Night falls here around 4p.m so, in the dark, I drove along the coastal route. I slowed to a stop at the red lights of a school bus, a kid running across the road in the dark. As the bus continued on, I started up again slowly just to watch the kid scamper up the leaning wooden porch to her screen door, the smoky light of the house spilling around her so she was just a shadow with a bookbag swinging. The sight choked me up. That’s how I am now—a schoolbus can bring me to tears. I know the kids in the schoolbus now. I know their lives, their hardship, love, and endless generous spirits.
The most popular question I got when I came back to North Carolina this weekend was, what are you even doing in Maine? I’ve never really explained the depth and the breadth of my work and how proud I am to be here doing what I am doing.
I always feel that I shouldn’t blog unless I have something insightful to say but this once I’ll do the self-centered thing and talk about the work I do up here for everyone who still wonders: why Maine?
I got hired to work with the Downeast campus of the Maine Sea Coast Mission and their youth development program, The EdGE. One of my co-workers dubbed Lady Gaga’s Edge of Glory our theme song. Every time I’m at work, it’s in my head: “I’m on the EdGE, the EdGE of glory.” Here, we dance, play, and create.
EdGE began in 2002 in response to the area’s high rate of school drop out, substance abuse, and youth suicide. The day my boss hired me, he told me, “What we do here is give people hope.” The thing about the EdGE, though, is that nearly every kid in my 4-8th grade comes to our afterschool program, regardless of their situation. We have kids who don’t connect with school, kids who come from challenging home environments, kids who are fine at home and school but just love EdGE. We have them all. That’s what I do in the afternoons: make snacks, set up and run enrichment activities and games, and I almost singlehandedly put together the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (S.T.E.M) activities in my school.
In the mornings, I tutor math and science for the 5th and 6th grade. I work with kids who need extra attention, are struggling academically, at-risk of failing, and I try to make the learning more accessible. I give attention where the teachers cannot. The kids make me laugh almost all the time and it’s awesome when I go into a classroom and the teacher asks, “Who needs extra help” and kids are out of their seats raising their hands begging to get extra help. It’s super cute. It also comes with its frustrations. Being confronted with apathy can break my heart.
EdGE also does many, many other things besides the tutoring, mentoring, and afterschool enrichment—we have a huge outdoor ropes course, an outdoor adventure club, and we take the kids on trips to Boston, D.C, or New York over Spring Break, run field days for kids on weekends, and do field trips during the year and summer camps over the summer. Across the street from our building is the food pantry, where they fill backpacks with food. We deliver the backpacks to schools on Fridays for kids who otherwise go hungry over the weekend. Also in the building of the food pantry, they run a fuel assistance program to help families heat their house in the winter. The funding is tragically small for fuel assistance however and many families go cold (read a recent New York Times article about this here).
Beyond EdGE, the umbrella organization, The Maine Sea Coast Mission is an amazing place. Earlier in the year, I wrote about their Sunbeam mission. However, their work extends beyond outreach to the coastal islands. Friday night, I went to a holiday party at their Bar Harbor office and got to see their winter efforts. It looks like Santa’s shop on the third floor of their building. Leading us through toy-filled rooms, the staff member told us how they prepare hundreds of gift packages for children whose parents can’t afford to give them gifts. There were rooms filled with scarves, mittens, and hats too. Some were handmade by people who spend hours knitting the items. In more than one way, the mission gives the gift of warmth. In another room, there were shelves filled with balls of yarn. She said some people would come, take a ball of yarn, and return a week later with a knit item for the mission to give to people in need. In another room, there were blankets they donate to geriatric facilities to lay over the knees of the old people who sit in winter in drafty rooms.
I work in a place made of heart and soul.
Beyond work, I’ve been trained and trained and trained. I started participating in some workshops from the Caring Community Collaborative, particularly their trainings on child abuse and intervention. With AmeriCorps, I’ve trained on working with children in at-risk situations and on my own, I took a mandated reporter training for suspected child abuse and neglect with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Through EdGE, I’ve gone to educational seminars on effective teaching, how to bring the best out of students, understand their learning patterns, cultural differences, and also how to use technology to facilitate writing and learning. My boss asked me once to give presentation on our Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math program at a training workshop to a roomful of adults who run afterschool programs across the state of Maine. I kicked butt. I also became trained to conduct Youth Program Quality Assessments on afterschool programs, to evaluate them and ensure that they provide a safe physical, emotional, and social environment for children.
