Epilogue: Miki Skeen

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As a parting note on my Volunteer Odyssey, I have to confess I am not a Memphis native. (Gasp!) Though I call myself a Memphian and I bleed blue through and through, I was born and raised elsewhere, only moving to Memphis to begin my adult life. I arrived here with eight suitcases and not knowing a soul, which sometimes shocks people. It shocks me! Often I’ve been asked, “Why Memphis and what made you stay in a city where you didn’t know anyone?” To the first question I always say, “Why not?” As for why I stayed, I think my Volunteer Odyssey helped me reconnect with that reason. I set out on this journey in hopes of finding ways to learn with my daughter through service to a city that stole my heart many moons ago. Along the way I made a lot of new friends, something I wasn’t expecting and the precise reason I stayed in Memphis… the community.

I knew before we began that Janie Kathryn and I wouldn’t be changing the world in a week.  We were just going to find ways to help people. The intrinsic rewards from volunteering in Memphis were rivaled only by the meaningful connections we made with people in our community. Each day of my Volunteer Odyssey put new people in my path, people who showed me and Janie Kathryn what it really means to serve our community. It’s true we didn’t change Memphis in a week. We didn’t “fix” anything. We just helped and met a lot of other people who do the same and THAT is how the community changes… how the world changes… and how Memphis changed us.

Thank you Volunteer Odyssey.

Week 8, Day 7: Miki at The Dorothy Day House of Hospitality


There is a beautiful, old house in the heart of Midtown that you may have passed a hundred times and never known that within its walls there are families re-establishing their independence. The Dorothy Day House of Hospitality (DDHH) provides temporary housing and support to families who are homeless. DDHH believes that keeping families together while homeless gives them a better chance of rebuilding their lives.

On the last day of my Volunteer Odyssey, Janie Kathryn and I visited the house. Having participated in the Family Fun Bike Ride that raises money for their mission, we had a little bit of knowledge of the organization’s efforts to help homeless families. We visited the house at an unusual time because the families receiving support had recently moved into their own homes. Wonderful news! Though the house was empty, Sunday evening prayer and dessert continued as usual. We met other Volunteer Odyssey friends and Sister Maureen, who gave us a tour of the house and shared many stories.

DSC05320Sister Maureen is the sole employee of the organization that is funded entirely on monetary and in-kind donations from private donors and charitable organizations. DDHH does not receive any government funding, which is in harmony with the vision of its name sake, Dorothy Day. Day (1897-1980) was an a proponent of Distributism, who believed that it was not the government’s or even the church’s place to help the people, but that the people themselves should help each other. It was so interesting to hear Sister Maureen tell stories of Dorothy Day and how she founded the Catholic Worker Movement. Prior to this encounter, I had read a little about Day on my own, even adding her to my list of notable people that I hope to one day introduce to my students.

There are three categories from which families supported by DDHH typically come. One cause of homelessness is underemployment, as in jobs that just don’t pay the bills. Another cause is catastrophe, such as a major medical expense or a house fire. Possibly the most common reason for homelessness is being born into poverty. With 6,000 babies being born into poverty each year in Memphis, the DDHH will not be empty for long.

DSC05322DDHH does more than provide shelter for its families. Families are also assisted with educational resources, employment counseling, financial advice, parenting skills, as well as access to permanent housing. The volunteers at DDHH work hard to ensure that no family has to return to homelessness by providing these supports even after a family leaves. There are many ways to help DDHH and its future residents. Janie Kathryn and I plan to add our names to the list of providers of Monday night dinner and not just to use that kitchen!

According to Sister Maureen, DDHH has four basic needs: money, publicity, volunteers, and prayers. Monetary, in-kind donations, time, or talents… no matter what you have to offer the Dorothy Day House of Hospitality can use your help to help keep families together through homelessness.

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Week 8, Day 6: Miki Skeen at Memphis Botanic Gardens

I think everyone has different reasons to volunteer in the community. For me, I think volunteering is a way to really be a part of Memphis, not just someone who lives here. I was so excited to have the opportunity to participate in Volunteer Odyssey, not just to learn more about the area non-profits, but to find ways to give back to my community with my daughter. Volunteering is a form of service learning by which children can make connections between their actions and positive results. It’s been very important to our family to help Janie Kathryn find ways to make a difference in her communityin the world. Volunteer Odyssey introduced us to many new ways to volunteer as a family.

