Monday, January 9, 2017

Love and Belonging

2014-2015 FOV - Cara Ugolino

BrenĂ© Brown, a researcher on shame and empathy wrote, “Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection—it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.” This quote comes to mind when I reflect on my year with Franciscan Outreach Volunteers (FOV). I never imagined this experience would be so life altering; however, my volunteer year has completely shaped my values regarding community and service.
Cara and her community set out on their journey together at Opening Retreat

Franciscan Outreach challenged me to recognize that individuals experiencing homelessness are people with incredibly rich and beautiful stories, identities, and strengths to share with this world. It made me realize that our society dehumanizes and does an incredible disservice to individuals that are living on our societal margins. We do not value the individual that is pregnant and can’t afford food, the person that has lost their job unexpectedly after having a heart attack, the individual that is experiencing mental health issues and no longer has family support, or the person who is dealing with a substance abuse issue. I quickly realized that we ignore those that differ from us, unless we or a loved one has a shared identity or similar experience to the individuals that are struggling. However, if my service year has taught me anything, it’s that we all are in this world to love and be loved. It’s as simple as that.
Karen and Cara carving up some birds in the Marquard Kitchen

Living in community with eleven other people has also made a large impact on my life. I am almost certain that I will never have an experience as fulfilling as this. I have never laughed harder in my life or been as frustrated as I was when living in community. I learned how to live with and love eleven other personalities that differed from my own. I constantly find myself missing Manu’s goofiness, Brett’s laugh, Theresa’s warmth, Cady’s silliness, drinking hot cocoa and coffee with Elias, dinner dates with Kristen, Nick sharing information about the world, Valentin’s Snapchats and waking me up in the morning, Sebi’s smile, Karen’s sassiness, and Maddy’s rap skills.
2014 -2015 Community in front of the Chicago skyline

Following my year of service I decided that I wanted to pursue a master’s in Social Work. I went on to start my graduate degree at the University of Chicago in Social Service Administration. During my first year of school, I worked with pre-k through third grade students in the CPS system who were experiencing behavioral and emotional problems. I ran a grief group for first grade children who had lost their parents to gun violence. This experience reiterated for me that children are either set up for failure or success, simply based on the neighborhoods that they reside in, and how much wealth is put into their school systems.
Cara, Karen, Manu, Brett, and Valentin in front of Cloud Gate (a.k.a. The Bean)

I am currently in my last year of grad school and I am working with youth who don’t have stable housing. Between this experience and my time with FOV, I have realized that my goal for after graduation is to work with LGBTQIA folks who are experiencing homelessness. Through my research in school, I found that according to the Society for Public Health Education (2012) five to seven percent of American youth identify as LGBTQ; which means that there are about 2.7 million LGBTQ youth in the United States. However, they found that a lack of family and social support often contributes to the LGBTQ youth homelessness rate of 40 percent. LGBTQ-identified youth are more likely to experience physical violence, drug use and abuse, earlier and unprotected sexual activity, self-inflicted violence, depression, bullying, teasing, harassment, physical assault, and suicide-related behaviors compared to their cisgender and heterosexual peers. It has quickly become evident to me that these individuals are vastly underserved. There is an incredible amount of work that needs to be done within organizations throughout Chicago in working toward becoming more culturally competent in terms of diverse gender and sexual identities.
Kristen, Brett, and Cara enjoy Frostys in the cold

This brings me back to that quote from BrenĂ© Brown; it’s worth repeating. “Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection—it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.” Although our society does not always value individuals who are experiencing homelessness, I look forward to fostering a space of love, belonging, and connection in my future social work practice. I will forever be grateful to FOV for providing me with eleven other volunteers that value the same things for all people. I can only hope that I find individuals with similar values throughout the rest of my life.  
Manu, Elias, Theresa, Cara, Karen, Nick, and Maddy reconnected this summer

