Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Everyone has a Story


"Everyone has a story." This poster has been plastered on my wall since the beginning of my year of service--a constant reminder of every interaction I have with anyone. whether I'm connecting with guests, fellow volunteers, or members of the larger community, this is something that is always int he back of my mind.  Everyone has a story.

I've changed a lot throughout this year. Actually, I don't think I've necessarily changed, but I've definitely been allowed to blossom and become my real and authentic self. This experience was my first time living far from home. Hailing from Massachusetts and going to college a little over an hour away doesn't really count. I visited home and my family twice throughout the year--once near Halloween, and once for Easter. Spending Thanksgiving and Christmas with the guests I served and members of my volunteer community are celebrations and moments I will always remember. I am forever grateful for the communities I've become a part of.

When I think about community, a few things come to mind.  Firstly, I've been living intentionally with twelve other volunteers. This community has been a pillar of support for me that has proven to be unbreakable; and we've experienced a year of service that not many others will ever come to understand. Secondly, I think of the ladies in the dorm.  Spending night after night at the shelter and making connections with the women facing homelessness is an experience that I will cherish forever. I have become a part of a beautiful community of women who have faced many challenges throughout their lives, and because of that, have incredible strength and courage. The support and love and belonging I feel with the wonderful humans I have met this year feels so indescribable. I have been welcomed into a second home.

Serving forty-five women experiencing the precariousness of homelessness was not easy.  But I would not trade this experience for anything. If I'm being honest, the ladies I made deep connections with are the reasons I kept going back night after night. Suddenly, my job wasn't about "helping" people. I wanted to go to the shelter to see Trudy's smiling face, or get a big hug from Yolanda, or see just how grateful the ladies were when I had towels for them to shower and ice cold water in the cooler. My job became being part of a web of support for the ladies, validating their feelings, encouraging them to go to treatment or sign their lease. It became sharing moments of sadness, hearing abut incredible trauma, and still seeing them as women worthy and deserving of love and life. It became about making art together, sharing cookies, and dancing to the radio.

The truth is that I have gained so much from the women I have met.  They have taught me to be strong, to keep going, and never give up. they have taught me to laugh at the little things, to thank the Universe for the life I've got, and stand up for what I believe in. I am so lucky to come from a place of privilege, that my parents have supported me every step of the way, and that I am not a paycheck away from homelessness, or that I am not stuck in a low-wage job unable to pay rent. I am so incredibly grateful and appreciative of that reality.

When you get to the bottom of it, we're all just humans. Whether we're homeless, addicted to drugs, mentally ill, all three or none at all--we're all humans. We all have a story, a reason why we are the way we are. Our families created us, our educations and socioeconomic statuses created us, the systems in place in this country have shaped us; and as long as we recognize that, and see people coming from different places, I think there are always great connections to be made. And that is what I've learned during my year with Franciscan Outreach Volunteers. Everyone has a story.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Providing Comfort

By Cara Ugolino

From my AmeriCorps year at Franciscan Outreach Volunteers, I have learned the importance of providing comfort to our guests throughout the day. 

I learned quickly that individuals experiencing homelessness do not have the luxury of comfort. I saw this through the daily stories from our guests. From the constant fear of being attacked during the night for one's spot under a bridge. To homeless women experiencing an extreme lack of comfort when they have their periods, and have limited access to expensive feminine products. To homeless individuals having a constant awareness that at any moment, the police can decide to kick them out of any public place for just existing. To having to put trust into strangers helping you when it comes to housing opportunities, dinner, laundry services etc., when so often you are used to doing things on your own. Individuals experiencing homelessness are made to feel uncomfortable every single day.

One guest that I worked with confided in me that she happened to be a transgender women. Because hormones are so expensive, this woman still had typical physical male characteristics. This is just another example of the lack of comfort homeless individuals often face. She didn’t have the resources to feel comfortable in her own skin. From the beginning we had open communication with her about what would be the most comfortable arrangement for her while using our shower services. We decided together that she would shower in her own bathroom with a woman supervisor on site. It was through this experience that I realized that working in a social service agency, we have the ability to give a client the only comfort that they might experience throughout the day. This woman fears for her life every day due to being homeless and a woman who is transgender, and we have the power to give her a safe space where she can finally feel comfort. My AmeriCorps year made me realize that I will work with LGBTQ homeless individuals, and I will do everything in my power to provide a safe and comfortable space for individuals living on the margin, that don’t have the privilege of experiencing comfort on a daily basis. 

