Thursday, May 27, 2010

March Madness Week 2: ND, St. Joseph's College, UGA, LUC

Week 2 of March Madness certainly lived up to its name as we welcomed four different colleges: The University of Notre Dame from South Bend IN, St. Josephs College from Maine, The University of Georgia, and Loyola University Chicago. All in all there were 39 volunteers! It was our largest group together as Farm Managers to date. It also marked a few special arrivals and anniversaries. For Jamie, it marked an exciting time as we finally welcomed a group from Maine, home of the GREATEST VACATION DESTINATION EVAH (Portland, ME). For myself, it was exciting to welcome my Alma Mater (Notre Dame) back to the Farm. In addition, Alex, Devyn and Sam, who had been down to the Farm when I was here as a volunteer. Finally, this week marked the one year anniversary of the first time I came to the Farm as a volunteer.

It was a pretty crazy week from a logistical standpoint. Having 39 volunteers here means a lot of planning and means that we have to run in a million different directions. There are only a limited number of sites that we send volunteers to each day. There are also a few of those sites (like the clothing pantry, food pantry, and construction) that require us to be there with the volunteers. So when we get groups that have 5 or 6 small groups, it doesn't leave us with much wiggle room for a schedule. Planning for these weeks is often like a twisted game of schedule sudoku.

I think this is an actual picture of Jamie during planning

One of the amazing things about this week was how quickly the groups meshed. With four different schools at the Farm, it would be easy for the volunteers to stick with what they know and associate only with people from their own school. It can be overwhelming to have so many new people to try and meet but the volunteers were extremely willing to extend themselves. By the end of the week it was difficult for us to tell who was from which school. There were multiple days where the free time after work sites turned into a party with 40 people sprawled across the lawn playing cornhole, frisbee and baseball. It was a true joy to watch how quickly everyone connected. I told the group at the end of the week that it was groups like this one that make me love the Farm and what we do.

During the week we had the opportunity to help Greg, a new architect who had just come on board with People's, move in to his new house in Maysville. Dave hadn't told us who it was we were helping to move in when he asked for our help (or more likely, I was too tired in the morning to put two and two together) and so it was a surprise to me when we pulled up to the house and it was Greg. I had met Greg rather briefly when Dave had brought him around the Farm when he was first thinking about moving down to Lewis County. It turns out that the storage company he had been using in Louisiville, where he was moving from, had agreed to deliver the storage unit to outside their normal area but with the stipulation that he could only have access to it for a few hours. So he had asked us for help moving all of his stuff into the house in the alloted time.

This is exactly the kind of task that illustrates what the Farm is all about. One of the beautiful things about the Farm is that it often expands your idea of what is service. Those coming down to Lewis County for a service trip might expect and be prepared for helping people in desperate living conditions. They have no problem digging through garbage or cleaning away muck and grime. It is easy to see the need in those situations and you can come away with a sense of satisfaction, knowing that you have truly made a difference. Ironically, it is often more difficult to see the service in helping someone who is more well off. Without the telltale signs of need, we struggle to see why our work is needed. But one of the mantras of the Farm is serving where you are needed. This was a case where we were definitely needed. Greg had everything in one of those P.O.D.S., which reminded me of the little bastard child of Optimus Prime. There were moving parts and levers galore. I was half expecting to find The Cube lodged somewhere in there. Greg also was moving into a triple level townhouse, which meant a lot of stairclimbing. With the help of the group we were able to get all Greg's stuff inside the house.

I smelled trouble when Sam Witwicky was the one driving the POD

I had a couple things that struck me while I was talking to Greg during the course of the move-in. I asked him about his journey to Lewis County and learned that he had attended OSU for his degree. While there he had had the call to work on low income housing. He told me that his coursework touched on it but didn't emphasize it enough to satusfy him. In the same way, the firm that he had been working for before People's had also dabbled in low income housing but hadn't had enough of a focus to whet his appetite. Greg told me that he had been interested in the low income housing because of the challenges it presents. The ultimate goal is to put out a quality product that people will be proud to own. At the same time, you want the product to be as affordable as possible. The tension between the two desires means that the architect has to be creative with his/her design. The need for a new challenge and the desire to help those less fortunate led Greg to come down to Lewis County.

Another thing that struck me when talking to Greg was the conditions surrounding his current move. During a break in the moving, Greg told me that he had put all this in storage 3 months ago. That just floored me. Those who have been to the Farm know that one of its charisms is simplicity. We ask the volunteers to give up their cell phones, laptops, TV, daily showers, and makeup among other things. But the volunteers are only here for the week, after which they return to their homes with all the comforts they were used to before they left. Meanwhile Greg had been at home and couldn't access a large portion of the things he owned. It had to have been frustrating for him to be at his house yet missing those little things that had made it home. That sort of sacrifice really puts our own efforts into perspective.

If there was an unofficial theme for this week, it would likely be poo. During the week, Jamie had the unenviable task of mucking out Wild Woman's barn. So they spent the afternoon knee deep in cow pies. Unfortunately, it wasn't the last time we had poo problems that week. Toward the end of the week, one of the volunteers informed us that the toilets in the bunkhouse were backing up. Ok, no problem, we have the toilets in the bathhouse. A short time later we were informed that two of the three toilets in the bathhouse had also become stopped up. Thus that meant we now had one toilet for 40 people. Luckily some of the volunteers were handy enough to fashion a homemade snake and braved the commode catastrophe to fix the problem.

Like I said earlier, the week marked the one year anniversary of my coming to the Farm as a volunteer. It was also just about the halfway point of my time as a Farm Manager. So it was sort of weird to look back and see how far I had come. A year ago I literally had no concept of what The Farm was about and now I had all these memories and experiences revolving around it. It had become a part of my story. In that years time, I had met people in the community who had affected me greatly and had become like family. The week was a great check up to see how far I'd come.

