by Ann Abbott
Frances Brady was my student before we began the Spanish community service learning (CSL) classes at the University of Illinois, but she would have been an ideal student for those courses. She always showed a strong commitment to issues of social justice coupled with a critical eye and reflective mind.
Frances is now considering going to graduate school, but I wanted to share her work and volunteer experiences with our Spanish students for several reasons:
- Students often ask me where they can volunteer when they move back to the Chicago-area. Frances offers suggestions below.
- Some students reall find their "fit" in the non-profit world during their CSL work and want to know how they can find a job. Again, study Frances' examples for ideas.
- Finally, the positive, feel-good CSL stories are wonderful, but we don't want to gloss over its challenges as well. Below, you'll see that Frances' expectations didn't always fit with the realities she encountered. You need to know yourself well, be honest about what you can and can't do, and yet still take risks! If you don't stretch yourself, you'll never know what you can do. And someone else might face the exact same circumstances as the ones Frances details below and have opposite reactions. Put yourself out there. Try things! Give them a chance. Then decide how far you're willing to go.
Here are Frances' own words:
"I'm currently working at Ounce of Prevention, which believes the best way to help at-risk children is to start before they reach kindergarten, in order to bring them up to the same level of other children entering school. They are a large umbrella organization which had direct services, research, and advocacy, which all impact each other. The direct services work with doulas, home visiting, preschoolers, and their families.
I volunteered for Streetwise, which helps homeless men and women to become self-sufficient through selling a weekly magazine.
I also volunteered for The Night Ministry, which is best known for its bus which visits the homeless on the street at night, with a nurse and medical supplies (as well as hygiene kits and cookies). But it has many other services for those in need, such as a living space for pregnant runaways.
I coordinated ESL volunteers through Centro Autonomo, which is one of many smaller collectives within the umbrella of Mexico Solidarity Network. My understanding is that it's a national organization which gains its revenue by coordinating study-abroad opportunities in Chiapas. It then is able to use this money to help educate people about the lives of Mexicans both in Mexico and those who emigrated to the US, as well as to help those who are now immigrants. They help sell fair trade goods from Mexico, give lectures at universities, etc. However, I was not directly involved with any of the national work or the work done in Mexico. Rather, I was volunteering for Centro Autonomo, which is working to create a community center in Albany Park for Mexican immigrants. There is no sense of hierarchy and the community decides everything together. They are able to provide free classes in a variety of areas from ESL to yoga to jewelry making to basic computer skills. When I arrived on the scene, the ESL volunteers ... were not working out of a textbook, but were ... creat[ing] a 4 level book. Centro Autonomo did not feel that any ESL books on the market could truly help their students (they wanted to them to learn words that would help them in their current employments: construction, busing tables, maid services, not to learn words about pilots and teachers). My job was to determine what both the students and the volunteers needed, and then coordinate that, as well as recruit more volunteers, all on a very tight timeline of a few weeks. ... If someone is interested, though, I think this is a fantastic place to volunteer. It was almost as much of a culture shock as having lived abroad. The people are genuinely amazing, hard-working, and passionate. And I needed to use a lot of my Spanish there, which I do not have the opportunity to use anywhere else. I can't speak to the study abroad experience, but most of the current employees and volunteers had initially done the study abroad program and were so enamored that after graduation, they came to Mexico Solidarity Network. If any of your students are looking to study abroad and want a social-justice-minded [liberal] experience, this could be a very good opportunity.
Unfortunately, I did not stay very long because I felt that I was not very useful. Even with everything I did, I was only volunteering 5 hours a day, and the rest of the time I had nothing to do, so I was quite bored and lonely. I think this is typical of international volunteer experiences. Others stay and find they adjust to the pace of life or find other things to do with their time. But I missed my family and my boyfriend terribly so I left early. I would still recommend FEVI to your students, but with the understanding that the work might be slow, particularly because the program seems better designed for students who are studying abroad and only have an extra 10 - 20 hours in the week, rather than for someone who is a full time volunteer.