Epilogue: Atina Rizk

 

Many carry heavy burdens, but helping lighten the load makes you stronger.

Many carry heavy burdens, but helping lighten the load always makes you stronger.

Seduced by flashing lights and bustling crowds, I have always wanted to move away to a bigger city. Skyscrapers and taxi cabs make me smile. This is how I have felt since I was a young girl. But volunteering in Memphis has caused me to fall in love with this city and makes me want to stay right here for a long time to come.

It’s exciting to live here where there is such a large community of people trying to help their fellow Memphians. During my week with Volunteer Odyssey, I got to help the elderly, the immobile, the homeless and alone, adults with special needs, school-age children with their homework, people struggling to be and stay healthy, those who have lost their sight, and parents just trying to keep their families together. The number of hours I spent volunteering pales in comparison to those put in every day by the other volunteers I met.

This community is full of volunteers, people who show up monthly, weekly, or even daily, year in and year out (some readers at WYPL have been there for more than a decade), to combat whatever plagues us. One could look at all the need and become overwhelmed or give up, but the people of Memphis don’t. As silly as it may sound to some, we really do grit. We really do grind.

I cannot say enough how much I loved this experience. I plan on continuing my involvement with several of the organizations that I visited. How could I not after compulsively visiting the ReStore so many times in one week? After hanging out with the Dorothy Day House residents and becoming honest-to-goodness friends with one of the moms? After seeing Clifton smile with pride while showing me SRVS? After tasting the delights of the Church Health Center kitchen?

Stand out. Give back.

Stand out. Give back.

I may even convince my family to get more involved in our community as well. Mom showed interest in the St. Mary’s Church Soup Kitchen, and Dad wants to volunteer at SRVS. They can tell that I am happier volunteering. I always want to make a difference. Volunteers make me smile. I want to have a positive impact on the world, and while perhaps that means I’ll have to leave for a bigger city somewhere, I know that I won’t find a better one anywhere.

 

Week 5, Day 7: Atina Rizk at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality

You are a hardworking person with a family to support. You have a job, a home, a car and a truck, and are living a good clean life. The stock market crashes. Your small business fails. You live off of savings while you look for a job. Your car breaks down. You lose your house. You spend all your money to move to a new place where you have been promised steady work. The person you relied on disappears. Your truck gets stolen. You are stranded. But you still have that family to support. How are you going to keep them together?

The charming facade of the Dorothy Day House is just a hint of the architectural features within.

The charming facade of the Dorothy Day House is just a hint of the architectural features within.

 

For a precious few, the answer is the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality, a shelter for homeless families. Sister Maureen, a Catholic nun for 48 years, works to provide a stable and supportive environment for families while they get back on their feet. It’s in a large and beautiful house on Poplar Avenue close to downtown. At the moment two families live here, a mother (we’ll call her “K”) with two of her children and a married couple (let’s call them “Mr. and Mrs. G”) with one of their children. All of the things in the first paragraph happened to Mr. and Mrs. G.

Mr. and Mrs. G are victims of the recession. They are both clean cut, smart, and capable. Mr. G worked construction and demolition. He used to bid on small jobs and earned the majority of his profit by carefully recycling hardware, metal, and whatever he found in the buildings he was breaking down. Mrs. G had her own cleaning business. So many calamities have hit them that they haven’t been able to keep up. I cannot blame them.

The dining table at the Dorothy Day House is often set for many people, as members of the community often visit for dinner. The walls are lined with pictures of the families that have stayed there.

The dining table at the Dorothy Day House is often set for many people, as members of the community often visit for dinner. The walls are lined with pictures of the families that have stayed there.

I know that I would be able to fall back on my family to support me if all of this happened to me, but if your relatives are struggling just like you, how can you expect them to support you too? That is what the Dorothy Day House is to these people. It’s a place to go until you get back on your feet, a place to be encouraged for a little while; it’s what your family would provide if they could.

Mr. and Mrs. G both have job interviews next week, I honestly pray that they succeed, and I have a feeling that they will. They have never been homeless before, and it’s only been a few weeks. They seem so responsible, and are such good parents! I have never met more polite kids, which brings me to K and her children.

K's daughter's precious drawings on the driveway. The House provides stability for her while her mom gets things back in order.

K’s daughter’s precious drawings on the driveway. The House provides stability for her while her mom gets things back in order.

K has had a hard life. Her first child died of sudden infant death syndrome. She was a victim of domestic abuse. Despite her sadness, she had a steady job for many years, but she was laid off along with twenty other people during a company merger. She lost her car and then her home. I can tell it’s hard for her to tell me her story. Her children are both so bright and talented. K’s employment prospects are limited by where the bus can reliably take her on time. It’s a truly difficult situation, but she works to find a job every day. With luck, she’ll get one soon.

