Coming Full Circle: the road to recovery.

On February 9th, at 2:30 pm, I woke up in my car. I had blacked out on impact from an automobile accident while driving my son home from sledding. That day I woke up to a completely different world—a world that was not accessible. Three vertebrae in my neck had been damaged, a disc in my back was bulged, my femur was broken, and my acetabulum (what holds the ball of my hip in place) was broken all the way through. My son suffered wounds to his face from the broken windshield. All I could do was be still—I couldn’t even put weight on the left side of my body. Everything had changed.

I was confined to a wheelchair. My son and I moved back into my mother’s. It was hard to not be able to take care of my son, to bathe or cook for him, but it was being unable to keep up with him that was heartbreaking. I missed his Valentine’s Day party at school, which would have been fun for both of us (I’m studying to be a teacher, and practicing teaching craft lessons with the kids is good for my career goals). That was one of the many things I missed out on while recovering. I also lost a semester of school because hardly any buildings on my campus are handicap accessible.

As the weather got nicer, my son wanted to be outside more. We tried to take walks around the block. I wouldn’t think that rolling around the block would be difficult, but I was wrong. Tree roots, uneven sidewalks, and missing ramps made it nearly impossible to get around. It was very painful to try to navigate around a once-familiar neighborhood. Aside from the terrible pain I felt in my arms from trying to move the wheels, I felt the struggle of trying to keep up with my son.

It made me think about my experiences from Summer when I went with clients of PARC (now known as EP!C) and how wonderful it was to have a place that allowed individuals with disabilities to access nature. For 11 years, Camp Big Sky, a nonprofit organization, has been providing opportunities like fishing tournaments and camping.

On a Thursday morning, Phoebe Johnson brought the bus around and the two of us worked together to board three individuals from EP!C. Every other Thursday clients from EP!C get a chance to go visit Camp Big Sky. After seat belts were fastened and a walker was secure, we took off to Fairview, IL, to enjoy an afternoon of boating and hay rack riding. Sometimes, dependent upon the client, weather, and timeframe, clients would drop a cane pole into the water in the hopes of catching one of the bluegill that linger around the dock.

The route to camp cuts through memories of my childhood. We pass through Farmington, IL, on the main drag in which takes you downtown. I saw the Wareco gas station that I would visit for a cool drink or sugary snack, now all tattered and closed to the public. Right across the street was the doctor’s office I went to throughout my childhood. After we passed downtown, the terrain gets very hilly and you’d think we had found a portal to Vermont. However, we just found a place that the glaciers haven’t completely flattened when the terrain in Illinois was being formed. Clients looked at me, unsure of the shaking and the dips we experienced and I smiled with reassurance and clapped, pretending we were on a wooden coaster at Six Flags. In turn, they smiled and cheered back.

The view is very pleasant seeing ancient blue International Harvester corn bins, big red barns, Swedish quilt-like crests on buildings, and bodies of water. Phoebe made the final turn onto the white gravel road meeting the gate with a bleached bone white cow skull and sign declaring that this was Camp Big Sky. Our bus cleared a drastic hill to the top to where all the volunteers were waiting.

The fun began there. After unloading and slabbing on sunblock, we enjoyed a beautiful day at camp. A red-wing blackbird sang in a barren tree with a glimpse of the moon behind it. Aboard the pontoon, clients were thrilled to see a herd of cows run down to the strip mine lake and playfully moo and swim. We were joined by volunteers who attended a ten week training program, some of them clients from EP!C. One of the volunteer playfully suggested that the craft be dubbed the Burger Barge.

Seated on the hydraulic hay rack ride, I felt like I was transferred back into a time where Illinois hadn’t been settled. Long grass and clovers waved in the wind. An aerial view of the lake could be seen from our seats. Dragonflies of multiple colors could be spotted. The skies really were big and Kool Aid blue. Although bumpy and jolting, we all could have been seated in a covered wagon discovering the ground of the Camp for the first time. I think we all felt as free as the hawk that was flying high above these plains that day.

Although I am no longer in a wheel chair, I appreciate this place and am happy for its existence. I am happy that the client that is in a wheel chair could stroll with me in the tall prairie grass by means of a hayrack ride. I think of how difficult it was for me to go around my mother’s neighborhood and how I was alienated from my own school, and yet there is a place designated for all people to experience nature at no cost to them. I think of all the different people that the camp encompasses and the smiles and memories that come from pulling up a cane pole with a fish on it, or coasting down the lake by the breeze. I intend to take my son out there to enjoy its healing qualities that come from being out there. He is on the autistic spectrum and the owner has invited me to bring him out.

Camp Big Sky is open Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays (with additional days if needed). American Veterans are also welcome to experience the healing quality that recreation and nature can bring. More about the camp can be found at http://www.campbigsky.org.

 

The Lee's Landing dock at Bruce Lake.

The Lee’s Landing dock at Bruce Lake.

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We’re Back!

