Megan Waters – Epilogue

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Jump in.

That’s the best advice I can give you if you’re thinking about doing a Volunteer Odyssey week.

Actually, that’s the best advice I can give you about life, too.

It shouldn’t be hard, should it? There are people who need help. We have the ability to give it to them. It should be the easiest thing to do, but somehow, we don’t do it. We sit at home, warm and dry and fed, with kids who have books to read and backyards to play in, and worry about ourselves.

Sister Maureen from the Dorothy Day House doesn’t do that. Neither does Al from Fig Tree Food Pantry or Ms. Tonie at Room in the Inn. They jump in, when it’s cold, when it’s raining, when they are tired, when there’s too much to do and not enough resources, which is of course, always. There are good people all over Memphis who are working, day in and day out, to help those who need food, who have no home, who just need a place to learn.

It’s worth remembering in light of last week’s heartbreaking Pre-K vote. Even when Memphis went to the polls to refuse to pay a tiny amount of money to educate children who need it, Ms. Angela and Ms. Patience went to work. They went to Porter Leath’s Early Head Start the next day, and they sang songs about numbers, and played games with letters, and read books to Isaac and Paris and the other children.

The Volunteer Odyssey week is eye opening for those who have not experienced the vast need in Memphis, and for those who have, like myself, it serves as a reminder. That it is my responsibility to pay attention to those in need, and to help where I am able. I’m sending needed supplies to Room in the Inn and to Fig Tree Food Pantry, and I’m hoping they will let me don the Snow Queen robe at one of my nights on duty at Snowy Nights in My Big Backyard at the Botanic Gardens. All of these places, and the numerous others that are making a difference in our city, need your help too.

So jump in.

Family Matters

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“Put a pot of coffee and a pot of soup on the stove, open the door, and God will take care of the rest.”

 

That Dorothy Day quote is the motto of Sister Maureen, the only employee of the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality. The House provides temporary housing and support services for homeless families in Memphis. It is the only shelter in Memphis where families including both parents or teenage boys are allowed to stay together, and the only one without a time limit on how long a family can stay. In addition to the immediate needs of food, shelter, and clothing, the Dorothy Day House works with each family to set goals of self sufficiency. Educational resources, job training, financial planning, childcare assistance, tutoring, transportation, and permanent housing assistance are just some of the holistic services offered by the House to support and prepare families for the transition to self sufficiency. Even after the family leaves the house they are supported by the staff and volunteers, who offer assistance with any issue threatening the family’s independence.

Fellow Volunteer Odyssey blogger Dorothy joins me at the house

Fellow Volunteer Odyssey blogger Dorothy joins me at the house

I met Sister Maureen at the house’s Sunday evening prayers, where she hosts volunteers and family members that wish to join. Over spice cake and coffee, she tells the story of how the house began. In 2002, a small prayer group began to conceive of the ministry they wished to create to serve the city of Memphis. Through much discernment, they came to the writings of Dorothy Day, a pioneer in social justice, and founder of the first House of Hospitality in the 1930’s. With Peter Maurin, Day was co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, a completely volunteer based organization that provided food, clothing, and shelter to the poor and homeless. Now, there are more than 200 institutions nationwide providing social services in accordance with the catholic Worker principals, including many “houses of hospitality.” The prayer group decided to open one in Memphis and through charitable donations was able to purchase a house on Poplar in 2004. The house opened to residents in 2006, and has served three families at a time ever since.

Me with volunteers Madeline and Caroline

Me with volunteers Madeline and Caroline

As Sister Maureen shows us the family portraits that line the walls of the dining room, it is clear that she and the volunteers she relies on have saved lives with the work they do. Families make their way to the house in different states and through different circumstances, but whether they are dealing with generational poverty, trauma, a lack of education, or some other difficulty, the house provides a safe place for the family as a whole to recuperate and re-establish their independence.

 

Thank you for reading! I am looking for a position with a non-profit that will allow me to use my communication, fundraising, and special event planning skills to impact development at an organization making a positive difference in Memphis. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.

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Nature Meets Imagination

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I want to be six years old. I think it was the Once Upon a Time House that did it. Or Storybook Corner, which has it’s own Little Free Library and giant throne for storytime. It might have been when I heard the words “Snow Queen”. As in, “The Snow Queen hands out candy during Snowy Nights.”

It’s possible I want to be the Snow Queen.

