Thursday, May 1, 2014

Tennesseek and Ye Shall Find Me In Detroit


The picture above is of my supervisor Jeff just like flaunting how his socks match my shirt. Seriously. Look at him. He is sooooooooo excited that we match in some capacity. Too excited. He demanded we take a picture of it because it was such a dream come true for him. He yelled to everyone in the office to come look at it. All the participants had to see it. What a weirdo. I was very embarrassed, to say the least. It's really weird how important matching can be to people.

All right. I'm filibustering. You caught me. I don't actually want to write another blog or say things that matter to me. I just want to watch another episode of Bates Motel or continue to read the Ron Burgandy autobiography. But I'll write for you anyway. Just for you. Because I love you that much.

You're welcome.

Okay. Enough. Let's play catch up.

Detroit, bab-ay!

I've decided that next year I'm heading back to Michigan to live in the D. Being close to loved ones back home and in Chicago is a plus, but I'm definitely doing it because I feel called to be there. I always hear two things about Detroit:

1.) It's in terrible shape. Don't go there. You'll get murdered because everyone there always is a deprived and deranged killer.

2.) It's being revitalized like crazy.

And that's what I want to be a part of. I definitely want to be there during such an interesting time and contribute something positive. So I'm going to look for some nonprofit jobs there and work more on my writing. See if I can get things published and some plays performed.

More Detroit

My soft spot for the city started in Belfast, strangely enough. People would ask where I'm from and I'd say Michigan. Some people knew what I was talking about and would smile and nod their heads and say "Ah, yes! Mitchigan." (They would always add a "t" to Michigan. Don't ask me why.) Anyway, then there would be people who didn't know Michigan, and so I'd say "It's the state that has Detroit."

That would, without fail, always garner some type of reaction. Someone always felt a particular way about Detroit, or had something to say about it. People from another city. From another country.

I found it a little funny when people from Belfast would look down on Detroit. Detroit is considered by many to be a downtrodden city that completely flopped from its prime instead of aging gracefully, and receives a large amount of negative press on the daily. This negative press puts it in a bad light for the world and doesn't make many people want to visit it.

Sound familiar, Belfast?

Chattanooga, TN
I know this picture is irrelevant to what I am saying in the blog right now, but isn't this just a wonderful view?

Obviously Detroit and Belfast are in different places--and I'm not just talking physically--but I find a lot of parallels between the two. When I'd go to other places in Ireland, everyone had something to say about Belfast, and it was usually negative. People would refer to its riots, paramilitary activity, the tension in the air there, etc. And to a degree, they are right. There are riots, paramilitaries are pushing around a lot of drugs and general crime, you do feel a unique tension in Belfast that I've yet to feel anywhere else.

But I personally know there is a lot more to it, and that a lot of the rude stereotypes said about Belfast aren't true. The people there are lovely, the city itself is unique and beautiful, there are tons of fun things to do, it's very safe, it's near a ton of gorgeous and interesting places, etc. It's like everywhere: there are good things and ugly things. But since Belfast and Detroit have more obvious and dramatic issues, they get pissed on more, which makes me root for them more.

I'm not used to a place like Nashville. Middle-Tennessee is all very thrive-y. It's thriving all over the place! (Control yourself, Middle-Tennessee!) I've lived/worked/been a part of communities and/or places that are dying, or are doing just-kind-of-all-right-could-be-better. But thriving? Never.


It's weird. People want to live here. People move here left and right from all over the country, especially the south. And I definitely get it. Nashville's great! I'm just not used to it. I didn't know what to expect living in a hotspot, so it makes sense that I'm still baffled by it. I never have to stick up for Nashville. Everybody loves it! That's why some people who live in Nashville think I'm crazy for wanting to live in Detroit. "But...everyone is coming here...?" Hahaha!

Jeni's: Best Ice Cream in Nashville or just anywhere period?

Also, everything here is going well. I can finally announce that I get to go to Detroit for the PC(USA) General Assembly this year as a YAV Representative! Wooooooo! I'm so pumped! I've never been to GA before and I can't wait to see what it's like, especially in Detroit. Also, April was a wonderful month that I'll talk about more in another blog, but I got to go to Florida and Lexington, KY. And I got to participate in this:

The Tim & I

I ran the Nashville Half-Marathon! It was awesome! That's me and Tim, a participant at Room In The Inn. I parked there, so after the race I went in and said hello. I ran into Tim. He and a bunch of other participants were really encouraging about how much I ran, so he and I took a picture to capture the moment. It was a good day.