Friday, July 10, 2015

My Story


My year of service has felt like a roller coaster of emotions that has had me experience both the lowest lows and the highest highs of my life—sometimes in the same day. I have learned more than I think I can even comprehend at the present time and am so, so very grateful for this experience. I am positive that my year of being an AmeriCorps member in the Franciscan Outreach Volunteer program will greatly influence the rest of my life. There are so many moments and conversations that come to mind when I reflect back on this past year that it would be difficult to focus on simply one. One of the biggest and most important reminders that I have taken away from working so closely with the homeless population in Chicago is that everyone has a story and it is extremely important that we take the time to listen and learn those stories.
I think that it is natural for people to assume that homelessness is a choice, and that it is much easier to get off the streets than it is in reality. By creating awareness, I think we can change the view of homelessness in our society, and in turn homelessness itself. Furthermore, I think we can all afford to be a little kinder and understanding to people, homeless or not.
This year has taught me how to love others better as well as how to love myself better. I have never felt more appreciated and confident in myself. Both the guests that come into the Marquard Center and the other Franciscan Outreach Volunteers have had a positive impact on me and opened my eyes to the diverse backgrounds that they come from.

I have laughed, cried, felt depleted, grown, and changed more than I would have ever imagined was possible in one year. The Marquard Center has become more than a place I live and serve at, it has become my home. The people that come here matter, and the services and hospitality we provide matter. I cannot stress enough how necessary it is that our guests have a place that welcomes them and provides a community when they are so often ignored and turned away. My hope is that they feel known and loved.

This past year wasn’t just a year of service to me; it was about further building a foundation of a lifetime of helping others. I wanted to make a difference to a population that I had not yet fully embraced and been exposed to. This year was about me diving in without reserve and broadening my perspective of the world and the individuals that live in it. I’m leaving my service site even more inspired to make a positive impact on others and confident that I will always have a home and community to come back to at the Marquard Center.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Scholarship Opportunity for Alums!

We're proud to announce a new partnership with Franciscan School of Theology in California to offer partial scholarships to alums of Franciscan Service Network programs, including Franciscan Outreach Volunteers!

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Time Spent Together


While it isn’t as often as we would like, where all 12 of us are together at the same time, Wednesdays are our day. In the afternoon we have reflection time together at 2 pm, and when the soup kitchen volunteers get out of work at 7 pm we have community night. We get the whole gang together. 

People often ask: 

-What do you all do on your free time when you aren’t working at the shelter or soup kitchen?

-Where have you explored in Chicago?

Below we have answers through pictures that we have taken to capture our Wednesday memories.

-Scavenger hunt through Wicker Park!

-Easter Dinner!

-Easter Egg Dying!

-Bowling night!

-Community night including pizza, a walk to Bee and Tea, and watching Jaws!

-Joy & Gratitude themed reflection!

-Italian Renaissance at dusk themed community night!

Pumpkin Carving!

Dip Challenge! 

A Community favorite! (Trips to the lake at night)

Community night to Second City! 


Dinner in Pilsen!

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Fight To End Homelessness

Brett Tucker

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to take place in Chicago’s annual point-in-time homeless count. One night each year, volunteers canvas all of Chicago in order to count and locate the city’s homeless. This information is then used to help determine what funding and resources local agencies will receive. During the count groups search hospitals, bus stations, alleyways, homeless shelters, and more during about a five-hour span. All volunteers receive training before the count begins, and so I gathered with 15 others at the Night Ministry in Ravenswood, where we discussed techniques and tips as well as divided into our groups for the evening. I was assigned to the Lincolnwood neighborhood, along with former FOA volunteer Patrick and Dave, a city employee. The three of us headed out at about 9pm, with stacks of surveys and a box full of gloves and scarves in hand.  

We arrived at our location and began driving the side streets in search of anyone who might be homeless. After about 30 minutes, it became apparent that we weren’t going to see anyone on the streets that night. Our area was highly residential, several blocks from any restaurants, businesses, or other public areas. We ended up driving for over two hours without recording a single homeless person.

