The featured image of this post is a drawing by friend and non-artist Ben Lander, and it depicts yours truly as the Mountain Queen. This picture isn’t exactly relevant to my volunteer experience, but it is. Any time we try something new, we have to climb the mountain. The first few feet are the toughest, but it gets easier after a while. Sooner than we expected, we end up on the top of the mountain. In some ways my whole experience in Dublin has been this way, only with a series of mountains that I alternately climb up and fall off of. Volunteering has been no different. After week three, though, I can safely say I feel my feet firmly rooted into the mountainside, and I’m pretty damn near the top. The Mountain Queen trying to fight for social equality (or something smaller, perhaps. One step at a time).
I’ve talked a little bit about Solas, the organization I volunteer with, before, but there’s more to the story of what I’m doing. For those who don’t know, the Solas Project provides different programs for at-risk youth in Ireland. The program I volunteer with is an after-school care program, which has three different sections divided up by age. I work with the oldest class, sixth class (or grade). The purpose of what we do is to provide a safe and supportive space for the kids, helping them to see that they have more options for their lives than they thought. Or that’s the hope. Like an social service, it’s a toss up which kids will learn something and have a positive experience, and which ones won’t. There’s only so much we can do, and unfortunately, it never feels like enough.
What I really want to talk about are some of my experiences with the kids. I’m not a social work major or a psychologist in training, but something has been awoken in me recently and I just feel this overwhelming need to help people. This experience has been a good outlet for that, but has also made me want to continue getting involved in projects like this one, maybe even dedicate my life to them.
Take A for example. A comes from a rough home, like a lot of the kids in the club. I don’t know the specifics. We never discuss it. Some of these kids are financially destitute, some of them have single parents or parents who are hardly around at all. In many cases, their parents aren’t as supportive as they could be, possibly because they really don’t think their children have a shot at living a better life than they had. The first day I went to Solas, the club was full of kids, much fuller than usual. It was loud and I had no idea how to talk to these kids. What does a 20 year old American say to a 12 year old Irish kid? I’ve been struggling to figure that out.
My first attempt was spent on A. I helped her with her homework early in the day, which was really just me sitting in the corner of the room watching her argue with her friends. Irish kids talk so damn fast, you wouldn’t believe. They’re speaking English, yes, but they have their own slang and a lot of them mumble. Later in the day, while A was grinding a wood peg for the coat rack they were collectively making, I tried to tell her she was doing a good job. She didn’t respond to me and I didn’t know how to connect to her. When she stepped away, she had wood all down the front of her pants. I told her so and when she looked at me like I was an idiot, I realized that “pants” means “underwear” to the Irish. So, I’d insulted her, basically. Great.
Walking her home from the club, I had an uninterrupted solo opportunity to talk with her, so I just started firing questions. She gave me the barest answers, but at least she was talking to me. The most poignant question I asked her was where she’d go in the world if she could go anywhere. She just stopped for a few seconds, trying to think about it. She just said, “I don’t know.” To me, that meant she’d never really thought about it. It’d never been an option for her, not even a possibility on her radar. Her entire world was right here in Ireland. It is very likely that she’ll never go anywhere else. That filled me with such sadness. When she told me she watched Judge Judy on the tele all the time, that was another resonant moment for me. The problem with Judge Judy is that she teaches people like A how the lesser advantaged in a society are supposed to behave. She teaches them that the life they’re living is the only one out there for them, and that’s a problem.
This week, I had another interesting interaction with A. I was helping her do her homework, this time actively asking questions and trying to help her find the answers for herself. She asked another girl in the room if she could see her answers, and the other girl gave them to her. I stepped in and asked her why she couldn’t find the answers herself, and she said she couldn’t do the work on her own. “Why don’t you try?” I asked her. “I can’t. It’s hard,” she said, putting her head on her workbook. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean you can’t figure it out.” “No,” she said, “I can’t do it if it’s hard.” How do you tell a 12 year old girl that that kind of attitude will crush her in the real world? What do I know about the “real world” when this girl lives in a world I’ll never even begin to understand? I tried to explain, as gently as possible, that she can do anything she wants to, even if it’s hard. It was clear she didn’t believe me, but she did her work. She finished it all on her own and ended up helping another girl with hers.