Before I leave this blog, I'd like to share something I wrote for the upcoming Northern Ireland YAV site's 20 year anniversary event. It's not really relevant to this blog at all, but I had to write a brief statement on how my years of service have impacted me and this is what came out:

"Countless places in the world have rough struggles with no end in sight. Being a YAV taught me that God is present in those places, God puts people there that care, and that good things happen even in the bleakest of predicaments. God will always have a plan and I will always have hope."


Friday, February 21, 2014

9 Things That Help Me Out With The Homeless And Baking Metaphorical Spicy Pizzazz Pizzas

Jay: YAVA and Stylish Coworker

I've been trying to write some posts about some of the harder things I've been digesting about Room in the Inn. None of them have come out the way I have wanted them to yet, thus no blogs have been posted. Luckily, a good friend reminded me that in the meantime I should just write about something more lighthearted.

After asking myself what could be more lighthearted than obstacles the homeless encounter when trying to become housed, or truly heartbreaking stories of dysfunctional relationships participants relayed to me during the depressing holiday season, I finally broke down and figured I'd write about 9 things that help me out when working with the homeless.

Working with the homeless can be tough for me at times, especially when I first started. I just now feel like I'm over the "new guy" hump of the camel. Now some people know me, and when they are upset, without looking at my name tag, they shout at me by name! Oh, what a wonderful feeling it is, indeed!

But truthfully, I am only half-kidding. Now some people will come to me when they are upset BECAUSE WE HAVE A RELATIONSHIP. THIS IS A BIG DEAL BOLD UNDERLINE ALL CAPS.

When you first start, no one knows your name and they all assume you know nothing or that you are a volunteer. In my case, they were right on both counts, and, as I am a slow learner, they continue to be right sometimes. But now they no longer tell me that they don't want to talk to me but that they do want to talk to a former employee who hasn't worked at RITI for several months. Now sometimes they want to talk to me! And I owe it to these 9 easy things.

These 9 easy things can also help you, and are not always limited to the homeless (dur).

Also, these 9 easy things bake spicy pizzazz pizzas. These spicy pizzazz pizzas are of course metaphors, and should not be literally eaten because they are only made in Canada, and you should support local business. If you are in Canada and/or are Canadian and are reading this, then you should eat one and support your local Canada!

Nicole, Jeff, Me, and Catherine
(Nicole and Catherine are Kenya YAVA)

Thing #1: Name Recognition

[This is a fictional example. I do not know a participant named Zoolu, even though I wish I did.]

"What's up, Zoolu?! How's your morning?!?!" I ask (sometimes) enthusiastically and smiley, whilst extending a friendly fist.

"All right, T.J.," says low-key, cool Zoolu.

"All right!" Says me, very excited about the fist bump I am receiving.

"All right," says Zoolu. He does not stop as he gives the dorky volunteer-for-a-year that tries too hard the fist bump, and keeps on walking.

Sometimes that is all my relationship is with a participant. But it becomes routine in the best way possible. Even though many Zoolu's are laid-back, I can still tell they are appreciative of the name recognition. It helps with a lot of things. We can stick up for each other. If a participant is giving me a hard time, Zoolu can tell them to chill and that I'm just trying to help. If Zoolu has a day where he is letting out frustration in a negative way, I can pull Zoolu aside and ask him what's up, because I know him and I've never seen him act like this before. He might calm down a little bit and tell me what's up because we know each other.

But the name recognition is crucial. Zoolu is not just another face in the crowd to me, nor am I to him. I give him his mail without asking for his name. I know him, thus he is known at Room In The Inn.

Nashville is pretty

Thing #2: Compliments

Sometimes the general public is not so friendly. I'm not saying the general public is mean, but I'm not saying the general public is warm either. So a simple compliment can go a long way. Genuine ones go even further.

Some people in the homeless community take whatever clothes they can get, and do not alway get the chance to choose what they wear. So often times, I give them a compliment on what they are wearing.

"Oh, I like your hat!"

"Looking sharp today!"

"I'm digging the scarf."

I've seen compliments like this perk people right up. It has probably become my best ice breaker with women participants.

"Thank ya, baby! It keeps my hair dry and matches everything!" Exclaim multiple women participants.

Obviously, I don't leave the compliments to physical appearance. I like to give props when people teach me about Nashville or tell me something new, or educate me, or tell me how they are trying to better themselves, or how far they have come, or what have you. I try to give compliments whenever I can about whatever I can.

