Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Service Immersion Day 5: Art - A form of restoration

Today was a very draining and emotional day. We started the day off heading to the Via International office to meet with Victor Clark, a human rights activist in Tijuana. We were truly in the presence of such a passionate and established human being. It was touching to hear how he has put himself in danger with cartels to stick up for the rights of the oppressed including sex workers and the transgendered population. It was an amazing opportunity to meet this very influential human being but I could tell that our group was exhausted. That was definitely not the best way to start off the day at 9:00am, listening to a speaker for an hour.  Once we said our goodbyes, we headed off to a homeless shelter.

We had heard stories prior to the experience that we should not be late and to make sure that we abided by all the rules of the homeless shelter. J.C. said the cooks were similar to the “Soup Nazi” from Seinfeld. Well it ended up that due to parking we were running late.  I was worried but it ended up that everything was fine. We all split up into our locations after securely placing our gloves, hairnets and aprons on. I had the opportunity to serve food. The meal our group was serving was turkey chili, buttered vegetable medley, cornbread and soup. Working at this shelter was definitely challenging and frustrating at the same time. I know there have to be rules set in place for reasons that a one time volunteer does not necessarily see, but it was very hard to enforce some of the rules including only 1 piece of cornbread at a time, especially since we had so much (and it was the most popular choice!). Our group did not really enjoy our experience at the homeless shelter, which was unfortunate.

After the homeless shelter we headed back to Crawford High School to listen to a group of students called the Peace Makers. They were going to be giving their stories of their experience and life as a refugee.

One of the rules of the homeless shelter was that we could not have cell phones. Everyone left their phones in the car but once we arrived back in the van everyone was catching up with what happened over the last couple of hours via Facebook and text message. Within a few minutes of being in the car after the homeless shelter, one of the students announced to the  car that a fellow Regis student had passed away. Everyone in the car was in disbelief. Is this really true? It’s on Facebook but can this be real? RIP was on many Regis students’ statuses. As we drove in almost silence, it sunk in to us that this had happened. One of our students on the trip was pretty close to the individual, actually the year before, spending their Spring Break together building homes with Habitat for Humanity in Key West, Florida. I could tell that she was crying in the seat behind me. My heart was heavy and since I was driving there was not much that I could do. As soon as we pulled into the high school parking lot, I reached around and rubbed my hand back. Instantly the tears she had been bottling in escaped her as if my action was saying “its okay, cry for the loss of this person.” I stuck with her while the others went in to listen to the Peace Makers. Even though I have been through some grief in my life I could not find the right words to say, so I just sat there in silence with her, comforting her.

I gave her some space and made a call to my boss to see what was going on and if this was in fact true. It was. I knew that the next couple days on the trip would be hard for my group (and many other  Regis students across the country celebrating their Spring Break). But I also realized how hard it will be as they all come back to Regis after Spring Break and  this loss becomes “real”. They no longer see this individual in class, at sporting events dancing with the dance team, no longer sharing memories of their time spent in Key West. There would also be memorials and a funeral. This next week will be hard for the entire Regis community. I also realize the role that my colleagues and I will play in supporting and comforting our students in a time like this.

Once our group had said their goodbyes to the Peace Makers, we then headed off in our “mom van” to Chicano Park to meet the artist and his co-workers  who we would be working with on mural restoration. We found out that we would be walking up on scaffolding (I’m not a huge fan of heights). Luckily we were not actually painting there but we were able to walk up there to see the view and what it is like to paint some of the spots where the scaffolding is needed. We learned a little bit about Chicano Park. Initially the plans were to build a parking lot in the area located under the bridge in this community. The community did not want this. They wanted a park to eat lunch, play with their children and dogs, a place where the community could live and play. They started the construction and the people protested by standing around the perimeters of the park. Their persistence won out and they were granted the park. It was not the best location for a park, underneath a bridge, lots of noise and traffic. So the artist decided that he was going to paint murals on the columns to add culture, art and life to the area. Now the area is vibrant in many ways!

