Archive for November, 2011

7 Thanksgiving Lessons

1. It is completely possible to give out 420 Thanksgiving baskets, which included a turkey and bag of dry and canned goods, in one morning. Thanks to many people and organizations who donated, the Muriel Lokey Center at Emmaus House was able to help provide for many people’s Thanksgiving dinners.

2. Never underestimate an invite for Thanksgiving when you’re told “I’m going to introduce you to a Soul Food Thanksgiving.” Next thing you know you’re eating collard greens with ox tail, cabbage, stuffing with chicken, mac & cheese with broccoli, and a whole lot of turkey. Oh, and don’t forget lots of dessert.

3. Family can be a very loose term. We found ourselves eating dinner with a handful of new brothers, sisters, uncles, nieces, nephews, and a new grandma. It made me very thankful for families of all kinds.

4. When eating on a budget of $68 a week for 4 people, it is completely possible to eat a full Thanksgiving meal. We got a 10 lb turkey from Kroger’s for $6, so we could have a nice meal together as a team on Friday.

5. It is completely possible to have 3 full Thanksgiving meals 3 days in a row. While they all tasted great, I’m not sure I want to repeat that again. Nice light meals sound great for the next couple of days.

6. There’s nothing like getting up at 6 am to help you’re roommate get supplies to brine the turkey. Shannon and I “enjoyed” a nice quick brisk walk outside to borrow a roasting pan from the kitchen at Emmaus House. Once the turkey was prepped, we both headed back to bed for a couple of hours.

7. Even amongst the feelings of being homesick and the wishes to be with family, it was completely possible to make Thanksgiving a good time when surrounded by great people and great food.


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Building Trust

Some of the most open and welcoming responses I have received here have been from the kids, especially when they recognize me from Emmaus House. They want to play, jump around, and have a good time, and the more and more they see me around, I’ve become an instant playmate to them on the playground across the street from our place.

In particular there are three siblings that I see on a fairly regular basis, especially Saturday afternoons. They spend most of the day in and out of the youth center at the park doing various activities such as basketball, pool, ping-pong, etc. Each week I have learned more about each one of their interests and what they like to do. The youngest of three loves to convince me to run around the playground with her, even when my energy is low. They are all full of life and excitement, and I always have good time hanging out with them at the center.

This past Saturday I came to the realization that for how much time I have spent with these kids, I had never met any parent, grandparent, or guardian. When I began asking questions about where home was, the responses I got were simply that they lived across the street with their mom. That night I talked with Josh about the fact that I really wanted to meet to their mom. I realized if I wanted to pursue any relationship with them I needed to have the trust of their mom first. Also, I began thinking of the concerns she may have if she ever heard her kids talk about me, an adult she’d never met. Would I feel comfortable with my kids coming home and talking about an adult I’ve never met or heard of?

Luckily today I had my chance. We were doing Thanksgiving Basket pick-ups today at Emmaus House, and all of the sudden, one of these kids was standing beside me saying hi. He stayed for a moment and then ran outside to stand by a woman who had called his name. When he came back inside I asked if that was his mom. I got a simple nod, and he was back outside. At that moment I knew it was my chance. I ventured outside and introduced myself to her.

The first response I got was, “You’re who the kids have said they’ve played with. It’s great to finally meet you.” What followed was her telling me how much she appreciated me hanging out with her kids, which totally took me off guard. All I could muster was that I enjoyed spending time with them. I wanted to stand there and say no thank you for not getting upset that I hadn’t come over and introduced myself sooner.

Building community here can be tough at times and it can be easy at times. I realized today that amongst all those easy and hard times, the need for building trust is essential.





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Beauty in the City

At twilight on the corner of Vanira Ave. and Fraser St. the trees part paths and the lights of the skyline appear against the beams of the sun setting on the horizon. The collection of colors – yellows, oranges, purples – touching the darkening blue sky reflect off the windows of the skyscrapers and the city seems to come alive. Amongst the blaring of car and train horns, hollering of children in the background, and the bustling of city buses and delivery trucks passing by, the city seems to stand still at that moment. All I can see is the beauty, and all I can sense is a peace of mind.

At Four Corners Park across the street and Daniel H. Stanton Park around the corner, I hear the laughter of children and see their faces of joy. The basketball courts are full of young men playing ball and the playground is abound with kids climbing. Upon the benches sit the older siblings, the parents, and the grandparents who are watching and talking. All I can see is the beauty, and all I can sense is a peace of mind.

