Bright and early, before the sun greets New York with its warm hello, we are on our way. Breakfast had us revisit Chinatown with a stop at the Taipan Bakery. Many rejoiced at the sight of reasonably priced coffee and pastries. On the other hand, many were left scratching their heads on what exactly they were ordering. Some went on a more traditional route, choosing fried doughnut like things, and others tried things they weren’t quite sure of. Like mango rice balls. Yup, a ball of a soft rice mango mixture and a sweet filling, and I can tell you it was pretty decent. While slurping/slipping coffee and consuming our chinese breakfast experiments, we made our way to the Brooklyn Bridge.
A light snowfall from the night before left the bridges walking surface slippery. Despite that, dedicated bikers and joggers still took to the bridge for a chance to grab fresh air or simply make it to work. We walked the length of the bridge and back. The bridge gave us gorgeous views of the eastern Manhattan skyline and we also got to take a close look at the architecture of the world’s formerly largest suspension bridge. We then scurried down to the financial district to see the economic heart of America. Banks were plentiful here, but we soon had to leave.
As I was talking to my dad on the phone the other day, summarizing my day’s events and such, he said, “That’s nice and all, but are you supposed to be volunteering?” Why dad yes, yes we are. And that all changes today with orientation at the GMHC. GMHC stands for Gay Man’s Health Crisis and was found back in the early 1980s to combat the rise of a new disease that was killing a lot of gay men. Today they are one of the world’s largest AIDS/HIV non-profits in the world. We continued our worldly theme with the Manhattan Macy’s which boasts it is the world’s largest store. And it is hard to disagree. It takes up what feels like almost a block and has 9 stories. This Macy’s had every brand you could possibly think of and more. Then of course the Empire State building was next.
Day 4: This morning instead of our usual volunteering, we started out by taking a walk around the area to obverse and take note on the different neighborhood areas and what food resources they have. Just a couple blocks away we were in a “rough neighborhood” and asked if we were lost because we shouldn’t be there. We went on our way through the area to the grocery store and was a note on the door as we walked saying “pull up our pants and pull down our hoods” which was a little nervous-making. As we walked in we realized it was more like a gas station with limited produce and fresh food options. After buying a few snacks we walked uptown through clearly divided (by a fence) neighborhoods of higher income and very low income. Field Foods was our next grocery store which resembles a basic grocery store that we see (Pick N Save) and realized that within just a few blocks there were such huge divides between neighbors, incomes, and what food was accessible not just distance wise, but by what they could afford- which is the biggest factor. Even though they solved their food desert issue by putting in another store, many are still unable to buy fresh produce and quality food.
Right after our tour and another learning session, we drove over to Operation Food Search which is a food bank that serves 331 agencies- including shelters, agencies, food pantries, emergency services, and schools. They receive MANY donations from grocery stores of food they pull from the shelves early before their shelf life is up. That being said, our job of the day was to pull much of the donated bread off the shelves and into bins for St. Louis composting. We were kind of turned off by this since we were learning so much about food insecurity and access, but after reflecting and discussing the situation, we realized that food banks and even Kingdom House receive TONS of food donations that they simply can’t serve out fast enough before it goes bad. OFS was getting another shipment of fresher bread so the loafs they had simply had to go, and that was that. Its not a perfect situation or solution, but definitely more understandable now. The overall lesson we talked about was that if you’re going to donate food to shelters, food banks, or pantries, that you should definitely ask what they most need or bring more non-perishable food items. Its better to provide what they actually need rather than what you assume they need; just like why Kingdom House goes out in the city to see what services individuals in the community need.
Reflection and discussion today was very insightful and we’re happy we get the chance to debrief on what we see and make sense of what is going on around us here. We had our lesson on the reality of food stamps, EBT, and government assistance in regards to how much money a family of four gets per day to feed themselves. What families and individuals get through these is still under what reports say is the lowest price to sustain and function on. EBT and food stamps only cover food too. They don’t cover household items, feminine hygiene products, diapers, over-the-counter medications, etc. There is still a gap between what they need and what they can afford even with this help, which is not okay and not a way to live.
To say we are frustrated is an understatement at this point in the week. There is so much we should be doing and could be doing, but there are many logistics and people in the way to come to the solution to end hunger, homelessness, and access to basic needs. On the positive side today, we received our letters from friends, family, and UWO staff to lift our spirits and send well wishes. It was such a great end to our day to have that support even though we’re miles away. Tomorrow is our last day of lessons which will focus on intersectionality between what we’ve learned with racism, homelessness, and food insecurity.
Don’t forget to follow us through #OshLouis and #travelingtitans
Sorry for the lack of a post yesterday – both of us bloggers were beat from a long day of construction working and it just happen to slip both of their tired minds.
On day four, we spent all of our day building a roasting patio and a fermentation tank for a family in the coffee co-op through De La Gente. Roasting patios are used to dry coffee beans from their “honey” coat once they are shelled from their fruit over-coat – the families literally lay out the beans in a single layer on a flat, concrete ground, and let it dry and roast in the hot Guatemalan sun (fun fact: which is typically at a UV index of 10/12). The fermentation tanks, which are still somewhat a mystery to our group, are used in the process of processing coffee beans – it makes the process easier and quicker.