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I spent my Saturday morning marveling at the Botanic Garden’s My Big Backyard. Despite the overcast skies and cooler autumn temperatures, there were lots of children running back and forth, their patient parents jogging to keep up. There were lots of excited faces, and rightly so. The Botanic Garden has created a children’s paradise, combining nature and fantasy to great success. There are mazes and swings, slides and creeks, themed playhouses and a giant treehouse. The area is designed to be fun, of course, but also to teach. In Home Sweet Home, plants grow out of furniture and appliances. The area is designed to show how plants can be used in different rooms of the house, and signs show tips on conserving energy. Kids are encouraged to sample the mint leaves and figs from the trees that line one side. The Bee and Butterfly Patios are up next, explaining the importance of pollinators to plant life and lighting the way to Playhouse Lane.

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Local artists designed the differing playhouse structures, and it really is a fantasy wonderland for little ones. In addition to the fairy tale house, there’s playhouses devoted to scientific exploration, full of magnifying glasses and other instruments of discovery. There’s a music house with built in musical instruments and a country farm house with a chicken coup in the back. The giant tree house offers rope bridges, facts about birds, and an eagle eye view of the whole area. Volunteers are encouraged to read a story, put on a puppet show, build up the giant bird’s nest, invite kids to sample the edible plants, whatever and wherever they feel most at home.

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It’s really, really cool.

And it’s about to get cooler. With winter comes Snowy Nights in My Big Backyard, a holiday lights show with music, games, beautiful holiday displays, and the aforementioned Snow Queen. There’s always an educational piece, of course, and I got a terrible case of scissors fingers cutting hundreds of paper corn kernels for the “Holidays Around the World” class that will teach kids about Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Diwali, and more.  They can learn, and then explore the winter wonderland waiting just outside. I, for one, can’t wait to see the magic.

I might even wear a tiara.

 

 

Thank you for reading! I am looking for a position with a non-profit that will allow me to use my communication, fundraising, and special event planning skills to impact development at an organization making a positive difference in Memphis. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.

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Breaking Bread

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It wasn’t as cold as it had been the preceding nights, but it was still wet and dreary and I was fighting a cold, so I took a long hot shower before I left to spend my evening with the guests of Room in the Inn.

It’s one of life great pleasures, isn’t it – a long hot shower when you’re cold and wet and tired? When you’re sore down to your bones and you just want to feel warm and clean and climb into bed?

That’s what they provide at Room in the Inn. A meal, a shower, a bed, one night a week, to those who don’t have it.

In 2010, Colonial Cumberland Presbyterian Church began their homeless outreach ministry based on the successful Room in the Inn model used in Nashville. During the cold winter months, from November to March, a time when thousands of homeless people die each year, the congregation would offer a safe place to stay once a week. Since that time, many churches have joined together to offer shelter to the city’s homeless population on a weekly basis. It’s possible you’ve read in the newspaper or seen on social media that one church has been issued a citation for hosting an evening, and several more have received complaints from neighbors.

I think if those neighbors were to spend the evening at an Inn, they’d feel differently. I arrived at Peace Lutheran to the raspy laugh of Ms. Tonie, the coordinator for the evening. Her big personality seems to be both world-weary and optimistic at once, and she made all of the volunteers feel right at home. We set up plates and warmed rolls, putting the finishing touches on dinner while waiting for the guests to arrive.

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We served dinner, handing out seconds on chicken and the delicious greens brought by Ms. Tonie’s mother. Guests and volunteers chatted and ate, and joked about the food and the weather. Marcus introduces himself with the beaded wares he sells, and explains to the unfamiliar about the work of other groups that support the homeless in Memphis, like Manna House and H.O.P.E. (Homeless Organizing for Power and Equality). Octavius reminds me of my brother, long and lanky and mischievous. He and his buddy Antonio are quite the pair, and have me laughing at stories of their escapades and hijinks all night. Keith is a flower seller, and he gives me his last rose, since I’m the youngest volunteer. We might need to look into whether Keith needs glasses.

Antonio, Keith, Kari, and Sarah

Antonio, Keith, Kari, and Sarah

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Keith and Me

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Antonio, Me, and Octavius

Marcus displays his wares

Marcus displays his wares

Guests excuse themselves upstairs to shower, where Ms. Tonie has laid out fresh towels, underwear, and socks next to little bags of soaps and shampoos, and come back to the tables, eager to rejoin the lively conversation for a little while before they give into the siren song of clean sheets and warm blankets upstairs.

