The Miracles of the Young and the Old

 

So the tone of my last few posts has been pretty heavy. So for my next topic, I wanted to go with something more uplifting.

Kids are adorable and sweet. They can be rambunctious and crazy, and hard to handle. One thing that is certain, they have a way of looking at the world that no one else does. They are very perceptive, and they can see the joy and beauty in the world that often big people can’t. So you don’t think I’m fully idealizing kids here, I will also say they can be messy, loud, and tiring. They can demand a lot from you. It’s because children, by their nature, are meant to absorb, to soak in. They are learning about life, and crave any lessons that anyone can teach. At the end of the day, though, most people would agree that life is a whole lot better because of them.

People who are elderly, in my opinion, are generally really cool. They are wise, and calm.  Or they can be super feisty and won’t take crap from anyone. Many of them have a sparkle in their eye and an impish sense of humor. Having lived so much of their lives, they long now to give, to teach. They’ve absorbed wisdom, and experience, and have a great deal to share. Again, not to idealize; there are many challenges that come with being elderly. Accumulating health issues, combined with increasingly limited independence can be frustrating for both the individual as well as their loved ones. In situations with memory loss or personality changes, the feeling of loss for caregivers can be overwhelming. But again, at the end of the day, most people would agree that you would never stop loving someone because they grow old.

Not to get too philosophical here, but I’ve heard it said in different ways that kids and people who are elderly are in fact two sides of the same coin, and it is in reality the people in the middle who are so different. In that space between youth and age, it can be natural to become caught up in the daily concerns of life, and to lose touch somewhat with what really matters. Somehow, though, children and the elderly always seem to remember that.

But, unfortunately, these people are often lost in the shuffle. It is often easier to push them away in favor of something easier, something digital maybe, that doesn’t demand anything of you like they do. I know this because too many times I’ve made that mistake myself.

But there are some really exciting programs out that recognize how maybe kids and the elderly are perfectly matched to give and receive. In these new models, the nursing homes and elder care facilities are hosting preschools in their homes.

This approach has so many benefits. It helps to combat the loneliness and depression that elders often experience because of isolation. It helps keep them mentally sharp and stimulated because of their interaction with quick young minds. It gives them a sense of purpose and usefulness, as they are responsible to interact with the children. And maybe most importantly, it gives them a bond  of zany fun. And I think fun is pretty important in life.

It’s just as good for the kids, too. Kids may often be seen as a nuisance, and made to feel like they don’t matter. But in those moments when they interact with an elder, they can be made to feel like the most important person in the world. They can gain wisdom and insight that will guide them their whole lives. They can also develop a strong concept of the humanity of the elderly, which is often lacking in modern society. But as they grow up, and become the caregivers and policy makers (and as we grow old), don’t we want a generation of people who care?

Again, not to idealize- elder care facilities can be rough places. As time progresses, someone’s health may deteriorate, and that is hard for anyone to watch. It can especially be hard for a child who may have developed a bond with the elder, and may even have to watch them die. For someone so young, with most likely a very vague concept of what death even is, this could be traumatic. Some experts have mentioned that this may be ultimately positive, because our culture is so skittish about even acknowledging death. They think it may teach children the importance of accompanying people through this phase of their lives.

To be honest, I don’t know the answer to that question. I know if I were a parent, it would be instinct to keep my children away from that kind of pain, and it would kill me inside to watch them suffer. But at the same time, maybe early exposure to the realities of aging would make them less afraid, and allow them to have the right priorities and a richer life overall. Like most things in life, this isn’t a clear-cut situation. However, I also think, like most things in life, if you approach the situation with compassion and humanity, you’ll be a amazed of what can come of it.

Habitat for Humanity- Bringing Community Home

OCE Community Profile Series

by Laura Stephens

Home is where the heart is, as the saying goes. There is a great deal of truth to that- home is where we go to rest, feel safe, and connect with loved ones. Having a house has many social and emotional benefits as well. Habitat for Humanity is an organization that understands this, and works to make the home a center for connection. Through their different programs such as home-building and the ReStore, they work to bring people together in all aspects of their lives. Janet Green from Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg was gracious enough to answer some questions for us about their place in our community.

Office of Community Engagement: Tell us about your role in the community.

Habitat for Humanity: Habitat for Humanity Peninsula and Greater Williamsburg is a nonprofit homebuilding organization founded in 1985 – we are celebrating our 30th anniversary this year!  Habitat homes are made possible by sponsorship and volunteer labor, including 400 hours of “sweat equity” the homebuyer must provide. Habitat homebuyers must have income between 45-80% of the area median income, excellent credit and the ability to pay for their new Habitat home. Habitat homes are sold at no profit with a zero-interest, 20 to 30-year mortgage carried by Habitat. Monthly mortgage payments are then recycled to build more Habitat homes. We have also performed exterior repairs to over 200 homes owned by low-income, elderly or disabled residents in our local community of the local community through our home repair program.