Homeless families are an “invisible problem,” according to Sister Maureen. They do not like to call attention to themselves, because they are terrified that their children will be taken away from them. This means they do not feel safe at the soup kitchens. No other shelter in Memphis allows for teenage boys to stay. Most of the shelters require couples to live apart. Sister Maureen has to turn as many as 100 families away a year. Thinking about that makes me want to weep, but it also inspires me give all the help I can. I hope you are inspired too.

Week 5, Day 6: Atina Rizk at WYPL FM 89.3

Looking out on the morning through the front door.

The most important thing about choosing a place to volunteer consistently is to choose an activity that you already love. Since childhood, I have loved words. You could not drag me away from a book if you tried, but my favorite thing to do with words is to read them out loud. That makes being a volunteer reader a perfect fit for me.

 

WYPL is a radio station broadcast by the Memphis Public Library. Volunteers read books (broadcast in installments), magazines, and several different newspapers everyday. The idea is that people who are visually impaired deserve to stay current despite their inability to read. Of course, other people listen in as well. After all, that’s how I found out about this opportunity– I just happened to tune in on a road-trip one day. The potential number of people impacted is huge, with a signal ranging from North Central Mississippi to the boot heel of Missouri and from Central Arkansas to the Tennessee River.

"Goodmorning! My name is Atina Rizk and along with Herschel Freeman and Karen McNeil, I'm your volunteer reader," are often the first words I speak on a Saturday morning.

“Goodmorning! My name is Atina Rizk and along with Herschel Freeman and Karen McNeil, I’m your volunteer reader,” are often the first words I speak on a Saturday morning.

 

From what I understand, assisted living communities will often have the radio on for their elderly patrons to gather around and listen to the news in the mornings. Because the news comes out daily, it doesn’t really make sense to record it every day, so the station has us read live on the air. I have the privilege of reading the Commercial Appeal on Saturday mornings from 8 to 10:30am.

Herschel is an agent for musical acts. How cool is that?! He has an awesome radio voice.

Herschel is an agent for musicians. How cool is that?! He has an awesome radio voice and reads with me every Saturday.

 

Reading live is a bit of an honor. I can’t believe the station trusts volunteer readers so much. I do my best not to editorialize with my tone, and I try to look up words that I have never pronounced before if time allows. This is great because I learn how to say words like “indefatigable” and “pastiche” which I may have never bothered to look up if I were just reading the paper on my own.  Otherwise, I tend to know how to pronounce things. In order to be a reader, one must record a demo tape, which includes a list of deceptively pronounced words and technical terms. Being the word nerd that I am, this was fun for me.

Lindel Grieb is an all-star volunteer, he's the pinch hitter when we can't read. Today he covered for the fabulous Karen McNeil.

Lindel Grieb is an all-star volunteer. He steps in to cover for us when we can’t make it.  Today he sat in for the fabulous Karen McNeil.

 

The station is located inside the Main Public Library between Poplar and Walnut Grove. With the station broadcasting 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, they are always looking for volunteers. WYPL’s call letters stand for “Your Public Library,” and that’s how we should feel about it. The library provides so many services to so many people; it is the perfect place to volunteer.

Week 5, Day 5: Atina Rizk at the Habitat for Humanity ReStore

The ReStore will even come pick up your donation!

Donating to the ReStore is a cinch. They’ll even come pick up your donation in their big truck!

The aesthetic of a home has a huge impact on those who live there. No one wants to feel that their house is shabby; no one wants to feel bad inviting their friends to visit. This of course assumes that you have a house. What if you don’t?  Habitat for Humanity’s goal is to eliminate substandard homes and provide people with safe environments while simultaneously fighting urban blight for entire communities. But this blog is not about Habitat for Humanity. It’s about their ReStore (punny name, I know!).

The ReStore’s merchandise consists of donated furniture, building materials, appliances, nick knacks, and odds and ends. It is run by Habitat for Humanity and all profits benefit it. This is my kinda place, a shop where everything is for a good cause and everything has potential. There are pieces with beautiful structure but have seen better days. This is where I come in.

Before...a little rusty, a little bent outta shape.

Before…a little rusty, a little bent outta shape.

I volunteered to refurbish the items with more potential so that the ReStore can sell them more profitably. This is what I do in my every day life for fun, making it the ideal volunteer activity for me. After visiting earlier in the week to choose items to work on, I was brimming with excitement to get started. I picked out a washstand, a retro wire framed couch, a children’s chair, and an andirondack love seat to improve upon. It was decided that I should wait until I was actually working on the furniture to get supplies because something useful could be donated at any moment.

