October 26, 2007

Rewarding Experiences

Posted in Community Education at 9: 27 am by MK

Being a community educator is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had. Last night’s experience teaching at the homeless shelter was both humbling and encouraging. There were 12 people in my class, all from diverse backgrounds. No one was required to attend so the folks that did were (for the most part) interested in what I was saying. Hopefully, I reached at least one person.

The shelter is beautiful. Just two-years-old it is modern, bright, and clean. The program manager seems like a good guy, and has a really nice relationship with the clients. The shelter has thirty beds and once you move in you stay as long as you need. Quite different from some of the 30-day stay places. The staff get to build relationships with the clients, and really help them get back on their feet, find a job, and a home. As as the program manager said to me, “There are a lot of misconceptions about homeless people. Trust me, we’ve had the best and brightest walk through these doors.”

Homeless shelters are always in need of volunteers.  If you can, seek out a shelter in your area and spend a couple hours a week helping out.  I know that shelters have a downside, I’m not trying to minimize that.  However, if you spend time in one I know you’ll find something positive, and when you do that’s what you’ll remember.

October 25, 2007

Homeless Shelters

Posted in Community Education at 3: 29 pm by MK

So I find it interesting that I just finished reading Jennifer Toth’s Mole People, and I’m teaching tonight at a homeless shelter. I have to say that Toth’s book absolutely intrigued me; I couldn’t put it down. I’ll admit that I don’t think it was very well written, and after doing a little research I’m also aware of the controversy surrounding it. But before all that . . .

Mole People was published in 1993, written by Toth who was a then intern with the L.A. Times. She investigates the urban legend of thousands of people living below the streets of New York City. Yes, that’s right, below the streets: in the vast layers of subway tunnels, enclosed waiting rooms, and abandoned storage spaces. While many of the homeless living in these tunnels are alone, Toth finds that there are full-fledge communities of upwards to 200 people who have joined together to live. Some have elected “mayors,” and designated “runners” to provide supplies from aboveground. Some of these communities have electricity, and one in particular had rooms set up, a working shower, kitchen, and exercise room. Sounds pretty incredible right?

Some have discounted much of what Toth has written citing inaccurate setting descriptions in her book and other stories fact checkers have proved wrong. Maybe she embellished things, but why wouldn’t the homeless in NYC have escaped downwards? The tunnels provide warmth and perhaps a bit more (although not much more) protection and safety than some of the aboveground shelters. As Toth was writing, she estimated that there were 5,000 people living below Manhattan. I also read that in the early 2000s the NYPD launched a major initiative to drive people aboveground, so I don’t know what the numbers of NYC below-the-earth-dwellers would be today.

Toth spent a year of her life researching this book. At times she definitely provides hints that she got a bit too close to the people she met, trying to save them and often putting herself in dangerous settings. I just can’t believe that she made most of it up–it’s far too compelling to simply be imagined.

Not that my research project is dangerous or involves the craziness of Toth’s, but it was interesting to read about her experiences and think about them in light of mine. I also took note during her sections on the dangerous nature of homeless shelters. I don’t live in NYC, and I really don’t think I’m going to have any problems tonight, but it’s something to file away in the back of my mind.

And what am I teaching? Tonight it’s a basic money management class on how to make a spending plan/family budget, and how to set financial goals and reach them. Aside from volunteering at a soup kitchen a couple times, this will be the first time I’ve gone into a homeless shelter. I’m excited: this is exactly the population this workshop was designed for. Hopefully it will all go smoothly . . .

October 13, 2007

Nutritional Dinner

Posted in Community Education at 3: 06 pm by MK

Tomorrow I’ve been asked to pick up A. & K. along with at least one adult family member of a Burmese refugee family living in the apartment next door and drive them to a class (and dinner) on good family nutrition.

Of course I plan on taking them; the nutrition class and accompanying dinner will be a good experience for them.  My concerns?  Well:

1.  The volunteer coordinator that asked me to do this didn’t sound 100% sure that they knew I’d be coming.  I guess they have been told about this, but might not remember that it is tomorrow night.

2. Only the parents are invited.  The children must stay behind and be watched by either the neighbor family or the men (also Burmese refugees) that live downstairs.  I don’t know how well this is going to go over.  The one-year-old is pretty attached to K., and I can’t see her just leaving him.  I was also specifically told to encourage K. to go to the dinner.

How am I going to communicate all of this?  And will the children feel comfortable being left behind?

Until tomorrow . . .

October 9, 2007

Job meets study

Posted in Community Education, English as a second language at 7: 30 pm by MK

One of the workshops I teach for Cornell U. Cooperative Extension (CCE) is a basic money management class.  I teach adults how to create a family spending plan, including how to create a budget, track spending, and reduce household expenses.  I work off a curriculum that was developed by the experts at Cornell University.  Of course this curriculum occasionally needs to be massaged to meet the goals of the group I’m teaching.  And today, this couldn’t have been more true.

I taught the workshop today to 15 people referred to me by the U.S. Committee of Immigrants & Refugees (USCRI).  As they came into the library where I was holding class, I realized that three of them had once sat around the table at A. & K.’s house as I taught English lessons.  It was great to see them, and I think they were happy to see a familiar face.  But I also quickly realized that the English literacy level of the group was quite low–it was going to be a very different kind of class.

Two translators from USCRI came with the group:  yes that’s right, I said two.  One woman translated what I was saying into Burmese.  Another woman then translated the Burmese into the “old language.”  Well that’s what I was told; I’m assuming it is another less-common dialect.  One of the translators informed me that the group had been in the U.S. for three months or less, and all were currently living on public assistance.  I quickly shifted gears and brought the level of the material down to a level that, I felt, would be most useful for them.  For example, we talked about what a credit card is before we talked about the pitfalls of credit card debt.  We talked about how to best use a food stamp allowance.  We talked about the expenses they will be responsible for once they are working and earning a living, and the pitfalls that can take their finances in the wrong direction.

It actually was a great class.  I’m sure it was a lot of information for them to digest, but they might as well begin to learn about the dangers of credit cards and Rent-to-Own now, before they get the applications/flyers in the mail.

I plan on doing more workshops with this group and other groups USCRI sends my way.  Next time I’ll be more comfortable knowing what parts of the class I need to focus on and what parts may not be relevant.  Time is also a large consideration.  With two translators, it takes a while to get through the material.  And much more time needs to be allowed for the group to fill in the sign-in sheet (we ask for name, address, phone number, local power provider and county of residence) and a student profile to be filled out anonymously with income levels, age, and ethnicity questions.  Most of the students needed one-on-one help in filling out the forms.  But I actually think this is good for them.  The more times they see Name, Address, Phone Number on a form, the more times they’ll recognize what they need to write.

Again, I was teaching money management and they were learning that and a lot more.