Throughout the past week, the LTIP group was immersed in inner-city experiences with the invisible poor. Many middle, upper-middle, and upper class families fail to realize the degree of poverty that is within only a few miles of their homes, so this experience gave us the opportunity to grow and transform some of our views of the world and humanity. Our week began immediately when we arrived at the Holy Family Catholic Worker House in Kansas City, Missouri. We were greeted outside by a man with a huge smile and contagious laugh named Jay. Jay is a homeless man who has lived in Kansas City for his entire life and has been coming to the Holy Family House for nearly thirty years. He takes on the responsibility of helping out with dishes and other tasks around the house when he is there, and he has always loved having the LTIP groups around.
Shortly after meeting Jay, we entered the house, were introduced to the staff and volunteers, and began helping with the meal preparation. The guests were let in the doors at 6 pm for dinner, and we, along with a few other volunteers and staff members, served the meal. One important aspect of the Holy Family House’s mission is the offering of companionship to the poor, so as the rush of guests started to calm down, we all had the opportunity to sit and eat with them. For many of us, this was not easy to do at first, and it was clearly out of our comfort zones. The initial thought that was running through my head was, “what am I going to say to these people? I couldn’t possibly have much in common with them.” When I sat down with a couple of men and introduced myself, I quickly realized that there was plenty for us to talk about. One thing that I learned throughout the course of the week as I continued to eat meals with the guests and converse with them is that people are people, no matter how much money they make, where they live, or the circumstances they face. As time went on, my discomfort began to disappear, and the differences I had with these people became miniscule. Every person has a different story and different circumstances, but in the end the similarities between human beings are very evident. After the meal came to an end and we finished up some cleaning, we were given an orientation of the Holy Family House and the Catholic Worker Mission by two staff members, Mark and Nehemiah.
The following day began with the serving of breakfast to the Holy Family House guests. We helped with the serving of breakfast Monday through Thursday. Following the meal, we headed down the street to Operation Breakthrough. Operation Breakthrough provides childcare and educational opportunities for children living in poverty. It serves children ranging from infants to high school seniors. The year-round childcare provides children ages 6-weeks to 6 years with a safe, loving, and educational environment. It also offers before and after school care and summer programs for school-age children up to 13-years-old, as well as tutoring opportunities for high school students. Almost all of the kids that are a part of Operation Breakthrough have dealt with multiple traumatic experiences throughout their childhoods. It was clear that some of the kids had been longing for the care from an adult man. They all seemed to want our attention at all times, whether we were playing with them on the playground or reading to them in the classroom. Although it was very challenging at times, it was definitely hard to leave the kids at the end of the week.
Our mornings at Operation Breakthrough were spent in the classroom, but the majority of the afternoon was spent rebuilding an outdoor classroom for the children. Growing up in an urban area where violence is very prevalent, the kids at Operation Breakthrough rarely get the chance to enjoy the beauty of nature and have fun outdoors. The outdoor classroom was not given enough attention and maintenance work as it needed over the past couple of years, so we were asked to help rebuild a safe, outdoor learning environment for the kids. We did work such as laying down fabric and mulch in gardens, laying stones as garden borders, trimming trees, raking/flattening surfaces, and pulling weeds. The refurnishing of this classroom came a long way in the week that we were there, and they are hoping to finish it completely within the next couple of weeks.
When Tuesday rolled around, the entire group was excited for what was in store. We had a day of activities planned for the children of migrant farmworkers in Waverly, Missouri. Growing up and going to school can be a challenge for the children of migrant farmworkers. Their parents have all come to the US from Mexico to find work on farms. In many cases, the families move as many as four times per year to make sure there is always work for them. Because of this, the children may fall behind in school or even struggle with the English language (because their parents only speak Spanish at home). It is very important that these kids are given the opportunity to participate in fun and educational activities during the summer so they can maintain the knowledge that they gained during the school year and resist falling behind even more in school. When we arrived at the park in Waverly, we hopped in the cars with the people working for the Migrant Farmworkers Project to pick up the kids at their homes. The kids seemed excited to begin the activities as we headed back to the park, so we started with an icebreaker activity to learn everyone’s name. The next activity on the list was called “Verbal Percussion.” Eric led us in this activity that taught the kids the elements in basic rhythm. We were able to get everyone on the same page and sound like somewhat of a band. Next was the exciting science experiment taught by Marek, who gave the kids a lesson in chemical mixtures, and the end result was silly putty. Each child got to make their own ball of silly putty to take home with them. The group of girls that I worked with had never played with silly putty before so they were fascinated by the feel of it. Last on the agenda for the day was the piñata for Fernando’s birthday. Fernando, who was turning thirteen, is developmentally disabled and has many learning disabilities. He did extremely well with all of our activities and was especially excited for the piñata and the candy inside of it. The great day with the migrant farmworker project ended after the small birthday celebration. This experience opened our eyes to the lives of the children of farmworkers and immigrants. We learned that these kids face many challenges, but they are kids nevertheless. They did a great job with our educational activities, and they made this a day that I will never forget.