After!

After!

The ReStore is essentially a recycling center, so there is no way to know what might come in. The best illustration of what can be done here involves the wire couch. I had a plan to cover some of the pillows that were in the home section with fun prints from around the clothing section, but then I arrived at the ReStore and discovered that several bolts of upholstery fabric had been donated. Serendipity at its finest! I think all the pieces have turned out well, and now the items will hopefully sell for much more and help the Habitat for Humanity in their mission.

Interior design is functional art that can change people’s lives by changing their attitudes towards themselves. Being on a shoestring budget does not mean that you cannot come home to something beautiful and something all your own. It just takes time, a little imagination, and some elbow grease.

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Week 5, Day 4: Atina Rizk at the Church Health Center

Looking off into a horizon full of healthy cooking....

Looking off into a horizon full of healthy meals….

I must have driven past the Church Health Center hundreds of times on my way to and from school. The word “health” makes it fit right into the backdrop of the Memphis Medical District, but the CHC uses the word in its broadest sense. They offer classes and facilities to people at a small cost based on family size and income level. The classes include yoga, pilates, diabetes management, smoking cessation, nutrition planning– the list goes on and on. I had the privilege of helping their nutritionist, Carolyn, prepare for her healthy cooking class.

 

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Chopped! These red onions went straight into the freezer, a good way to cut down on prep time during the week.

 

Chef Carolyn teaches several classes a day to members of the CHC. This means lots of ingredients to wash and chop, many little bowls to fill with pre-measured ingredients (don’t we all secretly wish we could cook this way?), and eventually quite a few dishes. Volunteering here was fun for me because I love to just knuckle up on that blade and chop to my heart’s content. On the day I helped, there were apples and leeks to be chopped, eggs to be separated, three different kinds of pepper to measure, and lots of plates to distribute.

Carolyn made brunch food– a lovely leek and egg breakfast casserole and an apple raisin crisp. The class ends with sample helpings, so I can tell you with confidence that both recipes are delicious. The class felt like a live taping of an actual cooking show, complete with the magic oven that has a pre-made version of whatever is being baked. As a person who used to pretend to have her own cooking show, this was amazing to me.

This 80-year old gastronome has many gold medals from the Senior Olympics! She showed me the pictures to prove it.

This 80-year old gastronome has many gold medals from the Senior Olympics! She showed me the pictures to prove it.

The class was extremely informative and quite interactive. My favorite tip: remember to measure the oil that you put into a pan every time. A slip of the hand can double or triple the amount of fat you use to cook! The patrons felt very comfortable asking questions about substitutions or cost-saving tricks. I love that there were young people and older people learning about healthier cooking. This class is not about dealing with existing health concerns by modifying the diet; it is about living a healthier life to prevent these health crises. Carolyn’s mentality is that, in the aggregate, “lots of small changes can lead to big results,” and I agree. I look forward to saying, “Yes chef!” in the future.

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Week 5, Day 3: Atina Rizk at Knowledge Quest

South Memphis comes on gradually as you drive. Broken glass here, a boarded up house there. It’s a neighborhood marred by evidence of neglect, that no one cares: chipped paint, litter, and overgrown weeds.

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The view from Knowledge Quest’s front door on this balmy spring day was breathtaking.

And then you come across Knowledge Quest– there are murals, a church, a well-tended garden, a colorful playground, and what seems like hundreds of kids. You can tell that people care here. Knowledge Quest’s main site is off Walker Street, and there is so much need that they have expanded to two additional locations. There are three elementary schools full of children who need help, and rather than going home to empty houses and blaring televisions, they get after-school care at Knowledge Quest.

How cool does this gym look? Its in a depression era builidng with an art nouveau facade.

The children play in this gym after school to get rid of some of that pent-up energy before homework time.

The guiding principle behind Knowledge Quest is that kids deserve the chance to play and interact in a safe environment where no one forces them to sit still. Each kid gets a substantial snack because the staff know that this is the only dinner some of the kids will have. Then the kids get to work on fun projects. Some work in the garden and learn about where food comes from, some play games in the gym, and some get help with their homework.

I helped with homework at one of the new locations, a beautiful building constructed during the depression as a works progress administration project. The class was quite full, and as soon as the students saw that I was there to help with homework, they all seemed to need special attention.

Christen was the student, but soon she became the teacher.

Christen was the student, but soon she became the teacher.

