Epilogue: Kathleen Quinlen

Optimistic for 2017
Optimistic for 2017

Optimistic for 2017

The stakes always seem a little higher for nonprofits during the holidays. Whether they’re heavily promoting opportunities for donors to give before the end of the year, trying to make the holidays special for every member of the community they serve, or addressing the needs of a vulnerable population as cold weather approaches, they often seem to be expending an exceptional amount of organizational energy around mid-December.

I think that completing my Volunteer Odyssey the week before Christmas and Hanukkah afforded me a unique experience. First, I was able to see several different Memphis organizations operating under the pressure that seems inevitably tied to anything having to do with the winter holidays. From making sure every child at the Carpenter Art Garden received a gift to ensuring that families at Snowy Nights had a magical experience, the staff and volunteers I encountered were committed to making this time of year special for those they served. While such commitment is frequently rewarding, it can also demand a lot of time and energy. That those who served these causes continued to do so tirelessly and even joyfully during such a hectic season speaks volumes about the both the organizations and their leadership.

I also felt a dual sense of purpose in volunteering during the holiday season. Of course, my primary goal was to serve the mission of the nonprofit I was partnered with each day. Additionally, I felt I could also serve by lightening the load of the staff and volunteers who were working alongside me- even just a little bit. From my own program management experience, I can recall wrestling with competing desires to plan and execute flawless events and initiatives while also wanting to celebrate and recharge with loved ones during this particular time of year. I truly learned what “many hands make light work” meant during my time in the Delta. My hope is that my few hours of service contributed to a more positive experience for those working for these organizations as much as those being served by them.

My week with Volunteer Odyssey ultimately resulted in two realizations. Until this point, I had been reflecting on the resolution I made 12 months earlier to move back to Memphis with increasing anxiety. While I won’t meet my self-imposed deadline, I have a renewed sense of optimism with which to reapproach this goal in 2017. This experience also reaffirmed my desire to build on the leadership skills and nonprofit experience I gained over the past seven years in the Delta. As much as I look forward to volunteering regularly once I am settled in Memphis, I also continue to feel the vocational call to work for a company or organization that is committed to increasing the quality of life for people in this city and throughout the Mid-South. Job hunting can leave a person fraught with self-doubt and frustration, and I’m grateful I had the opportunity to gain perspective on my situation while serving others.

Day 7: Daily Bread

Gathering at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality
Gathering at the Dorothy Day House

Gathering at the Dorothy Day House

For the final night of my Volunteer Odyssey week, I had a bit of pre-work to do. I would be headed to the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality for an evening gathering, and they had asked that I bring “a simple dessert.” Based on this single detail, I guessed that this night would be about more than doing volunteer work for a worthy organization. If people were making food for one another, it would be about fellowship.

When I left Atlanta and moved to rural Arkansas a little over seven years ago, I had no idea how important connecting with my new community would become. In a big city, a person could almost always find some activity to temporarily distract them from feelings of loneliness and isolation. In the Delta, such distractions were rarely found. As I looked for opportunities to build relationships in my new town, I quickly learned that connecting with others often involved food. After years of attending potluck suppers with my colleagues and neighbors, I began to count the breaking of bread with others as an act of communion.

Happy birthday, Adriana!

Happy birthday, Adriana!

When I arrived at the Dorothy Day House with my offering of mini-cupcakes, volunteer coordinator Genevieve Spears informed me that we would be celebrating a birthday for one of the residents. Other volunteers arrived shortly after I did. One couple brought a homemade chocolate layer cake, and a family of four showed up with all of the necessary ingredients for a serious Christmas cookie-decorating session. When the birthday girl, Adriana, and her family came in after a day out, we gathered in the living room of the house for a short prayer service.

After we prayed for the house and its occupants, each other, and our community, we adjourned to the dining room to enjoy the desserts spread out on the table. The children occupied themselves with decorating cookies while the adults looked on and took turns holding Adriana’s beautiful one month-old baby. Even as the staff and volunteers at the Dorothy Day House strive to keep families experiencing homelessness together, they also work to build a bigger family composed of all who come in contact with the organization. There seemed to be no agenda for this evening beyond fellowship with one another. Where some volunteer scenarios demand months of planning and funding and recruitment, others call for simple acts of human connection. I felt gratified to end my week on such an intimate note.

