Meeting (2/11)

Last Wednesday, we had a short, but interesting meeting. We first discussed everybody's experiences at their respective sites. Everybody had something good to say, but I was especially intrigued by Rita Tran's week at the Underground Cafe (UC) and Emily Chamberlain's week at the Family Treatment Court.
Rita spoke about how difficult it was for the children now that the upstairs space is not quite finished and the downstairs space is slightly restrictive. Even worse, the children are not happy about the new regulations that have been imposed upon the program since they received funding from the Safe Schools Advantage After School Program fund. In short, it's too regimented. The kids just want to dance or play basketball, but now they have to do certain programs. When Haley started the UC a few years ago, it was meant to be a place where the students decided what they wanted to do. Now, they are growing weary as they see control shift slowly out of their hands. Also, the UC is supposed to be open from 6-8 PM on Thursdays, but now they can't find enough staff to keep it open that late.
Emily mentioned how three women got in trouble for sneaking out of Johnson Park Center (JPC), a rehabilitory residence area with a strict no-drug policy, to score some drugs. Needless to say, these three women were kicked out of JPC. She also sat next to a judge during a hearing at the Family Court. The case involved a woman who was trying to maintain custody of her child after it became known that she beat this child. Apparently, this women had lost custody of her other children years earlier for similar reasons. When asked by the judge how long she would continue having children, even though she treated them so poorly, she replied "I'll continue having children until you let me keep one of them."
After this, Amy James spoke about a potential service trip with Amherst College. She had recently an e-mail from the Bonner Director at Amherst who expressed interest in collaborating with us on some sort of service activity. Also, the Bonner program at Hobart Williams and Smith has expressed interest in collaborating with us as well, so we thought that it would be a good idea if Amherst and HWS met us halfway in Utica (we're lazy) sometime in either April or May. However, this is extremely tentative as we haven't even discussed location or dates with either college yet.
Finally, I showed everybody this blog. Everybody seemed to like it and I hope that they all become active bloggers.

Stefanie's Reaction

     Although a territory of the US, Puerto Rico has maintained its own culture and tradition. It continues to invoke a relaxed attitude towards life. During our trip we spent a day at a high school. The building itself exemplified the laid back personality of the island. During the day students were free to hang out and study outside if they didn’t have class. There were no doors on the end of the hall ways, everything was open to the outside world. One classroom even had a wall taken out exposing the students and teacher to the outside world. This differs drastically from the security stringent continental US schools that are always on the look out for a potential school shooting. Speaking to the students we learned of the different views towards America in Puerto Rican politics. There seem to be three main parties; the ones who wish to keep things as they are, those who wish to make Puerto Rico a state and those who wish for independence. All of the students seemed very excited about the election of Barack Obama. Visiting the homeless shelter where we helped make and serve lunch also was very different from what I expected. Some of the people had previously lived in the continental US before migrating down to the streets of Puerto Rico. A lot of the homeless could speak some English. At the shelter the staff encouraged their residents to learn to paint. They brought in retired art teachers, professors and artists to give pointers to the residents. For money, the residents sold their paintings. One very talented resident had recently sold a painting at an auction for 4 figures! Having been to Puerto Rico before as a tourist, it was interesting to come back and to see what real life is like on the island. The trip was very rewarding over all and gave me new insight on the Puerto Rican culture.

Laura's Reaction

     The majority of people look back upon their time in Puerto Rico and think of sandy beaches, laying idly in the sun, and eating the island cuisine. When I think about Puerto Rico memories of the homeless shelter, veteran’s hospital, and local high school come to mind. For these memories and experiences I will always be grateful. On our trip to Puerto Rico we were able to see a side of the island that most people will never see. We were immersed in the language, culture, and life of the people there. Each day of volunteering at a new site let us meet new people and hear different stories. For me the day spent working at the boarding house was unforgettable. The shelter was located in a poor region of San Juan. The unique thing about the boarding house was that it was not only a food kitchen, but also provided shelter, facilities to wash, religious education, and clothing. The people there functioned as a community; the workers did not act superior and the people in need did not seem ashamed. Instead they all conversed together and appeared genuinely happy to be there. Spending a day with both the volunteers and the people who came to the shelter showed me that if you are fortunate enough to be well off, you should happily want to give back to others who are less fortunate. As humans we need to care for one another and that is what the people at the shelter are doing every day.