Laundry Room

Thing #3: Folding Laundry

When you work at Room In The Inn, folding laundry is encouraged, but I've been told before that you don't have to do it. Most employees do it anyway. It goes a long way, even when participants don't want their clothes folded (which is rare). There have been a few times when people receive their clean laundry and they are shocked about the folded laundry. I've seen people blush over it. No exaggeration.

"You folded it for me?"

Hell yeah, we did! We try to keep that shit wrinkle-free for your benefit because we love you!

Mail Room

Thing #4: Double-Checking Mail

There are many times a participant will ask me to double check for their mail even though I just looked through the pile and didn't see their name. I can be 100% sure that this person's mail has not yet arrived, but I will look through the pile again anyway.

A participant can be looking for something very important: a paycheck, a social security card, a birth certificate, an ID, a food stamp card, etc. These things are essential for finding housing, jobs, food, etc. If I can ease intensity and anxiety by looking for a person's mail again, then I will. It never hurts to check twice, and even if it still isn't there the second time, the participant knows these things:
  • I looked for it again (even if there is a long line behind them)
  • care enough to look again
  • want them to receive their important mail
  • I am on their side
To put it simply, they appreciate it, and they remember it.

Thing #5: Empower & Encourage

A former coworker at Room In The Inn gave me some of the excellent advice I will never forget:

"Do not do for others what they can do for themselves."

Obviously, this does not mean something like "Do not hold the door open for a man in a wheelchair just because he can do it himself." It means there are things participants can do themselves that they will ask staff to do for them. But if the participants do these things, they will feel empowered that they did it themselves.

"Please go get me some cough drops," Zoolu says to me as I was walk by. He is sitting in a chair where he is a few feet from the support desk. He can easily go to the support desk and ask the staff behind the desk for some cough drops himself.

"You got legs, Zoolu!" I joke back in a serious tone as I walk away, leaving him to get his own cough drops.

It is the small things.

"I'll help you with the application, but you have to fill it out yourself."

Sometimes it is encouragement.

"Hey! You're just sitting right now. Why don't you go take a class so you can get points for that laundry voucher you said you wanted earlier?"

"You don't have to wait until tomorrow. Job Search is still open for another half hour. You should go give it a try. They'll walk you through whatever pace you need."

"Okay, so they didn't hire you, but at least you did the best you could at the interview! It's not like you're just sitting around wasting time. You are actively looking for housing and a job. You're doing great. Keep going. Something is bound to turn up."

Being homeless can be a hard cycle to break. Encouragement and empowerment can remind participants that it is not impossible to break.

Coworker Jesse is an encouraging fellow

Thing #6: An Inside Joke

Naturally, humor is an important element when working with the homeless. The environment can become heavy and/or gloomy otherwise. Take it a step further and build a small, lighthearted joke between you and an individual or small group of participants. That way you have an inside joke.

I have one inside joke where a participant is a king, so I play the "trumpet" for him whenever he approaches me. Another participant, who is Spanish speaking, often says something lighthearted to tease to me, at which I will shake my head at him and call him "loco," because I have no idea what he is saying. Another participant jokes that I steal bags. One participant calls me "mailman."

So on and so forth. It always gives us something to laugh about.

Thing #7: Dancing

I have a booty that just won't quit, and it always gives the participants something to cheer about.*

*or, more commonly, something to complain about.

View from Room In The Inn

Thing #8: Listening

Stupid jokes. Sad tales. Complaints. Personal history. Important life lessons. God moments. Failed relationships. The past. The future. Goals. Hopes. Grief. Appreciation.

These are all things that are communicated by a participant in their body language or in conversation. Sometimes directly, sometimes paraphrased. Most times, all they want is to be heard.

Thing #9: Remembering: The Corny Part

Remember what you listened to.

If you remember a participant saying they had a death in the family, ask them how they are doing or find a way to show them love.

If you remember that a participant needs gloves, tell them when there are gloves.

Remember participants that have passed and honor them.

The list goes on.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

T.J. Tennesseems REAL (Part 2): From Predators to Passed Participants

Surprise! I shaved my head. Here it is mid-shave.
Thanks, Jay! Sorry, mom!

My mom doesn't like the idea of me shaving my head. Oops.