The scaffolding

The view

Walking around the scaffolding
We had the opportunity to restore an area of art that had faded over time. We walked to the location and listened to instructions. I think everyone was in shock and worried about our task at hand. We can’t paint or draw as amazing art as we are seeing. But they ensured us that we just needed to touch up the paint and that we could add our own little flare if we wanted.

Once we understood our direction, everyone choose a color or an art piece to start on. After 30 minutes of work, we were on a roll, confident in what we were doing. By the end of the hour and a half, we had restored a pretty large section of the mural with fresh vibrant colors and some new designs. Our group had a blast, laughed a lot and helped with something that will be there for the next 10 years. This was exactly what our group needed after the new we had received earlier in the day about the passing of a fellow Regis student.

L to R: Maggie, Brittney, Alicia and Angel working on the mural

The joke of the mural restoration, don't let Brittney drop paint on you!

The main painting we working on restoring 
We then headed to the famous Ocean Beach Farmers Market where we ate dinner. Most ate pizza larger than the size of your head. Others ate from the African vendor. We all spent the remainder of our time there souvenir shopping.

When we arrived back at home (a.k.a. the church) we had to complete our task of preparing sandwiches for our service work the next day. We had to make PB&J sandwiches, about 60 of them. The group got a system down and produced those sandwiches in no time. 

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Service Immersion Day 4: The Border

We all rose bright and early for day two of service. We all woke up extremely sore from our work at Southwest Key (the unaccompanied minor shelter) the day before. We ate breakfast, packed our lunches and headed off to our next site. Today we toured the border. We made it out to the headquarters, silent, wondering what we were about to see. The joke of the day was around the access to bathrooms. We were going on a 3 hour tour in a van with no access to a bathroom. One of the students, Maggie, was so worried because of her self-proclaimed "small bladder". I think she went to the bathroom 5 times before 9:30am. We arrived at the headquarters and met our tour guides. Two young, male border patrol officers who work as community liaisons for border patrol. We watched a short video about the history of the border and where the state of the border is now, especially the area of San Diego. After the video, and making 1 more bathroom break, we all jumped in a van and started the 20-minute drive to the border. I was excited to not be the driver and get to experience all of this as a passenger. 

During the 20 minute car ride we learned about how the 2 officers got involved with border patrol, some of the issues they are currently facing and a little bit of what their day to day life on the job is like. In no time we had left the area of mass homes, Starbucks and people making their way to work and we were at the border. It was so weird because there was almost no transition from the suburbs with large housing complexes, conveniences stores and the routine life of  the people of San Diego to the heart-wrenching, run down communities of Tijuana, Mexico. We learned about the 2 different fences, one serves as the secondary fence, made from Vietnam scrap metal, that mainly stops cars from driving up to the area (many people can get over this fence by foot). The other is the primary fence made of barbed wire. This fence is much taller and harder to get through. That hasn’t stopped people from getting creative. Many will bring chain cutters to cut through the chain, leaving plates of steel that have been made to cover those holes.  We learned that a major issue with the San Diego border is the limited amount of time that the border patrol has to detain the undocumented immigrants. Once over the fence, in many spots along the border, are shopping malls, factories and other businesses where individuals can immediately blend in.

Secondary fence made out of Vietnam scrap material

Primary fence
Group photo in front of Tijuana, Mexico

Group learning about Tijuana. If you notice you can see that we are in between the secondary fence (on the left) and the primary fence (on the right in the distance). Only government officials are allowed in this area. 
Tijuana, Mexico
 Our first main stop was near the roughest and most dangerous part of Tijuana. I have never seen a third world country so this part was very devastating and saddening to see the extreme poverty. Some houses did not have roofs, it was dirty. One house had a large banner serving as a makeshift roof. We all got out of the van and the border patrol explained a lot about the cartel that run this area and how dangerous this area is. The reason this experience was also so moving was the fact that we were so close. We have the incredible opportunity to drive in between the two fences where only government officials and border patrol are allowed. This gave us an up close and real look at the fencing and the border what it is like to be on the other side of the U.S. 

