Monday, April 15

"The Helpers"

I am the President of the Student Social Work Association. Annually, we pick a location, drive there, and volunteer. This year, I chose Washington DC. I rented a 15 passenger van, 3 hotel rooms, and drove 11 social work majors down to volunteer. We hopped in the van on Thursday morning and drove 12 hours.

On Friday, we departed the hotel at 9:00am and went to work with an organization I came into contact with via email, called Friendship Place. This program does a variety of things, but mostly it is a non-profit organization with a grant from the VA to provide homeless veterans with housing. Half of our group cleaned an apartment for a veteran with some hoarding issues. The other half of us were expected to move a homeless veteran into a new apartment. Friendship Place provides intensive services for 3 months. The first month, they pay the veteran's rent. The second month, they pay half. By the third month, they expect the veteran to be self-sufficient because of the budgeting and other skills they have been provided (but Friendship Place is there for backup).

We were on our way to meet the veteran when the landlord called us and told the coordinator that he was misled and no longer wanted the veteran in the apartment because the rent was not guaranteed to be paid after 3 months. It was literally SO sad. We had to give the homeless veteran the bad news. Instead of reacting negatively, he still wanted to meet us (the student volunteers). He kept saying "I want to meet the helpers". The veteran had the best attitude and was so grateful that we wanted to help him. He was sweet, kind and yet...homeless. It was a true social work experience that I am grateful, yet sad, about having. Because we could not move him into the apartment, we went to the drop-in center that Friendship Place runs. At the drop-in center, homeless people can come Monday-Friday for food, showers and clothing. We sorted clothing donations and talked with clients for the remainder of our time. Once again, we meet people in awe of our service and were so thankful. I could not believe that after all of their troubles, these people took the time to thank us and wanted to hear about our lives. One man is trying to prepare for his daughter's wedding; she is returning from the Peace Corps.

Our next project on Friday was with an organization called New Communities for Children. It is an after school program that runs Mon-Fri 3:30pm-7:00pm. It is completely free and it helps children succeed both by providing school help, child care and a place for children to go after school to stay out of trouble. There were kids from kindergarten to high school. Friday was a fun day, so we got to play games with the children, take them to the park, and play basketball. Our goal was to promote positive peer interactions. The response was overwhelming. The children clung to us, took our pictures, cried when we left, and left a mark on my heart. I always thought I wanted to be a rural social worker, but these urban kids really tugged at my heart strings and I could see myself working in a similar area.

On Saturday, we completed our last volunteer project. We went to the community swimming pool and worked with an organization called KEEN. The children served are developmentally or cognitively impaired. The organization attempts to keep these kids healthy through exercise. Two CMU students were assigned to each kid and we were instructed to play with them in the pool and just have fun with them. I was assigned to a 10 year old boy with autism. We played in the pool for two hours with the kids. Not only does this community engagement benefit the children, but the parents receive a well-deserved break as well.

Our group of 12 students took off for DC with nothing more than emails from organizations accepting our plea to let us volunteer. We took initiative and gave back. We put our lives on hold to help others. But as much as the children and veterans benefited, we benefited as well. We learned what it was like to be "helpers". We brought empowerment to these individuals. We showed DC the skills we spent years learning at CMU.

I got back to handfuls of emails and assignments I need to complete. I need to register for MSW/PhD classes tomorrow and I have no idea how. I need to accept my Dean's Fellowship still. I need to find an apartment. I need to email my adviser..... But none of my needs are as great as those whom I was able to serve this weekend.

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