Either shortly before or after Ghost Ranch, Ashley and I painted the inside of a house with her church, Trinity Presbyterian, with Habitat for Humanity. It was a blast! Ashley is a YAVA with a cooler backstory than most. She came FROM Belfast TO serve in Nashville. So she's straight-up Northern Irish. I met her during my year in Belfast. She currently lives here now and is studying at Vanderbilt. During the times I miss Belfast, she makes it a bit easier just by being around.

Ashley and I.
So many jokes to make. Pick one and tell a friend.

Okay, now we're definitely moving past Ghost Ranch. About 10 days after Ghost Ranch, the YAVITs came to Nashville. I do not remember what YAVIT stands for, but I can tell you what they do, which is bring awareness/recruitment of the YAV program to colleges and churches. This year's YAVIT line-up consisted of people I served with in Northern Ireland, which was awesome. I took advantage of this and showed them around Nashville (to the best of my abilities, being a newbie and all).

Courtney, Kathryn, Tricia and I at the Parthenon Replica

This year they trained in Ghost Ranch right after Re-Entry, went to Denver, came to Nashville, and then finished off somewhere else in Tennessee...Clarksville? It was good to hang with them again.

On South Broadway (or as the locals call it: SoBro).
Shortly after this, we were mugged by an Elvis impersonator.
We thought he would be such a sweet old man.

As far as October goes, my birthday and halloween came and went. A lot of awesome things happened during this time. I spent a lot of time with my roommates. We watched horror movies and went on a ghost tour.

Speaking of which, I felt a little spoiled after Edinburgh and Dublin's ghost tours, because the Nashville one seemed so tame compared to those two. Nashville ghosts are nice! They walk through walls, sit around, and sometimes sing at night. Some even throw parties. So if you want to be a scary ghost in your afterlife, don't die in Nashville and/or haunt there. You won't fit in. Me being real with you again. Me being real with you to death.

Anyway, my roommates even got me a gift certificate to my favorite coffee place! Very kind of them. And I learned that one of the comics from a website my friend and I used to run is a mini-viral sensation (meaning it's all over the web). Someone even turned it into a gif.

Happy Halloween!

I actually tried for Halloween this year. I didn't tie a towel around my neck, fashion it as a cape, and call myself "Super Beach Towel Man." Alasia and I wore legit costumes to our workplaces. She was a Ninja Turtle. I was a Jack-O-Lantern or The Great Pumpkin. Whichever. I bought an orange shirt, made a jack-o-lantern stencil, spray-painted it on with fabric-safe paint, wore a long-sleeved green shirt underneath it, and wore a green beanie on top for the stem.

I agreed to be something for Halloween because everyone at work was doing it, and I can see why. The participants at Room in the Inn really enjoyed the costumes. It made them laugh. My co-worker and fellow YAVA Jay dressed up as Waldo, and everyone kept yelling "I found you!" That day at Room in the Inn (or RITI) we had a Monster Mash party with candy and dancing, and I got way funky. Everyone had a good time. Oh! And I got to MC the Evil Laughing Contest. Bwahahaha!

Sarah, Jay, me, and Jesse at the Predators game.
They lost to Toronto. Go Red Wings!

Things at RITI are going well. I'm becoming more and more comfortable with it, and my role is becoming more and more defined. I have dayroom responsibilities, such as working the showers, doing the laundry, helping with the lunch line, and waking people up. I also work behind the desk, which means distributing mail, giving out bus passes, providing proof of homelessness letters, helping people with medication, traveler's aid, state ID's, birth certificates, etc. That stuff is getting easier too, but it still has its challenges, more so than working the dayroom.

Room in the Inn Staff

Room in the Inn has its challenges. Participants will swear and get angry at you all the time. Weird things will happen. Since I've been there, I've witnessed a couple ambulance calls, a participant attempting to take my sweatshirt, a man push over a stack of mail when I told him the mail line was closed, and a woman almost flash me in anger. But compared to most other workers' stories, mine are nothing.

One's romanticism about the homeless community, both good and bad, will be stripped once you spend some time at RITI. I've seen people walk around with a ton of bags, I've seen some wear attire I could never afford. I've seen people leave extremely ungrateful after I've bent over backwards for them, I've seen people extremely grateful for folding their pants. I've seen burn outs, addicts, and drifters. I've seen parents, professors, and scholars. This is all only in two months. I know I'll see more.

Especially since the actual RITI winter season has started. This is when we coordinate participants with a congregation to stay with for the night. I've been told several times that during December through February, I will have no where to sit and no time to chill. I will be busy, busy, busy. Certain homeless people will come from across the country to be a part of the RITI winter season.