Friday, May 21, 2010

March Madness Week 1: Walsh University, St. John's and St. Ben's

From February 28 to March 6 we welcomed Walsh University, and St. John's/St Ben's from North Canton, OH and Collegeville, MN respectively to the Farm. They were our first group in what is affectionately called March Madness around here. March brings the onslaught of college spring breaks. Many schools offer alternative spring breaks that introduce students to cultures and service opportunities much different than those they know. The Farm is an alternative spring break destination for many schools. To maximize this time, Bossman likes to schedule multiple groups in a row. College and High School groups come with their own unique blessings and challenges. While high school groups are a lot of fun and normally very enthusiastic, it is a truth that they require more supervision. The greater independence offered by college groups means that March Madness is a time when we can really get a lot done in the community without having to divide our energy into supervising.

Being the first of three consecutive weeks of March Madness, the details of this week are a bit fuzzy (again, sorry for my epic fail in trying to keep this thing updated). However, there were a few things that surfaced in the soupy mess that is my memory. Each group usually connects with one aspect or charism of the Farm particularly well whether it's simplicity, God's Time, community or any of the many others. This particular group really enjoyed being out in nature and the beauty that the Farm's grounds offered. They took advantage of the opportunity afforded by being away from the hectic atmosphere of everyday life and used Nature as a reflection source. While this was inspiring to watch, the three of us Farm Managers had forgotten over the winter what it was like to have access to the Farm's grounds so we hadn't emphasized that groups should check approximately how much time they had for hiking/ exploring after getting back from their worksites. That led to this hilarious scene:

We had gotten dinner prepared one evening. Whoever had dinner duty had guided preparation of the meal and had paged the staffhouse. We rang the bell and were gathered upstairs in the kitchen, waiting for everyone to show up. We waited...and waited...and waited. There were still a few volunteers that had yet to show up. Naturally, we started asking where they were. The volunteers that were in the kitchen responded that the missing ones had gone on a hike. So we sent one of the volunteers on a mission to retrieve their missing comrades. After a little bit she reappeared. We waited with bated breath for her to reveal where the rest of the crew was. She informed us simply that "They are across the creek in a tree and they'll be here in a bit". Needless to say we didn't really know how to react.

Her kitchen was a mess but she had a great grasp on the charisms

Besides our volunteers morphing into monkeys (though thankfully not contracting Ebola) there was another thing that stuck out to me. The Johnnies and Bennies left a day before the Walsh girls but we still had a reflection that night with the Walsh girls. It was a really excellent reflection that showed a lot of honesty and thought from the girls. I could really see how the Farm and its many gifts had affected them. No two reflection sessions are alike and there's really no way to differentiate a "good" reflection session. I think people are often intimidated by reflection because they think they have to come up with grandiose ideas or craft an eloquent dissertation on theology distilled into 30 seconds of speech. There are a few people who can package profound statements on faith and humanity in stunning soundbites of eloquence. But normally, the reflections that really have an impact are straightforward and, most importantly, honest. It's the honesty that gives a reflection its gravitas, not high-falutin words. Simple, honest statements about the week are always profound. And this reflection session was filled with examples.

One girl had been moved by meeting Herma, a local woman we often help because of medical conditions that render her homebound. She's a very intelligent woman who reads a ton of books and is a big fan of old Western series on TV like Bonanza. She has a lot of spunk and spirit despite having to rely on a motorized wheelchair to get around. The girl reflected that Herma really reminded her of an old woman she used to visit at home. Her visits became less and less frequent as the woman's health started to decline because it was very difficult to see her suffer. But after visiting Herma and seeing how much joy she took from seeing all the students, this girl realized that the woman she used to visit needed her presence now more than ever. Although it might be hard for her to see the woman in her current condition, she knows the impact that her presence has.

A second girl had a reflection that stuck with me. She started her reflection by saying that she thought she had done an excellent job at keeping her distance. She described how at some of the ministry of presence sites she had made the effort to not get involved emotionally. She had kept people at arms length, symbolically. It just wasn't her thing so she had constructed a wall between herself and the people she visited. It was a startlingly honest bit of reflection considering the Farm focuses on Ministry of Presence, saying that we work with our hands and our hearts here. But I think she realized that the Farm is also not about judgment and that the people in that reflection circle were not there to judge her, but to listen to her. That strategy of closing herself off had worked well, she continued, until that last day. We had gotten a call to deliver firewood to a couple in town. I had asked for a few volunteers and she came along. When we got there and began unloading the wood, the woman who lived there came out. She began thanking us and telling us how it was so cold in her house without the heat that she couldn't sleep at night. She began crying as she thanked us for the help because she was so overwhelmed that people would take care of her like this. As the girl reflected, while the woman was pouring out her gratitude she began thinking "Is this what I've been missing out on all week?". She was stunned at the depth of the woman's gratitude and how a simple delivery of firewood had brought her to tears. She vowed to remember that moment of realization and take it back with her to remind her of the impact that presence has on people. Strange that a reflection that had started out with thoughts that were the complete antithesis of the Farm ended up summing up one of the core elements of the this place so simply, yet eloquently.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Marquette University High School: Bro-tucky Oh Ten

From February 14-20, we had boys from Marquette University High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin come down to the Farm. Going from the all girls group to this testosterone fest was certainly a jarring juxtaposition. The guys were a lot of fun and brought a lot of energy to the week and never stopped having a good time.

The week certainly didn't start out as raucous as it ended. The boys were strangely silent during the tour and orientation. We were actually starting to get concerned that they wouldn't talk the entire time they were at the Farm, which would have made the week very difficult. Turns out this was only a clever ruse to lull us into a false sense of security.

The boys were also stuck on the Farm for a day as well. They were perfectly content to hang around the Farm and do some stuff to help us out. Much like the girls from Assumption had built the box for the sports equipment, the Marquette boys built a set of shelves for the T Shirt store. In the front of our house we have a few tables that hold the Glenmary shwag that the students can buy at the end of the week. With all the different merchandise, it's difficult to fit all of it onto the tables. So the boys went to work measuring and cutting wood for the shelf. In the end they were victims of the shoddy materials they had to work with. The end product was a little lopsided and prone to tipping. However, when Jamie saw it, she rightly pointed out that it was perfect. It was an odd sentiment seeing as how it looked about as vertically level as the Tower of Pisa (and less structurally sound). But she had a point. All it needed to do was hold some clothes and for that, it was perfect. It may not have looked flashy, but it got the job done.

