Monday, July 28, 2014



Emily on our End-of-Year Retreat
Hardwood floors.  "I'm a veteran!" Gas included.  "How you gonna tell me I can't eat here?!" Walking distance from public transportation.  "I served my country and this is how you treat me?!" August 1st move in.

As I stand behind the podium in the entrance of the Marquard Center, I watch Thomas* stumble through the doorway, asking for a numbered ticket granting him access to the dining room.  Catching him slur and smelling the alcohol falling from his breath, I informed him he was too drunk to eat here tonight and we would provide him with a sack dinner.  As I returned to my apartment search, I was surrounded by his screams.  I was surrounded by just how unfair it all was.  Why is he homeless, while I get to move on from this place and move into a physical home of my own?

2013-14 Franciscan Outreach Volunteers
As my year with Franciscan Outreach Volunteers comes to close, I can't help by expect my interactions with guests to cleanly wrap up with a bow tied on top.  How perfect would it be if by the time I leave, all my favorite guests simultaneously got housing?  I could pass through the same doors Thomas did, sigh with relief, one last look behind me, and walk into the sunset.  But that's not how it is.  I'll walk out the doors, get on my brand new bike, and ride on to my new apartment.  As I reflect on the last 12 months and countless meals I've served, it seems as though the bellies I've filled have left me filled with guilt.

How do I walk out the doors and carry this with me?  How do I be grateful without feeling guilty?  Almost one year into this work and I still teeter between numbness and hopelessness.  In attempts to walk in solidarity with my brothers and sisters, I have become massively uncomfortable.  This is what I now share with them.  While our discomforts will never be the same kind or level of intensity, I now have an acute awareness of injustice.  It creeps up when I walk home after college orientation, distraught by my future 8:15 mornings and Saturday classes, and pass a man asleep on the bench while another tries to fix a rusted child's bicycle.  It clamps the back of my neck when I am seated outdoors at a restaurant and the guest who I recently learned was a victim of domestic violence walks by.  Or when I am in a heated building.  Or sleep in a bed.
Ladies on the End-of-Year Retreat

We should never be comfortable with the way the world is; the inequality, the suffering, the indifference. And while this could easily morph into a beautiful and heart felt call to action, I've spent the last year in action and am left exhausted.  I've felt almost every emotion on the spectrum of human capacity.  I cheered in joy when Aaron* came in a suit one evening after a job interview.  I cried in the arms of my fellow volunteers after Cele* confronted the man who raped her as I sat consoling her.  I fearfully scored Danny* due to his drunken harassment.  My eyes and heart have been opened by every interaction and emotion, and I will never be able to turn away from the realities of this world.  And while my work here has an expiration date, my memories, new found insight, and discomfort never will.  And that's how it should be.

*Names changed

Wednesday, July 23, 2014


Zach on the End-of-Year Retreat

What sort of deeds would deem a 300 lb, 6'3", African American man worthy of receiving such an angelic name as Sweetheart?  A warm smile? Words of praise and encouragement? Generosity? The truth is, absolutely none of these things.  Markus* is probably the least likely human being on the planet to receive such a name...on the surface. My first few encounters with the man had me second guessing what exactly I had gotten myself into.  Some of the more notable early encounters with the colossal "angel" involved his weekly shower at the Marquard Center, of which I was responsible for supervising.  He would frequently demand to be at the end of the list for showers so he had ample time to pamper himself and complain about a myriad of problems that were completely out of my control.  Out of the 15 minutes normally allotted for men's showers, Markus would frequently take closer to 30 minutes to finish his business and make my life a (temporary) living hell.  As a result of Sweetheart's exquisite taste in food, my efforts in the kitchen would frequently be inadequate for his VIP taste buds.  My salads were inedible "rabbit food", my stewed apples were an eyesore, and my Italian Beef was dryer than the Sahara.  Just in case I still didn't get the picture, Markus would always be there to give me helpful tips for improvement like "cook the food next time!" or "I don't eat apples, and I don't eat rabbit food."  Sometimes I felt as if I was cooking for Gordon Ramsay, or King Henry VIII.
Emily, Sara, & Zach at the Hunger Walk