Yoko's Reaction

The first day, Sunday, we arrived in San Juan and settled into our Holiday Day Inn Express rooms. We walked around the area for most of the time along with going to the beach. The second day we headed over to the Red Cross and cleaned the outside and inside of Red Cross vehicles. The third day we went to a boarding home called La Fondita de Jesus where we served food and some of us also went to a nearby place where we sorted out donated clothing to give out to the poor. On the fourth day, we went to the Veteran’s Hospital to help give out gifts from the Red Cross to patients there and also to talk with the patients. We communicated with some of them in English but even though many of them only knew Spanish we managed to somewhat communicate through the ‘Holas’ and other small Spanish words we learned. Then on the fifth day we headed over to the Escuela Lino Padron Rivera de Vega Baja High School where we had the chance to interact with students there and to help out by painting the music room. The students there were very interested in hearing what we had to say and most of them were willing to speak English. Then, the last day, Friday, we left very early in the morning to the airport. The trip gave us the great experience to have had been able to help out in a community in a culturally different atmosphere.

Caroline's Reaction

     With the temperature at roughly 75ºF, it was not difficult to immediately fall in love with Puerto Rico. Although we had the first day off to enjoy the beach near our hotel and explore the surrounding areas, our group had to get up early to start volunteering Monday morning. We started our volunteer trip washing the ambulances and SUVs at the Red Cross in San Juan. As the week progressed, I realized the tremendous work that the organization did and the number of people they helped. The diversity of the volunteering that we did helped me to learn about Puerto Rico beyond the beach and resorts. From serving food at a local soup kitchen, to distributing toiletries to war veterans in a hospital, and finally to visiting high school students in a nearby town, I discovered so much about Puerto Rico’s culture and the experiences of its people. The trip allowed me to volunteer outside of the community in Utica that I am used to helping, and I am glad I got a chance to make a difference in the lives of the people that were so hospitable to me.

Liam's Reaction

     During my recent trip to Puerto Rico with the Bonner Leaders Program, I meet many interesting people and learned a lot about the local community programs and culture. One of the most memorable aspects of the trip was how hospitable everyone we met was. Whether we were looking for a good restaurant or asking for directions, the locals always took time to answer our questions. In addition, all of the people we worked with made sure that we had everything we needed. I think Puerto Rico was a great choice to visit because its culture is different enough so that we were all experiencing something new, but it is not so different that we were unable to be effective. For example, during our visit to a high school, I was able learn a lot about many of the students because most of them knew how to speak English. This trip allowed us to learn about Puerto Rico and help the community there.

Henry's Reaction

    The Bonner Trip to Puerto Rico was an interesting as well as eye-opening one. Prior to this trip, I had only been to Puerto Rico with family and this trip was an experience through which I experienced an enitirely different side of the island and culture located there. The trip also provided an outlet through which all of the Bonner Leaders were able to bond together. By pushing us outside of our every day comfort zone as well as our weekly service sites, were were able to work with each other in new and challenging evironments that proved extremely valuable learning situations. One of the most rewarding sites for me was the soup kitchen where I was able to interact with many local people and learn first-hand about the demographic of people that eat in these community havens. At the grssroots level, we were able to learn about the education system, the local Red Cross Organization, ad the people by interacting and working with them throughout the San Juan area Over the course of the trip, we made many friends and met people that I definitely plan on keeping in touch with. The trip ultimately offered a side of Puerto Rico that many people never get to see or appreciate. As a result, the group became more and more close knit and open over the course of the trip and now share many experiences and stories of our time in Puerto Rico. I really hope that we have the chance to do another proram similar to this because it allowed us to bond in a new, unique, environment and experience new sides of ourselves and each other.