It is communion, in the truest sense of the word.

Who could have a problem with that?

 

 

Thank you for reading! I am looking for a position with a non-profit that will allow me to use my communication, fundraising, and special event planning skills to impact development at an organization making a positive difference in Memphis. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.

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Hold the Mayo

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The demonstration kitchen at the CHC Wellness Center reminds me of the set of a cooking show. There’s lots of gleaming stainless steel and a seemingly endless supply of prep bowls. My first task is grating reduced fat cheddar cheese, brick after brick. Nutrition staff Carolyn Nichols and Jimmy Hoxie will do their healthy cooking demonstration four times today, at 9:00, 10:30, 4:00, and 5:30, so they need lots of ingredients prepared ahead of time. All of the healthy recipes demonstrated in the kitchen are developed by the staff here at CHC, and designed to show participants healthier ways to prepare old favorites and new ingredients to introduce into their diets.

I crushed up the crackers too. I know, I'm quite the chef!

I crushed up the crackers too. I know, I’m quite the chef!

For some of the participants, healthy diets are a matter of life and death. It is estimated that 1 in 4 deaths in the U.S. result from preventable diseases, often referred to as “lifestyle diseases”. This number increases drastically among low income individuals, particularly between the ages of 45 and 64. Diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, liver diseases, and some forms of cancer are largely preventable or manageable with a healthy lifestyle. Carolyn and the rest of the nutrition staff are an important resource for the clients hoping to maintain a healthy lifestyle. In addition to the cooking classes, the wellness staff consults with patients recommended by the medical staff, giving them personalized advice about how diet and exercise can affect their health.

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Today’s class is all about ways to maintain health goals during the holidays. Carolyn stirs the cheese I grated into a béchamel made with skim milk, preparing the sauce for a healthy broccoli casserole. The traditional thanksgiving staple has more than 300 calories per serving, but Carolyn’s slimmed down version clocks in at a mere 120. She’s also done a recipe makeover on traditional southern squash casserole using light sour cream, reducing the cheese quantity, and subbing in whole wheat crackers. While the casseroles bake, the participants go over a handout featuring tips about staying healthy during the holidays, and the lively discussion keeps the onlookers engaged until it’s finally time to taste Carolyn’s efforts. I can verify that the slimmed down casseroles are delicious!

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Yum!

The Church Health Center is dedicated to providing healthcare for low income working families in Memphis, a population that is woefully uncared for medically. Because of this lack of healthcare, more than 13,000 patients in Shelby County are admitted to area hospitals with symptoms and conditions that could be prevented by healthy lifestyle choices. The staff at the Wellness Center knows this statistic well, and are helping to educate and encourage the behavior change in those who seek their help. This issue is particularly important to me because for years I worked processing disability claims for an attorney, and I saw firsthand the significant damage that an unhealthy lifestyle and irregular medical care can cause. We can all learn to take a little better care of ourselves. I’d recommend starting with Carolyn’s Broccoli Casserole!

 

Thank you for reading! I am looking for a position with a non-profit that will allow me to use my communication, fundraising, and special event planning skills to impact development at an organization making a positive difference in Memphis. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.

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The Sweetheart of ADS

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Serving lunch at Dorothy's Place

Serving lunch at Dorothy’s Place

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Mr. Dean thinks I have a lovely singing voice. I think he’s being generous, because it’s hard to sing when you don’t know the song, and I’ve never heard “The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi” before.  It’s sing along hour at Dorothy’s Place, and “The Sweetheart” is one of many classic tunes on the docket. Mr. Dean is the first senior to make my acquaintance, and he’s making sure I have everything I need to join the group. He won’t sit down until he’s sure I have a chair. He’s a fan of fishing, I garner from his shirt, and he tells me a little about the best types of lines and lures to use on bass. It’s a great introduction to Dorothy’s Place, a non-profit day services program for persons affected by Alzheimer’s Disease.

