Serendipity

This post is recounting an encounter that I had with a client of October 18, 2013 that marks a profound moment in my time here in the Vincentian Volunteer Program.

It’s about 11:40 am, 20 minutes until my lunch break, and one of my co-workers flags me down as I’m coming up the steps from finishing a client meeting. “I accidentally overbooked your clients just now, so instead of having one more left before lunch, you have two. One of the clients does not have an Ohio ID but he has a VESTA card, program certificate, and notarized letter from his case worker.” Great (I say to myself). My boss has been gone all week so it’s just me and another person on my team conducting 14 client meetings per day, 11 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon by appointment. “I’ll take the guy without an ID”, I tell her, “we can give him a voucher to get an ID but he will have to have it in order to utilize our pharmacy’s services.” As she walked away, I began an unforgettable journey that will have a lasting impression on me for many years to come.
A bit about our pharmacy: we are a 501-c3 certified organization that operates entirely off of donations or charitable contributions. In order to maintain our license to practice, our clients must have an official OH state ID or driver’s license with them when they come to be certified or re-certified for our services. Notarized letters help to verify unemployment, income, living situations, etc., but are scarcely used as proof of identification in place of a state ID. This is a policy we follow due to how we get audited by pharmaceutical companies and the public sector, not meant to be discriminatory as much as a preventative measure.
Meet Jim. Jim is a transplant from Indiana that has been in OH for less than two weeks. He is homeless and undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction here in Cincinnati for the next 30 days, subsequently returning to his home state. As I mentioned before, he does not have an ID on him, so, theoretically, we will not be able to serve him today. I share this with Jim, and he tells me that he has to have his prescriptions today in order to stay in his program, otherwise they will send him home. We call Jim’s case manager and have a nice chat about his participation in the program and what documentation he will need in order to receive medication today. Ultimately, we decide that St. Vincent de Paul will give him a voucher to get an Ohio ID so that we can see him this afternoon and get certified.
But, we hit a roadblock. For one, Jim has no idea how the public transit system works in Cincinnati, and, more importantly, we need to verify what documentation Jim will need in order to procure an ID and what address he will be able to list as his place of residence. His case manager says that she will call me back asap. Right now it’s about 12:15 pm, so we have some time to work with here. I look up directions for the closest bus stop that will get him to the courthouse, plotting the way back as well. I try to keep him calm so that his nerves will not overwhelm him. My lunch break is shot, but I was determined that helping Jim was more important than eating my salad with Italian dressing.
So we wait. And wait. And wait. During this time, I learn a lot about Jim and his life. He shares that he is a former track and field athlete that had a state record for running a 10.8 when he was in high school. During his adult life, he has been able to travel to Colorado and visit Denver, Colorado Springs, and Pike’s Peak (still Co. Springs, but out of towners wouldn’t know that). We talk about the Broncos and Peyton Manning, the Reds, and the Bengals. For a period of about 30 minutes, I lost all sense of time while Jim and I began forming a relationship with one another. Part of the focus for our job placements is to help us understand what it means to be in solidarity with our clients. We cannot carry their burdens, but we can be present with them and provide them with resources or referrals to help alleviate the pressure of their load. “What’s your title here?”, he asked me bluntly. “Patient Advocate Specialist,” I replied, “I help people who need to utilize our pharmacy’s services to get prescriptions filled.” He seemed satisfied with the answer, but he and I both knew what he really wanted.
Bad news, and good news. Bad news is that, since he is homeless and not a permanent resident, he cannot not list any address in Cincinnati on his state ID, thus he will be unable to utilize our services at the St. Vincent de Paul Charitable Pharmacy. However, during his wait time we were able to give him a clothing voucher to redeem at one of our stores and his program was able to find medication for him to use over the next month. Both Jim and I have mixed feelings on the subject, but we take the small victory to compensate for all of that we endured together to get to this point. I share some positive words of encouragement with him, hand him my business card, and escort him to the front door of our facility.
At this time, it is 1:20 pm, and I hadn’t even started lunch. My next client is up in our que, so I spring upstairs to grab an apple to put in my system. Low and behold, it is the Pharmacy Director, just back in the building from lunch. He asks me to walk through the client’s situation, and I use the best run-on sentence I can muster. I explain how the caveat in our organization’s policy does not account for people who are homeless, transient citizens, or program participants for short periods of time in Cincinnati. He looks me in the eye and says, “Ok. I appreciate you using a high level of discernment instead of rushing to push this client through. Have him bring in his VESTA card with his picture on it, program certification, and the notarized letter. Set him up with an afternoon appointment for early next week.”
While I was scrambling back to my desk to call his case manager and set up the appointment, I reflected on what had just taken place, and smiled.
Being an “advocate” is taking a job with a title, and doing the bare minimum to support a client, cause, or purpose. To be anadvocate, requires more. It requires that one work in solidarity with their constituents or side-by-side for an individual or family. Win, lose, or draw, you fight to the end and exercise every possible avenue before throwing in the towel. It takes patience, perseverance, and compassion-which is not something everyone can provide-because if you do not go the extra mile, it is not likely anyone else will.
My heart is on fire right now as I am again coming to understand the capabilities of what is possible in the social sector. Sometimes, institutions enlist policies that are meant to discriminate against the marginalized or make it difficult for them to have access to public services that many of us have never gone without. Other times, traditional policies must be revisited to adapt them to the changing nature of the modern world.
If my experience today serves any purpose, maybe it is to show that humanity’s ability to demonstrate compassion will be the vehicle by which social obstacles are overcome in the modern world. Not new rhetoric by any means, but, today, I’m feeling a bit more optimistic about the human race.
As I discover what it means for me to be an advocate, I challenge you to do the same. What are the things you are willing to advocate for, or are you content with just being an “advocate”?
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Strolling Through the West End

