Saturday, January 2, 2010

Student Spotlight: Frances Brady

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.

My start to this 10 month volunteering stint was in Ecuador, in Lumbisi, a small Andean town. I had studied abroad in Ecuador's capital, Quito, and wanted to return, but to live in a small town, rather than the city. I had kept in touch with the Ecuadorian study-abroad coordinator, Maria Chiriboga, and she mentioned that she had started a volunteer program because so many students studying abroad had wanted to volunteer. I loved the idea of volunteering with a program started and run by Ecuadorians, rather than people from the US. I was supposed to be there for several months, working with Lumbisi's elderly population by cooking and serving meals in the community center. I also visited them in their homes to read to them, help them cook, or just listen. Many of these elderly people were in their 80s and had a hard time getting around, but there were no nursing homes for them, and their children were busy raising their own families - many of them had moved to the cities to find more opportunities, so these elderly people were living by themselves, sometimes with no electricity. I visited one woman several times, helping her cook, and reading the Bible to her. Her husband suffered from diabetes, and without having received proper treatment all his life, the doctors were forced to cut off his feet, and eventually higher and higher up his legs due to the disease. When I met him, he had no legs, but walked on his hands, still sowing his field all day, still smiling and cheerful. His wife was not as cheerful, but rather was quite depressed that her children had to move away, that her arthritis hurt, that she was scared for her husband. I was there when her son and his friends set up electricity in her house for the first time. The family with whom I lived was much better off, so I lived relatively in comfort. The only trouble was that the water lines were broken when I arrived and then my family couldn't get hot water for days. This presents a major problem for cooking since there were no wells in the town. My host mother ran a small daycare, so I was able to watch the youngest and oldest of the population. This was a different Ecuador altogether from the affluent upper class with whom I lived and went to college. I found my job very difficult. Watching poverty is difficult, but listening to the elderly talk about their difficult lives is crushing. Helping in the fields or in the school might have been emotionally easier.

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.


  1. I loved working with FEVI! But I agree, it is a better fit for those studying abroad at Universidad de San Francisco during their stay there. I'm so excited because a ton of the students who are studying in Ecuador this semester (they left today!) are very very interested in volunteering, and they will definitely get opportunities through Maria. However, I still think that one problem is being able to volunteer upon returning to the states. It is difficult to find opportunities if you're not in a class that organizes it for you like Spanish in the Community or Spanish and Entrepreneurship. And many students who would be great volunteers do speak Spanish but aren't Spanish majors and can't get into those classes. Are there some things that students can do to keep up their Spanish? Are there usually needs in the Community partners that just the students in the courses can't fill? What sort of connections does Spanish & Illinois have with the Office of Volunteer Programs, or the Study Abroad Office? (we could get some sort of "keep your study abroad learning going after you return..." thing started)

  2. Carolina, You bring up excellent points! I think you should work on these ideas as your team project for SPAN 332. Let's talk.

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