The facility is one of two operated by Alzheimer’s Day Services in Memphis. Opened in 2004, Dorothy’s Place provides a safe and stimulating environment where friends can interact together. It’s a fun place for the participants and a respite for caregivers who typically would need to provide round the clock care for their family member. Here at Dorothy’s Place, the Personal Care Attendants are energetic and encouraging, and leading the sing along with gusto. I’ve made Mr. Dean blush by singing “Cuddle Up a Little Closer” at him, so I sit next to Ms. Mary, who has a beautiful voice. She sounds like a church choir to me, but she won’t let me listen instead of singing. I match her big smile as we begin “She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain”. Finally, a song I know.

Singing my heart out!

Singing my heart out!

Everyone here has big smiles to match Ms. Mary’s, which is exactly the intention of Alzheimer’s Day Services. They know that part of care for this disease includes staying active, mentally, physically, and socially. They love having volunteers to participate in the group activities, and I’m sure that everyone is made to feel as welcome as I am. After sing along, I join the group tossing balls around. Ms. Latice can dribble like a WNBA star, and she makes me laugh by complaining fiercely about the cold weather. The activity is fun for the friends that are playing, but it’s also a great way to practice all of those different skill sets. A small basketball hoop is brought out, and Ms. Mary scores the first goal. She laughs as her friends clap for her, and brushes it aside as a fluke.

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I’m so glad this opportunity is available for these great people and their families. My great grandfather suffered from dementia, and it was not only hard on him, but hard on my family members who were taking care of him. I just kept thinking of the relief that family members must feel, knowing their loved ones are not only safe and well cared for, but having fun. The little details all over the room show the dedication of the staff here at Dorothy’s place. There are small shelves set into the walls that feature personal memorabilia belonging to some of the friends, baseball pennants and cookbooks, cast iron tractor replicas and fishing lures I suspect I know the owner of. There are bright signs, a fish tank full of colorful fish, and pretty patterned cloth napkins I help place on the table for lunch. All of these little markers of the dedication to dignity are the perfect symbols of the mission of Dorothy’s Place. I’m just glad they let me bask in their songs and smiles for the day.

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Brightly colored napkins for lunch

One of the "Memory Boxes" at Dorothy's Place

One of the “Memory Boxes” at Dorothy’s Place

Thank you for reading! I am looking for a position with a non-profit that will allow me to use my communication, fundraising, and special event planning skills to impact development at an organization making a positive difference in Memphis. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.

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Miss Megan Goes to School

3-year-old Paris does not know who Ernie is. I think this means I’m old.
3-year-old Paris does not know who Ernie is. I think this means I'm old.

3-year-old Paris does not know who Ernie is. I think this means I’m old.

Three-year-olds do not ever sit still. They can be sitting, but they are not still. They just don’t ever stop moving.

It’s adorable.

I spent my first Volunteer Odyssey day with five little wiggly, giggly three-year-olds at Porter Leath Early Head Start. It was a slow day in the room run by Ms. Angela and Ms. Patience, due to Veterans Day. The room normally has eight little ones, and I can only imagine the amount of movement when the whole group is there. I’ve honed my reading-aloud skills over years of babysitting and helping out in my Mom’s first grade classrooms, so I felt right at home with my first task, reading “Franklin Goes to a Sleepover”. The kids giggled at the story and shouted words back at me. It was so much fun!

The kids demonstrate how to huff and puff while Miss Patience reads "The Three Little Pigs"

Here, they demonstrate how to huff and puff while Ms. Patience reads “The Three Little Pigs”

Porter Leath began as an orphanage and has occupied the same Memphis real estate, a large compound on Manassas, since 1850. Early Head Start has been providing early intervention and child development services since 1998. Countless studies affirm the benefits of early childhood education, showing that children who receive this intervention are more likely to graduate from high school and own houses, and are much less likely to repeat grades, need special education, or to get into trouble with the law.

Those statistics don’t matter to Issac. He’s just excited to have someone to play the Sesame Street match game with him, and I’m happy to oblige. As he pairs the cards together, he names the characters and counts them, first in Spanish, then in English. He’s all the way to 12 before he’s distracted by my attempt to take pictures.

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Cameras are fun!

What an advantage Issac will have when he begins school – he can count to 12 at three years old! He also, along with his classmates, knows all of the days of the week, all of the months of the year, and his birthdate. The teachers make a game of the knowledge, putting instruction into songs and rhymes during morning circle time. All of the lessons are dispersed in fun play, so these children are learning in age appropriate ways, which is great – but it also explains why they are so excited. Recess might include lessons in fair play, sharing, taking turns, and motor skills, but to them, it just seems like running, jumping, and sliding.