I’m sure those of you that have started following this post have been wondering “Where the heck does this kid live? He says it’s in Cincinnati, but what does it look like?” Some of you may not care much, but those that do are in for a treat.

This post is going to highlight a few major landmarks in my neighborhood, as well as a virtual tour of my community. Let us begin:

Casa del VVC

This is our humble abode. Once upon a time, this used to be home for a congregation of priests or nuns that lived and worked in Cincinnati but was eventually abandoned. About four years ago, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul purchased and renovated the home from the bottom up. This 143 year-old relic has quickly welcomed us in as its newest residents.
St. Vincent de Paul
This is the place where all of the magic happens, 3 blocks away from home: 1125 Bank St. Located just off of the I-75 South highway (exit 2), the Society of St. Vincent de Paul has been operating in Cincinnati for nearly two decades. The Society itself was founded in 1833 by a man named Frederic Ozanam in Paris, France, but has since expanded its legacy to the United States and across the world. Locally, people come to us for rent or utilities assistance, obtaining prescriptions from our Charitable Pharmacy (the only one in Southwestern OH), our amazing food pantry, and other select programs or services. The organization is considering building a few additional facilities in the neighborhood, but nothing is set in stone yet.
Below is a picture of I-75, just to the west of the St. Vincent de Paul office. Back in the late 1970′s, the highway was built upon an existing neighborhood of predominately African-American citizens, displacing many from the West End into neighboring communities like Price Hill and Clifton. Many current West End residents are still quite upset about the city’s decision to erode their community in a similar manner as I-94 was built on top of the Rondo community in St. Paul, MN.
 
CityLink Center
 
Two blocks east of our home is the CityLink Center, a conglomerate of social services agencies driven to assist people in obtaining jobs, housing, legal counseling, access to transportation, and other social services. Sometimes we get client referrals from CityLink and vice-versa. They are a tremendous asset to the residents of the West End and Hamilton County.
 
Lack of Educational Capacity

Below are three pictures of Herberle Elementary School…

and one of Lafayette-Bloom Middle School below…
What do these two schools have in common? They are abandoned. Shut down. Out of commission. Rotting away. Forgotten. Over the past few decades, children from these schools have slowly been pushed out of the neighborhood to “higher performing” schools or one of Cincinnati’s many private institutions. I try to imagine what it must have been like being in a vibrant West End community with kids running around down Bank St. or across the park at the baseball field after school. Parents waiting outside of their cars for their kids or walking home from a day of learning…
Now, the only remnant of children left in the neighborhood are at King Academy Community School (below), which is right next door to our house. As you will note, the small building structure and fenced-off schoolyard are hardly the desired setting where parents would want to send their children. But, many families do not have a choice, as they cannot afford to send their kids elsewhere.
 
 
Final Thoughts
I am a subscriber of the notion that the physical assets and usage of land in a community have a strong influence on the outcomes and success of that community. Unused buildings, abandoned housing, or privately owned, underutilized spaces enervate the capacity and life that a neighborhood possesses. This once-thriving industrial district is on the verge of post-industrial extinction, but the West End’s fate is anything but incorrigible. Organizations like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and CityLink are providing much needed assistance and capacity to a neighborhood that would otherwise face the apathetic tendencies of a conservative city that is 10 years behind the rest of the world (25 according to one of my clients). There are a few advocates working to keep the community alive, but they will need more expansive support and a cogent power structure/vehicle to allow them to avert the enduring circumstances that have plagued the area for decades.
Now, I leave you to continue this virtual tour on your own. Some of the pictures might be grotesque or vivid for some people, but, to me, it tells a beautiful, captivating story. There are relics of the past still standing in tact, and glimpses of the future that have yet to fully manifest. When I see this neighborhood, I see what it once was, but also what it could be. It is an urban planner’s dream to walk down Bank St., knowing that everything, through God, is possible.