Habitat also operates two Habitat ReStores, our nonprofit home improvement stores and donation centers.  The Habitat ReStore in Williamsburg is located in the Colony Square Shopping Center and sells new and gently used furniture, home accessories, building materials and appliances to the public at a fraction of the retail price.  100% of the profits from the ReStores are used to build and sell more affordable homes to low-income families’ right here in our communities.

OCE: What role do William and Mary students play at Habitat for Humanity?

HH: William & Mary students have played an integral role with Habitat, especially with the inception of the Habitat ReStore in Williamsburg.  Not only are the student’s shopping and donating to the Habitat ReStore, they also have been incredible volunteers, performing hundreds of hours working in the ReStore.  The students have unlimited enthusiasm for our mission, promoting not only affordable housing but also our mission of recycling, helping us to divert literally tons of recyclable items from landfills. William & Mary students contribute by far the most collective number of volunteer hours at the Williamsburg ReStore.

OCE: What benefits does your organization derive from working with William and Mary students, and how do you see the students benefiting from their work?

HH: The William & Mary students offer a very positive and youthful energy to the store. They also bring a very different insight to Habitat than many of our other wonderful volunteers.   There is better “mutual” awareness of the difficulties faced by many individuals and families who struggle to find affordable housing in the Greater Williamsburg area, as well as nationwide.

OCE: How does your organization help educate the student volunteers about community needs?

HH: Habitat has worked very closely with the Office of Community Engagement to further educate student volunteers about the needs in our local community through on-campus networking.  We also have had to become experts on social media and have been proud to have the students help us with our on-line campaigns.

OCE: What does active citizenship mean to you?

HH: Let us answer this question as it relates to Habitat’s homebuyers — Studies have shown:

  • Habitat Homeowners are more likely to vote and participate in civic organizations, community affairs and volunteer organizations.
  • Homeowners are more likely to provide a supportive environment for their children.
  • Children of homeowners are less likely to have behavioral problems in school.
  • Children of homeowners are more likely to achieve higher grades, graduate from high school, and achieve higher levels of education and income.
  • Increases in homeownership levels and taxpayers in neighborhoods lead to increased property values of single-family, owner-occupied units.
  • Homeowners are more likely to maintain and repair their property.
  • Homeowners are less mobile, resulting in household and neighborhood stability.

If that isn’t active citizenship, we don’t know what is!

Let’s talk about the border- Part II

This is Part II of a series I’m writing about some of the challenges for Latino immigrants in the United States, and this post talks about who may choose to immigrate and why, and some of the difficulties of the journey itself.

Who Comes

A wide range of people cross the border, but in general for different reasons. Often times fathers  leave to support their families for the promise to earn a higher income. Machismo culture can place pressure on men to cross the border as a proof of manhood and rite of passage of sorts. Leaving to support one’s family can be seen as a sign of responsibility.  Often this decision is made in the face of extreme poverty. People who are indigenous often endure discrimination and suffer this poverty the most- for example, the people of Chiapas, a region in the south of Mexico that is responsible for the production of many raw materials important in the Mexican economy. However, since the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), in the early 1990’s, conditions have steadily gotten worse in many areas. One of the many negative effects of this agreement was to drive down the price of United States corn that was exported to Mexico, leaving the small farms (often run by people who were indigenous) unable to compete. With the loss of their farms and livelihoods, many farmers have sought work elsewhere, especially the United States.

Another effect of NAFTA has been the explosion of maquiladoras along the US- Mexico border. Largely owned by American companies, these factories are famous for their low wages and hazardous working conditions. For example, many of the products manufactured produce radioactive waste as a byproduct, causing elevated rates of cancer and other diseases. Another horrific consequence is the increased rate of the anencephaly, a condition in which a baby is born without a full brain.  Largely staffed by women, these employees routinely encounter sexual abuse from their employers and can be fired for pregnancy. However, these conditions can flourish because NAFTA created a zone along the border where there are lower levels of regulation and tax benefits for American companies to manufacture products. This has also promoted the creation of a border culture in which people routinely cross back and forth between the United Stated and Mexico as a matter of course.

