Round 4

Round 4. Generation One. Third Ward, Houston, TX.

During Round 4, I was living and working in Houston’s Third Ward with Generation One. The Third Ward is notorious for being impoverished, drug ridden, and violent. However, I found it’s stereotype untrue, as we discovered a community who shared it’s BBQ with us and helped us when our water main broke. Generation One works in the Third Ward to help break the cycle of poverty. We lead a wide variety of volunteer groups from all over, all of different ages and sizes in neighborhood revitalization projects. We cleared vacant lots, painted houses, landscaped yards. We also got to spend some time with Generation One’s Academy kids. We also discovered the heat and humidity that is Houston in the summertime. 

 

Personal Reflection:

Things are never what you expect them to be

Stereotypes create images that you may not see

Sirens and gunshots we do not hear

But it’s all there, even if it does not appear

 

 

They offer volunteers prayer walks and give us tool talks

Playing with neighborhood children with the sidewalk chalk

Leading volunteer groups from out of town

Making the community look less rundown

 

Clearing lots

Clearing out drug hiding spots

Houses freshly painted

But are perspectives getting tainted?

 

Sweating it out in the heat and feeling kinda beat

Neighbors with many thanks to say

What’s really play?

Here, where we work all day

 

But are years and years racial stereotypes being perpetuated?

Minority status; but are we doing anything to reverse what’s been historically segregated?

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Round 3

Yes, while the inevitable happened and I stopped blogging this year less than half way through, I thought I’d at least share some of the things I wrote when reflecting about my experiences: 

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Round 3. Mountain Valley School. Saguache, CO

The town of Saguache, CO is nestled in the San Luis Valley in Southwestern Colorado. Population 500, 134 students attend the K-12 Mountain Valley School. During our two months there, I worked one-one with an Autistic first grader, facilitated and taught 7th and 10th grade small group math classes, assisted bilingually in a biology course, and taught an ESL class. In addition, my team was in charge of the after school program, chaperoned prom and a Friday ski trip, and volunteered at the Boys and Girls club Casino night in nearby Salida, CO. I also got to visit the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Colorado Springs while living in Saguache. 

 

Personal Reflection:

Having served in many under-resourced, high-needs schools before, I thought I knew what to expect upon coming to Mountain Valley School in Saguache, Colorado. Truth is, upon arriving and getting settled in at the school, I found myself in somewhat of a state of culture shock. While the community was kind and welcoming, I found myself confronted with issues I had never dealt with before. The rural-ness and isolation of the community was not just a physical state, but also a mental one, one that my own mental state struggled often time to grapple with. As someone with an inclination to enter into the education field to some degree, I was not deterred, but awaken, to another way of thinking.

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The Marade and Opening Day

The Marade and (Taxes) Opening Day

          Monday was MLK Day, Americorps was celebrating with A Day on, not a Day Off by participating in the Marade (march/parade), in downtown Denver. We heard from a variety of religious leaders, and political leaders, including the mayor of Aurora, mayor of Denver, Governor of Colorado, and other congressman and city council members. For me at least, it was a crash course in state politics, haven’t not known anything about them previously- so that was kinda awkward. After the speeches and a tribute to the MLK statue in City Park, the marade began. Led by those that spoke, everyone that gathered was invited to join in the march/parade to the capital building. There was a wide variety of groups in the parade from charter schools and high school marching bands, to a hearse, to the Black Tea Party of Colorado and Coloradans for the legalization of marijuana. Overall, it was a beautiful day outside and I actually felt really good actually celebrating the day for the first time.

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Fast-forward to Thursday, when, amidst a real lockdown at the community college where we have been taking our Accounting 132 course because the dinner a block and a half away got held up, I took my IRS Advanced Volunteer Tax Preparer test. I passed my certification test even though I was thinking about this during many classes:

Where on the 1040 does inheritance go? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MXMR0SwQA8k

When learning about filing status: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYdsWtku9gg