Besides, the end product wasn't really the point. The point was all the work that had gone into the project. In this world of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately, we often lose sight of the journey while focusing on the end destination. There are a lot of upsides to focusing on the end product. It ensures that you produce something of worth. But I think an obsessive focus on demanding perfection out of the end result sometimes trivializes the effort it takes to get there. There is as much value in the process as there is in the product. In fact, when you think about it, the process is necessary for anything to be produced. Sometimes I think we forget that.

If you'll allow me a quick analogy (cue collective groan from my readership), I'd like to use one of my passions to illustrate the point: Sports. Specifically, I'd like to use the NHL playoffs. Those who know me know that I am a huge Pittsburgh Penguins fan. The Stanley Cup Playoffs, despite what Dane Cook and his atrocious THERE IS ONLY ONE OCTOBER ads may have to say, are widely recognized as some of the most grueling and meaningful weeks in all of sports. They produce some truly iconic moments that live on in the hearts and minds of fans everywhere. It was a thrilling ride watching the Pens as they fought their way to a third Stanley Cup during last years playoff run. Watching Mad Max Talbot Shush Philly, Marc Andre Fleury stonewall Ovi, and Malkin unleash his liquor-license-revoking backhand on Cam Ward was witnessing small moments of greatness. They culminated in Sidney Crosby becoming the youngest captain to hoist the Silver Chalice. But focusing only on that image of Crosby with the Cup is to ignore all the small moments that went into its achievement. When I see that picture I see all those moments of brilliance that happened along the way. Those little moments of triumph are reasons why tears well up in the eyes of players as they take their skate with the Cup.

In the same way, accomplishing a task and the feeling of satisfaction one gets from it is a culmination of all the hard work that goes into the task. Truly appreciating the journey is at the crux of lot of the things we do at the Farm. With volunteers working, sometimes the shelves don't come out level or the walls don't get an even coat of paint, but the real value is in the doing. That's why Jamie was so right when she said that the shelf was perfect. It was perfect because it showed the Marquette boys the value of the journey.

There was one other noteworthy event from the week. It happened late one afternoon while I was preparing dinner. A group was returning with Colleen from work site. I saw them pull in and begin to go around the roundabout. I went back to making dinner but became concerned when I didn't hear the cars pull into the parking area. I peeked out the window to see a partially obstructed view of the cars idling over by the bridge with a gaggle of boys milling about. I figured that the Snitch had gotten stuck in the snow so I went out to see what was up. As I got nearer to the scene, my jaw dropped in wonderment and I did a 37436363 take to make sure I was seeing what I thought I was seeing. It was not the Snitch that was in trouble, but BRT. And by trouble I mean that the front driver side tire was completely hanging off the concrete bridge leading into The Farm. I guess Colleen had misjudged the bridge with all the snow and BRT veered off the edge. It was being held up by the front axle, which was catching on the concrete. This made simply reversing BRT off of the bridge impossible. Thus we had the surreal scene of hooking up the chain to BRT and pulling it with The Snitch. As the Snitch is less than 4 wheel drive, it was tough going. But with some effort and a little cardboard for traction, we managed to rescue BRT.

Dramatic reenactment

Monday, March 22, 2010

Assumption High School: Snow Day Like Today!

From February 7-13, we welcomed the girls from Assumption High School in Louisville, KY. It's weird to think that this was our first group from Kentucky. It was also our first all girls group. I've been getting pretty used to being outnumbered when groups come down here but this was definitely the highest concentration of estrogen I've been around in a while.

Before the week began, Joe warned us that Assumption historically gets pretty crappy weather. Apparently Jack Frost has a heydey whenever these girls come to the Farm. This year was no exception. Early, early, early (I can't stress the early part enough) on Tuesday I was woken up by Colleen. I could tell something was wrong by the tone of her voice. She tells me, "The power is out". It takes a few seconds for this to sink in. Meanwhile I see light flooding into my room under the door...and through the cracks ...and over the top of the unfinished wall. Naturally my first question was, "If the power is out, how is the light on?" Colleen's reply was, "I'm using a flashlight" (again, I can't stress how early in the morning it was). I reluctantly got up and we tried to solve the problem. Turning the breakers on and off quickly revealed that the problem was one that the electric company would have to solve. A quick scan of the Farm Manager manual didn't do anything to help things since it just said to check the breakers. Looking back on it, I'm pretty sure that situation pretty much captured our three essences pretty well. Colleen was immediately jolted out of bed as soon as the power turned off and began to scurry around to fix things, Jamie also noticed that the power had gone out but realizing there wasn't much to do simply rolled back over, I meanwhile was completely oblivious to the whole situation.

In the end, after consulting with an extremely coherent and not-at-all asleep Jamie, we decided we could do nothing more than sit tight and wait for the electric company to take care of the situation. A few hours later we reconvened in the kitchen. By now it was getting late in the morning and we needed to wake up the students. However, the power was still off. Colleen,more out of frustration than anything else said "I really wish the electricity would come back on". And, because Colleen has been wearing Doc Brown's hat on a regular basis, as the final syllable was leaving her lips the house hummed to life.

While our immediate problem of having no electricity was solved, we still had to deal with the weather that caused it. There is a pretty steep and long hill on Lower Kinney Road coming out of the Farm to the right and 59 has to go up and over Vanceburg Hill if you venture to the left. The Farm has one car (BRT the Big Red Truck) that can handle both hills pretty well even in the snow. Unfortunately the Golden Snitch does not have that capability while you would have to be completely insane to even look at Biz Marquis if there's a hint of snow on the ground. The group, as most of the groups that come here do, had only minivans that would not make it up either hill safely. So unfortunately we were stuck.