All Souls Day @ RITI

My fellow "interns"--easier to collectively call us that then the two volunteers and one student--and I took part in organizing the the All Souls Day memorial service, which was very powerful for me. Before we started organizing it, Jeff and Quiana took us to two city cemeteries, each with a section reserved for people who couldn't afford a grave. One of the sections we went to was not well kept. Weeds grew by the headstones. The headstones had dirt and dead leaves all over the tops of them. The graves rested on uneven ground. There was a hole covered by tacky blue tarp, ready for the next person to eternally rest. When I looked up the hill into the other sections, there was a lot more trinkets placed upon the graves. Flowers, sentimental things, etc. The headstones had a lot more to say than just the name and years.

With all that said, I am grateful that the city of Nashville provided people who couldn't afford graves a place to rest. I'm not sure all cities do that. I'm really not sure. I hear a lot about how well Nashville treats the homeless, and I hear a lot about other cities that don't.

We then visited the other cemetery, which was heartbreaking. It had a bunch of infant graves. Infants that didn't even make it a year. That cemetery was more well-kept, but was right next to a busy road and a bunch of factories. It was sad.

At these places, Jeff and Quiana reminisced about former participants they had known as we stumbled upon their graves. Most of the stories were really funny, some were not. Either way, we honored them at the service.

Jeff, Quiana, Jordan, me, and Nick

The service featured scripture, poems, and a time of prayer. We had employees and participants in attendance. We lit a candle for every participant we were aware of that passed last year, and had their names on the wall. We then asked people to name others they new of. Almost everyone named a couple, especially the participants. We lit candles for them, and then lit a candle for the people who passed that no one knew of. We ended it with the Lord's Prayer, and it just seemed so deafening. I have no idea why. Obviously no one was shouting, but everyone just seemed to be on the same wavelength. I really dug it.

Soon the names of the deceased participants will be listed on the tree (pictured above), by one of the entrances to RITI. This tree offers a place for deceased participants to be honored and recognized, some of whom had never received such a simple privilege that I often take for granted. I've heard of confused families/friends that come to RITI to talk to the staff about a deceased participant who was once, or always was, a significant person in their lives. Whether they are angry, sad, hurt, or baffled at this death, I've been told that they often leave a little more at peace, knowing that their family member/friend at least passed with some form of a community around them. One that RITI was happy to bring them.

Beer and Hymn Night

I refuse to leave this two-part blog on a sad note, so I will say that Friday was a very good night. The people of Downtown Pres hosted a Beer and Hymn Night at a local bar in East Nashville. We drank, we sang, we worshipped, and I had a blast. If I could only say one awesome thing about Nashville--out of the million awesome things to say about it--I would say that from RITI to Downtown Presbyterian, you can always find a community that will take you in and love you as you are.

Even if you shave your head.

T.J. Tennesseems REAL (Part 1.5): Ghost Ranch via Emmatation

My previous blog was written about Ghost Ranch, but why write about it when you can see it for yourself? Check out Emily's four part vlog (vlog=video blog) about Re-Entry! It features a lot of fellow YAVs/YAVA, including yours truly.

T.J. Tennesseems REAL (Part 1): Ghost Ranch, the Karl Complex, Acting Differently, and the Truth

Let's kick this off with a horrid, awkward picture. Why?
(Me, Emily, and Alaylay)

I know, I know. We haven't spoken in a while, you guys. It's been about a month or so. But come on. If you aren't my mom and you've seriously been dying to know what's been happening with me and my year in Nashville, then you need a life. Plain and simple. And that's my tough love to you for the day. Sorry that I had to get so real with you for a second, but actually I'm not, because now I'm about to get even more real. Can you even handle it? I don't even care what your answer is. More tough love. Don't worry. You will be stronger for it.

Before I start this blog, I have to thank a bunch of people for letting me steal their pictures without asking for their permission whilst using them for my own gain: Alasia, Ashley, Jay, Jeff, Tavi, Tricia...I thank you all. I never take pictures, and you guys do, and this is your punishment. If I ever win some kind of award for this blog or series of pictures, you will not receive any credit or compensation. You guys needed a blow to your egos anyway. Get over yourselves. Anyone can take a picture, and I'm only slightly grateful that you guys take great pictures of me and my obnoxious face.


See? More real.

But in all seriousness, I haven't written in a while and a lot has happened, so I'm going to display a series of awesome events through (other peoples') pictures.