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The Memphis Botanic Gardens might be one of the best places to begin volunteering with your children. There are several opportunities to foster civic pride and responsibility, using a charming, age-appropriate setting to do it. Janie Kathryn joined me again on day six of and we headed over to our beloved My Big Backyard.

IMG_3756Brooms and buckets in hand, we set out to Playhouse Lane. We scrubbed woodwork and windows. We picked up trash and swept the floors. It was real work that required a real effort- and not just the physical kind. It’s hard to stay focused on your responsibilities when you really want to join in the fun, but the end result was pure satisfaction.

We were hot and thirsty and tired, but Janie Kathryn looked at me and said, “This might be one of my favorite ways to volunteer.” Cleaning those little houses might have been more play than chore to her at the time, but I can see the bigger picture. When she re-enters one of those houses she will be proud to know that she had a hand in its maintenance. She will think twice before she leaves a mess in one house and runs off to another. Her contribution to our volunteer work on day six was early civic responsibility. Because she volunteers as a child, this is a habit she is more likely to carry over to her adult life in the community that waits outside the whimsical walls of My Big Backyard.

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Week 8, Day 5: Miki at SRVS

It’s really hard to be a kid. I think, as adults, we forget about that because we tend to focus on the difficulties of adulthood. But man… It’s tough! Children are self-involved little humans who have to find their way through a world that does not actually revolve around them. My child is no exception to the selfish, one-sighted tendencies that all children work through. Very similar to the annoying toddler that sat behind you on your last flight and the raucous Kindergartener that ruined that dinner you had at the pricey restaurant, Janie Kathryn has all the symptoms of an overindulged, smarty-pants, seven year old. I mean this to convey how much she is just like the kids you have or the kids you know and to tell you how nervous I was to enter the doors at SRVS and not know what to expect.

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SRVS (pronounced serves) is a partner agency of United Way of the Mid-South and provides a multitude of services for adults with disabilities. A lot of thought went into this volunteer experience. In the past SRVS has not emphasized volunteer opportunities for children. Janie Kathryn’s participation on this day was an experiment of sorts to see if opening the doors to children would be productive and beneficial or (my fear) more trouble than it’s worth. I tried really hard to explain to Janie Kathryn what it means to have a disability. At her age, examples of disabilities include wheelchairs and Seeing Eye dogs. I told her that these are examples of physical disabilities, but that sometimes other types of disabilities are more difficult to understand or explain. Simply put, in seven year old terms, many people have brains that work differently and cause them to behave or act differently than what we expect from adults.

DSC05472When we arrived, we met Allison Renner, Volunteer and Activities Coordinator at SRVS. From our communication prior to arrival to the wonderful tour of the facility, Allison made us feel so comfortable. As we walked the halls of the building, we peeked into rooms that were set up like Montessori classrooms. They were so colorful and organized- a teacher’s dream- and full of smiling faces. We popped into one room to visit with a group that would later join us for arts and crafts time. I got three hugs on the spot and several people were very interested in Janie Kathryn. She was a little nervous. Okay, so we were both a little nervous, but that was soon dispelled when our tour ended in the art room and our activities began.

DSC05268Janie Kathryn and I helped set up and facilitate a painting activity with our first group of friends. Among them was a young woman named Rebecca, who typically keeps to herself (so I’m told). I would have never guessed that about Rebecca because she immediately engaged Janie Kathryn in a conversation about school and asked if she’d like to sit next to her to paint. I could tell that Janie Kathryn wanted to paint, but was reluctant to succumb to the desire. Another hardship of childhood- kids are told never to talk to strangers and then they’re expected to immediately be warm and friendly to new people. Before long, Janie Kathryn was sitting next to Rebecca and joining in the fun. It was very fluid, like a child at art time was just business as usual.

DSC05277After painting time was over, our first group left and we cleaned up and prepared for a new group of friends (the class we had met earlier). The new activity was decorating fans, only we were short one fan. So, Janie Kathryn came up with the idea to accordion-fold a piece of regular paper, so that everyone had a fan to decorate. It worked so well and one of our new friends, Precious, really took notice and requested that we do the same for her. I helped them with the fan and Janie Kathryn and Precious sat for a long time, sorting markers and just being together. Every bit as endearing as her name, Precious didn’t speak to Janie Kathryn very much, but communicated with smiles and hugs. Again, it was as if a child had always been there.