As it turns out we were actually stuck on the Farm for a whole day and a half. Lewis County got hit with the biggest snow storm in 25 years. All told we probably got hit with 10 inches over those two days. For those reading from northern climes, that figure may not seem too impressive. But remember, places like Chicago, New York, and Boston are used to those kind of numbers (though even the Northeast was hit really hard this winter). Here in Kentucky, the winding roads and hollers make a snowfall like that a major pain. The infrastructure just isn't as smooth when it comes to dealing with snow and so things can come to a halt. Schools shut down because they aren't allowed to run if not all the students can get to class. Because the transportation to some of our sites (Licking Valley and Comprehend) is tied to the school system, when the school transportation is shut down, we lose some of our sites. So even if we do manage to get off the Farm, we don't necessarily have anything to do once we leave.

Knowing that we were going to be hanging tight for a little while, we had to scramble to come up with tasks for the students. The Farm has conditioned us to roll with the punches. Many times, the schedule that we make before the week looks different from the things we do on a day to day basis. Nevertheless, coming up with stuff on the spot when we can't leave the Farm was frustrating. We did end up coming up with tasks for the girls to do. We made Valentine's Day cards for all the people in the Nursing Home. We also added to the already hefty load of T Shirt Bags.

At reflection a few days later, we were asked where we saw God during the week. My answer was that I saw it in the snowstorm. It wasn't something where I saw God's hand in the beauty in the works of nature per se (though the Farm does offer you those kinds of experiences quite often). I saw God more in the timing of the storm. During the first night of reflection, the night before the storm, a lot of the girls mentioned that they were going to use this week to sit back and relax. They were so used to going all the time and being super busy that they all wanted some time to just sit and relax. They all noticed a shortcoming in themselves that didn't allow them to do that as often as they should.

There's an old adage that you should never ask for patience because then God will send you a situation to test it. This was certainly one of those situations. The girls wanted to sit around and relax huh? Ok, well then let's send a snowstorm their way and make them relax. Apparently my vision of God is more George Burns than Old Testament, but that's besides the point. The girls had trouble getting used to just sitting around. We could see them getting frustrated with being cooped up inside. It was a good reminder to the Farm Managers about how groups view the weeks. For us, each week is another week on the Farm. There's an ebb and flow that we track through the months. Some weeks we have plenty of work and other weeks we have to scramble to work. But stepping back, we can see all the work that gets done here. Groups that pass through, on the other hand, only have their one week here. They've also been looking forward to the week with such anticipation and have been talking it up for so long that anything less than working 24/7 feels like they're getting the short shrift. It comes from a place of legitimately wanting to do as much as they can for Lewis County. But sometimes that eagerness makes volunteers forget that while they've chosen to serve, they can't always choose how they get to serve. And oftentimes it's just what the Farm needs. Tasks like Valentine's Day cards and T Shirt bags often get shoved to the side in a normal week. So getting trapped actually allowed us to get to those oft-ignored jobs. It was a blessing in disguise but it was a disguise that certainly made it difficult to see the blessing. Seeing through the disguise and recognizing the blessing is often a hard lesson to learn and takes a lot of humility and patience.

So the girls struggled with being stuck on the Farm, which I think was a good thing. It's those challenging situations in life that promote growth. This was certainly a challenge for the girls as they tried to temper their enthusiasm for service and channel it toward what they were asked to do. But a funny thing happened; some of them began to really take the message of the Farm to heart and began to be in the moment and savor the opportunity to do service, no matter where they did it. The next day, instead ofworrying about whether they would be able to get off the Farm, the girls began to throw themselves into the tasks at hand. We had some of them build a box for the sports equipment and they were so psyched to work on it. There was a lot of planning, measuring,and cutting done with a lot of enthusiasm. Another group was working on fixing the couches in the volunteer kitchen. With 500 volunteers coming through here each year, those couches serve as the home to many backsides. This is addition to the second home that the short one serves for Jamie. At the end of it, you might as well be sitting on the ground. So this group spent time reinforcing those couches and extending their lifetime for more volunteers to enjoy. The other group spent some time in the staffhouse. We had been noticing that our tile floor was recently sarting to resemble a mosaic that seemed to grow by the day. We had the girls help take up the tile in the front and common rooms.

As the girls embraced focusing on the tasks at hand and really made strides in their awareness of the moment, the weather seemed to reflect their progress. Where the day before they had been clouded by their worries concerning the future, this day they were able to clear that out of their minds and see the value in what they were doing. The weather, having been convinced that the girls were learning, relented and broke, allowing the girls to take their new found appreciation of being present into the wider community. Watching the concordant progress of the girls and the storm was really special and an example to me of the presence of God in the week.

I would be remiss if, at this point, I didn't mention the actions of the 3 chaperones that came with AHS. We always have daily meetings with the leaders/ chaperones of the groups. These are partly to inform them of what's happening that particular day. More importantly, they are a forum for the leadres to voice any concerns they have with the week as it's running. When we met on that second morning, the leaders expressed that they were worried about the progression of the storm. They, too, had noticed some of the girls having trouble with being stuck and were bringing it to our attention. They wanted to know about how long we could be expect to be stuck on the Farm and listened as we explained the situation with the plows and the the hills. They brainstormed with us to come up with activities for the girls to do while they were here. It was fantastic. I say that with 100% sincerity. It was a perfect example of being proactive leaders. Too many times when we hear someone say that they welcome feedback and want to hear concerns we read into it and assume they are saying that only as a formality. They just want us to rubber stamp what they do, we think. Instead of offering constructive criticism, we stay silent, sompiling a mental checklist of all the shortcomings, which we reveal after the fact. Here, it's akin to having a smooth week only to find out, come evaluation time, that there were a lot of problems. It was so gratifying to hear these leaders bring their concerns to the forefront in a thoughtful, helpful manner. It didn't come across as an attack on the program or the 3 of us. Instead, we could see that they were legitimately concerned first for their students. The meeting made what could have been a stressful situation seem less like an obstacle and more like an opportunity.