Find out more about volunteer opportunities at the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality at www.dorothydaymemphis.org/volunteer.

Day 6: All Good Gifts

Finally ready to checkout!
A different kind of shopping experience

A different kind of shopping experience

On Saturday, I found myself at Catholic Charities of West Tennessee (CCWTN) preparing to go shopping for a family of nine. I had initially assumed this meant I would be jumping in my car and heading to the nearest Target. As it turned out, I only had to walk across the parking lot and into a gymnasium filled with toys, clothes, and food. All of these donated items had been sorted into boxes by size, gender, age, and purpose, and an army of volunteers was about to make sure they all ended up in the hands of people who needed them.

The premise of the Gifts for God’s Children program seemed simple enough. Each volunteer picked up a bag and an application submitted to Fig Tree Emergency Services by a family in need, then proceeded to “shop” through the gym for the items requested. In reality, this annual endeavor takes a tremendous amount of volunteer support to collect, sort, organize, and distribute all the food and gifts. I asked Lucie Johnson, Coordinator of Supportive Services at CCWTN, if this seemingly novel approach to helping at-risk families at Christmas was a recent development. She told me that they had been using this method for years. As I made my way around the gym, I could see how much planning had gone into making this complex undertaking seem simple to the people who showed up to help out.

Finally ready to checkout!

Finally ready to checkout!

In theory, each volunteer would fill a bag for a family, check out with a volunteer at the front of the gym, and then start over with a new application. In reality, I never made it to round two. The first application I picked up was for a family with eight children, six of whom were under 10 years old. By the time I had picked through the dozens of boxes of toys and clothing to find the perfect match for each child on my list, the rest of the applications had already been picked up by other volunteers. Hundreds of bags were packed and ready for delivery in less than two hours.

The eyes of the volunteer who checked me out grew wide as I heaved my bag of gifts onto the table. “Woah!” she said. “I think we’re going to need a bigger bag,” I replied. We transferred the toy cars and teddy bears and dolls to a new bag, which would be delivered along with a box of food to the parent who filled out the application. As I left the gymnasium, I thought about the sheer number of people and hours required to successfully pull off an undertaking like Gifts for God’s Children. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this experience was how seamless it felt to me. I was thankful that Fig Tree and CCWTN were meeting a need in the community, and I was especially grateful that they had made it so easy to get involved.

To learn about volunteer opportunities with CCWTN, visit www.ccwtn.org/volunteer.

Everything in its right place

Everything in its right place

Food and gifts ready for distribution

Food and gifts ready for distribution

Day 5: Making Spirits Bright

Small man, big plan
A different sort of Christmas tree

A different sort of Christmas tree

I have always done my best to avoid falling back on clichés in my writing. Thus, I found it difficult to describe my volunteer experience at Snowy Nights in the Memphis Botanic Garden’s My Big Backyard on Friday evening. As the designated helper for the Giant Light Bright station, however, I really did see children’s faces light up. Their eyes were literally all aglow from the light diffusing through the colored water bottles they were happily arranging along segments of chain link fence. I think I even heard an occasional “ooh” and “ahh.”

I was already acquainted with the whimsy of My Big Backyard, but this was my first experience with Snowy Nights. For the month of December, the family-friendly garden space is strewn with Christmas lights and filled with a variety of hands-on, holiday-themed activities. While familiar Christmas carols play in the background, attendees can toast marshmallows over a fire pit, take a photo with the Snow Queen or the Gingerbread man, and slide around inside a giant snow globe.

Small man, big plan

Small man, big plan

The fact that parents brought their children out on such a cold, rainy night is a testament to the quality and popularity of this annual event. While I stood as close as possible to the propane heater set up at my station, families explored every corner of the garden. Several children who passed by were shy about approaching the Light Bright station until I gave them a demonstration. They then began designing with gusto.

One child spent a solid twenty minutes constructing a gorgeous diamond  design while narrating the entire process to his amused parents. “He has a plan,” his mother assured me. Later, a toddler who couldn’t even tell me her name arranged four bottles in the order of the color spectrum. “You may have a tiny physicist on your hands,” I told her mother. “Yup,” she replied. A few of the adults jumped in to help here and there, and occasionally a child needed help snapping a bottle firmly into place. Mostly we just stood back and watched the creations take shape.