My favorite moment was with a little lady named Christen who was struggling with simple algebra, but who wouldn’t be at age 7? After we talked it over, she absolutely knew what to do and finished her whole worksheet without a hitch. She then pointed out that the little boy sitting next to her was copying off her. Christen seemed upset, but I explained that the best way to stop him from copying was to teach him how to do it too. I listened with delight as she explained how to do each and every problem to him, and led him to the right conclusion on every blank. She really had learned it, and her neighbor was well on his way.

The thing that struck me most about Knowledge Quest is the overwhelming need for more volunteers. The kids don’t just need help with their homework; they need someone to notice their talents and encourage them. Just because they live in South Memphis doesn’t mean these kids should be forgotten; they need help to realize their true potential like any other child in Memphis.

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Make a contribution to our program! A little goes a long way!

 

Week 5, Day 2: Atina Rizk at St. Mary’s Catholic Church Soup Kitchen and SRVS

Today I visited two non-profit organizations because, honestly, when forced to choose between worth-while causes, the simple answer is to choose both.

St. Mary's Church is Catholic, but volunteers of every creed help out here.

St. Mary’s Church is Catholic, but volunteers of every creed help out here.

Got up at the crack of 6:30 this morning to be at the St. Mary’s soup kitchen (can you tell I’m not a morning person?). When I got there at 7:15, Martin greeted me with a smile and put me straight to work making sandwiches. Martin is in charge of making the soup, and frankly I am impressed. It must be difficult to make such large vats of soup without scorching the bottom, stay organized enough to handle such a large number of volunteers, and act as the enforcer. This is what it is like to volunteer when the guests arrive:

Two meals are served during the course of the morning. They consist of coffee and a pastry, and then sandwiches and soup. First, there is the coffee hour. The homeless that congregate here know the rules. Ladies are served first, a rule that hearkens to a more genteel era; only one cup of coffee at a time; you may pick one of two randomly selected choices of pastry. Martin is standing by to make sure there isn’t any trouble. From what I understand trouble is an unusual occurrence, but mental health is a real problem in the homeless population, so its nice to have someone standing by. The pastries are donated by Starbucks and the coffee smells delectable. About 70 people come to coffee hour.

This pot of soup smelled delectable. A testament to the quality of the food served is that the volunteers are invited to eat it for lunch as well.

This pot of soup smelled delectable. A testament to the quality of the food served is that the volunteers are invited to eat it for lunch as well.

Between coffee hour and lunch, we ladle hearty helpings of white bean and minestrone soup into styrofoam cups so that everything is prepared for serving quickly during the lunch rush. We also act as prep chefs dicing potatoes for future soups. There are about ten volunteers, most of them women, many of them non-catholic, many volunteering on a weekly basis. Its nice to listen to them discuss exercise classes and grand-kids while doing work that keeps your hands busy.

This gentleman showed me ten different certifications for skilled labor. He has just fallen on hard times.

This gentleman showed me ten different certifications for skilled labor. He has just fallen on hard times.

Serving the homeless is a joy. Everyone politely accepts two sandwiches, some cookies, some crackers, and the soup with a “thank you” and often a “God bless.” About 110 people file through. It is nice to be able to interact with people if you wish to (I’m a Chatty Kathy, so this was perfect for me). One person explained that his life spiraled out of control after he discovered he was HIV+. Due to his lifestyle, his family will no longer accept him in their lives. He is funny and smart. Articulate and alone. You can tell he is not used to having anyone acknowledge that he is a person and he matters. He is not the only person you meet who is constantly judged. When you volunteer at St. Mary’s, you get to help people with their most basic needs, not only by providing food, but by providing encouragement with simple things like eye contact and a smile.

SRVS facilities are state of the art.

The SRVS facilities are state of the art.

Another place where eye contact and a smile serve well is SRVS. SRVS is a learning center for people with developmental disabilities. I cannot articulate how much I loved being at SRVS. They do not turn anyone away, and it is clear that there are varying levels of ability among the clients. Everyone working at SRVS is obviously passionate about their job, and when Precious, a high-functioning client asks us if we are happy, the honest answer is “yes.” How could you not be when you are surrounded by such affectionate people?

Similar words are still challenging for me. I can't imagine trying to understand these subtle linguistic differences with a disability.

Similar words are still challenging for me. I can’t imagine trying to understand these subtle linguistic differences with a disability.

After assisting briefly at lunch, we move into a classroom. The montessori style of learning seems extremely effective. Most of the clients in the room I got to help in are able to read. One, My-Asia, does a worksheet about “similar words.” She is 22, and I help her understand the difference between “too,” “to,” and “two.” In the end she spells that she is twenty-“T-W-O.” Possibly the proudest moment of my life.