Thanks to the proactivity of the leaders, the rest of the week went smoothly. The groups had fun at the clothing pantry finding all sorts of wacky outfits. They were also able to wrangle (get it??) up a figurine of a hermaphraditic cow (essentially a bull that for some reason, had udders). On a completely depressing note, they were able to make me feel super old. One of the girls found a small puffy orange vest. As she held it up I quipped, "Looks like Marty Mcfly's mom decided to donate his childhood wardrobe to Lewis County". Nothing. Completely blank stares. I said "C'mon, Back to the Future... Michael J Fox..." Someone said "Oh, the guy from the LFO song?" If you recall, the lyrical geniuses behind Summer Girls (that's right, this blog just linked an LFO song. And you wonder why I never post) tossed in this gem: "Fell deep in love,but now we ain't speaking/Michael J Fox was Alex P Keaton". I'm sure the man suffering with Parkinson's rests easy knowing that his legacy is as a footnote in a terrible pop song. I promptly blacked out. I don't know what the kids are learning in school these days but it's definitely not what they need to be learning. Unreal. Even more depressing was the fact that one of their chaperones, Angela, informed me that we are a mere 5 years away from the year that Marty McFly went into the Future in the second installment (2015). Ugh. Seeing as how my Back to the Future references are reaching critical mass, I better wrap this up.

Despite cosntant reminders of my rapidly dwindling youth, the week was a good one filled with challenges overcome, laughs, and a lot of service done. Oh, and snow. Lots and lots of snow.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

St. Xavier: Prophets of a Future Not Our Own

From January 26-29 we had a group of boys come down to the Farm from Xavier High School in Cincinnati. It was the smallest group we have had, with only 6 boys and 2 chaperones so it was a nice change of pace. They were only here for a few days but they got a lot of work done in their short time here.

We got to work with Ricky's crew on the Town Branch site on Wednesday. It was pretty darn cold in the morning and there was a healthy layer of mud everywhere outside. We spent much of the day painting trim and laying down luon for the floor. Myself and two of the guys had to go outside and remove the wood protection from the cement walk out front. It was pretty rough work as the cold had frozen the wood to the concrete in some places and the wood pieces were often nailed together. To make matters worse, the mud was especially bad around the walkway so we all got nice mudpatches on our knees. But the guys never complained and we removed the protective border pretty quickly.

The thing that stuck out to me was the level of patience the construction guys had. Daryl in particular exhibited this. He was cutting the trim that we had painted and because of the way the outlets were arranged had to position himself in the front of the hallway. This meant that any time any of us had to go to the back rooms, we had to literally walk right over him. He never said a word or complained at all.

One of the things that stuck out to me the most from the week was the reflection from the last night. Specifically, it was their use of what is commonly known as The Romero Prayer. I'll put it here:

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the
magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection, no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.

It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results, but that is the difference
between the master builder and the worker.

We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

It's funny because this was acually the reflection that was used during my site leader training before I came down to the Farm for the first time a year ago with school. I hadn't really given it much thought since then but it was really interesting to come back to it after having been here for a few months.

The sentiment fits exactly into what we do here at the Farm. It applies to the work the volunteers do, the role of Farm managers and the role of the Farm in Lewis County. Many of the volunteers that come down to the Farm are frustrated because they can't often see the effects of their work. Sites like the clothing pantry, the food pantry, and construction aren't particularly conducive to seeing the results firsthand. We often see volunteers struggle to make the connection between what can be tedious tasks (putting food in boxes, folding clothes, painting etc.) and how they can affect people.

At the same time, we often start a lot of projects that don't end up getting finished right away. We have a pretty full schedule every week so we try and fit in projects whenever we can. Because of that, we can't always devote the time it takes to completely finish projects. So it's often start-stop-start with some of the things we do around here. Volunteers sometimes have trouble with that aspect. It's understandable, really. The volunteers come down to the Farm ready and willing to do work. They have a lot of enthusiasm and want to truly serve the people of Lewis County. While the Farm Managers are here week in and week out, the volunteers only have this one opportunity to serve. Naturally they want to get as much as they can done for the people here.

The Farm, though, is not about completing every task we're given. Sometimes we have to remember that it's not our place to finish the task at hand. Our role here is definitely the worker and not the master builder. One of the charisms of the Farm is that volunteers build on the work of those that come here before them. Sometimes our role is just to lay the foundation down for the people that come after us. It takes a lot of humility to realize this. It's the tendency to want recognition for our hard work and it's difficult to get that recognition if we don't get to finish the job. But putting others before yourself pervades everything we do here and so oftentimes we have to remember that we're planting seeds that will grow in the future.

It's something that even Farm Managers have to remember. While a year may seem significant, it's really hard to try and make real changes in a year's time. The Farm is not set up for systemic change here in lewis County. Glenmary certainly has done its part here in building up infrastructure. People's Self Help was started by a Glenmary brother (and coincidentally is run by a former Farm Manager) and the Primary Care Clinic also came partly from Glenmary's work among other things. But the Farm, as it's constructed right now, does not work in that capacity. We're here to work with and for the people the Lewis County. My buddy Matt said that while he really respects the work we do here, it's not something he could do because the frustrating element of never seeing large scale change. But here at the Farm it's something we embrace. It is that element of liberation that Romero writes about that comes when you realize that you can't do everything. Recognizing that allows us to accomplish the tasks we are given to our fullest without worrying about the grand scheme of things. I look at it not as a shirking of responsibility but as the recognition of our specific role. We do our part as the worker so that the master builder can see it through to the finish.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Off Week(end) in Akron: Small Goal Met

Ever since Archbishop Hoban High School had come to The Farm back in October we had talked about going up to visit Akron. Well, we figured that since January/ February is a slow time down here and we had a free week, there was no better time for us to make the trip. So the three of us loaded up into the Snitch and headed AK Rowdy for the January 20-22.

We had a few adventures before we even got to Akron. Bossman Joe had recently laid down the ultimatum to get rid of one of the Farm cats. In our time together in September, we had exactly doubled the amount of cats on the Farm from 2 to 4. The two newest members of our menagerie were C.C. (the Calico Cat or Christmas Cat depending on the season) and Moses. We had hopes of borrowing against our future Farm Manager Nights Out and hiring Jeff Probst to come in to host a special Cat Survivor (none of us were Finance majors in college) complete with a dead mouse immunity idol but instead we just had Bossman decide. So on our way to Akron we stoppped by the Sierra's Haven adoption center in Portsmouth, OH to drop off...(drumroll please) C.C. Don't feel too bad for her, though. When we got to Sierra's Haven, Jamie said it was essentially Cat Disneyland. So we bid adieu to C.C. and continued our travels.