Saturday was Opening day of Tax Help Colorado. Despite being really nervous the whole time because I was scared I was going to do something wrong, and screw up people’s fate, it was actually really exciting. I got to speak Spanish to a couple people and help explain the process and make sure the right information was being communicated. While I was immediately confronted with how rusty my Spanish is, I believe I was understood and able to communicate, so I think my efforts were helpful. I did about 4 returns in a hour before being pulled up to quality review, which is basically just another set of eyes double checking the return before it gets submitted. By far the most exciting part of the day for me, (yes, an exciting part about doing taxes), was helping a refugee family, who’s been in the country just over a year, get over $10,000 in federal tax returns and almost another $1,000 in state taxes. I was overjoyed at this after having seen the financial struggles of so many of my refugee clients last year during my internship at Nationalities Service Center in Philadelphia. So it was pretty emotional for me because I know just how huge this is for them. I had to laugh a little bit when one of the site coordinators called me over when she saw their names on the list, thinking they needed Spanish assistance and a volunteer named Karen made a note about it. No, I said, that’s “Ka-Wren,” it’s a language.
I’ve been amazed at how much of my prior human services/pre-social work background I’ve been able to draw upon in tax prep, more so than my business minor background. I knew what an ITIN number was from one of my internships with a non-profit that worked with immigrants in Minneapolis. (ITIN is a number issued to non-citizens who do not have Social Security numbers but who worked in this country and are filing taxes here. The IRS does not report to Immigration, so there is no risk for deportation. In fact, filing taxes with ITIN will later be a huge help when applying for citizenship and a higher proportion of non-citizens file taxes than citizens). I’ve also drawn upon my time at Nationalities Service Center when we were discussing how welfare benefits (WIC, TANF, SSI, SSD-I) factor into taxes, or how our clients need them to make ends meet when we see that they can’t live on the income they make.
Taxes are also like social work in how you are dealing with and asking people probing, personal questions, there is a lot of “paperwork,” there is a lot of red-tape and exceptions/caveats to eligibility rules, and an intake must be completed and gone through before anything can even start.

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Project 2: Denver,CO

Project 2: DENVER, CO.

My second project assignment, with my new team, Fire 7, is with the Piton Foundation, working with Tax Help Colorado, in and around the Denver metro area. That’s right, I’m doing taxes. Now I know what you might be thinking, did you know you were going to be doing taxes in Americorps NCCC? And no, not really. You might also be thinking, taxes? Ughhhhhhh. And yes, I hear you. But I’ve decided to take a different approach in looking at it….

Reasons why having a tax project in Denver is a good thing:

  1. It’s winter.  Having become cold-blooded after my four years of Pennsylvania winters, I can embrace an indoor project during these harsh weather months. There will be plenty of time to work/play outside during my Round 3 and 4 projects later on this year when the weather is more favorably.
  2. Being located in Denver. Denver is an awesome city and I’m looking forward to getting better acquainted. There’s a lot to do and easier methods of getting around. In addition, I am applying to grad school here so it will not only give me the opportunity to visit the school but also give me time to decide whether or not I could see myself staying here for two more years. The Piton Foundation, our sponsor, is also fairly well known in Denver, and has connections at non-profits all over the city which I could potentially benefit from later on. We are currently living on the Americorps NCCC Southwest Region campus, which provided for the luxuries of a bed, not a cot, in a room I share with just one other person, as well as the internets, via Ethernet cable not wifi, but still.
  3. Taxes. Yes, I see taxes as a pro. Admittedly, and a bit ashamedly, I know nothing about taxes, having never done them myself. And thus I think it is something I should know about and learn how to do- it’s a good, beneficial skill to have.
  4. The clientele. All of the beneficiaries of Tax Help Colorado’s services are families making less than $50,000/ year. To these low income families, a tax return can make a big difference. Tax Help Colorado has over 30 sites throughout the state (we will be rotating between three of them), helps over 1,000 people receive, collectively, over 1 million dollars in returns. In addition, the clients that I will meet and work with are the same types of clients I hope to work with in my future career. I am excited to have client contact, especially after having really only worked with my nine other teammates and the two Park Rangers on my last project. And as great as that was, working with people one-on-one is what I want to do long term. I might also have the chance to use some of my Spanish and also draw upon my experiences working with immigrants and refugees at some of the tax sites we will be working at. I am looking forward to working with the clientele and learning from them. I know that I will gain so much from working with them in that I will be confronted with their struggles head-on. I will be given all their financial information, some very private, sensitive information, I hope that in working with them I will be able to give them some sense of comfort.

During our ten-day transition week, we spent two half days at the Piton Foundation offices, getting to know our sponsor and helping get the word out about the work they do. And while I think a mailing campaign is probably a successful way to reach so many of the people it hopes to serves, I also kinda think that after stuffing envelopes for four hours straight, how bad could taxes really be? While transition week contained more trainings and refreshers from CTI, we did get to spend a day at the Denver Zoo. Over the weekend, I went into the city to watch some of the playoff games, and made a stop at Wynkoop Brewing, the oldest brewery in Denver. And while I wasn’t particularly partial to their brews, we did have fun playing foosball, skee ball, and table shuffle board, before heading to the outdoor skating rink on the 16th Street Mall. I don’t think I’ve ever rented skates before, which is for a good reason (the same reason the only cost $2), because these skates were not only worn down on the inside but the blades were as dull as new box of pencils. I can’t remember when I was ever scared to skate around before. Still, it was a great night, the weather was great and a local jazz band even played on the stage next to the rink while we were there. On Sunday, I spent some time with my old team, Fire 2, bowling, before going with some people to Stranahan’s Distillery. It was really interesting going to a whiskey distillery, having gone on vineyard and brewery tours previously. Learned about the difference between bourbons, and ryes, and how their process is similar to an old brewery, before even getting to have a tasting. Oh, and Go Broncos!