I love this picture because I think it speaks to this idea of separation and exclusiveness. One world....divided.
We continued the stretch of the border for miles. We saw the land-port and the extremely long lines to cross over. We heard that the wait for cars is usually 2.5 hours and by  foot about 2. We did some off-roading, saw a few individuals who looked like the were going to try and cross as well as the “upscale” portion of Tijuana. I could tell l that the group was very impacted and overwhelmed by the experience and I know that it was a very impactful and lifechanging experience.

We ate lunch at a park, grabbed some Starbucks and headed to our next site. We arrived at Crawford High School which is a predominately refuge high school We met Keegan, an International Rescue Committee worker who works with the community garden and nutrition initiatives at the school. After we signed in and placed our visitor stickers on our shirts, we headed out the garden.  Our first task was to build a raised bed for a newly acquired piece of land that they were going to use to grow more vegetables and plants. The acquired land (parking lot) has to stay intact which means they can not take up the concrete, so Keegan's idea were these raised beds. We watched a short video on how to make them and got started. It was slow in the beginning, trying to figure out each of our roles and how exactly to construct it. Once we got on a roll we were called back to meet with the students in the garden club. We all introduced ourselves and then they did too. We learned where each of them were from. Many from out of the country, Africa, Honduras, as well as many born in San Diego.

Keegan explaining the raised bed

The beginning
We then split into three groups. Composting, hydroponics and the raised bed construction. I volunteered for composting. Once groups were decided, our group headed to the cafeteria to collect the composting bins. From there we brought it back to the garden to add to the piles. I think they had about 6 large composting piles, each at a different stage in the composting process. Most of the time Angel and I sifted the compost to make perfect soil while learning from the students about the composting process. It was amazing to see how much they knew about composting and how to maintain the beds. The quote for the day that Keegan presented to the students was: “Nature doesn’t rush, but everything gets accomplished. “ This was so true about the composting process. I had no idea what all went into the process but it is such an amazing process.

Angel helping sift the compost to create soil
We then checked with the other groups and were glad to see that they had finished the raised bed, which was our goal for the day before we left Crawford High School. 

Alicia & Stephanie working which their two high school girls to finish up the raised bed.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Service Immersion Day 3: "The weed must be getting to us"

We awoke this morning excited about finally getting the chance to serve. We all got ready and met to eat breakfast. Marie Elena had prepared quesadillas for us along with cereal. Many drank more of the hibiscus water from the night before. Everyone was pretty silent. Most likely due to exhaustion. After we all cleaned dishes we prepared our lunches. Marie Elena had put out all the fixings. Let me tell you,  we ate so well this week. We had a traditional Mexican sandwich called tortas. The bread is toasted and the ingredients included ham, cheese, avocado, lettuce and sprouts. Once we fixed our sandwiches we loaded it into a pre-made brown paper sack that included two cutie tangerines and trail mix.

Now that we were physically prepared for the day, we went to the chapel to get an introduction to Via from Juan Carlos. We learned more about the role that San Diego plays in the issue of immigration. We also got a chance to learn more about Marie Elena and the promotora program that she is part of.

We then headed east towards the “desert” where the unaccompanied minor shelter resides (there are no pictures from our experience, expect for our garden work due to the rules of the shelter). I put desert in quotation marks because it was absolutely beautiful and lush and full of rolling hills, not what most people think of when they think desert. We arrived at the shelter, previously learning that the full address is never disclosed (for many reasons we later learned). We turned left in the driveway and drove up to a large gated fence with security cameras and a call button to announce your arrival. I think most of the group was surprised at this first impression of where we would be working for the day.

We pilled out of the "mom van" and met our host who gave us a tour of the facility that included 15 plus chickens, two rabbits and supposedly two baby rabbits (we didn’t get a chance to see them though). After seeing the intake room, the boys rooms (2 to a room) and the new back deck, we got to work cleaning out the garden area that was full of weeds about 3 feet tall. Surrounding the garden area were full, beautiful orange trees. I would guess that there were about 10-15 of them loaded down with oranges ready to pick.