Sometimes the mother and father make the decision to come to the United Stated together, and leave the children behind with other relatives or friends to care for them while the parents support them from afar. The thought process behind this can be that the money will go farther in one’s native country, and so although there is separation, the parents can allow the children to build a better life for themselves in the land they left behind. However, for many reasons, the parents may decide later on to bring the children to the United States. This can be a very stressful and even terrifying experience, because the parents cannot accompany their children on the journey. They must rely on coyotes, who if they are unethical,  may physically or sexually abuse their children, abandon them, or hold them for ransom.

There has been a huge increase in the number of children who have been crossing the border, much of the reason being the rise of violence in Latin America, largely related to drug cartels. (These cartels rely heavily on income and arms from the United States). There is often strong recruitment pressure on the children to join the cartels, who may use them as soldiers against an institutionalized army. If the children refuse, they or their families may face horrible repercussions. So many choose to leave, and might even make the journey without help from a parent or guardian. The children may also be stopped by border patrol, which to be honest isn’t much better, and may lead to a worse fate for them.

Violence has been historically been a strong motivator for migration. This past century was one of widespread genocide in Latin America, largely fueled by CIA engineered coups.  For example, hundreds of thousands of indigenous Mayans were horrifically and systematically killed in Guatemala in the 1980s, which drove many to seek refuge elsewhere, including the United States, which then in turn rejected them. The economic and cultural devastation that this genocide wrought still affects the country today, and has in many ways enabled the growth of the drug cartels that drive so many to try to escape.

What is the journey like?

The journey to the United States has never been an easy one. It is probably impossible to be honest for me to convey just how tortuous and inhumane the conditions really are. However, US policy changes in the early 2000’s made it even more so. In an attempt to “deter” migrants from crossing to the United States, the border patrol began heavily patrolling all but the most dangerous migration routes. These remaining routes are largely in the desert, where migrants must cross on foot through blinding heat.  This is very painful, and unsurprisingly, death by heatstroke is extremely common. Sometimes, migrants cross by riding La Bestia, or on top of a train. Obviously, this is extremely hazardous, and the risk of death or serious injury is very high.  In towns such as Pima County, Arizona, the number of deaths has spiked so drastically in recent years that the medical examiner had to construct a second cooler just to store the bodies, and organizations such as the Colibri Center are dedicated to identifying the remains of the dead. These include men, women, and children.

There are organizations such as No More Deaths that are dedicated to offering some level of relief to the migrants as they cross, granting them temporary shelter, water, and food. Many are religious in nature, offering migrants a spiritual refuge as well.

Let’s talk about the border…

Immigration is a touchy subject, no doubt about it. Just the word brings up many thoughts, feelings, and emotions in everyone. Most people have an automatic response to the topic, and can have good intentions behind their opinion. However, there is also a really high level of mystery and misinformation surrounding the United States immigration and border patrol systems. In my personal opinion, if there were a higher level of transparency in these programs, and more widespread knowledge about the systems that support them, many people would have a much more understanding attitude toward the struggles of immigrants.

I can’t cover all of the issues surrounding migration in one post- or ten. I was a Hispanic Studies minor in college, so I don’t feel as qualified to speak on the immigration processes and policies of every culture in relation to the United States.  But I will try to outline some challenges of the journey that Latino migrants in the United States must endure in their attempts to better their lives.

Part I: Why Immigrate

I think that there can exist a perception that people who come to the United States are just trying to take an easy way out. But when you ask why people come to the United States, I think a good first step is to ask why would you leave your own home? What would be enough motivation?

Would a 50% reduction in income be enough? How about 90%? How about not knowing where your next meal might come from? Would you leave if you lost your livelihood, or your home?

How much violence would it take? Would you leave if someone marked your home with graffiti? How about if someone vandalized your car? What if your kids were being recruited into gangs? What would you do if someone threatened your family with death or torture unless you paid them?

What if you had to endure these circumstances, but you’ve always heard stories of a distant but supposedly accessible place where life is better? Where you hear that if you work hard you can make a lot of money, keep your children safe, and create for yourself the life that you’ve always wanted? Sure, you might have to break a few laws to get there, but when it can cost 5,000-7,500 dollars to have a lawyer assist you in the process of obtaining a green card, and the wait time to legally immigrate can range from 15- 20 years or more, that might not seem so important.  Realistically, would the confusing legal processes of some far away land matter more than the empty stomachs of your children?

These can be some of the choices people face when they leave their home. The decision to leave is typically gut-wrenching and painful, often meaning breaks with extended or even immediate family and leaving the only home that one has ever known. Leaving can often mean paying costs ranging from several hundred  to thousands of dollars to hire a coyote, a guide to facilitate crossing the border. Coyotes can be reputable and treat their clients well, or they can kidnap family members and extort money in exchange for the possibility of their freedom.

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Next time I’ll start getting into different people who may choose to immigrate and why, and what difficulties the journey entails.