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Happy Holidays

 

End of Project 1

After a brief hiatus, I decided it was time to pick the blog back up again. I realize it has been far too long, and this may be a bad omen for the future, but here goes…

When I last left off, my time at St. Vrain State Park was beginning to wind down. We got out of the cold snap and got some unseasonably nice weather. There was still plenty of debris clean-up to be had as well as some last minute indoor clean-up. And while I was growing a bit wary of debris clean-up, it was pretty great being able to work outside in the 60s in December.

The real highlights of the end of the round included the Longmont Lights Festival. The neighboring community of Longmont put on a huge holiday event at their community center. The first night’s event include ice skating and a show, Santa, reindeer, food trucks, ice craving, and Santa’s workshop of arts and crafts. Since I was the only one in my group that knew some Spanish, I was placed indoors at the info booth. And while I don’t think I spoke more than a sentence in Spanish, I did get to greet all the kids coming in excited to see Santa, and say goodbye to the bewildered and exhausted parents from the crowds in Santa’s workshops as well as the kids slightly more excited, now having consumed sugar. The main attraction of the night was a sky diving Santa that landed on the grassy knoll outside the community center. This event could only be described to me as a flash mob attack of sorts, as I was unable to witness it first hand, having been inside helping clean-up.

The second night of the Festival, a bunch of us were assigned to assist along the parade route. The parade include home-made floats from local businesses and organizations.  It was pretty fun, even though I couldn’t help but thinking it was an amateur Holidazzle for you Minnesotans. After the parade we prepared for the fireworks show. The fireworks we to be launched off the roof of the community center, so everyone was pretty close, but it was our job to keep some of the area roped off. And to top the night off, we all came home to our have a Holiday (Christmas) party. We took a little bit of our leftover food budget to get a fruit and veggie platter (an Americorps luxury), pizza rolls, Christmas cookies, and more. It was quite the feast. We then exchanged our Dollar Tree gifts white elephant/Yankee candle style, before gathering around to watch a Christmas Story.  We went to bed early though, because in the morning we were driving to Estes Park to go to Rocky Mountain National Park.

The drive to Rocky Mountain National Park took us through the winding roads of the foothills and through some of the places that were the most effective by the floods. A group of us went on a hike suggested by the Park Ranger at the Visitor’s Center that was supposed to be a loop were a lot of wildlife would be, however, we somehow got off that trail and hiked almost three miles to a lake. The lake was frozen, and the strength of the wind that day was literally sliding us across without having to move at all. After trekking the three miles back to the van, we drove through the park to an outlook where we could see the highest peaks and the Continental Divide. It was really great day, we were so lucky to have to chance to get out there and it was also a really great way to spend our last weekend day/free day of our project.

We spent Monday and Tuesday doing our final rounds of debris clean-up- hard to believe, but there’s still a lot to be done in St Vrain in order for it to be ready to open in March. We said our goodbyes to Park Rangers Jim and Roy and on Wednesday, worked with Colorado Wildlife at Simpson Ponds Wildlife Area. This wildlife area was still incredibly muddy from when the flood hit. We all felt like we were drunks trying to get through the mud. The Rangers there taught us how to take down and build a new fence, which was pretty cool. Then it was time to head home for the holidays. I got to take the two week break that we are allowed, provided that no natural disasters occur (many of last year’s members got sent out to help with Hurricane Sandy over the Holidays).

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Baby, It’s COLD outside…

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Getting back to work after a four day weekend wasn’t easy. The soreness I experienced that first week or so from working in the park came back as we did some gardening and landscaping jobs. However, by the time Tuesday afternoon rolled around, a cold snap had rolled in. We finished our work just as the temperature hit 20 degrees, the temperature Americorps has decided it is too cold to allow us to work outside.

The snow came down that night, and by morning we found out that we were “grounded.” Grounded by the Americorps ruling that the roads were in such a condition that it was not safe to drive our vehicles.  Being that the Farm house is kinda isolated, we couldn’t go anywhere but spent the day watching morning cable and Elf, doing holiday arts and crafts, and playing snow football.

