You Can Take the Boy Out of the Caribbean…,
August 15, 2008 Leave a comment
-Tom Jacobs, RPCV, Eastern Caribbean
Common location is a powerful connection.
I was talking to a kid and found out he was from Grenada. “Eh, eh! Yuh from Grenada? What yuh surname?” He told me. “Yuh not from Grenada. Ah know ever surname in Grenada and dat not Grenadian.” He explained his father is from St. Vincent, where his surname originates; his mother is from Grenada. He tells me his mother’s maiden name. “Oh ho! Yuh from Mt. Airy!”
When he recovered from the shock of this strange white guy in New York City connecting his mother’s family name with a tiny village on a small Caribbean island, we engaged in a lively conversation reminiscing about Grand Anse Beach, the Grand Etang reserve, breadfruit, mango, bus rides, and where you can get the best oildown in Brooklyn.
Connection is critical to the work I am now doing. I have exactly 30 days to make a connection, convince a kid I am working in his best interests, and help him find a life off the streets. For approximately one-third of my kids, I rely heavily on my experience in the Caribbean to make that connection. I never would have guessed that my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer serving in the Eastern Caribbean would provide me with the knowledge to serve more effectively as a Covenant House Faith Community volunteer in New York City.
Upon the close of my service at the end of August 2007 and before returning to my career as a teacher, I wanted to do something with less responsibility but just as much impact, something as bold and brilliant as Peace Corps, but within the context of US culture. I, also, did not want to be burdened by the details of daily living, such things as housing, insurance, transportation expenses, and the like. Good luck finding something like that, right? Unfortunately, I would not describe the program I found as “lucky.” It is the largest agency in the Americas providing direct services to the most unlucky population among us, discarded children.
Covenant House was founded in New York City in 1972 by a Franciscan priest challenged by a student to practice what he preached. Moving into the raunchiest part of Manhattan, Father Bruce Ritter discovered a population of discarded and exploited children. His initial effort resulted in an organization that provides emergency services and shelter to homeless youth in 21 cities throughout six countries. Faith Community is a program within Covenant House that invites qualified adults to live in community while volunteering full-time at one of the sites in New York City, Atlantic City, or Fort Lauderdale. Four months after COSing, I was living with four other Faith Community volunteers in New York City serving as a Resident Advisor (RA) for the older males crisis unit. Similar to Peace Corps, Covenant House is committed to serving in the capacity needed by local populations; therefore, the programs in the 21 different sites vary. Covenant House in New York is one of the largest of the 21 agencies providing 30-day crisis shelters for older males (18-21 years), older females, minors (younger than 18 years), and mothers with children, transitional living programs for older males, older females, and mothers with children, as well as drop-in and regional training centers in the outer boroughs of New York City. A Faith Community volunteer agrees to serve wherever and in whatever capacity needed. While it was not my first choice, it was my fortune to be placed in the older males crisis unit.
The focus of our 30-day crisis shelter is to find someplace better for the young men to be. Family reunification is our first choice, though rarely a feasible option as the youth typically have excellent reasons why they would be better off outside of the family home. The most frequent placement is into a transitional living program, one of which is also operated by Covenant House. But unlike the crisis shelter that has an open-door policy, transitional living programs usually have stringent criteria for admission, the least of which being valid identification, and employment is preferred. A qualified and highly educated adult would be pressed to obtain all forms of identification (Did you know that you cannot get any form of identification if you do not have any form of identification?) and a job within a 30-day time frame. Yet, this is our goal for our kids. As an RA, I am responsible for everything from meeting the basic needs of our clients (e.g., clean linens, snacks, medications) to advocating for their admission into more stable housing. It would not be so daunting a task if our census were not as high as 60, 65, sometimes 70 plus youth.
Approximately fifteen staff members are responsible for the shelter 24/7, and even though we are split into three teams responsible for the case management of approximately 20 clients each, when it really matters, every staff is responsible for every client, which gives me the opportunity to serve where I am most capable. While there is no single factor responsible for the homelessness of the majority of our kids, there are factors shared by large minorities of our population. We are better service providers when we, as service providers, are able to understand the youths’ perspectives from one or more of these factors. For example, it probably, sadly, comes as no surprise to learn that a significant percentage, perhaps as high as 20-25%, of our clients are gay, bisexual, or transgender, and that many of these are homeless because of their families and communities lack of acceptance of their sexual orientation or gender identify. My effectiveness as a service provider increases in regard to this population simply because I share their perspective as a sexual minority. No surprise, right? What did surprise me is that because of my Peace Corps experience, I am able to connect with another significantly large minority, perhaps as high as 30-35%, of our population because they are from the Caribbean.
No one has been able to adequately explain to me why so many of Covenant House kids in New York come from the Caribbean. From living in Grenada, I knew that approximately one-sixth of Grenadian citizens now reside in Brooklyn and that Brooklyn more generally is home to a large population of West Indians. But I have experienced a greater sense of responsibility for their welfare simply because of my connection with their homes of origin.
I vividly recall being warned by my Peace Corps recruiter that “readjusting to US culture after your Peace Corps service will be the most difficult part of the experience.” The memory was so potent that my eventual reintegration became my chief concern during my service. At this time, I have found little truth in the warning. The first four months following my return were the most restful and enjoyable aspect of the experience, primarily because I set that time aside to rest and reconnect with friends and family throughout the US.
One of the highlights during that time occurred on a weekend meditation retreat when I was given fourteen conscious hours to think about nothing other than my posture and breathing. Of course the mind resists a vacuum and after sorting through the distractions, I had the opportunity to acknowledge and be with my grief. It was the first time that the finality of leaving my tiny island home in the Caribbean became real. I remembered white beaches and rugged mountains, crystal clear waters and dazzling sunsets, but mostly, I remembered faces, kind words and gestures, challenges encountered and obstacles conquered. And despite the fact that I had sweat in that ungodly heat and humidity, bled to feed thousands of cursed mosquitoes, often felt isolated, alienated, and utterly alone, and had spent a good deal of my precious time cursing my circumstances, I was able to conclude that it had all, indeed, been entirely worthwhile.
Having attained enlightenment, I proceeded with the second phase of my reintegration, re-engagement, and a stint at Covenant House. The best thing a Peace Corps volunteer can do to ease the transition back home is to make plans that include a specified time to rest, reflect and reconnect, and eventually, a specific time and way to re-engage. Fortunately, my re-engagement took me right back to the Caribbean. I don’t grieve my lost home so much anymore.
If you are interested in the Covenant House Faith Community program, I would love the opportunity to answer any questions. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
You can learn more about Covenant House on their website:http://www.covenanthouse.org/inv_faithcommunity.html