Instead of letting this discourage us, Dave took the time to give us an overview of homelessness in Chicago. As an employee of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, Dave has taken part in the count for the past several years. Part of his job includes researching homelessness for the city, so he provided a unique insight into how homelessness operates in Chicago. He talked about the approximately 6,000 homeless individuals in the city, and the how the majority live on the streets, unable to find space in a shelter. He also talked about the various challenges homeless individuals often face, from mental health issues and physical disabilities to employment challenges and language barriers.  

As Dave spoke, he reminded me of the conversations I’ve had with the other full time volunteers. We talk often about the need for collaboration, for organizations to focus on what they’re good at and to allow others to work according to their strengths and passions. No one can end homelessness alone; we all have a part to play. The end of homelessness will be closest when we realize this fact, and share resources and collaborate with others who ultimately have the same goal that we do. 

Throughout my time at Franciscan Outreach, I’ve often been frustrated by my inability to give someone housing or provide them with a job. It’s easy to feel like we do little to help our guests in a meaningful way. My conversation with Dave helped me connect my role to the larger fight to end homelessness. The support we provide through meals and conversation is a vital step in helping someone end a life on the streets. I may not be able to give someone housing, but I can provide a little comfort along the way. We all have a part to play, and I’m beginning to see how my work here is part of the larger picture.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Connecting with Beautiful Ladies


The women come into the dorm all at once at 6:30 pm.  I'm standing at the front of the room, there to greet them, sign out towels, and get anything else they might need.  Many of them are bundled up, noses red and faces barely peeking out of hats and hoods and scarves.  It's evident that they're all happy to be inside after a cold day out, and many of them drop off their things and go straight to the kitchen for a hot meal.

This is the usual start to every night I work.  From there, it varies:  welcoming new intakes, mediating conflict, solving problems, being a resource.  Regardless of the night, though, it's always sure that I'm in for some sort of adventure.  The best part of being in the dorm is making connections with so many different kinds of women.  I have learned where they grew up, what brought them to the shelter, what their families are like, and so many more of their little quirks.  These women have become my friends.
Ladies sharing what they're Thankful for
Since starting in July, I knew I wanted to do more for the women I serve.  I wanted to do more than provide a bed, more than just give them a safe place to sleep at night.  I knew (and still know) that I alone do not have the capacity to change the way the system works and get everyone into housing quickly, nor do I have the power to eliminate addiction and mental illness, so starting small and on a relational level was something I knew I could facilitate.

I thought about all of the art therapy classes that were prominent where I went to college, and how art can really do things for people.  Whether it's taking our minds off of something or giving us a forum to express how we're feeling, I know that art can be therapeutic and helpful.  I also drew upon experiences I had in leading student groups to build connections and create safe environments for sharing.  After a few months of brainstorming and dragging my feet, I was finally able to put a group together.

We met for the first time last Friday to make snowflakes and other holiday crafts for the dorm.  I baked a few batches of Christmas cookies and some other goodies for the women were provided by the shelter. After everything was set up, I turned the Christmas music on and the women started coming into the back room where I was holding the group.  It filled me with so much joy to see grown women sitting around a table, crafting snowflakes out of coffee filters and decorating them with glitter glue.  I was thrilled to see how happy they all were - joking around and laughing, singing along to the music; even the ones who just came in to eat a cookie and watch were having a great time.  It was wonderful to see the guests who usually kept to themselves out and about, crafting and having fun.  The creations were beautiful, and we hung them around the dorm afterwards.
Women's group
When I came back the next night for my overnight shift, one of the women approached me asking if we could do arts and crafts again that night.  She said, "You know, Theresa, this is a really crappy situation we're all in...but doing crafts last night was so much fun. It's nice to forget about where I'm at for a little bit."  Hearing this in combination with seeing just how happy everyone was just a night before gave me a feeling of fullness that I haven't felt in a long time.  Seeing the joy in the guest's faces filled me with an incredible happiness--knowing that I had a hand in facilitating this delight was an awesome feeling.  But it's not really about how I feel, is it?  That's just an added bonus, the icing on the cake brought about by the beautiful women I have the privilege to be with.

The feedback was positive.  I hope to continue this group twice a month on a few of my nights off.  We'll craft for holidays, but I also have some ideas around gratitude, reflection, family, and connection.  I am absolutely thrilled to see the progress this group makes over the course of my volunteer year.

If you're interested in providing financial support to cover supply costs for our women's groups, please email Theresa at t_powers17@yahoo.com Thanks!