The blocks that surround my house in the Mission District are alive. It is noisy: from pick-up soccer game shouting or the drunks that waver between excessive gregariousness and pure warring. Color is part of every corner, from its painted ladies (both of the night and of the Victorian variety) and homemade sign for Tortas (a sandwich of epic proportions) to the dragon-like graffiti that surround my corner bodega.
I can’t help but wonder what color or noise I bring to my own neighborhood. With little ability for futbol and no artistic ability, the one thing I know that I have is time. I decide to venture into the land of volunteering, to make myself familiar with those that also survive and thrive in the neighborhood I call home.
A specialty of mine includes super sleuthing – noticing when a new shop opens or a “welcome baby boy” banner is hung across the door – so it only takes me minutes to compile a list of non-profits within 8 blocks of my home. I get on the horn, and within hours almost all of the organizations I reach out to say they needed volunteers. My neighborhood needs me.
The only place I don’t hear back from is the drab looking church at 23rd and Capp. I’ve seen my neighbors (mostly Latino and Chinese families) line up there with wheeled shopping carts to receive food. The church’s voicemail message is in Spanish, and although I know the word “voluntario” I didn’t know how to say the words “bold” or “italic” in Spanish, so I leave a failed message in English.
I walk upstairs to the offices of the Bay Area Video Coalition (BAVC) on the Potrero/Mission border, embarking on my first volunteer opportunity. BAVC is a non-profit that teaches common folk (and a few advanced humans) how to make films, do things that make sound, and basically manhandle technology for the betterment of the world. The offices are sleek and modern in a loft-ish building overlooking a Muni bus graveyard.
I’m there to help with a teen holiday party, and I’m a little worried I’m going to end up chaperoning teens and confiscating alcohol. Turns out I was wrong – the education coordinator shows me to a phone at a desk surrounded by large windows. Outside it’s San Francisco gray.
My job: calling family members of the (mainly) low income children in their video classes to remind them that there’s a family night coming up – a chance for them to see the films and 3D animation their kids’ have put together, and perhaps learn a little more about technology themselves.
I look at the calling sheet nervously – lots of Spanish names, ruh roh. My calls go something like this: “Hola, me llamo Mara, y I am calling from Bay Ay Vay Cay, para una fiesta de familia para Jose’s clase de video.” I get 3-4 hang-ups. I feel disenchanted, but the few parents I do reach are so excited, I know I've made a small impact.
Next stop: Mission Economic Development Agency (MEDA). If you are like me, owning a home in San Francisco feels far from possible. MEDA’s goal is to basically make it easy for low-income and Latino families to get loans, negotiate with banks and understand housing opportunities based on how much dough you bring in.
I walk up to MEDA’s offices and am greeted by a brightly woven Mexican wall hanging. In contrast to BAVC’s clean lines and neat open area offices, MEDA is cluttered, crowded and full of paper. Ah, the Mission I know and love. I’m greeted sweetly by MEDA employees Josie and Ana. Ana, who keeps everything administratively in line, is wearing a green and red felt Santa hat with her name emblazoned in glitter.
It feels like home! I’ve arrived at lunchtime and I can hear loud laughter (that wavers between Spanish and English) from the lunch room where employees are making crafts and joking about ‘80s Latin pop-stars I’ve never heard of. Someone has popped off their high heels next to my work area and is running back and forth to the printer in her stockings.
Luckily, I don’t need to be fluent in Spanish for this volunteer position, but I do need to be fluent in alphabet for the fun job of filing. While filing, I learn that in the last 2 years, MEDA has had to hire an extra staff person just to help their constituents deal with foreclosures alone. So I put the Ramirez’s before the Rodriguez’s and I make a small dent in the boxes of paperwork.
A downpour starts as I head to my final destination, Cesar Chavez Elementary School, which I probably pass by 100 times a week. A massive mural of Cesar Chavez with his arms extended makes me feel welcome. Normally ice cream push carts (and other Mexican delights) line up at the entrance as they wait patiently with parents for the last bell and screaming children to run their way.
I’m there to help out with an after-school program called “Si Se Puede”, a program for academically challenged students. The majority of the school is bi-lingual and I wonder if my language situation (aka poor Spanish) will be a hindrance yet again.
The director shows me around the old school. Strolling past the kindergarten class I pass tiny chairs for tiny kids. In the library, kids spill over each other to reach books. I can hear children speaking in two languages, weaving between English and Spanish. I join some ruckus-making kids in a small classroom, stuck inside on a rainy day.
One girl sings me a song in English of alphabetically listed adjectives that she’s had to memorize. I can still hear the song ringing in my head: “You are amazing, beautiful, caring, delightful, engaging, friendly, etc.” I assist another student with her math. The math problems are written in Spanish, so I have us quickly move on to her English homework.
Again, I’m defeated by my language limitations. This part of my volunteering experience was the hardest. Engaging one on one with stir crazy bi-lingual children is no small feat. I was overwhelmed.
At the end of the day, what did I learn? It’s time to practice my Spanish, and if I ever have a few hours, there are at least 10 non-profits surrounding me that could desperately use my help. All I have to do is walk out my front door.
DO IT YOURSELF
Some ideas to connect with your 8 blocks:
1) Try Volunteer Match to search opportunities by zip code.
2) Try a Google map search for non-profits in your locale.
3) Walk through your neighborhood and see what is out there.
Satellite photo courtesy the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/
SF Skyline photo by Caitlinator: http://www.flickr.com/photos/caitlinator/3059731683/