And I promise that from here on out, if it gets too real for you, I'll hold your hand.

Ghost Ranch, the Karl Complex, Acting Differently, and the Truth
Reunion. What up?
(Former Belfast YAVs, including Karl & Kendra, who served in Belfast the year before ours)

Ghost Ranch is a Presbyterian haven in New Mexico used for conferences, events, etc. With the beautiful backdrop of desert, open sky, and God-sculpted rock formations, it is also therapeutic, and is appropriately used as a place for healing. So of course it makes sense that it is where YAVs who have just finished a year of service (in this case 2012-2013) go to reconnect with their fellow volunteers/YAVA/YAV staff, reflect on the past 12 months, get a solid spiritual feeding, and in some ways, receive closure. This event is called Re-Entry.

Belfast YAVs Again

Some of Ghost Ranch was comfortably predictable, which I appreciated. Plenty of time to catch up with the group you served with, with great people you befriended at orientation before they went off to their different site and that you kept in touch with during your year, to discuss your site with the good folks who run the program in Kentucky.

Some things were surprising. I got to meet Karl and his wife Kendra in person. This was significant to me, because I heard so much about him during my year in Belfast. He wasn't just a YAV before me, he was thee YAV before me. He was at the 174 Trust the year before I was. He was at Woodvale Methodist the year before I was. I got to meet him for two reasons:

1.) He did a second YAV year in Tucson, which means he got to go to Ghost Ranch. Also, can I just point out that 174 Trust/Woodvale Methodist both hosted two YAVs in a row who went on to do second years? There's definitely something seriously awesome about those placements.

2.) Anna goes to Columbia Seminary with him and became his friend. Anna is very bossy and pushy, so I would have inevitably met him whether I was willing to or not. Also, I'm kidding. Anna would never push me to do something I'm uncomfortable with. Though one time she peeled several of my oranges and threw the peelings in various areas of my flat.

Me and David hugging some guy. I can't tell who it is.
David, who is it?

It was surreal to meet Karl. I say this because when I first got to Belfast, it felt like people who worked with him wouldn't shut up about him. I heard how funny Karl was, how smart/wise Karl was, how much Karl had started at Woodvale, which was a new placement during his year. Because of this, I initially kept comparing myself to him--a dude I had never met. I developed and forced a short-lived unnecessary Karl Complex upon myself. This was admittedly stupid, and is now hilarious to me.

People who "kept talking" about Karl--which means they mentioned him two or three times over a span of 3 months--were dealing with the fact that they loved him, and he amicably just left their lives. It had nothing to do with me. Besides, the classic cliche is true: Karl and I are different people. Different people have different strengths, weaknesses, blessings, and gifts. Once I realized this and briefly met Karl during an impromptu skype session with another friend in Tucson, I stopped resenting the poor guy. He didn't even know I was resenting him.

I remember at one point I told my former site coordinator Doug Baker about my Karl Complex. He didn't laugh, but I could tell he was tickled. "Well, T.J.," Doug said, typically thoughtful with his word choice. "Karl is a great YAV. I actually think you two would get along, so I find this amusing." He said something like that anyway, and he was right. Karl is funny, a good leader, and smart/wise. I definitely dig the guy and I'm really glad I got to meet him in person, got to know him better, laugh with him, and reflect on Belfast with him. I look forward to seeing him again later this year, because I'll definitely be hitting up ATL, and he will definitely be seeing me, whether he wants to or not, because Anna.

My advice to YAVs both present and future, don't develop a Karl Complex. A Karl Complex is insecurity-enhancing, shallow, petty, and a waste of your time. You will regret having it later. If you ever encounter a YAV who did excellent the year before you, approach it differently than I did. Embrace the fact that the YAV before you did a wonderful job, that they received/distributed love in your community, that they represented your program well, and that you and that person will have a lot to talk about should you ever meet them. It's not always easy, but it's the way it should be, my babies. Remember: Nobody likes a Karl Complex.

Karl, when you read this, I would have told you that I was writing about you, but I didn't have your phone number. Also, do you like my new haircut? More on that later. Also, I love you. More on that later.

"YAVlings of Ghost Ranch, hear thy cry! Weep in joy, for T.J. is thy ruler!"