Thursday, December 15, 2016

An Evolution of Thanks

Every year, while sitting around the table for Thanksgiving dinner, my family goes around and says what they are thankful for. Growing up, I always said things like my family, my friends, and my dogs. Things that I should be thankful for and very much am. But last year I said I was thankful for the friends I had made who are experiencing homelessness. And I think that is even truer this year – thanks to my time with Franciscan Outreach.
The current volunteer community enjoys a Thanksgiving meal together. 
            I grew up in a predominantly white, middle class suburb of Chicago, very much wrapped up in a comfortable blanket of privilege that everyone I knew also had. It wasn’t until I went to College (Loyola University Chicago,) that I began to realize the world I had experienced was nothing like the world the majority of the population experienced. The world outside my bubble was harsh, cruel, and unfair. After going on a service trip that included direct service with people experiencing poverty in ways I couldn’t have even imagined, the bubble I had been sitting comfortably in began to crack. After that experience I began to lead a homeless outreach organization on campus, and the relationships I formed with the people we met on the streets are the ones that taught me what the world is actually like – and they taught me how to love despite the harsh reality they live in. These were the people I was thankful for last thanksgiving. The people who I cried with, I laughed with, and prayed with for two and a half years.
Jaime with the Labre team at LUC. Labre is a student-led homeless outreach  ministry that is active in many high schools and universities across the country. Students like Jaime form relationships with the homeless of downtown Chicago, providing both food and friendship.
            These experiences I had at Loyola changed me in a way that I could not ignore, so I decided to do something similar full time after graduation, which is how I came to find out about Franciscan Outreach. As expected with any transition, I was nervous about what the next year would be like. I was nervous about the work that I would be doing, and how I was going to manage a dorm of 45 women, when the majority of them are old enough to be my mother. I was nervous about community, specifically that I wouldn’t fit in as the only American woman. But within a couple of weeks, all these worries proved to be for nothing. While there are some intense moments at the shelter, most of the time the dorm is filled with laughter and support, and in three short months I have built relationships with the ladies that are more meaningful than I could have imagined. For example, one time I was dealing with a mentally ill woman who was very upset beyond my ability to deescalate. After she left, six different women came up to me, telling me that they had my back and would never let anything happen to me while in the dorm. While I never expect to need their assistance in an extreme circumstance, that gesture of support is something I will always remember, and be thankful for.
            The other large part about being a volunteer at Franciscan Outreach is community living. As I mentioned, it was something I was nervous about and didn’t know what to expect. Little did I know, we would bond quickly. There’s something about moving into an apartment with 11 strangers that teaches you patience and the importance of intentionality in relationships, especially when your community doesn’t do their dishes. Between always having someone to hang out with to having people around constantly who understand the difficult things we may experience at work, I couldn’t imagine this experience without community. I am thankful for their support, their enthusiasm, and their ability and willingness to bring me up when I am feeling down.
Leon, Jaime, and Tim sporting their favorite and most recent purchases. 
            This year there is a lot to be thankful for. I am thankful for the cubs winning the World Series, finally.  I am thankful for my friends and family for supporting me through this year. I am thankful for my alma mater, for breaking my heart in ways I couldn’t ignore, and exposing me to injustices that I now feel called to fight against. I am thankful for the journey that got me to this point, and for the future I have ahead of me, committed to continuing to advocate for those who society has and continues now, more than ever, to marginalize. I am thankful for the guests, who have shown me how to love in a way I didn’t know possible, who have shown me how to laugh through the most difficult times, and have shown me how to have faith, no matter how much or how little you have and what you are going through. I am thankful for my community, for always being there, for lifting one another up, and for being such a strong source of joy. I am thankful for Franciscan Outreach, for giving voices to those who have been silenced, and walking with those who society had abandoned. This thanksgiving season, I will be reflecting about all these things that I am thankful for, and what they all have in common: the presence of community. As my biggest source of inspiration, Dorothy Day, once said “We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.”
Jaime and FOV 15-16 alumni, Emily, celebrating the Cubs victory. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

All You Need Is Love

Emily Davis, a full-time volunteer from the 2015-2016 community, shares a special experience from her time in the Franciscan Outreach Volunteer Program and what she is up to now below. Emily spent one year serving at the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph and still inspires us to this day!

“If we have no peace it is because we have forgotten that we belong to one another.”

 What a wise woman Mother Teresa was; someone we should all be looking to during this time of incredible division and hateful tension. One thing that I have learned in the last year is that belonging to one human family and having a responsibility for one another is an indisputable fact and the more we fight against it, the stronger the hate, dissension, and darkness grow. Often it seems best to ignore our belonging to one another because, quite honestly, it is easiest. Working a 12-hour overnight shift in an emergency shelter with a large population of women suffering from fairly debilitating mental illnesses is a grueling task, and there were many times that I thought it would get the best of me. Luckily though, it never did. If anything, it has taught me some invaluable lessons. 

On my last day at Franciscan House of Joseph and Mary, a lady I had grown particularly close to handed me a silver token with John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that He gave His only son”) written on it and said to me, “You need this now. It has protected me along this difficult journey, but I want to be sure now that you will be protected.” This woman – a woman who had chronic medical problems, was living in extreme poverty, surviving on the streets during the day, and finding a nighttime refuge at the Franciscan House of Mary and Joseph only recently – believed that I needed protection more than she did. She believed that even though I was a privileged, white woman living in the suburbs, I was her friend and it brought her great comfort to know that I was going to be safe. This woman gave me the greatest gifts imaginable: friendship and love. She reminded me that we belonged to one another and that our love for one another was truly what mattered. It did not matter that I had a place to call home and she did not. It did not matter that I was white and she was black. It did not matter that I was young and she was old. We were friends and in that moment, I felt so loved and I hope she did, too.

Serving now as a youth minister in an affluent suburb of Chicago, I am challenged every day by the teens I work with and the many divisions that work as barriers to them feeling loved. As we all know, many teens’ social lives are structured and defined by high school cliques and popularity. Many of them feel alienated from what is “cool” and those that are part of the “in crowd” feel an immense pressure to maintain the walls they have built around themselves to protect their popularity. However, they are then forced to keep up with someone else’s idea of who they should be, and do not feel accepted for who they truly are. They believe their uniqueness is negative because it prevents them from conforming, and that reaching out to someone different from themselves would leave them even more alone. What they don’t always realize is that it is in building those bridges that they will discover a greater sense of personal identity and the greatest form of friendship: a friendship that truly accepts them for who they are. Shout out to the wonderful ladies at Franciscan House, my incredible community, and the staff at Franciscan Outreach for providing me with the inspiration and example that I need to work with the teens!

Thus, I continue to utilize the tools that I learned through my year of service to guide the teens in building connections with one another, and to ignore some of the hateful language that only encourages deeper division; to no longer live in immense fear of each other. Overcoming that fear is the only way to create a greater sense of belonging, acceptance, and peace. Dorothy Day said, “Love casts out fear but we have to get over that fear in order to get close enough to love people.” Without this love, we will never heal. Brokenness and pain are inevitable and are part of being human. The only way to overcome brokenness, hatred and division is to build relationships with others, allowing their love to heal us. I don’t know about all of you, but I do not want to live in the pain and suffering. I need love. I hope that one day we all realize this and choose love.