorite thing about the run series is that breast cancer survivors get to participate for free!

It was a lot of fun to work behind the scenes at a race. I handed out t-shirts to almost 600 people in about 2.5 hours. After having to say my script 600 times, I have a new-found respect for those who put on races. The last race I was in had about 20,000 participants, and I would have totally lost my voice if I had needed to go through the t-shirt sizing and bib-pinning information 19,400 more times. Actually, I would have lost my voice long before that.

Before the sun came up, it was really quite frosty with unwelcome cold weather since a mere 12 hours before it was sunny and 75, but once the sun came up, it was an absolutely gorgeous day. So beautiful, in fact, that I allowed my arm to be twisted to jump in and crawl through the last mud pit at the finish line. It really was a lot of fun, but the muddy water was quite cold. Pro-tip: if you’re going to jump into a mud pit when it’s 50 degrees outside, you should have some warm, dry clothes to ride home in.

The best way to do the Dirty Girl Run is to do the volunteer/runner combo. Volunteers get to do the course for free, so it’s a win-win for the race planners and participants.

 

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Week 2, Day 5: Rivers Powers at The Waffle Shop at Calvary Episcopal Church

I am an Episcopalian (though Calvary is not my parish) and have been living in Memphis for several years, so I knew about The Waffle Shop and the Lenten Preaching Series at Calvary Episcopal Church, but I had never been until it was chosen as part of my Volunteer Odyssey.  I went the day before I was scheduled to volunteer with a friend to have lunch and see how it all works.  Fortunately, he knew and introduced me to the woman in charge, so I didn’t have to go into it totally blind on Friday.

The first thing I did as a volunteer was wait tables, something I didn’t think I would do again, but it’s really not bad at the Waffle Shop – not to be confused with the Waffle House – even though the house is packed non-stop on Fridays for more than two hours.  Very few full-time downtown restaurants serve as many people at lunch on a daily basis as the Waffle Shop does during Lent – about 350-400 on a Friday.  That’s a lot.  From what most people were eating, the big draw on Friday during Lent is the fish pudding, in order to observe a religious tradition of abstaining from meat consumption on Fridays.  However, as soon as you walk in the door, the smell of the waffles is purely intoxicating, and I am now a waffle making machine.  I can operate 4 waffle irons simultaneously – a skill I’m not sure I will ever need again unless I go work as a short order cook in a diner somewhere.  Working at the waffle station is great!  You get to talk to pretty much everyone and make awesome waffle smiley faces with sausages or chicken hash for eyes.

The only thing better than the food at the Waffle Shop is the other volunteers.  From the busboys to the cashiers to the kitchen staff; it is a wholly volunteer-driven operation, and the daily front-house management is handled by Eddie Thomas.  She is an unbelievable force of nature.  Not only does she manage the staff and seating arrangements for all 300+ daily diners at community tables, but she also knows just about everyone in Memphis, and seats people with others they may enjoy meeting and conversing with.  Businessmen of all kinds could learn a lot about human resources, sales, and customer relations from her.

All the food served at the Waffle Shop is tasty, especially the desserts, and if you’re downtown for lunch during Lent, I highly recommend stopping by, and if you have a few hours during the 40-day Lenten season, I suggest you consider volunteering there as well.

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Week 2, Day 4: Rivers Powers at St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen

Rivers Powers at St. Mary's Catholic Church Soup Kitchen

What will the Lord put on your heart to help the poor & homeless eat a nutritious meal?

Access to healthy foods, regardless of someone’s socio-economic status is something I am passionate about, both personally and professionally.  St. Mary’s Catholic Church’s Soup Kitchen is at the top of the list in Memphis for tackling this issue on a daily basis.  They serve around 90,000 meals every year to the poor and hungry.  From 7:15 – 10:00am water, electricity for charging a cell phone, and food are provided to anyone who shows up. In addition to snacks, each person receives a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a deli meat sandwich, and 16 oz. of hot soup.  My tasks there were very basic – making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, breaking down a cooked chicken, dicing potatoes, and serving food.

From a volunteer’s perspective, the job functions are simple, but the people there are incredible.  The regular volunteer corps (especially Team Thursday) is a dedicated group of people with the most interesting life stories who just make you want to be a better person – not because of anything earthshattering but because they are genuinely good, warm souls who inspire those around them because they are simply kind, compassionate, and find charitable works to be a natural imperative.  Some people are a part of families who have volunteered at St. Mary’s for generations, and others aren’t parishioners or even Christians; they want to help their fellow man in any way they can, just because they can.  On one hand, it could make you feel bad for how little you may be giving back to your community, but on the other it helps restore your faith in humanity since you know there are people who are doing nice things for other people because they have the ability to do so.

And if that isn’t enough to give you the warm fuzzies, the gratitude and humility of those being served certainly will.  It was literally freezing when I got to St. Mary’s, and before it opened, there were dozens of people standing out in the cold waiting to be served, and when they came through the line to get their hot food, almost every single one of them said something pleasant or uplifting or even a simple thank you.

St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen is a very special place, and I recommend it as a volunteer opportunity for anyone looking to donate their time to a very worthy cause and/or to have an opportunity to experience some spiritual growth.

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Week 2, Day 2: Rivers Powers at SRVS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Prelude: Rivers Powers

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