When we left SRVS, I knew we’d be back. The experience enabled Janie Kathryn, enabled us, to step outside of ourselves and just be present for someone else. It wasn’t easy at first, as neither of us had spent time with anyone with a disability. However, the hugs, smiles, and genuine benevolence from the staff and participants at SRVS overcame everything else. It’s hard to think about yourself when Precious is giving you a hug! “Inspiring an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, or fear,” SRVS is an awesome place, but more than that… it’s an awesome feeling.

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Week 8, Day 4: Miki at Knowledge Quest

If you live in Memphis, I don’t have to explain to you the difference between East and South Memphis. In my thirteen years as a Memphian, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve been to South Memphis. Janie Kathryn, well, our visit to Knowledge Quest was her first time. As I weaved through the narrow streets, I wondered what she would take away from the experience. Would she notice the teddy bears hanging from various telephone poles, makeshift memorials for victims of violence who lost their lives on the very streets on which we were driving? Would I… Should I… Could I explain this to her? How do you explain to a 7 year old that the children we are about to meet live in a neighborhood where worse things than raccoons in the attic keep them up at night.

She didn’t see the teddy bears or if she did, she didn’t ask.

IMG_3733When we arrived at Knowledge Quest, I reminded Janie Kathryn to save all of her important questions for the ride home. We took a brief tour of the grounds, admiring a lush community garden that put our measly little sprouts to shame. We entered the main building and joined a morning assembly, where the children were engaging in a discussion about what it means to be a friend. It seemed as if we were miles away from teddy bear clad poles, in a little pocket of hope, love, and learning. Ms. Ward invited Janie Kathryn to sit on the front row with nine other rising second graders. She politely accepted, taking a seat farther away from me than she would have liked. I watched her as the assembly continued and I knew she was afraid. My fearless daughter was sitting on the front row, stiff with fear but showing nothing but confidence to everyone else in the room.

DSC05103What was that fear? Did she sense that she doesn’t belong? Did I overestimate her ability to acclimate to any environment? A short time later, we boarded a small bus with the other second graders. As she clung to me, breaking my own rule, I asked her why she was uncomfortable. “I don’t know these kids mommy. They all know each other, but no one knows me.” Of course she doesn’t know anyone! What child wouldn’t feel awkward in that situation? So, when we unloaded the bus I initiated introductions to two girls and we entered the Gaston Community Center.

DSC05114It was there that we met Mr. Jason, who engaged the children in a little stretching before beginning a lesson about tee ball. While Jason brought each batter up to the tee, I chased after the wiffle ball and practiced a little classroom management in the “dugout”. Janie Kathryn? Well, she was her usual silly self, laughing and carrying on with her new friends as she waited for her turn to bat. After all the children practiced hitting, catching and running the bases, we dismissed for lunch.

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Accompanying her new friends to the community park outside, Janie Kathryn joined the picnic and played on the playground. After lunch it was decision time… catch the bus back to the Knowledge Quest building or stay for arts and crafts time? “Oh, please mommy, can we stay a little longer,” my child begged. Of course, we stayed a little longer. We stayed and we played and our new friends took turns taking pictures with my camera.

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On the way home, I asked Janie Kathryn what she thought and if she had any questions about our experience. She replied, “When can I go back and play with my new friends?” It was the most inspiring response I could have received. By the way if you don’t know the difference between East and South Memphis… Well, if you ask a seven year old, all you need to know is that it’s nothing that a game of tee ball can’t resolve.

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Week 8, Day 3: Miki at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen

I have to admit my Volunteer Odyssey experience is really testing the boundaries of my comfort level. It isn’t easy for me (perhaps, for most people) to show up at a place where I’ve never been, meet people whom I’ve never met, and perform tasks with which I have little to no experience. Serving at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen required all of this, plus arriving at 7:15AM. I planned my arrival very carefully, allowing for extra time. What’s worse than being nervous AND being late?

The night before, I entered all the details into my phone and on day three I left my house extra early. I drove to St. Mary’s and parked in the lot on the west side, behind the church. It was seven o’clock on the dot and I sat in my car, sipping coffee and staring at the small staircase where I was to meet the kitchen manager, Ron. When he didn’t show up, I worried I was at the wrong entrance. So, I went inside looking for someone who might know where to send me.