Welcome

Hello All! My name is Demar Lewis and I am currently completing a year of service in the Vincentian Volunteer Program through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (officially referred to as VVC) in Cincinnati, OH. Thus far, I am loving the experience that I am having and look forward to sharing different moments and thoughts with you over the next several months.

A bit about me: born in California, grew up in Denver, CO, and attended college at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. After graduating from St. Thomas in 2011, I spent a short time doing some consulting with an engineering company in Montreal and then began working full time at General Electric-Aviation in their Financial Management Program. During this time, I realized that the environment in Corporate America was not the kind of environment I wanted to spend the rest of my life in. Though I was well-compensated in monetary terms, I was starving spiritually and yearned for a professional opportunity that would give me a chance to work with people directly and have a valuable impact. Thus, I left GE at the end of January 2013 to take control of my life and strike out for new endeavors. Prior to leaving GE, I had been volunteering with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul through my church locally in Cincinnati, and it was the best 2.5-3 hours of my week. After leaving, it occurred to me that I should see if there were any year of service or fellowship programs that were sponsored by the organization locally to explore personal, professional, and spiritual interests in a new setting. Lucky for me there was, and the rest is history.

Life is an adventure that often catches us by surprise. In some moments, we feel like we are in control of everything, and in others, God demonstrates to us who really has the final say. Do not be afraid by this. It is alright to go against the grain of society and pursue opportunities like a year of service with VVC because you are striving to preserve your personal welfare and discover your professional vocation. Never be afraid to follow your heart and live your dreams, as you only have this one life to live…might as well be happy along the way, right?

I hope that you find this introduction somewhat useful. Moving forward I will try and update this blog a few times a month, but please feel free to contact me directly with questions or suggestions for topics that are of interest to you. My email is dflewis05@gmail.com.

Happy Holidays & God Bless!

~Demar

Stand by me.

It feels good to be connected again with the rest of the world! My laptop finally died, so I went a couple weeks unplugged from a personal computer. In that time I went to the Cincinnati Main Public Library, received a library card for the first time in about 16 years and checkout 3 books: one about love, one about Jesus, and the last about food. I’m a sucker for an old library book – love the smell! (Any Carrie Bradshaw fans who can cite my quote? ;D)

I have had a busy past couple of weeks, though. I have just adopted the Mattress Program Coordination from a lady who worked the interim before my hire and when I felt ready to take on the workload. One of the great things St. Vincent  de Paul does, among many, is to use the fund donated by the late sponsors Bob & Sylvia Rahe toward new mattresses for families who desperately need them. For those who don’t know, bed bugs are real, will definitely bite you, and will basically wreak havoc and hell on your life if they snuggle into your mattress. If found, all of the furniture needs to be thrown away, and clothes need to be blasted in the drier on high heat. In our first week of living here we got to experience it first hand. Because of this city-wide infestation, too many people are left sleeping on couches, floors, plywood pallets, etc. Our office can give away 10 beds per month, and each of the 57 St. Vincent de Paul conferences can get 4 per month. I am in charge of coordinating all of those requests, and mailing out vouchers to the individuals requesting a new resting pad. Its a wonderful but very busy part of my job! Still trying to find the line between busy and productive, to overwhelmed. 

 

“I see trees of green, 
red roses too. 
I see them bloom, 
for me and you. 
And I think to myself,
what a wonderful world.” 
“I see skies of blue,  And clouds of white.  The bright blessed day, The dark sacred night.
And I think to myself,  What a wonderful world.”

“The colors of the rainbow, so pretty in the sky; are also on the faces, of people goin by. I see friends shaking hands sayin’ how do ya do? they’re really saying I love you”

 

 

“I hear babies cry,  I watch them grow,  They’ll learn much more, Than I’ll ever know.  And I think to myself,  What a wonderful world.”
“Yes I think to myself, what a wonderful world.”

All of these photos were taken within  a couple blocks of my house. We get lots of comments like, “you know you live in the hood right?” yeah to you. But there’s perseverance, resilience, faith,  here. I am inspired by my neighbors, and am holding the relationships I am making with my clients close and dear to my heart. This is my home now too, and I plan on defending and cherishing it as long as I am here.

The spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captive and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed. Luke 4:18

The scripture from Luke above popped on my computers lock screen via my Windows app that shares scriptures daily. I thought it was too fitting to not share.