Eventually the rain prevailed and the staff had to make the call to close early for the night. I am thankful for the two magical hours I did get to spend at Snowy Nights, though. When I look at the children’s museums and other similar interactive learning environments that have sprung up in Memphis since I was a child, I have to admit- I kind of want to be a kid again.

Memphis Botanic Garden has tons of volunteer opportunities, even for those who don’t necessarily have a green thumb. Visit www.memphisbotanicgarden.com/volunteer for more information.

Playground Lane with a festive makeover

Playground Lane with a festive makeover

Lights everywhere!

Lights everywhere!

Day 4: Checking it Twice

Up all night with the Church Health folks
Preparing Christmas cards for delivery

Preparing Christmas cards for delivery

Upon my arrival at Church Health tonight, volunteer coordinator Rebekah Heacock presented me with two options for helping with their annual Christmas card fundraising program. The first option was to hand write the cards and address the corresponding envelopes. I briefly described the quality of my penmanship with a few colorful adjectives, which seemed to settle the matter immediately. Rather than spoiling perfectly good Christmas cards with my indecipherable scrawl, I would be matching completed cards and envelopes to a list of names and addresses to check for errors. This turn of events really couldn’t have worked out better, as I have a deep and abiding love of proofreading.

Development staff member Ken Hall arrived shortly thereafter with refreshments. A small group of us snacked and worked through the evening, making the kind of light, fragmented conversation that happens when people try to talk while simultaneously focusing on a task. The topic frequently came back around to Church Health’s imminent move to the Crosstown Concourse in early 2017. Their excitement was about more than just the increase in space. Church Health has been spread out in over a dozen different buildings up until this point, and all of their facilities and programs will now be housed under one roof.

Up all night with the Church Health folks

Up all night with the Church Health folks

Time seemed to pass quickly, as it often does for me when I am poring over a text in search of a misspelled name or forgotten ZIP code. I triumphantly announced the few errors I found and even permitted myself to re-address one envelope (very, very carefully). Mostly, I marveled at the variety of destinations for all of the cards. Many would go to people in Memphis, while others were headed to Florida, New York, and California. I wondered how many of the people receiving these cards know about the work Church Health does in Memphis for our uninsured community members. I hoped they would understand that the cards they received represented a small portion of the funds necessary for this organization to continue providing those services and expand into their magnificent new facility.

With Christmas only 10 days away, I recalled that I still had presents to procure for my own friends and family. I regretted that I hadn’t been savvy enough to order Christmas cards that would double as gifts and also be mailed for me. Rather than waste energy scolding myself for poor holiday shopping skills and lousy handwriting, however, I reminded myself that I had an immediate opportunity to do something to help make a difference. I had hundreds of cards in front of me representing thousands of dollars in donations to an organization that literally saves people’s lives, so I turned back to my list to do what I do best.

Find out more about volunteering with Church Health by visiting www.churchhealthcenter.org/volunteer. For additional information about their move to the Crosstown Concourse, view their video online.

Day 3: Like Home

And I'm off!

Prior to embarking on my Meals on Wheels delivery route this morning, I watched a brief training video in which WMC-TV anchorman Joe Birch cheerfully informed me that I should try to make conversation with the homebound senior citizens I would be meeting. “You may be the only person they speak to all day,” he explained. I started to worry that perhaps I was not up to the task of being a singular bright spot in the day of a hungry, lonely elderly person. I wondered if I would spend the morning consumed with guilt each time I had to leave a destination. I departed the Metropolitan Inter-Faith Association (MIFA) parking lot with two coolers of food and a feeling of moderate anxiety.

And I'm off!

And I’m off!

As I delivered hot meals to homes and apartments in the Berclair area, two things struck me. First, I realized how close I was to the street where I grew up. At one point, I was less than two miles away from my old house, driving down a road I had once ridden my bike on as a child. This was not some alien pocket of the city I had never seen- it was the first Memphis I ever knew.

The more salient realization was how few of these men and women seemed truly isolated. When I complimented one woman on her front yard, which was festooned with Christmas decorations, she crowed, “Oh, my daughter-in-law put those up for me!” Several people had children, grandchildren, or other companions in the living room when I arrived. Almost everyone had at least one dog or cat.