A New Approach in Solutions for Homelessness

First off, hello! My name is Laura Stephens, and I’ll be working at the William and Mary Office of Community Engagement this summer. I’m a (really, as in like a month ago) recent graduate of the college. I had an awesome time in undergrad, and I’m really happy that I get to extend my time with the College a few months longer!

I’ll be blogging once a week this summer about issues related to community engagement. I could connect with a social issue, an awesome project that the OCE Office or William and Mary Students are involved in, or whatever strikes my fancy that day.

So for my first blog, I figured I’d start off with talking about an issue that I think is really important and often neglected: homelessness, and what some really creative people are doing about it.

I can’t imagine how difficult it is to be homeless. Different circumstances can bring a person to this place, including loss of income, physical or mental illness, personal tragedy, or just plain bad luck. Regardless of how they get there, people who are homeless often have to deal with extreme cold or heat without shelter, lack of sanitation, lack of food, lack of health care, and lack of social capital (such as contacts or paperwork, or even a cell phone), to improve their situation. On top of everything else, they often encounter the stigma or blind eye that society turns on them for their circumstances.

The causes of homelessness are deep-rooted and complex and I don’t pretend to have a full understanding of them. However, I can say that the stereotype that people who are homeless don’t seek employment is untrue, at least in my experience. I’ve met people who are homeless who are also employed, but their income just isn’t sufficient to provide them with shelter. It’s a blog post for another day to get into that, but I think it definitely says a lot about how society is structured.

I think the most important thing to remember though, when one considers this issue is that the people involved are human. Elvis Summers thinks so too. A California native, he made headlines a couple of months ago when he began innovating a new approach to providing shelter.

It all started when he began to form a friendship with a woman in his neighborhood, Irene “Smokie” McGhee.  After the death of her husband 10 years prior, she had lost her home since she couldn’t pay the mortgage any more.  It started to really bother Summers when he realized her situation, because as he put it, “She’s a human being, 60 years old, a mother, grandmother, sleeping in the dirt. It’s just not right,” he said.”

So he came up with a creative new idea, based on the housing first approach, the idea that before the other issues in one’s life can be resolved, a person must first have shelter. He created a small house that is 3.5 X 8 feet in size, and cost him less than $500 to create. It has insulation, a door, and a key. But most importantly, it provides McGhee with a place that she can go to be safer and more sheltered, and the dignity that comes with that. Because he built the home with wheels, the LAPD allow the home with the regulation that it needs to be moved every 72 hours.

Summers’ idea is taking off. People are beginning to realize how this approach to homelessness could be a practical and creative way to provide more people with shelter. He’s created an organization, called “Tiny House Huge Purpose” with a GoFundMe campaign to go with it, and is working with local contractors, organizations, and volunteers to create more of these homes. He is working on involving recipients of the homes in their construction and potentially paying them to do so, which would provide them with at least temporary employment and greater agency in their circumstances.

His idea isn’t perfect; one homelessness advocate Mark Redmond, while admiring the concept, has mentioned that the homes don’t have any kind of plumbing. He’s also cautioned that if this isn’t done correctly, it could create shanty town communities instead of long term solutions.

So this isn’t a fool-proof plan. But I personally do think it is a good one. I think that it could be a great first step to a longer term solution. I think it could at least provide a safer place to rest at night, and an insulated place to go for people who contend with extreme cold. (Although I think providing a space heater could make it even better).  I don’t think that the goal should be to live in one of these homes forever, but I think it could be a good first step.

So because we’re from William and Mary, our natural next question is, “What can I do?” Well, an obvious first idea is to consider donating to the GoFundMe page. A next step would be to consider what you can do in your local community. Here in Williamsburg, there are lots of awesome organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Housing Partnerships, Avalon, and Greater Williamsburg Outreach Mission, to name a few. You can stand with people who are homeless when they face discrimination. But most of all, if you encounter someone who is homeless, as long as you feel safe, you can try to engage with them.

Instead of seeing stereotypes, you can take the time to hear their individual story. How did they get there? What are their wants and needs? Are they a veteran still carrying the scars of war, whether physical or mental? Are they contending with illness? Have they suffered from violence or discrimination? But more than that, what makes them funny? What are their favorite foods? What are their pet peeves? Who do they love? Like all of us, people who are homeless are so much more than the sum of their tragedies.

One of my favorite quotes by the amazing Mother Teresa is “We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty.” When someone contends with homelessness, they may suffer all of these things, and they are human like anyone else. Treating someone who is homeless with dignity and love can be the first step in alleviating this suffering, and beginning to truly connect as friends.