After 6 months of hard work, we’ve officially closed the Washington Tornado Relief Center. It’s a bittersweet feeling; while we’re thrilled to see people back on their feet, we’ll also miss all the wonderful volunteers and neighbors we’ve met. There’s too much to say about this experience for one post, so for now I’ll stick to the facts:

1. The WTRC was open from November 18th, 2013- May 10th, 2014.

2. During those 6 months we had countless volunteers (and by “countless” I mean, “we’re still counting them!”) who logged over 5000 hours of service time.

3. There were days when we had over 100 people come to the store for help.

4. We worked with many local (and not-so-local) organizations to find, receive, coordinate, and give out thousands of donations.

5. We filled 3 stores at the Washington Plaza in Sunnyland, plus 4 or 5 warehouses, with donations.

6. People from as far away as North Carolina and New Jersey traveled to the WTRC to volunteer with us.

7. AmeriCorps St. Louis came to Washington immediately after the tornadoes to take over the phone/volunteer coordination for us–and they were fantastic!

8. The Salvation Army and Red Cross brought hot food and drinks to us so we could feed our volunteers (and ourselves!) for several days.  The Red Cross continued to bring us hot chocolate and coffee all through the record-breaking cold this winter.

9. There were lots of tears–at first, tears of sadness and shock; but then, tears of happiness and relief as people started to put their lives back together.

10. We celebrated 3 major holidays at the Center–Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. They might be some of the most memorable -and meaningful- holidays we’ll ever celebrate.

 

So, the WTRC is closed.  We’re still helping to make sure the remaining donations (mostly water, perfect for the hot summer coming up) gets to those in need, but we’re no longer in Washington daily.  The people we met, the stories we heard, and the volunteers who gave so much to help those in need will always stay with us, though.  They’ve become a part of our program, a part of our community, and a part of our lives.  And we’ll always be grateful for the opportunity to be part of their story.  We’re sure, no matter what, they’ll stay Washington Strong!

 

 

.Washington AmeriCorps

More on Keepsacks.

Keepsacks

As Becca said in yesterday’s post, our annual Keepsacks for Kids project is coming up quickly.  Now that we’ve started some of our new members (and brought back a few of our old ones) we’re gearing up for this awesome event. Since Becca explained the project already, I’ll just add our request for donations and help with hygiene kits.

Ideally, our hygiene kits will be specialized by age and sex. Our wish list for each hygiene kit includes shampoo/conditioner, liquid body wash, razors and shaving cream for adults, deodorant, hair brush/comb, lotion, face/body wipes, toothbrush, toothpaste, floss, mouthwash, wash cloth or hand towel, bandages, antibiotic ointment, cotton balls, tissues, pads and tampons for adult women, and hand sanitizer. Since donations and money are scarce, we know that we should have realistic expectations.  Our most-needed items are listed in the graphic above, but we’ll happily accept any donations that come our way.  We ask that items be unopened or unused, especially if they are hotel-sized travel items.  Things that are individually packaged are best, but items in bulk that can’t be separated are always useful for large families or agencies that cater to many people.

 

We’d love for you to be a part in our Keepsacks for Kids project. On behalf of the hundreds of people who will receive a warm blanket and a hygiene kit this winter, THANK YOU!

Views from the Conference

Some more pictures from the 2013 National Conference on Volunteering and Service in Washington DC.

Becca, Shaquita, and Kiona participating in a service project at the conference.

Becca, Shaquita, and Kiona participating in a service project at the conference.

Shaquita working hard.

Shaquita working hard.

A few of the supplies put together by the volunteers at the conference.

A few of the supplies put together by the volunteers at the conference.

Our fearless leader posing with the "AmeriCorpse."

Our fearless leader posing with the “AmeriCorpse.”

Meet the Members: Gerald

Time for another segment of Meet the Members.  Introducing…Gerald!

Gerald.

Gerald.

Hi my name is Gerald and I have been working with the AmeriCorps team for 9 or 10 months. We have been working on community projects and doing things to help the East Bluff neighborhood out with some of the projects. The AmeriCorps team is dedicated to help out the people that have been down and out or that live in houses that needed fixed up. We help out at the Dream Center, Neighborhood house, and a lot of non-profits in the Peoria area. AmeriCorps is a great opportunity for people to learn job skills and gain job experience for the jobs that they want to apply for in the future. It gives you knowledge on things that you want to know or haven’t learned yet for the people that don’t have jobs that want a job. The AmeriCorps team is happy to help the people that don’t have job because they offer a whole lot that I wouldn’t pass up and I would actually like to do it all again because it was a fun ride here with the AmeriCorps team. The people that I have worked with have good personalities. The person that I worked with the most while I was here would be Natalie and she is very good to get along with and when you’re having a bad you can always go to her and talk to her.  When you are feeling down she is the best person to go to that can cheer you up. It’s been one heck of a ride for me and I would like to do it over again.