Before picture of the garden area

Another look at the area

Delicious oranges!
Our group got to work on what, at the time, seemed like a never ending task pulling weeds to clean out the area. The goal was to clean out the area to plant a new garden as well as to start a composting pile. We worked feverishly in the hot sun. Some of the grass was easy but there were also larger weeds that took two, three, even four of us at a time pulling on them to get them out of the ground. I was so incredibly proud of our group. They worked together so well, helping each other when someone didn’t have quite enough strength to pull a weed out of the ground. At all times, even after becoming sweaty and dirty, they were laughing and having a great time. We all worked so well together and ended up clearing most of the area. There were a few falls, a few funny educational moments about lady bugs and of course a lot of sweat that we put in to making the location ready for planting. 

It's only begun!

About half-way through

Alicia & Maggie showing some teamwork

The after shot (look at all of the orange trees)

Another after shot

As we made our way to eat lunch a few of us decided to pick a fresh orange from the tree to eat during lunch. We all decided to sit in the shade for lunch and our host brought out freshly squeezed orangeade – you guessed it, orange lemonade. It was absolutely delicious and refreshing! I think if I lived there I would become an orange, or at least become very creative in different things you can make with oranges. Most of lunch, like most of all of our meals so far, was very quite. There was one point though that Ashley and I could not contain our laughter. I forgot to mention that during the garden cleaning, I was helping Maggie pull a tough weed out and we both feel back onto our butts as it came out of the ground. There were these sticky, prickly leaves that would stick to you and I fell right into a pile of it (even now, I embarrassingly admit that I might still have some of the stickers embedded in not so nice places). At lunch I said something about my fall and Ashley and I couldn’t contain our laughter. For me it was one of those moments where I hadn’t laughed in a long time and she got me started and I couldn’t stand it. Then Stephanie said the funniest thing regarding why we were laughing so hard. She said “the weed must be getting to us”. The group roared in laughter (especially since medicinal marijuana is legal in Colorado). She of course meant the “weeds” were getting to us. After we all settled down and Ashley tried to feed one of the geese a flaming hot cheeto (a must-have for many of the students on the trip), we prepared for our time with the boys. 

J.C. explained that we would first be doing a few ice breakers to get to know each other. These consisted of us introducing ourselves and where we were from. 12 of the 13 boys only spoke Spanish and only 1 of our group spoke Spanish. We learned that most of the boys were from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.The next game we played was a take on paper, rock, scissors but instead it was bear, salmon and mosquito. We broke up into two groups and had to decide as a group what we were going to be to beat the other group. Our group was at a disadvantage that made it very hard to communicate; no one in our group could speak to each other in the same language (the other group had David, the boy who spoke English and Angel, our Regis student who speaks Spanish). It was so interesting and challenging (even with such a small task) to communicate and make sure that everyone understood what we were doing. Even though there were many mess-ups by both teams, everyone seemed to have a blast.

After these games, we broke up into 2 different groups to spend 30 minutes working before the main event, soccer. One group went out to the orange trees to pick oranges and my group went to the clean the labyrinth. The labyrinth had become overgrown, similar to the garden area. The path was made out of rocks that boys who had been in and out of the shelter painted with the flag of the country they were from. It was very pretty and very representative of the good work that this organization is doing.  It’s amazing what you can do in a short amount of time with a large group of people all working hard and together, we cleaned out the whole thing and I think the group that picked oranges must have picked a couple hundred. 
Then we played soccer, the boy’s favorite. We broke up into 3 teams. All the boys were very good. A few of our students were great as well (I am not including myself in this category since I think I have played soccer three times in my entire life). It was so fun to just play and get to know the boys and show them that we cared and wanted to get to know them (even if we couldn’t communicate verbally with them) and enjoy an activity that they all loved. 

We then gathered our things and headed back to our “home” as we call it. We got back, showered and then got ready for dinner. As we waited for  Marie Elena to finish preparing out wonderfully delicious dinner, we all chatted about the day. Marie Elena said “listas”,which I have learned is “are you ready?”, and we filled our plates with Mexican tacos made with soy. I think all of swore that it was real meat. I think we had about a 20 minute conversation trying to figure out how this "meat" was actually not made of meat. I am still a little confused! She also made fresh rice milk. We have been so lucky to be able to be immersed in many different sides of the culture including the food. Over dinner we discussed our highs and lows of the day. We got to know each other better and even were able to get to know Marie Elena better with the wonderful help of Angel.  I don’t know what we would have done without him on this trip!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Service Immersion Day 2: "It tastes like a flower!"