SLOWLY (I emphasize this word because glaciers could probably move faster) but surely, my relationship with Markus progressed.  As his sense of entitlement continued, I began to joke with him about being a princess for asking to receive special treatment on par with Princess Diana.  I noticed that this began to entertain him, at least more than my meals did.  Eventually there came a point where I had endured so much of his criticism, all I could do it laugh.  Unfortunately, the quality of resources we have at the Marquard Center is not quite up to a 5 star Michelin restaurant.  This became a comical topic of conversation between this sweet man and I.  Our conversations ranged anywhere from sports, to the tangled web of politics that makes up the governing body of Chicago, to commentary on my relationship with "Miss E" (my girlfriend).  I really began to look forward to these interactions and by now I have realized that I have learned a wealth of information from him that I could not have ever received in college or traditional education.  Because of Sweetheart, I have seen a vast improvement in my "street smarts."  This is a kind of intelligence that I could not have received in my traditional suburban Illinois background.  Everyone I had ever been surrounded with in my life was from a similar background, and it was not until this experience that I've realized how sheltered I have been my entire life.  Markus is definitely partially responsible for this revelation, however, so are all of the guests that I have had the privilege of working with this year.  As a result of Markus' unconventional way of showing affection, I have learned that his nickname may not be entirely ironic.

*Name changed

2013-14 Marquard Center Volunteers

Friday, July 18, 2014



Kelly enjoying the sunflowers

There he was, sitting in a chair with his legs crossed, mesmerized by John Wayne’s charismatic charm on the television. Imagine a 59-year-old African American Santa Claus with a stumbling gait, minus the red coat and hat. His toothless smile could make just about anyone chuckle. Let’s call him Sammy*. After just taking a shower in our facilities, he was clean-shaven, groomed and ready to venture back out into the scorching, humid Chicago weather. With the forecast never fluctuating much in the summer, dehydration and heat exhaustion are constant fears for the homeless. Recently, Sammy was one of the guests whom I worried about the most. The pallor of his skin tone and dismissive attitude couldn't indicate more clearly that someone was wrong. He had been losing his appetite and the once jolly grandpa that had everyone laughing was now silent in the corner. Like my actual grandpa, Sammy is stubborn.  It wasn't until his condition became worse that we insisted we call an ambulance for him.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Homeless for 17 years, being on the streets had taken a toll on him. But despite having no money, no home and no family, Sammy always had his smile on. Out of all of the guests whom I have interacted with this year, Sammy is the one that I feel most connected to. He takes everything with a grain of salt and never takes life seriously. After being checked into the hospital for about 2 days, he left against medical advice. I saw him that day when he came into our lunch program. Oddly enough, I convinced him to check himself back in. Although not my original plan, I ended up taking 45 minutes to walk him to the emergency room. During that walk, he told me about his family, his wife, and story. Building up the relationship with him this entire year has led to this conversation. I felt touched that he trusted me with the details of his life and that he could be so open with me.  At one point he had tears in his eyes and said, “you can’t go now, I will miss you too much”, referring to the end of my program. I knew he had an impact on me, but I didn't know that I had such an impact on him.
Sassi and Kelly

Sammy is someone who I strive to be in the future. Mostly carefree but serious at times, his personality cultivates likability in others. Despite his difficult predicament, he never fails to see life in a positive light. Like many of our guests, he has made the most of what he has. Often he tells me that he is a veteran survivor. The reason why he has survived on the streets for so long is that he knows how to make something out of nothing. Many Americans, including myself, need to take a step back from our lives and appreciate what we have. Not only in material possessions but also the emotional relationships and the intangible memories that are ingrained in us. If this year and Sammy have taught me anything, it’s to cherish life. To stop worrying about the clothes on my back, my appearance or material possessions and to live a more simple life. We are all humans. Everyone is worth your time. You are not more important than someone else because you are able to provide for yourself. My service has taught me to give humankind a chance—to not walk away from a hungry beggar on the street and to spark up conversation when you can. Even after the end of my program, I plan to remain in contact with Sammy and see how he is doing. 