As an animal lover, I often find myself striking up conversations with people about their pets. Today was no different. While I was admiring one gentleman’s beautiful calico cat, I suddenly remembered a conversation I had with my mother the night before. She had informed me that an elderly friend who suffered a stroke was being moved into an assisted living facility. Unfortunately, this meant the woman would have to give up her beloved cat. Even though I understood why such a step was necessary, I grew indignant nonetheless. “Isn’t having a stroke and moving out of your home traumatic enough?” I demanded.

That’s when I realized just how valuable a service like Meals on Wheels truly is. Of course, the problem of homebound senior citizens struggling with food insecurity was reason enough for MIFA to offer this program. It occurred to me that maybe one of the reasons I wasn’t seeing a lot of sad, lonely people was because they still had that important emotional connection to a home. They were tethered to the places and people (and pets) that gave them a sense of belonging.

Later, as volunteer specialist Isaiah Swanson gave me a tour of the impressive MIFA headquarters, he confirmed this impression. “The goal with all of our programs is always to try and keep people in their homes,” he told me. I wondered how many of the people I had met on my route would have ended up in a nursing home or similar institution without MIFA’s programs.  I thought of all the people who had eaten their meals in places that still felt like home. At the end of the day, I pulled out of the parking lot feeling substantially more hopeful than I had the first time around.

MIFA programs provide so many opportunities to serve the Memphis community, so visit www.mifa.org/volunteer to find out how you can help.

Day 2: Pop Up Paradise

Behind the register with Antonio Edwards

A fraction of the books available at the Pop Up Bookstore

One of my recurring career aspirations in my twenties was to be a librarian. I once had occasion to survey a whole group of librarians about their jobs, and they were all very quick to make one aspect quite clear. “You can’t be a librarian just because you like books and only want to read all day,” they told me. “You must genuinely enjoy helping other people.” As I sat in the Friends of the Library’s Second Editions Pop Up Bookstore at 101 South Main this afternoon, I decided the ideal job might incorporate a little bit of both.

Second Editions actually has a permanent home just inside the main entrance of the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on Poplar. Store manager Antonio Edwards hoped to spread the word about this surprisingly underrated bookstore by bringing hundreds of gently used books downtown for a special two-day event. The result was a cozy, inviting space with books neatly arranged by subject. Dr. Bean’s Coffee and Tea Emporium set up shop at the front of the room, and quiet jazz played in the background. I was in heaven.

Behind the register with Antonio Edwards

Behind the register with Antonio Edwards

Throughout the day, customers drifted in to browse, and many ended up at the checkout table thrilled to be purchasing stacks of four and five books for less than $20. Occasionally, they had to be lured into the building. I personally convinced a pair of Swedish tourists to come inside in spite of a dearth of literature in their native tongue. I later astonished them with my knowledge of Swedish weather (cold) and culture (setting wicker goats on fire).

During the occasional lull, I flipped through a collection of letters that Sidney Poitier wrote to his great-granddaughter and a graphic novel based on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar set in London’s East End. Many of us recalled a time when downtown Memphis was so run down that we wouldn’t have even seen anybody walking by outside the window. The mood throughout the afternoon was relaxed and conversational. It was easy to forget that this bookstore would only be around for a few more hours.

My time at the pop up bookstore was decidedly more delightful than it was challenging, yet the impact that the Friends of the Library has made through programs such as Second Editions are impressive nonetheless. Because of their support, the Memphis Public Library system has been able to overcome gaps in funding to continue providing the community with a precious resource: access to information. Second Editions is staffed almost entirely by volunteers, and all profits from the store go directly to supporting the Memphis Public Library system.

Learn more about Friends of the Library at www.memphislibrary.org/support/friends/.

101 South Main was the perfect location

Enjoying the wonderful 101 South Main space

Discarded, but not forgotten

Discarded, but not forgotten

 

Day 1: Creating Space

Stuffing gift bags for the CAG Christmas party
Cake-fueled creativity

Cake-fueled creativity

“Promises to children are sacred.” This mantra from my days as a KIPP teacher kept scrolling through my mind as I promised several dozen elementary school kids that they would absolutely all get to have one of the pieces of cake spread out on the table between us- after a short graduation ceremony. Fortunately, the cake was massive, so it was an easy promise to both make and keep. Plus, we were standing in the Carpenter Art Garden (CAG), where staff and volunteers have worked daily to build trust and create empowering relationships with the children in this Binghampton neighborhood. These kids had every reason to believe me.