The rest of our trip was uneventful unless you count our drive through scintillating Circleville, home of the famed pumpkin watertower. Jamie and I played a prolonged game of the celebrity name game (You name a celebrity/ historical figure and the next player must name a person with the same starting letter of their first name as the previous famous person's last name i.e. Teddy Roosevelt--> Richard Nixon--> Nelson Mandela). Between my love of sports and general pop culture and Jamie's love for the 1960s and 70s, it was a recipe for tedium. Finally, after 5 ish hours we made our triumphant entrance into Akron.

So we pulled up into a high school with a beat up Gold 12 passenger van and proceeded to abandon it in the parking lot...not sketchy at all right? We got the VIP tour of Hoban from Micah and Scott. I was really surprised by how large the school was when they told me that it served only 900 students. They also had a lot of really cool new resources like an all Mac Lab for digital imaging classes etc. Apparently, earlier in the decade the school got a bit of a facelift, during which they added an homage to a familiar sight on my alma mater's campus. As a Holy Cross school, Hoban dutifully plastered Blessed Basil Moreau's visage on every space of blank wall they could. I swear his creepy stare was looking at me after every corner I turned. It was a nice, albeit slightly disturbing, reminder of college, where Smitty may or may not have pilfered a 5x7 foot Basil Moreau canvas and proudly displayed it in the dorm room.

Oh hello, Basil...It's been awhile since you've creeped me out with that steely stare of yours

Later that night they took us to see the Winter One Act Plays at the school. It was a pun filled evening complete with Zombies, Amelia Aerhardt, and a bisexual stalking tollbooth attendant.

The only thing better than normal puns...Pokemon puns

There were a few kids from the Hoban and St Martha's crew that were involved in the plays so it was good to see their hard work come to life. After the plays, we went to grab some pizza with the chaperones at Luigi's. It was a delicious end to the day. After that, I headed back to Micah's place while Cindi put up Jamie and Colleen for their stay. I made good friends with Micah's three dogs, one of whom (Cowboy Bob) kept me company that night. I feel bad for any future teenagers living in that house because it is next to IMPOSSIBLE to take more than 3 steps without making the house creak like a ship in a typhoon.

Friday began at the crack of dawn, as I was an honorary member of Dudefast (Breakfast with the Dudes) with Micah. Every Friday he and some of the other male teachers at Hoban get together and grab breakfast at a local establishment. It was nice to see such a strong community among the teachers. Conversation strayed from best breakfast foods to classroom techniques to hilarious classroom anaecdotes. It was a nice way to start off the day and I can see why they've made an effort to keep up the tradition. During the course of the meal I learned that real men get gravy on their home fries... also that real men revel in completely destroying their GI tract.

After Dudefast, I met up with Jamie and Colleen at Hoban. We spent the day speaking in the senior religion classes about the work we do at Glenmary and service in general. It was actually pretty funny being at the front of a high school classroom. We could totally see the kids as they struggled to stay awake during 1st and 2nd period, fought off the post-lunch drowsy-hangover, and then checked out for last period. There were questions and people generally interested in what we did so I was glad see that. We spent about 10 or 15 minutes in each class so we had some free time to wander the halls. During this Jamie and Colleen almost got detentions for wearing jeans while I was mistaken for some vagrant creeper. Hilarious. We got to see some of the English projects that Cindi had her class do on books of their choice. We spent lunch with kids from the Hoban and St. Martha's groups, which was good. It was a little strange/ jarring to see the kids in an environment other than The Farm. I had gotten so used to knowing the kids as they were while they were here. It reminded me how special The Farm is that it encourages all these kids to give up things that they're so used to every day. It was fun to see them in their environment. One other thing I had forgotten since High School was how freaking long the days were. We were definitely blowin' through nap time there at the end.

At the end of the long day we went back to Micah's place to indulge ourselves in some hilarious youtube clips. After some dinner at a local Mexican joint we went to the Hoban vs. Walsh boys basketball game. We actually snagged courtside seats, which was great. The gym itself (which was at Walsh) was pretty impressive. It had more of a cathedral-like feel to it and was pretty sweet looking for a high school gym. We got to see some more Hoban and St. Martha's kids that came down to The Farm before and during the game. The game itself was pretty good. It was back and forth with a lot of momentum changes throughout. The Hoban student section was incredibly loud for the whiteout. The two best things about the game were 1) One of the refs looked like a Lionel Richie who had been to the buffet one too many times and 2) The best kid on Walsh looked like a cross between Lil Bow Wow and the dude from You Got Served. If you think I didn't yell at the kid that I wanted his shoes so I could be Like Mike... you clearly don't know me. Unfortunately the game was marred somewhat by the fact that ol' Lionel Richie wanted to be the center of attention instead of the 17 year old kids that were out there playing. Making bad calls is one thing. It happens to the best of refs and I can totally understand it. Going back and forth with student fans and making no effort to hide admiration with individual players is just plain unprofessional. Unfortunate. But it was a lot of fun to go crazy for the evening.

"Why hello there...I am here to call a terrible game...and have magnificent hair while doing it"

After the game we all went over to The Lockview, a bar/ restaurant in downtown Akron... for the delicious grilled cheese of course. Micah's buddies, Nick and Andy (who run the website that I now want to spend my entire stipend on) hung out with us for the night. We had a lot of fun just swapping stories and being oddly struck by how much our waitress loved Delonte West.

The next morning we dragged ourselves over to Golden Corral to experience the most American of experiences... the Buffet Brunch. We met up with a handful of the Hoban kids and it was nice to see them before we left. After we had stuffed ourselves with endless platters of bacon and watered down coffee we bid adieu to the kids and headed back to the Hoban parking lot to pick up the Snitch. We finally pulled out of the Hoban parking lot and began our trip back to The Farm. On the way, we stoppped by Costco and dropped a cool G (you have no idea how much I've always wanted to legitimately say that) on groceries. The rest of the trip was uneventful and we eventually made it back home in one piece.