As the sun rose above San Diego on this Sunday morning, the group woke from deep sleep after an early morning flight and a full day of fun and sun. Some walked over a block to 7:20 mass, others went for a run by the beach, and others, like myself, slept in to get some much needed shut eye. Knowing our meeting time, everyone prepared on their own terms, many figuring out a shower system. There is only 1 indoor shower (2 if you count the male shower and since there are 6 females to 1 male, the girls have also taken over the male shower as well). We ate breakfast, prepared and packed our lunches for our trip to the San Diego Zoo. 

We loaded into the mom van and headed out for a full day at the recommended and renowned zoo. I must tell you that this zoo is unlike any that I have been to. I was so impressed and felt that it was definitely worth the visit. The environment was so natural, you almost forgot that you were in a zoo. The zoo also is a highly visited botanical garden. The joke of the morning was whether or not people were bringing jackets. Even at 9:30 am as we stepped out of the car in the parking lot (which parking was surprisingly free) we all knew that this day would be full of sunscreen re-application. The zoo was full of families with strollers in tow. There were also a huge amount of couples young and old holding hands and completely in love. The zoo offered many traveling options including a Skytram which is similar to a ski lift, a guided bus tour where you can learn about the zoo and some of the animals. I loved getting to know the animal's names. Our group stayed together for almost all of the 6 total hours that we wandered around the massive acreage of land.

The cool Sky tram

One of my favorite animals at the zoo, a polar bear.

I think this picture depicts the natural vibe of the zoo. This was the guided tour bus that we rode.

Fun sign

Angel, Maggie and Alicia on the bus

Maggie & Alicia having fun!

My FAVORITE animal at the zoo. I could have watched these elephants all day!

Another one of my favorite animals. A red panda. They were so thirsty in the San Diego heat. We all just fell in love with their cuteness!

I gave up techonology this week to be more present in this experience. Yesterday upon arriving I turned off all of my notifications for email, calendar, sportscenter and anything else on my phone that made noise, calling me to pay attention to it. I also vowed to not check facebook. For that, I logged off on my phone. I noticed that I was much more aware and appreciative of my surroundings today at the zoo. I was able to observe and watch the animals, carry on conversations with the students as well as observe the people that were around.  The zoo was amazing, a must see if you stay in San Diego. We all left content, exhausted and sunburned.

We arrived back at the church. We had time to rest a little bit. Most slept. I went outside and prayed and then read more of Enrique’s journey (book I am reading for the JASPA conference that I fly straight to after this trip. Ironically it is about immigration). Upon our arrival back at the church we met Marie Elena (I am not sure if this is the correct spelling of her name), the woman who will be cooking for us the rest of the week. Juan Carlos, our host from Via International, had informed me that she doesn’t speak English but she understands most. I figured everything would be ok. Well I went to speak with her and asked her if we needed to help her. She spoke back to me in Spanish and we both realized that we would not be able to communicate effectively. So I went to find Angel, the only male student and our lifesaver since he speaks Spanish. He was able to speak with her. I felt so helpless in this situation. How can I interact with this woman, who will be around us the next four days, if I can’t verbally communicate with her?I am very challenged by this. 

As I shared with the students tonight, I know basic Spanish but I am just not confident enough to speak it, fearing that I will disrespect someone in the process. I have always wanted to learn Spanish and even after Day 1, I feel that this trip might push me to embark on that journey. Marie Elena cooked us an amazing dinner. Homemade chicken enchiladas, rice and beans. She also made a drink for us. It was explained to us as hibiscus water. It was a dark burgundy, almost the color of grape juice. We grabbed glasses for everyone to try some. Everyone was a little skeptical, so I tried it first. I enjoyed the unique taste. In seeing this, everyone else started to drink it. Maggie, one of the students, tasted it and says “It tastes like a flower.” Of course everyone laughed. We waited until Marie Elena sat with us before we began eating. Dinner was even more silent than normal. How do we interact with this woman? How do we show her thanks, include her or let her know how amazing the food she prepared was? Thank goodness for Angel. He spoke to her in Spanish and I think the whole group was more at ease now that we felt that she felt included. I asked Angel to ask her how she made the water. She began speaking in Spanish and Angel explained that she boiled the flower in water and then added sugar. And we all were astonished to find out that Maggie was right, it does taste like a flower because it was truly cooked from a flower. 

