Sunday, January 15, 2012

First Two Days in West End

Well, the WWE troops have had two crazy but fantastic days learning about the West End area. We have had the privilege of talking to so many amazing community leaders and people doing great things in the West End area, and we have gotten a chance to dive in, see some of the issues in the area, and put our hands to good use!
After our weekend retreat, we arrived Monday morning at Urban Ministries (UM) to learn about all of the programs going on there. We met with Dorothiann, the new director at Urban Kids, an afterschool and summer program for children. There are approximately 30 students enrolled in the program, designed to enrich reading and math skills, provide children a context to practice their social skills, give them a safe atmosphere, and present them the opportunity to take field trips in the area. The program is completely free and also provides kids with one on one time with tutors and healthy snacks. Many children come from large families, but with an abundance of volunteers at Urban Kids, there is anywhere from a 1:3 to 1:5 volunteer to student ratio. There is a true emphasis on care at Urban Kids, and Dorothiann and the volunteers all care for the kids’ emotional health, physical health, and safety.
We also learned about one of UM’s newer programs: social work for the elderly. Georgia has around 60 clients, mostly over the age of 60 who she helps with finances, doctor’s appointments, etc. She helps with a weatherizing program for homes, which helps lower gas and electricity bills for the clients. UM also runs a community kitchen out of their building, where Ms. Bell cooks and serves a free lunch every weekday at noon. The meal is free, and since many of the residents in the area are at risk for homelessness, this meal makes a difference for them. Several of us got the opportunity to serve a delicious lunch of chicken and noodles, green beans, delicious breads, and cookies. They also have a fully stocked food pantry for residents, and donated bread is available for them to take with them as they leave.
For our hands-on project, the WWE group decided to revamp the Urban Kids’ library, including reorganizing, repainting, and deep cleaning the room. We began by pulling out all of the books and shelves, taking some time to reminisce about our favorite childhood books!
We also got a chance to talk to Gary, a Birmingham-Southern College senior who works part time at Urban Kids. He shared with us his story growing up in Birmingham and talked about the struggles of the area school systems and the problems he faced as he went through it. Gary, like a small percentage of the students, was once offered a chance to attend a school better equipped to help him succeed, however transportation issues arose. The morning commute would be at least an hour and was unfeasible for his parents. This situation is not uncommon, and a lack of transportation spoils a possibility that could improve the quality of education for many kids in West End. Many working parents cannot afford to take the time to drive across town, many busses do not exist, and the public transportation in Birmingham is pitiful.
Tuesday morning the group arrived at UM and split into two groups for work projects throughout the morning and afternoon. One group began on-site training learning how to weatherize a client’s house, while the other group stayed at UM to paint the library walls, floor, and bookshelves.
Dr. Tatter, Becky, Anna, Julian, and I went with UM’s two social workers to one of their client’s homes. Many residents living in low-income housing are faced with gas and electric bills that may triple in the winter, and many like the lady we visited had her gas disconnected and was heating the house using her stove and oven. Some of the doors did not seal tightly and windows were letting in cool air. To decrease the bills and retain heat in the house, people can weatherize their homes. UM’s clients are elderly, and it is seemingly impossible for them to weatherize their house on their own, since it requires getting on ladders to measure windows, cutting large sheets of plastic, taping the sheets tight around the windows, and lining doors to further insulate the space. In addition, many of these tasks we did were made easy with the help of others. What took seven of us to do would take forever for an elderly resident to do on their own or even with the help of family members.
Meanwhile, Jackie, Lindsay, Lauren, Jarrett, and Rachel made incredible progress on painting the bookshelves for the Urban Kids’ library, simultaneously jammin’ to some N’Sync. The walls and floor have been completely repainted and the shelving units are well on their way!
As a whole group we also got to meet with Jeff, one of the social workers at UM, who works with a program called HPRP, Homeless Prevention and Rapid Rehousing which was funded to help people who have lost a job from a layoff or pay reduction maintain their housing situation or help them get into emergency, temporary, or transitional housing. We also got to speak with Nathan who works with HMIS, homeless management information system. They are in the process of issuing Continuum of Care (COC) cards for the men and women that come into the community kitchen on a daily basis. This card makes it easy for people to come and get a meal without having to fill out their personal information every time. Also with this card, people are able to go to other community soup kitchens, check in at the Salvation Army, and go to Cooper Green to get a blue card for health care. This also gives them a form of photo identification, which many may not have. Their information will remain in the system, and they’ll be able to simply scan their card and get a meal. This service is also important for governmental funding and enables institutions to get a better idea of the population they are serving so they can better resolve their problems. After we learned about the program, we got a chance to sit down with people as they came in for lunch to get them signed up for a COC card. They filled out a simple form regarding their basic information and housing and job situations, and within 3 minutes, they had a form of photo identification!
Several long days later, I know we are all so much more educated about the problems that face those in poverty: affordable housing, transportation, education, and health. We have also come to see the community here in West End and the deep care that people share for one another. It’s inspiring to see the strength of the people in these undeserving circumstances, and I’ve loved every minute of conversation I’ve had with the people of West End.  
I’m blessed to working and learning alongside such easy-going and talented students, and we have so much left to learn about West End, poverty, and our place in it all. Looking forward to the challenges, successes, and conversations that are to come the rest of this week!
Forward, ever! 

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