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.