As for construction, we did it all – sifted rock and sand, mixed concrete by hand (well, on the ground in a large pile and using shovels), dug trenches, laid cement and bricks, cut cement blocks in half with a machete… you name it, we most likely did it during one of the two days of construction working.
It is amazing to see the hard work and dedication that these coffee growers put into their lives – what tired us out in a matter of hours, are what these people do everyday… sometimes for more than 10 hours a day at a time. As a group, we reflected on how their lives and work ethics beat ours tenfold. We typically see “work” as simply being busy with many major or minor tasks, but here, their work is physically driven and demanding, and can often be seen as tedious by us (ie. sorting coffee beans for size and shape, mixing many loads of concrete, sifting through a wheel-barrel or two worth of rock/sand with hand sifters…).
Reflecting back on day four and the physical hard labor that it demanded, here are some words we used to describe our experience for far in Guatemala: Familia (family), opportunity, humble, exciting, grateful, commitment, eye-opening, smile, salsa (dancing), journey. These words continue to follow us throughout this trip, and we will continuously use these ideas to reflect upon coming back to the States.
On day five, we started the morning out finishing up the construction projects that we started the day before. Although tired and sore, we finished with flying colors, and the second day seemed all the easier (and quicker) because we now knew how to do things on our own.
We got to spend a lot of time (two days!) with this one family, and it was so great getting to know them, and so much more about the Guatemalan culture. Although broken translation at times, we have two individuals on our trip who are able to speak Spanish and help keep conversation. Also, in this family there are two sons that are learning English, so conversing with them was easier – these people in either group tended to be the ‘middle man’ for many questions and answers. We sang “Happy Birthday” to one of the sons, Julio, who turned 21 today (3/23/2016); he was so excited
After lunch, our group split up in two three groups to go work with local artisans around San Miguel. Half of the group went to work with artisans who did wood and metal work, and the other half worked with traditional textiles to make purses/bags. In a later post, we will further elaborate on these workshops – as of right now, not everyone in home, and both us bloggers went to the same artisan workshop.
Overall, the past two days have been physically intensive, interactive, culturally immersive, and exhausting. Everyone has burnt skin in one place or another, and we have found out that getting cement off of your skin is incredibly hard (and that it turns GREEN on your skin because it reacts with the chemicals in sun screen).
Stay tuned for our post about the artisan workshops and what they had to offer each group! The next post with be of photos from the last two days of construction work.
Day 3- Tuesday 3/22
We woke up bright and early before the Sun and drove over to The Bridge to prep and serve breakfast. The Bridge is a day shelter in St. Louis that used to be a church. The two head individuals that prep and serve meals do so Monday-Friday for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Most, if not all, of the food is donated from various religious organizations, stores, and volunteer groups around the area. Its a long process so having volunteers is definitely needed to help everything go fast and smoothly in time for serving. We helped prep the meals starting at 6:30am and started serving at 8. The individuals that utilize the shelter and the meals were greatly appreciative and so friendly. Some of them would stay and chat with us for a moment and talk about their experiences. It was very humbling to say the least. When we were cleaning up the line and head back in the kitchen to prep lunch, many individuals stayed at the tables and we learned that many stay in The Bridge all day long for shelter. 9:30 came around quickly and we sadly had to leave. The plus side to getting up very early is that we still had the whole day ahead of us!
Once we got back to our apartment we had our sessions on homelessness, eviction, and discrimination. The leading cause of homelessness is not addiction or mental illness, but poverty. Many believe being homeless is a result of someone being lazy, making bad choices, etc. but that is definitely not the case for the majority of those without homes. One article we went over during a learning session was “I’ve been homeless 3 times. The problem isn’t drugs or mental illness– it’s poverty” by Veronica Harnish. There were 8 causes of homelessness that were discussed in the article: Homelessness is expensive, people think you’re low-income/homeless it’s because you’re lazy or uneducated, lack of affordable housing (leading cause), lack of living wage –> no affordable housing, landlords can make it impossible to get a lease- regardless of savings or job, politicians won’t help, roommates are the fastest but most problematic way out of homelessness, and people uncomfortable with homelessness want you to be invisible. Our group discussion delved into each of them and we had great reflections and realizations about the issues surrounding (and causing) homelessness.
Our sessions ended and we had the whole afternoon for fun!! We started by going to St. Louis Zoo for a few hours. The coolest part was seeing kangaroos hopping around their exhibit and watching hippos swim around through their huge exhibit window. The zoo closed at 5 so right from there we went to explore Laumeier Sculpture Park! We explored almost all of the park and left as the sun was setting over the city. It was the PERFECT weather to be out and about for activities. We went home and had dinner when we met our downstairs neighbors for the week from Central Methodist University- which is just a few hours away from here. It was great getting to meet other volunteers working with Kingdom House and planning to get together again this week!!
Laumeier Sculpture Park
Our new downstairs neighbors for the week