The next day, we worked with an organization called Uplift. This is a nondenominational organization that serves hot meals, sandwiches, clothes, hygiene products, books, etc. to homeless people living under bridges, in the woods, in junk yards, near the railroad, etc. We could not believe that people were living in these types of conditions. Many of us were able to speak with people that we were serving, connect with them, and hear their stories about addictions, post traumatic stress disorders, natural disasters, and felonies that have put people in these situations. We learned that these people don’t choose to struggle or to be homeless; they simply face very difficult circumstances that force them on the streets. The three vans served nearly 200 homeless people altogether and brought them a great deal of care and compassion. This was such an intense learning experience for all of us. It was a highlight of the week for many of us, and I know that I will never forget this experience or the homeless people that I had the opportunity to speak with.
The learning experiences continued to be thrown at us on Thursday when we went to TurnAround, a Catholic Charities re-acclimation program for ex-offenders. We met with four ex-offenders, a case lawyer, and Rita Flynn, Director of TurnAround, to listen to stories about re-entering society after being incarcerated for long periods of time. Without a very strong support system that many ex-offenders lack, it is nearly impossible to re-acclimate to society and succeed. TurnAround assisted the four ex-offenders and hundreds more in getting back on their feet, going back to school, setting reasonable goals, and repairing damaged relationships. This experience gave our group the perspective that all humans deserve to be treated with dignity and they deserve a chance to reconcile their mistakes, no matter how severe the mistake may have been. Later in the day, we went to Harvesters, a food bank and clearinghouse for the collection and distribution of food and related household products, where we were given a tour and sorted different items into boxes before they were distributed. Harvesters’ mission is to feed hungry people today and work to end hunger tomorrow.
The last thing on Thursday’s agenda was a liturgy and dinner with guests of the Holy Family House. This was probably the coolest mass I have ever been a part of. When I think about Jesus, I think about how he cared for and associated himself with the poor, the lepers, and the marginalized. This liturgy was attended by the poor, the marginalized, and people that cared for them and associated themselves with them. Following the liturgy, we all gathered inside for dinner. Marek and I had the opportunity to sit down with a man named Carlos, the same man that had shared about his reconciliation during the homily. He shared his story with us. He was very open about all of the mistakes he had made from the time he was a teenager. The liturgy and the conversation I had with Carlos helped me realize how special and important places like the Holy Family House are. The people that volunteer and run the Holy Family House have helped so many people reconcile with God, redeem themselves, and change their lives.
Friday was another busy day for us in Kansas City. After working at Operation Breakthrough, we were able to talk to two very inspiring people. The first person was Sister Berta, a co-founder of Operation Breakthrough. She told us all about her experience in the inner city working with the poor. One story that she told that really struck me was about her adopted son. Growing up, he was always taken care of by Sister Berta, and he never had a man to talk to or look up to. One night, a male friend of Sister Berta’s took him to a basketball game where they talked and laughed and had a good time. When they returned home, the man put his arm around him to say goodbye. Sister Berta’s son looked at her after the man left and said, “A man has never touched me like that. Is that what it feels like to have a dad?” I can’t imagine what it would be like to grow up without a dad or a male role model, but so many young kids in the inner-city are forced to. Berta also spoke to us about the segregation that Kansas City and almost all inner cities are facing today: economic segregation.
The next of the inspirational people we had the chance to meet with was Brother Louis Rodemann. Brother Louis was in charge of running the Holy Family House for 28 years. He completely dedicated himself to the poor and made numerous sacrifices to help them. It is clear to me that Brother Louis worked extremely hard to do all he could for the poor. In order to provide the necessary amount of food for the meals, Brother Louis often had to go “dumpster diving” near the farmer’s market in Kansas City. Even though Brother Louis has been retired for a few years now, the relationships he developed with the people at the Holy Family House continue on. He still helps out and is present at the house regularly, and he visits some of the former guests in nursing homes. It isn’t often that you meet a man that is so inspiring and lives his life so closely to the way Jesus did, but this week we were all able to meet one of them in Brother Louis.
On Saturday, there were more volunteers helping out with the meal than usual, so the group sat down and ate with Jay, the guest that greeted us so kindly on day 1 at the Holy Family House. When dinner was over and everything was cleaned up, we had one more little fun activity to do. Just a few weeks ago, a mother and her three sons, who were homeless, moved into the house next door where the HFCWH staff lives. The two older boys, Tarion(9) and Darion (7), seemed to have a lot of fun with all of us “big kids” around. After all of the tickle attacks, piggy-back rides, and throwing them on the couch, it was our last night to hang out with them. It was hard for me to say goodbye knowing that they don’t have a male role model that is always there for them. I will definitely miss those kids, and I will be praying for their family.
Before this past week, I had volunteered at homeless shelters for a few hours only to go straight back to my comfortable home, family, and friends. This week was different because we didn’t leave right after the meal; we lived among the poor for a week. People that have not had an experience similar to this will not understand how powerful it was. They might ask, “What can you learn at a homeless shelter?” or “What is there to miss when you leave a homeless shelter?” I can say that I learned more about people and life in a week at the Holy Family Catholic Worker House than I have ever learned in a classroom. Some people will never understand what people living in poverty go through, but I can say that I have a better understanding than most. Some people will never talk to a homeless person because they are “scary” or “disgusting,” but I can say that some of the homeless people I got the chance to talk to had incredible stories of their own. Over two-thirds of the world is living below the poverty line, but too many people are oblivious to it. I am so glad that the poor are no longer “invisible” to me. This experience changed me for the better. I will never be the same person that I was a week ago.
-Joe Miley, SMU