Inside I met several nice ladies, hard at work in the kitchen. Yes, they were preparing food for the homeless, but were puzzled by my presence, insisting that Ron NEVER arrives before 8:00AM and that St. Mary’s really isn’t a “soup kitchen”. How could this be? I looked up the website the night before and it undoubtedly stated, St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen. So, I decided to pull up the website on my phone and show these women that they were clearly mistaken. When I handed my phone to one of them, she looked at me with what can only be described as a “bless your heart” expression and said, “Oh honey, you’re going to St. Mary’s Catholic Church. This is St. Mary’s EPISCAPOL Church.”

[gulp] I was mortified… and LATE.

When I arrived at the right St. Mary’s, the breakfast line had already formed and I had to scoot ahead of it to make way into the kitchen. There was so much hustle and bustle and no time for anyone to give instructions to the late girl. So, I inserted myself into any task that seemed helpful, hoping to redeem myself and establish that I am not THAT person. I began by helping Harold (who needed no help) open the ground beef.

DSC05074Living with vegetarians, I don’t often cook meat, much less 25 POUNDS of ground beef! But that’s how my day began at St. Mary’s. I stirred the world’s largest pot of ground beef- enough for six colossal pots of soup that will eventually provide 600 (16oz.) servings. I helped prep what seemed like hundreds of ham salad sandwiches to accompany hundreds of PBJs that were ready when I arrived. I was the rookie assistant to a seasoned group of volunteers that were so inspiring to me that I don’t know that my words can do them justice. While Harold, Donna, and I prepped sandwiches and washed dishes, Vera and Barbara ladled what must have been more than 100 cups of soup.

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As the second meal time of 9:00AM approached, the volunteers were gathered around the kitchen island for a little pre-meal pep talk by Soup Kitchen Manager, Ron Bezon. Ron explained the routine of how the food would be distributed, probably for my benefit as a first-timer because the efficiency of this team was top notch. After a brief pep talk, we all held hands in a circle as someone recited The Soup Kitchen Prayer. Then Ron assigned everyone a place to be. Martin, who seems to play a very integral part in the St. Mary’s operation served as protector, making sure things stayed copacetic during meal time. Several of my new friends stayed in the kitchen cleaning and prepping for another day. I was in the hot seat- that is… the place of passing out the food. Vera made sure there was always a cup of soup in my reach and her mother Anna handed me a bundle of two sandwiches and a snack to pass with the soup to each person in line. I spoke to each and every person, trading smiles with many, but mostly just kindly saying, “Good Morning.”

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I want to tell you that this service I provided, that fulfillment of a basic need for my fellow Memphians was the highlight of my day. It’s true, there are boundless intrinsic rewards that accompany this type of volunteering. However, it was the people who showed me what to do- the total strangers in the kitchen that helped me help others- who really heightened the experience. Those wonderful people, who are so giving of themselves with no expectation, no judgment, centered my faith in my community.

I think that my experience at St. Mary’s Soup Kitchen may have changed my life and I don’t know if my writing skills are adequate enough to explain why, but I do know that I am going back next week…on time.

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Week 8, Day 2: Miki Skeen at Alzheimer’s Day Services

It must be very taxing to care for a loved one who is living with Alzheimer’s or related disorders. I imagine it’s just as difficult to leave your loved one in the care of others, considering the added vulnerability. These were the two thoughts that ran through my head on the day I visited Alzheimer’s Day Services (ADS).  I suppose I should have been thinking about how difficult it must be the person who endures the cognitive decline. Still, my thoughts were with the families and caregivers.

When I met all my new friends at ADS, I tried to place myself in the shoes of someone who might be dropping of their mother or brother… or husband. How would I feel about my loved one being a participant in this program?

DSC05065Jon Burchfield, Development Director gave me the detailed tour of the facility and introduced me to the employees with whom I would be working during my time at ADS. Jon said something that really resonated with me. He told me that many friends at ADS are hypersensitive to body language.  At once, I uncrossed my arms and loosened the rigid stance that typically accompanies my nervousness. I looked around the room and noticed the gentle demeanor and warm smiles of all of the Personal Care Attendants who were interacting with ADS participants.