Our trip to Akron was a smashing success and it was due exclusively to our hosts. So I'd like to extend a huge, HUGE thank you to Micah, Cindi, Scott, all of the Hoban teachers/ kids, and the St. Martha's kids for hosting us this weekend and inviting us into your homes/ schools. We had a blast and hope that you all continue to come to the Farm and enjoy it as much as we have enjoyed your company.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Fordham University Global Outreach: 10% of All Jokes are True

From January 10-16 we had a group from Fordham University's Global Outreach (GO!) program come down to the Farm. It was a little weird being back after almost a month away, but this group proved to be really well suited to reintroducing us to the Farm. They had a lot of energy for both fun and service and it really made for a great week.

The most defining characteristic of the group was the extremely strong community they had. This isn't necessarily unique when it comes to groups on the Farm. I am very often surprised at how close the groups grow during their time here. What was unique about this particular community was the fact that it was already strong before they arrived. This is due in large part to the nature of the GO! program at Fordham. They have been meeting at least once a week since October. In addition to their weekly group meetings, they have been staging fundraising bake sales and had to meet with another person from the group one-on-one at least once every week. Thus, by the time they came to the Farm they had already formed a strong bond with every one of their group members. A second factor played into how close the team was before the week. Joe and Christine, the two leaders of the group, went through a pretty extensive interview process to select the team members. It was very apparent during the week that they had really made a concerted effort to select people that were all different personalities and brought something different to the group. The drawn out process may seem like overkill to some people but it makes sense when you dissect the logic behind it. First, gauging the personalities of the would be team members is crucial to running a successful team. Second, the amount of time devoted by the team leading up to the week was a refleciton of the attitude that GO! takes when approaching things like this. I heard from many of the students that GO! insisted on using the label "project" when refrerring to the week, eschewing titles like "trip". Project implies a long term, lasting experience while trip connotes something that begins and ends with the week. To really promote that idea of permanence it's really actually necessary to have that applicaiton process and all those meetings beforehand. I thought it was a really unique way to look at coming down to the Farm and one that benefitted them as they spent their week here.

One of the advantages of having an already strong community was that they were really able to open up during reflection. They really explored a lot of different ideas and personal insights that would have been difficult to share had they not known each other so well. The knowledge that everyone in the room genuinely cared about each other and was there to support one another allowed each person to really put themselves out there. Thus the reflections were always really insightful and sincere. By all means I'm not saying that reflections by other groups are fake or cursory. However, it's hard for goups to really open up and get over that initial hesitancy if they're still trying to get used to each other. This group didn't have to go through that period of reticence. In fact, it took me a little by surprise at first. However, their willingness to be open was refreshing and helped me to in turn reflect openly about the week. It was evident in everything they did during the week that they really had a strong bond and support structure. They participated in the service at Mosby more than any other group we've had and even had the courage to ask to be prayed over. All this is possible because they knew they could count on their team members for support.

The group worked really hard while they were here. We spent one of the days at the Food Pantry packing the boxes for handout. We used a slightly different strategy for packing boxes this time around. Normally, when I've packed boxes before, we just set up 30 empty boxes on tables and assign each person a few items that they then place into each box. It's a process that is kind of cool to see because of the progression. Normally in the beginning, there's a lot of chaos as people are running into each other and dropping stuff and we have to repackage stuff because the boxes are unwieldy. But as it goes on people figure it out and it becomes a more organized chaos.

This time around though, George had set up a conveyor belt so instead we just slid each box down and put the items in one at a time. It was good for me because it pushed me out of my own comfort zone. I found myself getting frustrated as boxes began to pile up and my back began to hurt from lifting all of them. Old George also came by, as he usually does, to help out. Because it was a commodities week, the boxes were pretty heavy so there really wasn't much Old George could do in terms of helping. I could feel my impatience growing as he struggled to lift boxes and (as I saw it) slowed down the line. As this happened, though, I really derived some strength from the rest of the team. Jim, who was working right alongside of me, never once complained and did the work with such purpose that it was truly inspiring. At the other end I saw Christine working with such a smile on her face. She kept talking to Old George in a way that I could tell she was truly interested in what he had to say and wasn't just humoring him. Naturally, at reflection that night we talked about instances we had to use patience. It was thrown out that patience is often necessary in order to live in community. While that is certainly true, as I reflected I realized that community is where I derive my patience. It's especially true here at the Farm. Schedules are constantly changing and plans are always being modified. This would be difficult if it wasn't for the community that Colleen, Jamie and myself have here. We all lean on each other and when something changes we all just shrug and say "Welcome to the Farm". It's easy to endure when you have a support system behind you.

The group was also really full of energy for the whole week. There were more than a few spirited rounds of ninja played on the Farm that week. They also played a marathon session of Scattegories that had plenty of energy behind it... as well as a Collosseum-esque thumbs up/ thumbs down approval system.

Commodus is apparently a tough Scattegories judge

Normally we have to do some cajolling to get groups to dance at the Thurmans' but this group needed no such urging. This was in addition to all the signing and dancing that took place in the cars as it was. They had the chance to play some Charades at Comprehend, which both the clients and kids got a kick out of doing. Though somehow a "space race" and "mother" were the clues that were supposed to lead us to Terminator? The students also broke out the Puzz 3D during the week. There was also a lot of fun had assigning everyone roles from various TV shows and movies. All in all their sense of fun was contagious and made for a great week full of plenty of laughs.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Project Merry Christmas Part 2: It Feels Like Christmas

It was finally crunch time as we went through the final preparations for Project Merry Christmas and then finally Project itself on December 15th. It was a whirlwind of a week as people continued to come in and out of the Farm. It was pretty nonstop, filled with cookies, caroling and craziness. All in all it was a great time that left us completely exhausted but fulfilled.