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All of the kids at Porter Leath EHS, from 6 months to 3 years, are either from low income families and neighborhoods or experience some sort of disability. These are children who will benefit most from early intervention because they are traditionally the children who most easily fall behind once they start school.  I was so glad to be a part of the class this morning. Judging from the hugs I got before I left, the kids see me as another friend, but I also know that, without even realizing it, I am another voice supporting them, showing them that someone cares about them and believes they can learn. Hopefully I will be another adult who, just because I will come read a story or play a game, reinforces their value and the value of learning.

The kids won’t think about any of that, they’re too busy having fun at school. I’m pretty sure that’s the best lesson they could learn.

 

Thank you for reading! I am looking for a position with a non-profit that will allow me to use my communication, fundraising, and special event planning skills to impact development at an organization making a positive difference in Memphis. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.
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If you like our work, please consider making a contribution to keep it going!
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Bagging Groceries

Sorting chicken fingers
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Sorting chicken fingers

My mom used to pass out sandwiches from the back out our minivan in the parking lot of the grocery store. I’ve donated canned goods to food drives before. I know that, according to polls, the Mid-south area is the hungriest in the nation. That 25% of the children in Shelby County go to bed hungry every night. That 91% of impoverished neighborhoods in Memphis do not have access to a full service grocery store.

I know all of that.

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But shelves upon shelves of canned goods look different when you know that there are real families who depend on them. Suddenly, hunger is right there, laid out in rows of cans and boxes. Catholic Charities Fig Tree Food Pantry serves 20 families per day from their location at Jefferson and Cleveland, and as many as 40 once a week when their Mobile Unit delivers to various Mid-south neighborhoods. As I packed bags with peanut butter, spaghetti, and canned vegetables, I couldn’t help but think of the people who might be on the receiving end. Did they have kids who would be excited about the Pop Tarts that were new this week? Would Mom do something special to the macaroni and cheese? My Mom added hot dogs to mine.

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Helping Ms. Mary pack bags

Melinda has been packing bags for more than two years, beginning when the Food Pantry was just a small room in the basement of the Catholic Charities building. The volunteers are the heart and soul of this place, and it would not run without them. Al, Pat, Mary, and Neal joined Melinda is showing me the ropes and making me feel welcome. The story of how they each found their way to the Food Pantry is different, but the reason they help is the same – they want to make a difference.

Completed bags are ready for families.

Completed bags are ready for families

The whole operation is run by volunteers and one part time staffer, and their hard work and dedication has enabled significant growth in a short time. They now place a weekly order with the Mid South Food Bank, which provides the majority of food for pantries in the Memphis area and beyond, and supplement with direct donations.  It’s a small dent in the huge problem of hunger in the area, but for the families that are served it makes all the difference in the world. As I helped sort boxes of vegetables onto shelves, or tiny hotel shampoos into boxes, I considered all of the things I throw away without thought. That though I consider myself a compassionate person, the reminder of how fortunate I am makes me more so. I should remember not only the families who need my compassion, but the volunteers who will be here tomorrow – because they could use the help.

And more tiny hotel shampoos!

And more tiny hotel shampoos!

Thank you for reading! I am looking for a position with a non-profit that will allow me to use my communication, fundraising, and special event planning skills to impact development at an organization making a positive difference in Memphis. If you know of a great fit, please send it our way: jobleads@volunteerodyssey.com.
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If you like our work, please consider making a contribution to keep it going!
Want the insider story and more pictures? Connect with us on Facebook and Twitter!
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Prelude: Megan Waters

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“What do you do?”

I hate that question.

I’ve never liked my answer. I always want to add a disclaimer. “I’m a paralegal. But I also write a TV blog! And I also bake cakes! And I’m also studying to be a clown!”

I wasn’t studying to be a clown, although I did take a class once. My point is that I can’t seem to do just one thing at a time. As a result, I’ve tried on several careers at a time, discarding some as too small, others as too big, none as just right. I’m like the Goldilocks of careers.

So here I am, trying on something new again. But this time it makes more sense. I’ve always been a helper. No matter what I ‘do,’ that’s what I end up doing. Helping people, and I love it. I also love having too much to do, which seems to be a requirement in the nonprofit world.

I believe with my whole heart that being a part of a community means being involved, doing for others. So this is what I’m doing now. I’m taking a leap.

Come see where I land!