Day Four: At La Escuela Superior de Vega Baja

The fourth and final day was spent at . This was by far my favorite day of service. The first part of the day was a cultural exchange among the Bonner Leaders, students in the advanced English course, and members of the Red Cross Youth Council. The day began on a very comic note. Eliane Ortero, the president of the youth council of the Red Cross Youth Council introduced what we would be doing in Spanish and I translated her speech to English. She said “Hola, me llamo Eliane Ortero” and I responded with “Hi, my name is Eliane Ortero”, a direct translation, but obviously not my name. After the laughter died down, the cultural exchange began. Among other things, we compared universities in Puerto Rico with those in the states. Eliane told me that she really wanted to pursue a field in pharmaceuticals, but needed to go to the states for that. One thing that I learned from this open interaction is that, like in Spain, the Puerto Rican students were very shy about speaking English, especially when they discovered that I spoke Spanish. For example, I kept on trying to get Eliane to speak a little English, but after about thirty seconds, she would revert back to Spanish. After the initial greeting period, the members of the Red Cross Youth Council took us on a tour of the school. Along the way, we came across a very inspirational poster, which stated"

"Un hombre no envejece cuando se le arruga la piel, sino cuando se arrugan los suenos y esperanzas."

"A man does not grow old when his skin wrinkles, but when his hopes and dreams wrinkle."

     Finally, we proceeded to our final task of the day: painting the music room. Although the music instructor did not speak very good English and the room was quite large, we managed to finish painting the majority of the room in only a few hours. After that, we had to say good-bye to our Puerto Rican friends, but hopefully not forever. Minerva's trying to coordinate a NY trip for the members of the Red Cross Youth Council so I keep my fingers crossed.

Day 3: At the Veteran's Hospital

     The third day we worked at the Veteran's Hospital. Our responsibility was to provide comfort kits to the veteran’s that included toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and lotion. We were directed around the hospital by some hospital staff that showed us to whom we would hand each comfort kit. Among the veteran's receiving Comfort Kits was Minerva's Step-Father, who barely had the energy to say hi to us.The way most people’s face lit up when they saw a group of young adults taking time to help them is indelible in my memory. An interesting thing about the veteran’s hospital is that they refer to the patients as “residents”. “We want to make them feel as much at home as we possibly can” explained the physical trainer on staff. Since most of the day was spent delivering care packages, we weren't able to speak with the residents for as long as I would have liked. The most memorable quote from the day was delivered from Richard, a man born in New York City, but who decided to spend his later years in San Juan, Puerto Rico because New York City was “way too cold! (obviously he had never visited upstate NY)”. He explained how he lost his leg was blown off in Korea and then said that he didn’t plan on tangoing any time soon; he just wanted to walk again. Hearing him say that so cheerfully almost made me cry. It certainly put my life and my problems in perspective Here we are complaining about how school’s unfair, how it’s too cold, or how unreliable our camera, I-pod, etc. is and in San Juan’s veterans hospital there are many people who just want to walk again.

Day 2: At La Fondita de Jesus

     The second day entailed a lot more hands on work. We worked at La Fondita de Jesus, a boarding home in Santurce, an impoverished section of San Juan. La Fondita offered many free services to its clients, including room, board, clothing, and even art classes, among other things. People could choose to take as many or few services as they liked. We started the day helping the cooks prepare lunch in the kitchen. Many of the cooks were retirees who wanted to something both beneficial and productive with their lives. I was very impressed by the dedication they had to their volunteer jobs. In the kitchen, we chopped vegetables, un-canned meat, and made sandwiches for later consumption. Then, as the kitchen became crowded, I took two students with me to the clothing drive and helped them organize clothing. This was a very interesting experience. There were at times six of us working in a stuffy room that was no more than 10 ft. by 10 ft, and made much smaller by the presence of rolling closets and huge mountains of clothes. In this room, we were put to work hanging up shirts, folding jeans, shorts, and bathing suits, all the time dealing with dwindling counter space and hangers. However, I got to experience exactly how the clothing drive worked. Each person that wanted to use the clothing drive needed to first sign up, write down their size for everything, and then were then only allowed to take one item of clothing (of the right size) at a time. The idea was that the clothing drive workers would help their clients get on their feet, but it was not meant to be their own personal closet. Finally, at the end of the day, I enjoyed a very long conversation with Juan Baptista in English, Spanish, and Portuguese. This guy was very intelligent, very committed to his job, and later gave us a very intimate tour of both new and old San Juan.

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