Full, exhausted and filled with excitement and nervousness about our first day of service the next day, we all climbed into onto our air mattresses and fell asleep.

The girls room. My "bed" is the one on the far right.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Service Immersion Day 1: Animal Style

The group arrived at 6:00am on a brisk, cold Colorado morning. With pillows, sleeping bags and sunscreen (the necessities) in tow, we checked-in at DIA with child-like anticipation for the warm weather that awaited us. Each of us running on just a few hours of sleep, we still greeted the many fellow Regis students in DIA that were heading out to different parts of the country for Spring Break.

The many sights of the flight kept most of us awake during the 2 and a half hours from Denver to San Diego. I have never flown West so I was in for such a treat. The Rocky Mountains were absolutely breathtaking with the fresh powder glistening white and the thick snow clouds resembling fluffy marshmallows. To my surprise we flew over the Grand Canyon. Even from the airplane window the terrain is majestic in all it’s wonder.

Touch down in San Deigo, everyone giddy at the sight of palm trees. Stepping into the terminal and feeling the warmth as the sliding doors opened and closed for all of the outgoing and incoming travelers. Our minds and our stomachs were all set on our next adventure, In & Out Burger. If people overheard our group talking they might have wondered why we kept saying “animal style”.  I am sure they were wondering what non-sense this group from Regis University was saying.  I am sure they were thinking, “must be tourists”. And we lived that up in all it’s glory. Of course we took pictures at In & Out Burger and gauked over the low prices and yummy tastes of the burgers and fries. Most of us ordered “animal style” which is off the “secret” menu. .” We ordered, most of us saying "I would like a number 1, animal style”.  I don’t know what “animal style” is but it was quite tasty.

We loaded into our car, the first team building task, fitting 7 people and luggage into a mini van, which I have to say is by far the nicest mini-van I have ever seen. The fun part is that it has a blue light lining the ceiling, similar to the inside of a limo.

We headed towards the church to meet J.C. As we got closer and closer to the church the students started to realize just how close we were going to be to the ocean. We arrived and met John Jay (it took me a few days to remember his name).  They gave a quick tour of the very nice and peaceful Lutheran church that we would be staying in with access to a full kitchen, indoor basketball court, a quaint little courtyard and the indoor and outdoor showers. The students walked to the beach as Alicia and I set out on a shopping trip. After we bought food for the week including requests such as flaming hot cheetos, twizzlers, lunchables and enough caffeine to keep us up and awake, Alicia and I made it back and walked down to the beach to meet the group.

While it was beautiful and warm, there was also a presence of a cool wind. There were lots of people, some surfing, some building sandcastles, the sounds of two guys playing paddle board, many tan individuals, dogs, babies and a lot of sand (everywhere). Two of the most interesting things while people watching were two guys sitting up on rocks playing the guitar on the beach and a very skinny male doing back flips and aerobics as if he was at gymnastics practice.

We got back to the church. Had a little free time. Some journaled or called loved ones. Others took cat naps. We had decided previously to make our own pizzas for dinner. We met to start the preparation and it was amazing to watch the group that had only been together for less than a day, work together with such ease and productivitiy. The pizza was actually quite good.

We then made our way to Belmont Park, an ocean side amusement park. We all rode the large roller coaster with preconceived notions that it would be boring but to all of our surprise it was a lot of fun jammed into a small little package. Some rode other rides or played laser tag. Then ice-cream and a walk to the beach.

It was an early night everyone ready for the zoo the next day. I was just hoping that we all didn't burn to a crisp in this California sunshine! No worries, multiple bottle of sunscreen and aloe were on hand!