When I first pulled up in front of the Carpenter Art Garden and the adjacent Purple House just before 3:00, my eye was drawn to a house on the other side of Carpenter Street with “CAG Bike Shop” painted on the front. As Megan Banaszek, the energetic program director for CAG, would explain during our quick tour of the block, the Bike Shop was just one of several lots on the street that had been transformed from blighted property to neighborhood asset.

Two almost-graduates of the CAG bike mechanics program

Two almost-graduates of the CAG bike mechanics program

For the first day of my volunteer odyssey, I got to see multiple aspects of the work CAG has been doing in this community, which is in the immediate vicinity of Cornerstone Prep elementary school and the large apartment complex where many of the students live. First, three teenage boys would be graduating from the bike repair program, which was the reason for both the gigantic cake and the ceremony. Next, the kids would decorate the multitude of bicycles housed in the Bike Shop in preparation for the afternoon’s culminating event: the first annual Christmas bike parade.

Over the course of the afternoon, I could see evidence that the kids who participated in the programs offered at the Carpenter Art Garden felt safe and nurtured there. They were open and confident with adults, even when talking to a stranger like me. Older children were clearly empowered to assume leadership in group activities. I observed them helping younger kids with their bikes and settling little squabbles that inevitably erupted during the afternoon. Everyone participated in the creative process of decorating their bikes and themselves for the parade.

I finished my afternoon in the Purple House by helping stuff hats and gloves into gift bags for all of the kids to receive at a Christmas party the following day. Just inside, a volunteer helped some teenagers prepare for the ACT. On the front porch, a group of middle schoolers waited to be picked up for a basketball game. As I wrapped up my time there, it occurred to me that what CAG offers to the neighborhood kids goes much deeper than arts-based programming and good winter hats. I was reminded that sometimes the best way to invest in your community is simply to create space for growth- be it creativity, leadership development, or building trust.

To learn more about the Carpenter Art Garden, visit www.carpenterartgarden.com.

Stuffing gift bags for the CAG Christmas party

Stuffing gift bags

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Bikes decorated and ready for the parade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Binghampton neighborhood pride

Binghampton neighborhood pride

First Annual CAG Bike Parade

First Annual CAG Bike Parade

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Prologue: Kathleen Quinlen

Life on the Mississippi
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Life on the Mississippi

I think of myself as a Memphian. After all, I spent the first 18 years of my life in this city. I went ice skating at the Mall of Memphis, ate my weight in Danver’s cheeseburgers, and still refer to the flagship university as “Memphis State.” But after spending 18 subsequent years living elsewhere, I realize that much has changed in the city I still think of as home.

For the past seven years, I have been living and working in the rural Arkansas Delta. I started there as a public school teacher, then transitioned into a program director role at the county chamber of commerce three years ago. Over the course of my time in the Delta, I developed a love for working in the public and nonprofit sectors. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had found my calling- at least vocationally. At the same time, I also felt the pull to return to the place I was born and raised.

Almost a year ago, over a long New Year’s Day lunch with friends, I made a single resolution: to move back to Memphis before the end of the year. My reasons for doing so were numerous, but at the top of the list was the visible growth and progress that Memphis has made over the past decade. As I began plotting the course for my move back, I was both pleasantly surprised and a bit intimidated by the expanse of the nonprofit landscape that had evolved since I left in the 90s.

Since I would be looking for a new job to go along with this move, I reached out to my friends and family for help connecting with philanthropically-minded Memphians who might be able to point me in the right direction. After a couple of fruitful meetings, one name and organization emerged as the consistent refrain from all of these people: Sarah Petschonek, Volunteer Odyssey.

After meeting with the Volunteer Odyssey team, I was convinced that the Job Seeker program was an experience I could not pass up. I am eager to learn more about a handful of the dynamic organizations currently driving positive change in Memphis, and I’m excited about the variety of experiences I will have. More importantly, I welcome the opportunity to contribute something positive to benefit others during the otherwise typically self-centered process that is job seeking.

Ultimately, I am hoping to rediscover the city I once thought I knew so well and to acquaint myself with the people who call it home.