As I said earlier, some things about Ghost Ranch were surprising. I knew I was acting differently, but it surprised me in what ways I was acting differently. Reverse-Culture shock? It barely touched me. But believe me, I was still coping. For me, I was simply more distant. More withdrawn. More mysterious and sexy...okay, maybe not the last bit, but definitely the first two bits. During my first month of Nashville, I figured I would have found myself trying to get to know my roommates right away and exploring my new home like woah, but I didn't. We had our orientation meetings, and then I'd retreat to a coffee shop to read or write. Now, I still read and write frequently, but now I definitely find myself getting to know people better and exploring new places most weekends. But it took Re-Entry's uncomfortable yet needed exploration of self to help me get from there to where I am now. I feel a lot more like myself again, and I definitely didn't during the first month of Nashville.

Not Ghost Ranch

Something shocking to me was that not everyone has an amazing, perfect year. Some placements don't go as planned, some site coordinators and YAVs have difficulties with each other, and some communities straight-up go to hell. For some people, all three happen! Damn! So some people came to Re-Entry hella sad, or confused, or angry, or all three, or all three and more. This confused me, since I got really close with my roommate, had a blast with my community, considered my site coordinator to be an extremely valuable mentor, and I learned a lot/had so much fun at my placements. I was expecting to celebrate our year, and some of my fellow volunteers came to Ghost Ranch broken-hearted? Who do I blame for this? What is this crap?

Hay hay hay! Hold your horses! (Anyone notice how I spelled "hey" and then talked about horses? I hope you laughed.) I'm speaking the truth, but it's not to be scandalous. I've never been a hater on the YAV program, nor will I ever be. I have a couple of things to say about this controversial truth that is not that controversial...

1.) The people have a right to be upset. I'm not going to preach and be like "You guys, get over it." The fact of the matter is, some of my friends had a rough year.

2.) I will not feel awful for having an awesome year. In fact, friends who had a rough year were so grateful and supportive of me for having such a positive experience, and I really appreciated that. It reminded me that the YAV community is not a bitter community, but a passionate one.

3.) The YAV year was still life-changing, and that is something we all signed up for and all received, good year or hard year. Positive things from it are still being processed and are on the way.

4.) YAVA (Young Adult Volunteer Alum) who had atrociously difficult years still attend YAV events and support the program. One of them even made a book about it. David Lamont reminded us that being a YAV means that you are a risk-taker. To me, risks are a risk for a reason. If the risk blows up in your face (or at least seems like it does), choose to be the type of person who is still glad to have accepted the challenge. It may take time to choose that, and that's okay.

5.) The YAV program is worth the risk.

Still Not Ghost Ranch

6.) With some of the stories I heard, I can't believe some of my fellow volunteers survived, but you know what? They survived. And they are tougher than nails! Some of them don't even realize the change they've gone through. I reconnected with some people at re-entry who were angry about their year, but hoo-doggy, they are stronger people now. Some people I met who were quiet at orientation are vocal now. Some who seemed less confident in talking to others were making a point to get to know people better that they didn't know as well at orientation. Some people just stand taller now, or crack jokes more, or play things off with more grace. Keep in mind that I'm speaking of people who had hard years.

7.) People who have a rough year during a year of service is not strictly a YAV thing. That is an any service program thing. What about the Peace Corps? Does everyone have fun with the Peace Corps? No, you guys. Not everyone has fun with the Peace Corps. (But again, some do!)

8.) I'm so grateful for the people who run the YAV program. It's not an easy job, and I know you guys do everything within your power to help all YAVs have a great year. I bet you don't get told thank you enough, so thank you guys for everything you do. The YAV program has changed my life for the better in so many ways, and that couldn't have happened without your help. Butt-kissing accomplished.

9.) Anyone who had a hard year, I love you guys, and I hope I made that obvious to those I encountered. I hope this post did not downplay or belittle your hardships and experiences, nor make you sound silly. Some of the things you told me about would have made me cry if I was in your position, and I admire how bad ass you all are. After every storm there is a rainbow, and if you turn off the bathroom lights and whisper my name three times into the mirror, I will appear and take you to a rainbow and we will dance upon it. We can even dance the jitterbug if you want.

Part 2 on the way!

Monday, September 9, 2013

Fundraising Tennesseems Completed

This Picture is Unsettling
(Holding Local Honey while Wearing a Bee Shirt)


I got word from my home church, Alma First Presbyterian, that I have successfully completed my fundraising!

This is great news, but don't let your support stop there! Please pray for me, my fellows YAVs, and the YAV program.

Thanks to everyone who made it possible with any form of support! Thank You Notes are on the way!