Not quite ready for the shot.

Not quite ready for the shot.

A quote, and a challenge.

Hello, readers. It’s mid-summer, and since things are (kind of) quiet around here, I figured I’d give you something to do.  First, I’d like to share a quote I recently came across from Jane Addams’ Twenty Years at Hull House.

I dreamed night after night that every one in the world was dead excepting myself, and that upon me rested the responsibility of making a wagon wheel. The village street remained as usual, the village blacksmith shop was “all there,” even a glowing fire upon the forge and the anvil in its customary place near the door, but no human being was within sight…

I always stood in the same spot in the blacksmith shop, darkly pondering as to how to begin, and never once did I know how, although I fully realized that the affairs of the world could not be resumed until at least one wheel should be made and something started. Every victim of nightmare is, I imagine, overwhelmed by an excessive sense of responsibility and the consciousness of a fearful handicap in the effort to perform what is required…

Jane Addams, looking dapper and philosophical.

Jane Addams, looking dapper and philosophical.

Something about this particular quote stood out to me (though the entire book, and anything by or about Jane Addams, is definitely worth a read).  I think it resonated particularly clearly because I, and I’m sure anyone who has ever done service work, know that feeling well.  The feeling of sensing just how large the task before you is, and having not a clue how to go about solving it.  It can be overwhelming to look at something like poverty, or hunger, and feel that you could never hope to be more than a ‘drop in the ocean’ against it.

Even a small project can feel daunting when you’re staring it in the face.  Last weekend, a member and I showed up at an East Bluff home armed with a plastic trowel, a rake, and a pair of gloves between the two of us,  having been unable to round up any other members or tools.  The yard we were scheduled to work in was overgrown, with weeds, saplings, rogue flowers, overhanging tree limbs, thorny plants…and me with a Dollar Store trowel. I felt a lot like Addams described above: overwhelmed, under-prepared, but heavy with the knowledge that it was up to me to get this done–alone.

Luckily for us, we weren’t alone.  A community member had answered our call, and she walked over with tools and (more importantly) first-hand experience with gardening.  Then, another member brought more tools and more knowledge, and with some teamwork we were able to fill two bins, four yard waste bags, and several bundles.  We cleared the yard, pruned the bushes, transplanted flowers, cut down invasive plants, and even took down a tree limb or two.  Together, we were able to complete the task that had been so overwhelming to one or two members.  And together, even the big problems like hunger and poverty can be solved.

I’d encourage anyone who’s interested in service work to reach out.  Talk to your friends and family, join a group (like AmeriCorps), or start your own service group…or, hey, start a blog! The important thing is not to get overwhelmed by the big problems, and one of the best ways to do that is to take them on little by little, and together.

On that note, I came across a local initiative to recognize and encourage service in Peoria: WWCT’s Neighborhood Heroes campaign.  You can nominate someone who does work in and around Peoria who will be recognized by the radio station and Central Illinois Bank.  It’s always nice to be recognized.  If you see someone doing good things, reach out.  Whether through a nomination or a simple “thank you,” it’s another way we can work together to Get Things Done.

A Quick Trip to Washington DC

This past week, three of the AmeriCorps members plus our leader, Julie, took a trip to Washington DC for the Conference on Volunteering and National Service.  Shaquita, Kiona, Rebecca, and Julie spent the four days in and out of different sessions, meeting new people, and coming up with new ways to help in our community.

Shaquita focused on Military sessions due to her husband’s involvement with the Army.  She also took some financial classes and learned many ways to become involved in the military without actually being in it.  With the sessions she took she has many new ideas for what to bring into her community.

Kiona took many different classes, some to do with Education, one to deal with conflict in the workplace, and many other sessions that filled her with ideas to help those in need in her home area.  Many ideas will help low income families with saving money.

Rebecca bounced from topics, such as education, to social innovation, to start ups, and communication.  She has set new goals for herself as an AmeriCorps member and is hoping to implement them in her next term.

The girls had the chance to network with many people, such as those from Target, Chase, Starbucks, and many others.  The three of them have come back ready to take on their community with fresh ideas and the contacts to help them do so.

Their next project will be gardening in parts of the neighborhood behind the Children’s Home around Bernard Hall.  This will start in early July.  Also, while doing this Shaquita and Kiona have been busy at Good Begginnings and South Side Mission helping with lots and lots of children.

Have a safe and great Summer!

 

Kiona, Shaquita, and Rebecca representing Illinois at the World War Two Memorial

Kiona, Shaquita, and Rebecca representing Illinois at the World War Two Memorial

service project

Rebecca, Shaquita, Julie, and Kiona help bag 100,000 bags of food for their second service project of the day!

target

Shaquita, Rebecca, and Kiona celebrate their hard work at the Target Sunday Supper

wendy

After the closing plenary, the girls pose with Wendy, an advocate for AmeriCorps

white house

Kiona, Rebecca, and Shaquita pose in front of the White House