By Thursday the snow had stopped, but it was equally as cold. We were “ungrounded,” but it was still deemed far too cold to work out, and left for work to do demo on the basement of the Park headquarters, which also got destroyed with the flood.  Many Miley Cyrus jokes were had, as we came in like a wrecking ball, karate chopping and ninja kicking walls down. However, all it did was wreck me. We began knocking the studs off the walls with a hammer, and one came crashing down on my head, drawing a little blood and making a little bump. Nonetheless, it was still a pretty fun day all around, and a nice change of pace.

Friday Forecast: Again, too cold. So we headed into town, to lend a hand at the Longmont Rec Centers. My morning was spent reliving some of my best childhood memories, as we sanitized toys which included various forms of the cars that kids can actually sit in, and use their feet to move, Flintstone style. Listening to Christmas music all the while (Mariah Carey’s All I Want for Christmas played the necessary three time minimum, of course), making me feel like I was working in Santa’s workshop (or maybe it was a side effect of watching Elf the day before…).

Saturday was a full day of ISPs at OUR Center, the Longmont hospitality center that serves as a soup kitchen (were we volunteered previously) and mission.  We helped paint bathrooms and cleaned various parts of the buildings there for most of the day. My highlight was going into the soup kitchen to have lunch, and getting to sit with clients. Some of my teammates and I sat with Francisco, with whom I got to practice my Spanish.  We finished up the day, in another building they have on site that is currently serving as a warehouse/distribution center for food, clothing, and other resources. When we finished up the day, the contact at OUR Center that we had been working with let us take some of the coats they have available for the clients…. And cue Thriftshop by Macklemore. We definitely walked out of there looking like we were out of a late 80s/early 90s music video.  

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‘The City of Lost Gold”

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Blog Post: Week 11/25-12/1

(And no, I’m not referring to the Villanova Wildcats in Atlantis)

*Skull update: We were told that the skull is believed to be from the Pioneer days and is probably that of a teenage girl. Before the park was a state park, it was a quarry, and before that it was a Fort, and the skull is believed to have been buried in a shallow grave in the Fort which was washed up by the flood.

On Monday and Tuesday the week before Thanksgiving, we ventured to Eldorado State Park, located just on the other side Boulder. The park is nestled in a community situated deep in a canyon. Eldorado was hit even worse than St. Vrain by the flood, but they have been able to have some of the parts of the Park open. The Park is mostly known for its climbing and when we visited had just a coating for fresh snow. Eldorado was more of what I think of when I think of state parks- with its mountainous hiking trails, bubbling river, and pine trees.  We cleared debris along the river, a side of the Park that was not even accessible until we did so. Now being pros at debris removal, we finished early and enjoyed a hike along a scenic trail that overlooked the greater Boulder area.

On Tuesday, we got a taste for trail building at Eldorado. We set up a fire line/assembly line to lay Colorado rose stone and dirt on the first 100 yards of a main hiking trail in the Park. It was great to interact with hikers in the Park- helping them overcome their confusion if the trail was open on not, and thanking us as we assured them it was and for our work on improving the trail. During our lunch break my team enjoyed our first snowball fight of the year (instigated by my teammate and I as we ran ahead on the trail during our lunch break and threw them down on our team from above).  Having worked so hard all day, we again finished early and got to enjoy the trail that we had been working on that day.

Wednesday we were back at St Vrain tidying-up and completing the camping pads from the Volunteer day. After work my team leader and I went to pick up some pies for Thanksgiving that one of the volunteers on my crew from the Volunteer day at the Park offered to make us. On Thursday, we would be having Thanksgiving dinner on campus in Denver with two other teams from our unit. Being that stuffing is one of my favorite foods, I insisted, despite my usual avoidance of cooking like it’s the plague, that I make it.  Even though I had never made it before, I proceeded to making stuffing just like I get at home for 30 people (as soon as the Nova game was over, of course). Took a little longer than I was expecting and we arrived to Denver fashionably late, much to the “hangry” dismay of the other two teams who had been patiently awaiting our arrival.

The rest of the weekend I spent In Boulder and downtown Longmont finishing the first of the grad school applications and cheering on the Villanova Wildcats to Battle for Atlantis victory. Saturday afternoon we started getting in the holiday spirit working at the Habitat Restore Christmas store before we returned to Denver again. Some others and I went on a tour at Breckenridge Brewery (the third largest brewery in Colorado), before meeting up with the rest of my team to go to my first real NHL game- Colorado Avalanche vs. Minnesota Wild.  

So happy Hanukah (of which my team celebrated all 8 days) and happy 25 days of Christmas!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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