*Name changed

Monday, June 23, 2014

A Beggar's State of Mind


Zach and a team of volunteers in the soup kitchen
On Friday night I made my way downtown to reunite with Rick and a few old friends at a swanky...swanky bar.  The tavern was packed like a can of sardines with a section of post-grads out in front clustered with familiar faces.  I met Rick right away and began to compile a mental image of what he'd been up to for the last month or so.  He had been doing very well.  Shortly thereafter, Rick was rudely interrupted by the one and only Samantha Smith.  Sam has pretty much embraced the sorority girl stereotype and given it a big bear hug.  She made her entrance by aimlessly putting her hands on our shoulders to say hello.  As the words stumbled out of her, she gave me an update on her life that hadn't really improved since the last update I received from her.  Suddenly this conversation was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder from none other than Katie Clemens, another sorority girl whom I happened to know.  She literally gave me hug and then immediately launched into a monologue of how miserable her life was.  She said she was changing as a person because of her work, in a bad way.  She babbled, "someone told me that they wanted to crucify me the other day!" in a half crying, half defeated voice.  I told her that there was no reason why she shouldn't pursue her dream of working with refugees.  I told her that life is too short to pursue only the paycheck that cannot make her genuinely happy, only genuinely comfortable.  I told her that it's worth it to pursue what she loves and put up with the uncertainty because life itself is uncertain.  I appreciate her trust in me to say these things and I reciprocated with an update on my life helping to run the soup kitchen.  I hope she found it somewhat inspiring.  To make my exit proper, I felt obliged to buy the girls a round of drinks, which left me with a $22 dent in my wallet.  On my way out I booked it to avoid any more stories of how boring people's lives had become.  I'd be lying if I said it wasn't refreshing to see familiar faces, but the highlight of my evening did not happen yet.

Zach preparing turkey for the kitchen
On my walk to the Washington Blue Line station I saw a seated man in the center of the bridge wearing a familiar color.  About a hundred strides closer and the faded Grateful Dead T-shirt jogged my memory.  The hooded figure underneath the street lamp was none other than James Brown, one of my favorite guests.  I hadn't seen him at our place for a while because his brother had recently passed away.  "James?" I called out as I closed the distance. "Zaaaach! Hiya doin man?", "Good, good.  How about you? We haven't seen you in a minute?"  He verbally painted a picture of his situation and I felt for him.  He'd been spending time with his mother to ease the pain of his brother's passing.  He also showed me a funeral brochure that included a picture of him lacking his normal bushy black beard and the addition of two gold earrings.  Despite the facial differences, it was the same bubbly and joyous James in the picture.  When I saw him he had the Bible and Chicken Soup for the Soul in his lap, showing his desire to improve.  A desire that I didn't see in the people I had just left at the swanky place.  His inspiration showed.  Despite the recent death of his brother, living at his mother's place, and begging on the streets, James had aspirations.  He had plans to go to Alaska and work on a crab boat.  He said he felt called there by some spiritual tractor beam, and the fact that he doesn't like the hot weather here.  From my perspective his reasoning did seem a little unrealistic, but I could see the hope and determination in his eyes that rendered my perspective meaningless.  It was keeping him going and it inspired me.  His optimism was infused in every word that came out of his mouth.  This was the first time in my life where I genuinely wanted to give money to a beggar, rather than act out of guilt.  He deserved that dream, whether it made sense to me or not.  As I walked away I yelled, "I love you man. Stop by one of these days."  "I love you too, and I will, I will."  I never saw James again, but our interaction that night is etched into my memory.

Gracie, Mike, Sassi, Ephi, and Zach 
That incident put the entire night into perspective for me.  The kids I met at the tavern were all so anxious about their future that they needed to spend $9 on drinks to ease the stress. Meanwhile James, the beggar on the street, is trying to save literally every penny he can to pursue his dream of which he is doubtless will happen for him.  That night I spent $22 on a round of drinks and gave $2 to James.  Looking back, I'd much rather it'd have been the other way around.  Supporting a dream and fostering a distraction are two very different entities.  I wish the entire bar filled with alumni had met James that night.  Maybe he could talk some sense into them, or at least put their lives into perspective.  I don't ever want to forget that night, which is why I am writing this.  This is a reminder that the future can be a state of mind.  You can be anxious about its uncertainty, or you can be sure that everything will be alright no matter what obstacles stand in your way.  Either way, you are right. 

"If you think you can do a thing or think you can't do a thing, you're right." -Henry Ford

*All names have been changed

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

SunSea-The Best Way to Experience Chicago


Recently, our community was schedule to take a boat tour on Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.  We had been looking forward to this for a long time and were excited to have time together in this city we've all fallen in love with.  The weather forecast didn't cooperate initially.  We were scheduled to go in the morning but rip tide warnings, thunderstorms, and high winds prevented us from doing so.  Fortunately, we were able to reschedule for later that same night.
Timo on the SunSea
We started the tour at 7:30 pm on Lake Michigan, south of downtown Chicago, and headed north towards the River.  This route provided an impressive sight, or like my roommate Zach prefers to say "phenomenal" views on Chicago's skyline while the sun sank behind the imposing buildings.
After we got some instructions inside the boat and had some food, we started to explore and enjoyed sitting outside breathing in the fresh air.  It was also a great opportunity to take some pictures together, talk, and enjoy quality time with friends who have become family this year.
Hannah, Gracie, Kendall, Sara, and Kelly
Patrick, Timo, and Emily
We passed Navy Pier and entered the lock that takes boats into the Chicago River.  As we rode into the city it slowly got dark.  Diana, the Franciscan Outreach Executive Director, shared the historical background and interesting facts about the city and the buildings along the River.