Jon left me with a detailed list of my contributions to the daily activities and introduced me to Activity Manager, Norrell Malone, who put me to work.  The first order of business was to prepare and serve water to all my new friends, with a smile of course. I pushed my water cart around while one group of friends was singing and another group was listening to a reading of the newspaper in the warmth of the sunny garden.

DSC05006The next order of business: Nail painting. Another ADS employee, Ms. Lora, helped me set up my makeshift manicure station. There was very little conversation during my three manicures. However, there seemed to be a meaningful connection as I held the hands of each woman. While I painted nails, sweet Ms. Lora engaged another friend by rolling cloth napkins with silverware for lunch- a very purposeful way of exercising fine motor skills.

Later, the activities switched up and different groups of friends worked together in different parts of the room. While many friends exercised and practiced gross motor skills, I helped with the BINGO, I mean JINGO, station. As a Personal Care Assistant called out clues to Civil War terminology, I helped my friends find the correct words or picture on their cards and place their paper chips on the correct squares. Such great practice with maintaining hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills! After my each friend covered their entire JINGO board, from Harriet Tubman to Robert E. Lee, we moved to another station to exercise!

VO-ADSAs my day wrapped up, I thought to myself what a blessing it must be to have such a safe haven for your loved one. Knowing that the ADS staff is working hard to carefully and meaningfully engage and exercise the minds and bodies of each and every friend must be comforting. What a wonderful place!

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Week 8, Day 1: Miki Skeen at MIFA

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On the drive down to MIFA, Janie Kathryn was putting pencil to paper to begin her volunteering journal. From the back seat, “Mom, how do you spell delivering?” When we pulled up to the parking lot of the Vance Avenue landmark, she shoved her notebook into the front seat and there was one question written in perfect, little first grade print. “What is it like delivering MEALS on WHEELS?”

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At MIFA we met Sarah, the President and CEO of Volunteer Odyssey and the wheels to our meals for the day. We also met Rick, MIFA’s Volunteer Coordinator, who explained to me the route and details of our deliveries. It was actually rather easy, but perhaps only because Sarah was driving.

You may know that MIFA provides 1,800 hot lunches to homebound seniors each day.  It’s a big job and it was humbling to be a small part of it. I thought I knew what I was getting into, but I underestimated Janie Kathryn’s role in our mission. If Sarah was the driver and I was the meal deliverer, Janie Kathryn was the elicitor of smiles.

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At each home, I repeated the resident’s name several times, reminding us both to use it. It seemed imperative. We knocked at each door, partially open in anticipation of the meal. For some it was possibly the only meal that would be consumed that day. As each resident emerged from each house, the expressions that might have been routine gratitude were replaced by engaging smiles, when they heard a little voice greet them by name. I might have gotten a little misty if I wasn’t trying so hard not to embarrass my child.

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After delivering seven meals, we returned our coolers, parted ways with Sarah, and headed to lunch. The smell of all those warm lunches will make you hungry! I asked Janie Kathryn to consider what it might be like if the lunch we were eating was the only meal we would have for the day. “Maybe we shouldn’t eat anything for the rest of the day so that we can know what it is like,” she innocently replied. I reminded her of this challenge over dinner, at which time we told Daddy what it was like delivering meals on wheels. We agreed on our intent to deliver more meals and elicit more smiles.

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Prelude: Miki Skeen

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When I went back to school and started working in one three years ago, I spent my first summer at home with my child. Ahh, the coveted gig of an educator. I quickly learned that summer is not exactly a relaxing respite, during which educators and parents rejuvenate themselves for another year of learning. If you’ve ever experienced summer break with a child you know that your days are numbered before you hear those two little words that will turn you inside out with frustration… “I’m bored.”  Rivaled only by the questions “Are we there yet?” and “What time is it now?” I learned an important lesson that first summer; plan ahead and anything can be turned into a learning experience.

This summer is a bit different from that first summer. You might think that someone who has just spent the past three years completing course after course towards a teaching degree would want a break from learning. But you’d be wrong. I think that’s the thing about teachers… they never stop learning and they never stop teaching. So, I just completed my very last college course and I’m looking forward to student teaching in the fall, but I’m also mapping out another summer of learning for myself and my best girl.

Congratulations Miki Skeen. Now that you’ve finally finished your college coursework, what are you going to do?

Volunteer Odyssey!

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