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Reverse Culture Shock Tennesseemed Scary

Friends Blowing Kisses To Their Adoring Fans?
I Guess Some Things Never Do Change
Courtesy of Wesley Smith

            Initially, I dreaded the idea of coming back to the states. Not because I didn’t want to come home, but because I had heard so much about reverse culture shock. Though, to be honest, so far it hasn’t been too bad. It’s been surprisingly easy in some ways. It’s amazing how things come right back to you. Driving, friendships, returning to your old haunts: all things that worried me about coming back. I couldn’t help but worry that since I’ve changed, my hometown has changed, and my friends have changed…are all these changes going to correlate and make room for each other? For the most part, they did. I’ve enjoyed the progress my town has made, and fortunately, talking with most of my friends came easy, almost as if I never left. I really do have incredible friends everywhere I’ve been and I’ll never take that for granted.
            I do miss Belfast. I do miss my old placements there. I do miss the people there. A lot. Even more than I expected. But I also miss people from back home. And people from camp. And people from Chicago. I think that's just something that's always going to happen to me, especially if I keep moving around like this. But I've gotten better at handling missing people. I just gotta take all that nostalgic energy and transfer it into the present. So currently whenever I start to miss someone or some place, I focus all my attention to all the wonderful people I’m meeting in Nashville, to my awesome roommates, and to another fresh start in an awesome city.
            Of course there are moments that are out of my control. Small things are still weird to me. I can use my debit card here and not get charged a big amount because I’m not overseas. I have to remember to reserve a little extra cash for the tax that comes with every purchase. If I don’t, I sound so pretentious:
“Sorry. I just lived in the UK for a year, and in the UK whatever is on the price tag is what you pay.” *smug laughter and monocle adjustment*

Reunited And It Feels So Good
(Fell Right Back Into Place With These Guys)
Courtesy of Luna Anna Archey

I am also sometimes surprised that American friends can reach me again, that I can text them, that I can call them, that I don’t have to always schedule a skype call. I think in some ways, access to people has become my biggest struggle, not necessarily in a bad way, but in a kind of overwhelming way. It’s as if the good ol’ US of A welcomed me back by saying:
“Hi, T.J.! Here are all the people from your life that you have talked to for a year through your computer! You have less than two weeks before you move to Nashville—don’t forget to pack!—to see as many of your loved ones as you can while simultaneously reacquainting yourself with Michigan and America. Don’t forget about the churches you need to speak at, the YAV documents you never turned in, the thank you notes you need to write, and the fundraising you need to get at! Well, welcome back! I’m going to go be a jerk to someone else now.”
            My adjustments, however, are of course straight-up for babies. These aren’t real difficulties, especially compared to my other YAV friends who have returned from Guatemala and Kenya. I can only imagine the adjustment struggle they are going through.
I’m not going to shorthand the cultural differences between Belfast and the USA, but I’m also going to point out how subtle they are. If you haven’t lived in Belfast and you’re just visiting, you may just notice the fun accents, the cool architecture, the pub culture, the kind people, etc. You may not go into areas like the Shankill and see FAP written on the walls, or catch a flute band marching around Carlisle Circus, or see a giant bonfire on the 11th of July. And even if you did, how much digging would you do to see what that’s all about?

Whenever I Miss Belfast...
I'll Wear a Belfast Shirt, Drink Dunkin Donuts, and Chill with these Fine Ladies
Courtesy of Alaylay

This isn’t a criticism because I’d definitely be the same way. All I’m saying is that many cultural differences* between Belfast and the U.S. are beneath the surface. Guatemalan or Kenyan cultures are obviously an in-your-American-face difference, let alone beneath the surface. I don’t envy the reverse culture shock my friends are going through, so I’m definitely not going to complain about mine.
I’m already extremely grateful for the challenges, growth, and experiences this year will give me. I asked to be a part of The Room in the Inn because of how curious I am about homeless communities. You all know the cliché “Knowledge is power!” (By the way, did that saying come from the classic 80’s cartoon G.I. Joes? I feel like it did). The point is, I don’t know much about the homeless, and I no longer want to feel powerless and/or awkward when talking to a homeless person just because I don’t know what our middle ground is. I just want to chill with them and learn about where they are coming from. Hear what they have to say. Learn to meet them where they’re at. Homelessness is worldwide and I’m going to keep encountering it, so I can’t wait to do what I can at Room in the Inn.
Also, I start at Room in the Inn tomorrow. It’s a half day. I’ll write about it soon. Later!

*And similarities too, but that’ll have to be a blog for another day.