Some of us were dancing to the music on the deck; others were acting pirate-like while listening to the soundtrack of Pirates of the Caribbean, and others even had the chance to fulfill lifelong dreams of standing at the rail of a boat like Jack and Rose in The Titanic.
Mustafa and Mike
When we turned around to head back the sun had set and the city presented itself with the pretty lights shimmering as reflections on the water.  It seemed almost provocative how Chicago showed off its beautify...and all of us who will leave the city this summer became a little sad about our time wrapping up so quickly.  It was comforting to just bundle up together under some blankets and enjoy the wonderful moment.
When we got back to the lock to re-enter Lake Michigan we couldn't pass because it was Wednesday night and the fireworks were about to begin.  We ended up being as close as physically possible to the fireworks display!  We saw the fireworks from the top of the boat, a unique experience, especially with the fog.
2013-14 Franciscan Outreach Volunteers
This was an incredible experience!  I would like to thank SunSea, Captain Ted, and his crew-member Sara for donating this amazing experience to our community. Thank you!

Monday, May 12, 2014

Welcome to the 3rd Floor


This blog has a lot of posts about our work, our experiences during our year of service, and the impact it has on us.  But we don't only work together, we also live together.  And this is what this post is all about - the space that we share with each other this year, the place where we spend the most time as a community...our home.
Marquard Center
So let's start our little tour...

Welcome to the third floor of the Marquard Center.  When you come through the door you're basically already in the middle of the apartment.  We call it the computer area for the obvious reason that the community computer is located here.  This room is kind of the center just because all the other rooms and hallways come together in this space.  There are also bulletin boards with information on upcoming events.  From this room you have access to our laundry room, the kitchen, living room, and two hallways that lead to bedrooms.
Foyer/Computer area
To the left of the computer room you will find both the "blue" and "yellow" hallways.
"Yellow" hallway

The two hallways mirror each other and each have a bathroom, 4 individual bedrooms, and a little hangout area with some couches that are great for reading a book or watching movies together.

Yellow hallway hangout area
Note Mustafa left for his hallway when he went away for a weekend
Bedroom (not shown: chair, desk, wardrobe)
Back to the computer area.  Going to the right you'll find the living room and the kitchen.The kitchen is probably our most used space.
Kitchen/dining room
Kitchen/Chalkboard Wall
The walls just got painted and it has two of my absolute favorite parts of our home.  One of those things is our "inspiration wall" where everyone is welcome to post whatever they think should fit there.  We have collected letters from visitors, poems from one of our reflections, objects from our mid-year retreat, etc.

The second thing I love about our kitchen is our chalkboard wall.  It is helpful if you want to share things with the rest of the community like a grocery list or just plans for the day.  It always makes me happy to find little notes, drawings, or quotes on it when I come into the kitchen.
Chalkboard Wall
The kitchen is just a place where we all come together.  We share community dinners, but it's way more than that.  We share our highs and lows of the day, jokes and great moments, we just spend time together talking.  For some reason that always happens more in the kitchen than in the living room and no one really knows why because our living room is pretty great as well.
We got a great couch donated just this year.  It's also the home of our fish. We still spend time in here too though.  We all come together in the living room for our weekly community reflections and meetings or just for a relaxed movie night.

Living Room (Not pictured: Fish)
Other side of living room
Behind the living room and the kitchen you find the last of our three hallways.