Beauty around here in Atlanta comes in all forms. The artwork on the youth center across the street, the changing leaves of fall with the skyline in the background, the joyful noises of our neighbors, or the simple hugs from the people we go to church with. The beauty I see around me makes those busy and hectic days bearable, those moments of relaxation and calmness amazing, and those days I question what I got myself into make sense.

The beauty and the art of the city doesn’t have to be a literal art piece. It can be the abstract, the imaginative, the moments, the interactions, and the tangible. Beauty is what you make of it. My definition of the beauty around here in Atlanta is going to be different from my husband, my team mates, and my neighbors. What’s important is recognizing that it is there at every moment, you just simply have to open your eyes, mind, and heart to see it.

Where is the beauty around you?

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Cheating Kids

When I first learned that Josh and I were going to be moving to Atlanta for our time with Mission Year I decided it would be good to do some research on where we would be living. Beyond the typical online research about the history of the city, what it is like, and what there is to do, I decided to check out the news sources in Atlanta to see what the headlines were about. In July when I was doing this research the headlines were overwhelmed with all the information about the release of reports about the cheating scandals in the Atlanta Public School system on standardized tests.

Articles from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Washington Post, USA Today, and the New York Times all discussed that for several years teachers and principals changed answers on students tests across the system to increase their passing rates. An outline of the results from an extensive survey of the school system showed that 44 of the 56 schools examined (78.6%) were found cheating, and 38 principals of those 56 schools (67.9%) were found to be responsible for, or directly involved in the cheating. Of these 44 schools, 178 teachers and principals were determined to have cheated (See Washington Post article). At the elementary school for our neighborhood 13 classrooms lead to cheating, which lead to the principal, test coordinator, and 4 teachers being implicated.

The knowledge of this information made me weary of what my interactions with the kids in the afterschool program at Emmaus house was going to be like. I was already nervous about tutoring the kids. While on some days the kids can wear me out, on most days I have a great time with them. The conversation about the cheating at their elementary school has come up, but most either don’t know much about it or don’t know the implications of the cheating scandal. And in my mind I think that is probably for the better. What they do know is that they have a new principal and multiple new teachers. What the community sees is a staff that is working to improve the kids education and pushing them to excel, which includes the teachers and principal providing extra tutoring and after school preparation for the standardized tests.

What I have struggled the most with out of all has been my question about the level of importance put on standardized tests, especially when federal funding is at stake. I question the fact that most of the homework I see the kids working on is focused on those tests, like the girl in 3rd grade that I work with every day. I think back to my days when I was in elementary school struggling with my reading and writing and how I didn’t qualify for the extra help because I passed those sections, even though I barely did. I think about the kids in the afterschool program and the areas they struggle in and wonder are they getting the help they need.

Out of all of this I look into the community and wonder about the importance put on education. I still remember playing the game Life with a single mom and her three kids and how she made them all take the college path not the career one because that was what they would be doing in real life. But then I think about the results from the community survey Emmaus House recently did that shows that most of the population here in Peoplestown have a high school diploma/ GED or less.

Out of all of these questions, I seem to find only more instead of finding answers, and right now I think that is okay. I am realizing that two and half months isn’t long enough to figure out the answers. What I do know is that I can continue to show up to the after school program with a positive attitude, instilling the importance of education in the kids I work with.

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What type of cookies do you like to eat? Chocolate chip or Peanut Butter? Chewy or hard and crispy? Do they need to be big or small? Or do you just like to eat the cookie dough before it can even make it into the oven?

While these may not seem like the most important questions to ask someone, they were very important to me last weekend. Standing in our kitchen with three of the kids who live in our neighborhood the main discussion was baking cookies. The three are siblings, and we have started to build relationships with them and their mom over the past couple of weeks. Several Saturday’s ago they all came over for dinner and I baked chocolate chip cookies for dessert. When the three came over this past week, one of the first questions they had was could they help make cookies.

Josh took the youngest, who is 5 and the only boy, outside to play with the Frisbee and football, and the two girls, who are 8 and 13, stayed to help bake cookies. Both of them had expressed when they were over before how much they like to cook and bake, and they told me how much they love helping their mom in the kitchen. So I began asking them questions, and we decided on making BIG CHEWY CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES.

I simply pulled out the recipe and the ingredients and away they went. Both of the girls asked questions along the way, and every time they would ask I would help them figure out that they actually already knew the answer. As I stood there in the kitchen with them I realized that they knew what they were doing, encouragement was the key. By the end of the afternoon we made 16 VERY BIG cookies.

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