Sometimes it’s as simple as telling someone they matter and that they can.
At the end of every day, all the adult interns and volunteers gather and discuss how the day went. I told the group about my homework interaction with A and finished by saying, “I didn’t change her life, but maybe I helped her today.” And they said that that was the battle right there. You change a life day by day, from the ground up.
D is a boy I worked with on week one and two. The first day I’d ever met him, he was in a miserable state. His cheeks were void of color and he refused to take his coat off. He wouldn’t talk to anyone. He wouldn’t eat, and it was clear even through his coat that he was too thin. A comment was made that it’s not certain how many meals he gets at home, and that he in particular had a rough home life. He was I envisioned of kids needing social services. Pale. Withdrawn. Broken. The next week, I barely recognized the kid. He was loud, cheeks flushed red, coat thrown haphazardly on the ground. He was playing with the other boy there that day, and even played Uno with me and the other volunteers. It was a transformation like I’ve never seen. He clearly has a very unstable life to swing so quickly between states, and I tried very hard to overlook the f-bombs he dropped throughout the day, deciding it was better he cuss than not say anything at all. The old saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” doesn’t always apply, I’m learning.
Some of the most poignant interactions I have had so far have been with the other volunteers or interns. Nadine, the head intern for our group, is really sweet. She included me from day one, even if I could only understand her accent half the time. We talk a lot about college and how things are different here versus America, since she spent time in Boston and misses it dearly. Manuel is from Spain (I think??) and has a very strong accent. But he’s very sweet and always plays with the kids, no matter what they want to do. Grace is the leader of the group, and she’s always a comforting presence to have around. She is more of an authority figure, but in a motherly way. Ciaran is an older retired architect who walks 35 minutes across town to get to Solas. He is actually the brother-in-law of a professor at my college and is one of the nicest people I’ve met in Ireland. He tried to explain the election to me and provides a grandfatherly support for the kids, even if they think he’s a bit odd. Where they see odd, I see a man with the biggest kind of heart. I met another young woman last week, Ashlynn. She’s only a touch older than me and was very easy to talk to. It’s been great meeting people my own age and older through this program, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of my main draws to the program. Helping the children is wonderful, but so is making connections with such caring adults.
Ciaran told me about his experience at Solas so far. He said it’s been a mixed bag. The kids have the capacity to disappoint and pleasantly surprise you all in the same day. I’ve seen the kids try to stab each other with forks and cheat at Uno by shoving the cards up their sleeves, but I’ve also seen them help each other with homework and laugh together. Ciaran had an amazing story though, one that made me hopeful about my involvement in the program. There’s a points system at Solas, which is an incentive for good behavior. You can get 25 points a day for excellent behavior or fewer than that if you had a bad day. After you earn a certain amount of points, you can pick out a prize. One day at the end of club when points were being passed out, one kid wanted to cash in his points. He found a hurling ball (which is a popular sport in Ireland) but needed another day’s worth of points to get it. Another kid had enough points, and when he went in to look at prizes, he picked out the hurling ball.
At this point in the story, Ciaran expected the worst. He thought to himself, “Why do kids have to be so mean?” But then the boy did something unexpected with the hurling ball: he gave it to the first boy who didn’t have enough points. It warmed Ciaran’s heart, and it’s the moments like that that you live for as a volunteer in a social services organization like this one. There can be a lot of discouraging things you see everyday, but then there are the bright moments that shine right through the worst of it all. It’s moments like that where you feel like you’re doing something important.
There’s a sign on the wall at the club and it’s my favorite quote now. It sums up what Solas does, what I try to do, what everyone should try do. “Be somebody who makes everybody feel like a somebody.” Words to live by.