3rd hallway
Bedroom (Not pictured: Chair, wardrobe, dresser)
This hallway has 2 more bathrooms, 5 personal bedrooms, and a guestroom.
All-in-all, I think living in community together, in this apartment, is one of the many reasons this year is such a great experience.  We get to share our everyday life, our different traditions, and backgrounds with one another.  This space played a role in us really becoming a community and has become home to me this year.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Gift of Inner-Dependence


Hannah getting toiletries for the women
One of my first weeks with Franciscan Outreach, my volunteer community had a group reflection on service and what that meant to each of us.  I remember thinking and hoping that service could be about more than a one-sided exchange of offering help to others.  Some of the ideas brought up by our group were that service can be a mutual exchange, that there is a sense of equality with those we are serving, or that we can find inner-dependence with those we serve rather than trying to be independent ourselves but viewing them as dependent on our services.  All these sounded great to me, but during the reflection I grew unsettled because our conversation seemed so idealistic.  I didn't know how we could practically find inner-dependence or equality or mutual exchange with our guests when, to be honest, they are coming to us for food and shelter while we already have those needs met.  Even in a relational sense I didn't understand what these ideals about service could look like.  I figured the nature of the program would lead me to depend more on my fellow volunteers for relational support than on the guests.  Our volunteer group is an intentional community formed around common values, living and serving together.  With the guests on the other hand, we don't see them as often, and when we do, it's almost always in the regulated context of us serving them as volunteers.  With all this on my mind, I left the reflection wondering "How do I still find inner-dependence with the guests?  How can I still approach service as something more than 'helping the less fortunate' (a view which unwittingly belittles those being served)?"

Women's dorm
Well, I didn't find an answer to my concerns that afternoon, but now that I've been working for months, I recently realized I do find support in the women, and I see them supporting each other.  There is a form of inner-dependence there.  It just took me time to discover what it would look like and become aware of it.  One of the central ways I find inner-dependence at the shelter is in the diversity of personalities we have there.  The shelter is not the ideal community environment - many of our guests face especially difficult life situations - yet I see some of the women bring life to the shelter with their different personalities.  I'm grateful for the combination of temperaments we have because the women positively contribute to the dorm environment in different ways.  Some are jubilant, others are giving, caring, funny, optimistic, helpful, easy-going, or down-to-earth; and there are many other traits that I don't have time to list.  I love seeing the women uniquely serve and support each other, and myself, through their individual gifts and strengths.

As I'm writing this post, a number of women come to mind who exemplify the supportive presence I'm talking about.  They contribute to the community and peace there, and over the days, weeks, or months that I know them, I really grow to appreciate these individuals.  One of these women is particularly caring and relaxed.  I never hear her complain, and she almost always has a smile for others.  I admire the way she treats those around her, and one night I wrote down in my journal that despite sharing the dorm with so many other women, "she doesn't see others as nuisances or threats; she sees them as people.  And she cares about them."  I was prompted to record this because I want to remember the ways she's inspired me.

Another woman has a sweet, quiet, temperament, and she's very giving.  She always makes sure to wish me a good day before she leaves.  I've seen her share food or toiletries with other women, and one night when a different regular guest didn't show up, this woman asked about her, wanting to make sure she was okay.  She has even brought in a few potted flowers to brighten up the shelter.

A third woman recently attended a spirituality support group we have every Monday morning.  At the end of the group, we shared prayer requests, and hers was for peace.  As I left the group that day, I realized that she is praying for peace, but she also helps bring peace to the shelter.  She has a soft, kind manner, and I never see her lashing out at other guests.

Volunteers on St. Patrick's day
On a different note, one woman tends to be quite loud, but always cheerfully so.  She'll come in singing and sharing stories.  She'll wake up singing or excitedly talking about her cute outfit for the day.  She'll be moving into a housing program soon, but when she shared this great news with me she added "you all are going to miss me aren't you?  I'll come back and volunteer!"

I have shared about these four women in particular, but there are many others that I haven't mentioned who have come through our doors and blessed me and those around them.  I am only one person, and as hard as I try, I cannot support all 40 women as much as I would like.  But in midst of my limitations, the women come through for each other and for me.  Sometimes a new woman comes in uncertain or upset, and I don't get a chance to make sure she's okay, but I'll see another guest talking to her, showing her around, and helping her out.  Other times women come in, and despite being in an emergency shelter, they bring a good time with them.  They find people to laugh and joke with, or they spend their free time doing each other's hair.  Lastly, in almost all of the women, I have witnessed an inspiring resilience.  I regularly hear guests say they are grateful to be alive, or they are blessed to wake up every morning.  Despite the difficulties they are facing, they don't let their situations keep them from seeing life as a gift or from finding happiness in their daily routines.  Every shift I work, I get glimpses of this resilience in the words and actions of the women, and in this way, they continually give me, and each other, hope.