Independently, I joined the Next Step Domestic Violence Project and took a 40-hour volunteer training to work their crisis hotline. I learned so much about the specific challenges of working with domestic violence in a rural area, a place of coasts, islands, woods, and isolation. Just last week, I passed the final advocate role play where I took a mock crisis call from a staff member and had to give her help as if she was a victim of violence. She gave me a particularly challenging call and yet glowingly reported afterward that I did well enough to start taking real calls now. With this project, every day I am amazed at the people who work there and I am inspired by their devoted efforts to build a world free from violence here in Maine.
More than anything else, after work each day, I try to work on my book. I am writing about the human rights efforts in Iceland, Netherlands, France, and Turkey, which I researched during my Eve Project. I connect it to the global effort and hope to inspire. The book sounds bland but it’s been a fantastic, empowering thing to work on. There’s never a dull moment when I am writing the narratives of people who have spent their lives combatting inequality. Their words are often like poetry.
Everything makes me sound really busy but I’m not. Most nights are quiet nights by the fire. I work 8-5pm and it doesn’t even feel like work. I have time to sleep and read now. And I am proud when I manage challenges like snowstorms and ice here, as well as being far from everything I know and taking it like a champ. I love my job and I love the decision I made to move here.
All this is to preface how amazing it was to visit North Carolina this weekend, not that I don’t love every moment in Maine. But North Carolina sometimes is a feeling so strong, I would do anything to be there again.
This weekend I was. Saturday, I was sitting on Christina’s bed with Sherene in the afternoon and we were driving around together and kept saying, “It’s unreal I’m here” because it feels natural, like I still live in the house in Stonehenge. Home is the feeling that I never left. We’re in the car like time hasn’t passed. Home is the way the day evaporates and night falls and I’m holding on. It’s pizza slices and people dancing, snowflake decorations on Franklin Street and Occupy tents, the homeless with their instruments and cardboard signs.
Sunday morning, I’m sitting on the porch of Samantha’s apartment before everyone’s awake, just there to sit in the morning, on the porch, and the sky was Carolina blue, a different blue than in Maine, truly Carolina blue. I sat, resting in the morning and Christina and Sherene came out to sit with me. Then, it was not what we talked about or if we talked at all but just the company and peace under the beauty of the day.
Even being in The Jessicas and Samantha’s apartment alone was filled with good: the memories of nights cooking together after yoga class, falling asleep, and the all-nighter we pulled after graduation before we flew to Italy. The all-nighter that was the last time I ever was in Chapel Hill.
When Sami arrived from Greensboro, it was the same, like we were continuing the day we last saw each other. All of us taking pictures and constantly tweeting ridiculous things. Elizabeth stopped by, to hug us and talk about nursing school in Charlotte, and she says, “It’s hard to make new friends” and I feel how right she is. It’s hard, especially when you already have the best.
Then at the auction, a fundraiser for the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, finally seeing Julia and she started to cry because I built the trip for the auction for her, to be there for her. The idea of me visiting NC this past weekend all began when we talked and I found out she was the auction intern and I wanted to be there. Plus, plane tickets weren’t too expensive. There we were; she cried; then she was making me laugh; and it’s the way we always laugh. It feels even better because I’ve missed her.
After the auction, Sami, Christina, Molly, Sherene, Samantha and I were in the taxi back to the apartment eating Wendy’s cheeseburgers in the back seat and befriending the silent Belarusian driver. Then back at the apartment, we sat on the porch talking until everyone went inside to sleep before my early plane out. In the middle of the living room floor was an air mattress crowded with my best friends. I was sleeping in another room but I slipped out into the living room and crawled onto the couch to Sherene, just weeping. So she assured me quietly, “You’re going to go back and do amazing things for your kids,” and I cried until we fell asleep. Only it was the same thing again at the airport a few hours later, it’ll be ok. It’s not that I don’t want to leave or that I don’t have the best job to go back to but that I want them with me, my closest people, who know me without asking and with whom I’ve lived so much life.
The thing I write most often in my journal now is about transition. The biggest thing I ask myself now is, how do I be a grown-up? I want to be good at it, brave and independent, the house and the car and the cat and all… but it’s hard. It’s hard to adjust to a new lifestyle, to being a grown-up (for the most part) in a real world, responsible and professional. It’s that transition. Being comfortable outside of the bubble we left. Walking on Franklin Street Saturday night, Sherene and I were talking about how Chapel Hill truly was a cocoon and Sherene said, yes, “It’s not a perfect bubble but it’s still a bubble.” It’s a sandbox where you can build anything you want and make it come true. Only, sometimes these days, I still feel like a child that just wants to sit in the sandbox with my friends and build castles.