Finding Hope and Healing on My Spring Break Service Trip

“There is one way to understand another culture.  Living it.  Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language.  At some point understanding may come.” Peter Høeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow
I spent a lot of time a few months back riding the Troost Max, the rapid transit system servicing neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, Missouri’s urban core. I waited in the wind and drizzle and in debris-strewn bus stops, I squeezed into the center aisle while bracing myself against the bus’s speed and motion, I chatted with several strangers and eavesdropped on the conversations of several others, I watched as the bus drivers helped disabled folks on and offload their wheelchairs, I noted the sleeping children and weary mom behind me, and I was grateful that my colleagues had smartphones that charted the cancelled routes.

As one of six John Burroughs School (MO) teachers chaperoning our 40 eager students on the annual spring break service trip, I learned many lessons at all the organizations where we volunteered, several of which I will detail below, but I truly believe that riding the bus anchored all the rest.

As much as I value gratitude as a core value, I realized during that week that I still take a lot for granted. While I enjoy trains and love to walk to places, I almost never take the bus. It was healthy to recognize that for a lot of folks the bus is the only option. Our students — to their credit — were awesome passengers. They gave up their seats to others, they split into groups and waited to avoid clogging a single bus during rush hour, they uncomplainingly walked several blocks in the rain when it became clear that certain routes had been delayed, they thanked the drivers as they exited — and they added joy to a lot of riders’ daily commutes. “Who are these kids?” their expressions seemed to say, “What are they doing on the bus?” 

It is good to help other people — to give of our time and resources — but it is even better to try to understand in some small way what it is like to live their lives. Riding the Troost Max at 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. and 10 p.m. became a kind of window: It helped make the “invisible” lives on Troost Avenue visible.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Doing Something

One theme I started to track as the volunteer coordinators at Newhouse and Amethyst Place and Operation Breakthrough oriented us to the history of their respective organizations was the power of a few key individuals’ vision for these institutions. Operation Breakthrough, an elaborate Head Start program which serves 400 children ages six weeks through 13-years-old, provides high-quality early education, medical and dental services, physical and play therapy, parenting classes, before and after school care, summer school, hot meals, clothing, birthday kits, and more to desperately poor families in what used to be known as the “murder block” of Troost. The program began in 1971 in the living room of two stubborn nuns, Sr. Corita and Sr. Berta.  “They still visit the building,” Tasha told us, “they advocate tirelessly for these families.”

Lily Sheets, a JBS sophomore, scrubs toddler cots at Operation Breakthrough in Kansas City, Missouri. Photos courtesy of Jill Donovan.

Similarly, Amethyst Place, a block of buildings offering transitional housing, therapy, and job training to women recovering from addiction and their children, was the brainchild of a single determined woman, Kim. Cece at Newhouse, Shandra at Amethyst Place, and others we worked with kept reminding me that the way to combat despair about the brokenness of the world is to help, to do something.

Ethan Nagasako, a JBS seventh-grader, helps move donated furniture at Amethyst Place in Kansas City.

“Take 3 deep breaths or count slowly to 10.” 5 Steps to Managing Big Emotions

Handling a Big Feeling
Because the children at Operation Breakthrough endure on average at least four major traumas before the age of five, the OB curriculum very intentionally emphasizes three major life lessons. In every classroom and on most bulletin boards these lessons are colorfully reiterated: I can handle a big feeling, I can be OK even if others around me are not, and I can do things I do not want to do. 

“We are trying to teach them to self-regulate,” Tasha explained, “to be able to identity and name their emotions, and learn to pause when they are angry or afraid instead of punching another child in the face.” 

I was struck by the incredible thoughtfulness of this pedagogy, and by its relevance for all of us. Indeed after watching the videos, and hearing the stories — that, for instance, communities build prison cells based on the numbers of third-graders reading below grade level, that the average woman at Newhouse goes back to her abuser at least seven times, that many of the teen moms in The Upper Room reading program were unaware that they should even talk to their babies, that all these programs depend in substantial part on state and federal funding which can be slashed at the whim of any disconnected politician — I needed to figure out how to handle a big feeling myself.

“A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who does not play has lost forever the child who lived in him.” Pablo Neruda
Planning and Playing

When we were spending time at Holy Cross Academy, I happened to notice a sign on the wall that said, “This is a Logic and Love Classroom.”  While watching Nandini, a sophomore at John Burroughs School, work so tenderly with young Timothy, and Ryan, a JBS seventh-grader, encourage and mentor young Diego, I also spent some time pondering that phrase.

I realized that one reason these trips work so well involves the masterful combination of logic and love. Hundreds of details go into planning these experiences, and our community service director, Rachael Barnes, manages all of them. Once the trip launches, the other adults have a hand in the planning as well. Our students also engage in nearly continuous on-the-spot problem-solving: How should we organize and stack this giant heap of vinyl siding? What is the best method for sorting 50 differently patterned carpet squares? How can we collaborate to get this filing cabinet down this skinny flight of stairs? Logic. 

But the trip also involves so much playfulness — not just getting back stage passes to the KC Rep’s incredible production of “A Raisin in the Sun,” or visiting the National World War I Museum, or eating at Arthur Bryant’s and Fritz’s, or even watching the surprisingly magical Disney on Ice, but singing on the school bus, and playing duck-duck-goose with kindergartners, and admiring collectively the adorable baby playing amid the shredded paper in Orange Neighborhood classroom one. Performing community service can seem “heavy”— some schools even assign service as a punishment, and we encountered a few stunned folks who seemed surprised that anyone would spend a vacation serving others — but the JBS service trips I’ve participated in always blend logic and love, service and joy.

And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Hebrews 13:16
Healing the World

My Jewish friends have taught me the concept of tikkun olam, performing good deeds or mitzvot as a means of healing the brokenness in our world.  On the trip, I saw evidence of people engaged in such deeds everywhere — in the businessman at Harvesters, the massive KC food bank, who packages food every Wednesday morning; in the two elegant women in their mid-70s at Amethyst Place who use donated furniture to decorate the residents’ apartments; in the toddler teacher at Operation Breakthrough who bowed and offered a Namaste when JBS students Eliot and Sophia returned his classroom’s newly scrubbed trash bin; in the friendly college students at Rockhurst University who seemed genuinely charmed by our young charges; in all my colleagues, who are as kind and genuine as anyone I’ve ever worked with; and in our students — all 40 of them — who spent five days doing good in the world and in so doing offered hope and healing to everyone they encountered.

 Jill Donovan and Ben Kazdan, a JBS sophomore, package potatoes at Harvesters Food Bank in Kansas City.



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