The other clients in the class are very social. Especially Clifton who talks to me about dinosaurs, cars, and his favorite movies. He shows me the auxiliary classrooms in which the clients can practice real life skills including a model apartment. The apartment is typical of SRVS. It is charmingly decorated, well-lit, and comfortable. I love it here.

Clifton grins from ear to ear as he explains the model apartment.

Clifton grins from ear to ear as he explains the model apartment.

Its important to remember that the clients do have their issues. Some act out, but they are calmed down quickly because the staff know them so well. They know what’s bothering them and eliminate the issue gently. Its because there are many case workers engaging in behavioral observation, assessing what might trigger negative behaviors, and finding creative ways to teach the clients how to cope. Everyone here is so dedicated. Let me reiterate that I cannot say enough how amazed I am by SRVS.

Home at around 5 pm after 10 hours of volunteering. Today was a long day, but a great day. I feel truly blessed to have met so many wonderful people, and I hope to work with both non-profits I visited in the future.

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Week 5, Day 1: Atina Rizk at MIFA Meals on Wheels

MIFA is dear to my heart because like every other child in Memphis at Thanksgiving, I have dutifully brought cans of creamed corn and lima beans to school to “put the GIVE back in Thanksgiving, y’all.” Even in law school, there was one day where you could bribe the professor to skip you if you brought canned goods to donate to MIFA (watch out though, professors tend to just keep asking you questions until you have nothing left but to actually answer the darn question; just thinking about it makes my palms sweaty). Despite years of donations of food though, I have never donated my time at MIFA. This is what it is like:

Many many meals soon to be on wheels.

Many many meals soon to be on wheels.

Upon my arrival at 9:30 am, I am instantly struck with how well organized and well prepared everyone is. There are about 32 routes for the day with numbered coolers and many of them have already been picked up for delivery. While I am getting squared away, other volunteers come pouring in to get their cargo. It’s nice to see so many like-minded people in one place. One woman brought her child to help her, which I think is just wonderful.

A kind gentleman named Rick helps me with some paperwork, makes sure that I am insured and have a valid driver’s license, and then explains what to do. Pretty simple. Follow the directions that include the names and addresses of those who need the meals and deliver. Each person gets a carton of milk, a chicken breast with a lovely curry sauce, steamed squash, mashed potatoes, bread, and my personal favorite, a ginger bread man!

Me and Rivers loading up (no comments about lifting with a rounded back, I was getting situated)

Rivers and I loading up (no comments about lifting with a rounded back, I was getting situated!)

Rivers Powers, who blogged here a few weeks ago, comes along to read the directions. It is definitely good to have someone with me because Memphis’ streets are a bit difficult to navigate. The route, lucky number 17, is generally efficient in taking me from house to house. Further proof that MIFA is well organized is that every recipient has her/his door open. They must be predicting what time we will arrive.

Empty coolers. Could have dumped them on Rivers. Wasted opportunity.

Empty coolers. Could have dumped them on Rivers. Wasted opportunity.

In less than an hour and a half, our coolers are empty. We have been invited into several homes to say hello or to put the food on a table because its difficult to balance the whole meal in one hand while moving with a cane or a walker. We are always greeted with smiles and thanked heartily.  Volunteering at MIFA is a pleasure and impacts so many people in such a short time, a truly satisfying experience.

Prelude: Atina Rizk

Towards the end of my graduate school experience, there was a sudden and palpable sense of desperation as everyone began to look for a job. Not a summer job, not a seasonal job wrapping gifts, but an actual grownup job with benefits and career prospects and, gasp, a salary. I counted myself lucky because I got to bypass all of that, having been selected to be a direct commissionee into the Army JAG Corps.

My primary goal in joining the Army is to help people, soldiers, who are going through some of the most challenging times of their lives as they defend and protect our country. Also, I would get a chance to do the same. What I did not realize is that, nothing happens quickly when the government is involved, so I have to wait. I have to wait for orders, boot camp, and JAG school. It feels like I am waiting for my life to start, and although I fully acknowledge that I am being dramatic, sometimes you can’t help what you feel.

Waiting leaves me with many empty days. Before, I filled them by studying for the TN bar exam, which is not something to be trifled with, but now I wait for news of my score in addition to the Army things. Meanwhile, I still want to help people. I still want to be the change that I wish to see, and volunteering is perfect for that. You become fulfilled knowing that you have lessened the burden on someone else, even for a moment. I am excited for Volunteer Odyssey because while I have spent some time volunteering in the Memphis community, I have never gotten to experience such a wide variety of activities in such a short period. Here’s to what tomorrow brings!