The first group that came in was a young adult group from Cincinnati. Included in this group was my good buddy from school, Matt and his roomate (also from ND), Leah. It was really cool to see people I knew on the Farm. It was funny thinking about the odds that Matt and I would end up a few hours away from each other and that he would join a faith group that would make a trip to the place where I work. Crazy. We got to work right away with some of us cleaning up the clothes pantry (I feel like I've probably blogged more about that darn place more than anywhere else) while others went to go ring the bell for Salvation Army. Later that night we had more people from Cincinnati come down and a few from nearby Moorehead also arrived. The kitchen soon turned into a cookie making factory as we made an assembly line to bake and decorate cookies for pantry day. It lasted about 3 hours, during which we made over 200 cookies! There were all shapes, sizes and colors. By the end of it, we literally had no more room in the fridges as they were all filled with trays upon trays of cookies. The continuous cookie making clearly had an effect on Leah as she temporarily lost her mind and attempted to slather everyone with frosting.


We went to mass the next morning and made some final firewood deliveries. As the people from Cincinnati were pulling out of the driveway, a group from Loyola University of Chicago (LUC) pulled in to the Farm. They've been coming to the Farm to help out with PMC for a few years now so they were pretty excited to be back at it. They showed up with a whole U Haul full of toys and food, which was awesome. We had to unload the toys and sort them into the different age groups in God's Time Room. We also sent some people out to shop for supplies that we were lacking. By the time we finished, you could barely walk through the room. It was really great to see all the generosity in physical form. After we had sorted the toys, we started to pack them into boxes and label them. Soon everything was completely packed and ready to be loaded into the UHaul.

On Monday a group of students and I went to the Christian Community Center to deliver the food that LUC had brought in the UHaul. There was something like 1000 pounds of food, which if you think it sounds like a lot... well it is. Some of it was sorted but a lot of it was not. So we had the job of unloading and then sorting all the cans into the different categories that Jan uses. It was kind of similar to a day at the food pantry in that it was pretty hectic in the beginning but by the end we were all clicking as a team and working together. It was pretty cool to see the controlled chaos as various cans whipped through the air and into their designated spots. I was surpised by how quickly the work went. We got the whole truck unpacked and sorted in a matter of hours! I guess that just highlights the power of working as a group.

That night we had to prepare the Vanceburg Lion's Club for Project the next morning. We set up a series of "rooms" within the building. They were really just groups of tables that had toys from the same age group. We had a room for infants, 3-5 yr olds, 6-8 yr olds, 9-12 year olds, teens, and adults. We had to wait for the weekly bingo game to finish before we could set up so it was close to midnight before we finally got done. I was put in charge of setting up the table with all the teddy bears. And when I say all the teddy bears, I mean the mountain of teddy bears that we received. I have never seen a collection of so many fluffy characters since the heyday of the Care Bears. Apparently some lady donated her entire collection so that we had bags upon bags of these things. There were Pooh bears, panda bears, polar bears, Paddington bears, black bears, white bears, small bears, tall bears, and even an appearance by Teddy Ruxpin (which reminded me of my all time favorite radio meltdown ever). I spent painstaking minutes arranging the various Ursidates (Linneaus FTW) so that they looked all pretty and had some semblance of order. After finsihing set up, we trooped back to the Farm to rest up before the madness began...

The day of project began bright and early (as witnessed by Jamie's willingness to simply sleep in the kitchen overnight to shorten her trip in the morning). We had to get there about an hour early to do some final setup so we were all a little groggy. We made a quick run to Dolla Dolla General to pick up Santa Hats and an extension cord to plug into the coffee machine so Jamie wouldn't straight up shank someone. When we got to the Lion's Club, there was already a line of people waiting to get inside. We each got assigned to a different room and prepared for the rush. I, of course, was asked to man the teddy bear table. The minsiters from the local churches were checking people in at the front. Once they determined how many people were in their family, each person was assigned one of us as a shopper. It was pretty non stop for about 3 hours and there was a lot of restocking on my part. While it was great to finally see the results of our efforts over the last few weeks, it was also quite a crazy atmosphere and really was over prettty quickly. It was weird because we spent so much time getting ready for Project but it flew by and it was over. But was good to see a lot of the people that we work with in the community come in and get some gifts. Watching the kids take each person around with so much attention and care was really wonderful to watch. They were so sincere in their desire to see that everyone got what they wanted for Christmas.

Team PMC 2009: Please note Bossman being extremely professional in the background

After we finished up with Project and got a little lunch, we headed to the Nursing Home to do some caroling. It was fun to do the caroling with so many people since it drowned out our voices to the point where we sounded somewhat decent. After doing that, we headed to Wal Mart to ring the Salvation Army bell. Now, there are many strategies one can use when ringing the bell. There is the the normal, friendly ringer, the passive aggressive, blantantly aggresive and many variations thereof. Our particular tactic was to sing as loud as possible so people couldn't possibly ignore us. This is especially easy when singing the 12 Days of Christmas (5 GOLDEN RINGS!!!!!). We spent a few solid hours ringing and singing and raising money. We apparently made an impact because the Wal Mart greeters asked us to sing for them inside for them and declared we were the best crew of bell ringers they have seen (full disclosure: they've only been greeters for 2 years now). We even had a woman feel so sorry for us (it was pretty darn cold) that she bought us all hot chocolate. It was capped off by Jake taking off on one of those Rascal- type scooters with a bell and bucket to hit up the people in the parking lot.

The final task before Christmas break was to do the Pantry handout on the 18th. We spent time with the students from LUC making over 350 (!!) food boxes in preparation. With so many people helping us we had two sets of tables going and were abe to get a lot done in a little time. It was again a little controlled chaos but everything ended up getting done. The Pantry handout itself went smoothly and we had plenty of cookies for everyone.

We had one final adventure before we finally went home for the Holidays. After the handout, Joe informed us that we were going to get pretty cold and snow that night after the rain we had gotten and so the hill by the Farm was liable to ice over. Thus we went from the Pantry to the Farm to throw all our stuff into suitcases and rush to Bossman's. So our first few months together at the Farm came to an appropriate end as we flew around the staffhouse in a panic and crashed at Bossman's for the night.

I hope everyone had a a great Christmas and a good Holdiay season. Thanks to everyone that has come down to the Farm and helped out. Lewis County is a special community and you have all done a lot for it. I know I have learned a lot from the people down here and I hope you did as well. It's been four months that have gone by really quickly but have been really enjoyable. I have really had a lot of fun on the Farm and it's due in large part to the volunteers so thank you.