Sowing the Seeds of Service Together
The Notre Dame Mission Volunteers yearly Mid-Year Conference was hosted February 18-21st in “Charm City”, also known as Baltimore. It was my first time visiting DC’s oft-disregarded neighbor, and I am pleased to report that I had an unforgettable experience. It was literally hundreds of NDA Americorps members from every city
around the country: Boston, Boulder, Seattle, Philadelphia, Watsonville, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore, Phoenix, Dayton, Apopka, Cincinnati, San Francisco, and Washington D.C. To encourage intermingling, each member was arranged to dine and enjoy the program with members from other teams. It was exciting, comprehensive, a learning experience, affirming, and rejuvenating. Although it was at the mid-way point of our 11 month term of service, I felt a sense of inner-weariness, as if I’ve been doing this job for an entire school year. This sense of exhaustion was acknowledged and accepted by the leaders of our organization, and that was extremely satisfying. Those 3 days went by in the blink of an eye, but if I were to break the extended weekend down into a series of easily accessible bullet points, I would choose the following.
- Collaborative – Admittedly, I was initially leery of table assignment constraints – sure, meeting new Americorps peeps would be fun, but the majority of our scheduled activities were spent in the conference room. Would it really be necessary to sit with virtual strangers the entire time? Fortunately, I immediately knew that the people sitting at my table were meant to be there, we were meant to share our stories, discover our common ground, and forge friendships. There were questions on a piece of paper, intended to prompt dialogue about our individual experiences and incite critical thinking about our purpose as Americorps members. It struck me how so much of my table-mates’ perspectives resonated with my own: a sense of idealism, pleasure with the meaning of our tasks, frustration with the many unforeseen roadblocks and a persistent question – what’s next? Some of us have already applied to higher education, different jobs, or are making plans to do so. Others of us still don’t know what the future holds, but being able to share this uncertainty aloud and have others relate to you felt really good. Sometimes these conversations come up among the Seattle NDA team, but it is easy to only relate with your own microcosm and forget that there are many others who have similar doubts or unsurety. Not only that, but I enjoy meeting new people with fresh energies, perspectives, and points of view. I lucked out in that my table had a really great group dynamic with the loudest voices being the most energetic and uplifting. On the last night, we chanted “Table 28!” on the last day, had a group acapella of “I Believe I Can Fly” and had a group dougie session. The entire room was up dancing and reveling in the inclusive, and rare Americorps community.
- Rejuvenating– Firstly, the NDA national office did a stand-up job of making sure their members were well-cared for whilst arising early to eat breakfast and participate in workshops. Not to mention the prvilege of staying in a nice hotel where people are literally paid to clean up after you. The ambiance of the conference gave me the sense that in exchange for our energy, passion, sleep, personal lives, daylight hours, and
spare money, we were being treated to a well-deserved break, in gratitude. Since I work at a school all day, if there is a rare sunny day in Seattle, usually I am not lucky enough to see the sunshine. During one long break, a group of friends and I went down to the Inner Harbor and watched an impromptu magic show. It was a nice outside and I fully appreciated being able to not have a care in the world. Mid-Year is a respect for human limits that oppression and inequality simply do not regard. In our day-to-day we are usually so bogged down in everything that we haven’t done that there isn’t really time to respect the signs of exhaustion that our bodies send us in various ways: tight shoulders, slight headaches
, lack of concentration, clenched jaws and many more. In the midst of activity, it isn’t necessarily apparent when are physically or mentally in “fight mode”. Once a state of relaxation disrupts this habit, the absence of tension is salient, and I certainly noticed the shift. However relaxing Mid-Year was, the rejuvenation piece was just as important because it isn’t over yet, we still needed to return to our normal routines. Rejuvenation also came in the form of our keynote speakers, one per day.
- The speaker with whom I most connected was Reverend William Lamar IV, the exceptionally gifted speaker who drew heavily upon the philosophies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He talked about the incredible gift that we’re giving that is sometimes overlooked: our physical bodies. The amount of energy it takes to be at our sites everyday and actively engage with our youth with passion and full hearts takes quite a toll. He mentioned that the doctor who performed the autopsy on King claimed that although he was 39 years old at death, he had the heart of a person in their 60s or 70s. This work is relentless and it takes an incredible toll on our bodies. We make so many sacrifices because we “remember our destinies,” he said. We know that “the world as it is is not the world as it was intended. We work to build communities that are hopeful, helpful, imaginative and critical.” This was an invigorating speech because the emphasis wasn’t to do more than we already are or keep going until we can’t anymore – it took into account that we are already impassioned and caring, powerful, yet human. Remembrance of our motivations to do this work is what will carry us through the rest of the year.
– There were four workshops that we elected to take that covered a myriad of various topics; everything from working with working with gay youth, to Tai Chi and the Emotional Lives of Students. These workshops were so important because they offered the opportunity to get valuable professional development to take back to our sites. At my “How to Develop Healthy Relationships with Students”, I realized that I was blurring the line between friendship and authority with my students. I felt the best way to forge strong bonds with my teens was to show that them I wasn’t that different from them – even though I am 7 years their senior. That was in error, I am very different from them and I was given the proper tools on how to re-frame those relationships upon my return to work.
- During the group meetings in the conference room, each team had the opportunity to share the story of their team, the communities they served and whatever else they wanted to portray to their fellow NDA members. The Seattle team went the humorous route – and to incredible reception. I suppose a silly mockumentary about preferring to walk dogs instead of work with kids provided levity to a job that can often feel so steeped in austerity. The work that we do is far from a joke, as I’ve said it’s exhausting and neverending and constantly calls for creativity and adaptation. Still, I appreciated the compliments and laughed right along with everyone else. Watching the other members’ “story telling” was nice because it gave us a sense of how diverse NDA is. The city of Watsonville in California, a majority Latino city, has a heavy emphasis on integrating the Latin culture with the work of the the members’. One of my table-mates serves in Watsonville and he uses Spanish with his parties every single day. I’ve lived in a foreign country twice and it is mentally and emotionally exhausting to speak in a different language all day. Yes, it is gratifying and sometimes exhilarating to see the ascension of your skills, but reasoning with adolescents in English is hard enough. For me, it gave me an understanding of the different sacrifices that we all make, separate and alike.
I’m not sure of my NDA future regarding another term, but Mid-Year was immensely satisfying. Our parting gift was a can full of sunflower seeds, a play on the wording of this year’s theme. I will plant those seeds come summer, and provided they grow, I will fondly think of the meaning of Mid-Year and how the seeds I’ve sown will carry on into my future. Thank you, NDA.