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.