As I say goodnight for a week or so, I want to ask – who do you Stand by? Who might need you to stand by them? Solidarity is a deeply powerful tool that can move mountains.

Peace and Blessings to everybody!

With love,

Mary

***Quotes under pictures are lyrics to Louis E. Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World”***

Polishing Diamonds

What a whirlwind the past couple of weeks have been! After spending time at home with family, I traveled southeast with my mom and about a third of my belongings (we are asked to “live simply” this year) and landed in The Queen City. I moved into the Vincentian Volunteer community house on August 25th, and welcomed my two housemates, Rob and Demar- my fellow Vincentian Volunteers to the beautiful abode that was built in 1870.

We had a very short time to settle into our rooms and pack a bag before heading out to our orientation, which is taking place at Mount St. Joseph Monastery – Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati Motherhouse.

This beautiful expansive building and land are on the west side of the city, tucked away in a quiet serene and sacred corner. It is here where we are engaging with our program director and sharing our stories, learning about each others faith journey’s, discussing what it means to live in an intentional community, and how to see the face of Christ in the people we will be serving.

During this retreat we have covered a range of topics, but today we focused on poverty. What it means to be in poverty and what are certain hidden rules for those in poverty, in the middle class and in the upper class.  We literally live a block up from the St.Vincent de Paul office and thus will live out the mission of “neighbors serving neighbors” in our year of service work. About 30% of the buildings in our neighborhood are abandoned. It is very much a food desert in that there is no close grocery store,  no laundromat or other places of service that most of us take for granted. One of the pillars for this year is living in solidarity with the community; loving our neighbors like they deserve to be loved, and by living a life that is rid of many “luxuries” of life (cable tv, cars, and a salary income – we will be utilizing SNAP food benefits for food). To some this may seem like a task that is not to be desired, but I see it as a privilege and a gift. How unique of an opportunity I (and Rob and Demar) are given to walk in the footsteps of those like millions of others in our country who have perhaps fallen off a track they were on before, or who have been in poverty for multiple generations… As Vincentian Volunteers we will be empathetic and enjoy the gifts that our neighbors will undoubtedly bestow upon us over the next 11 months.

The Society of St. Vincent de Paul (svdpcincinnati.org) is a highly respected nonprofit that thousands of West End friends visit throughout the year needing everything from food from our pantry, bus tokens, a prescription we might have, help with groceries or paying off an energy bill, but we (Rob, Demar and I) are learning that more often than not our neighbors may simply need a listening ear and an eager heart to help. We haven’t fully been introduced to our positions yet, but we are all anxious to start seeing faces at our job that will be engraved in our hearts forever. When the days are trying and we may not be able to give someone the help they need, or when we simply are having a bad day, we are all looking forward to relying on each other as an intentional supportive community and the staff at SVDP to give us spiritual, emotional, and mental guidance.

 Now to throw some stats at you: the city’s overall poverty rate is a shocking 30.6%. Of that, 48%  are children. Cincinnati is topped only by Detroit and Cleveland which have 53.6% and 52.6% of their cities percentage of children in poverty, respectively.  Yes, every city has its areas of need, but I have been challenged this week by how there are so many Fortune 1000 companies located here (Kroger, Proctor & Gamble, and Macy’s to name a few) and yet 3 blocks down from them there are neighbors who need help desperately. I am finding hope in places like St. Vincent de Paul and other nonprofits who do house visits and foster relationships with the West End folks to bring humanity back to an area that just needs a bit more love.

The second day of our retreat we did a lot of focus on faith and how God is going to be a significant part of our daily life working with our clients. We had a 3 hour silent retreat where we took the time to do what our heart, mind, and soul needed. For me, it was taking a walk on the grounds of the Monastery – finding God in many places in nature and taking the time to conversate and listen internally. One profound moment for me was when I was sitting on a bench out on the grounds and a 4 inch long grasshopper landed a couple feet away from me. At the time, I was focusing my thoughts on my journey and decision to take a year of service here in Cincinnati and how it was very much a leap of faith for me to do something that -quite honestly- intimidated me upon knowledge of what the year was about. I saw that grasshopper as an affirmation of my decision to be here. To jumpstart this new journey with God in a Catholic-Vincentian organization even though I was brought up in a liberal progressive Congregational church. To live simply in solidarity with a community that is often faceless to the rest of the nation. That taking a leap of faith would land me in a place that is safe and supportive. I could not feel more at peace, blessed, and ready to start this new adventure.

From the words of one of our neighbors:

Be Kind.

Namaste,

Mary

Numbers/statistics shared from:

http://wordpress-uploads.seiumedia.net/81-3B89A640-4621-StateOfOurDowntown.pdf

Pictures were taken from Google images.