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Stories of Challenge & Change

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

Did you miss our end of year story telling event for the 2018-2019 volunteers? If so, just read on to share in their stories of challenge and change!

From Sarah Potter - Just. Enough.

These are two words I catch myself saying often during this year. "I'mjust an intern. Will this be enough?" Two words that have become part of my everyday speech that make life harder.

By using just I'm diminishing my work. I'm diminishing who I am as a person. "I just did my job. I'm just the intern. I'm just here for a year. I'mjust me." By putting this word into my lexicon, I am tearing down everything I've done. I don't give myself credit for the work I've done. I don't give myself credit for who I am as a person. I didn't start catching myself saying it until the winter, but when I did, I heard myself saying it everywhere. At work, at home, talking to my family, talking to my supervisor. I made everything seem simpler than it was by using one word: just.

On the flip side of that coin was enough. "Is this enough food? Do I haveenough money? Am I enough?" These questions hurt me and I didn't know it. From a culture of abundance, all I could see was where I was lacking. I come from a big family. Dinner was something we all did together. But I specifically remember counting all the rolls on the table or dumplings in the soup, wondering how much I would get and would it be fair. Coming here has been a lesson in equity; my enough is different than your enough and both are enough.

This has not been an easy year and I have struggled in different places. I remember in December asking myself if I did enough to help raise money for Youth OUTright. I ask myself “Am I doing enough?” whenever I’m at Haywood Street Congregation. I’m just coloring. The biggest question I’ve had is "Am I enough?" The easy answer is yes, but it's hard to see that when I'm so focused on judgements, whether from other people or myself. I do the best I can and even if I fail, it was enough. I've done what seemed that menial tasks and they were enough. It's been hard to switch my mind to see how much I've done instead of how much I need to do.

I planned an interfaith LGBT panel that happened a few weeks ago. I contacted different people in the community who have different spiritual and LGBT identities and brought them together to talk about the intersection of these identities. I did all that I could and more. I accepted that it was enough, no matter what happened. People attended and, it was small, but made an impact. Was it what I wanted? No, but it will be just enough.

From Katie Jenkins - God Bless You

It’s a phrase I have heard a lot this year. “God Bless you for the work you are doing, God Bless you for bringing me this furniture, God Bless you in your ministry, God bless you in your calling, God, Bless you.” The first time I really started hearing it, was through work. For the past 11 months, I have worked for the Welcome Home donation center of Homeward Bound. Four days a week I travel around WNC with my coworker Terry and we pick up furniture and the occasional household good. Then, on average 3 or four times a week we bring that furniture to a client that either needed a replacement or is moving in to their first home. Whatever the case, more often than not, I have held a client in an embrace as I bear witness to their story and stand there with my stomach in literal KNOTS because as we approach the door I get met with “God Bless YOU”. Many of our clients have faced displacement for YEARS before they find a home and gain the chance to turn their life around, they have been to hell and back and suffered more than most of us (especially I as a white woman) could ever imagine, yet are still thankful and faithful and are quick to praise God for this miracle, this new chance.

My second week here in Asheville, I moved a 36-week pregnant African American woman into a 2 bedroom, bigger than most, public housing unit and brought her “out of season” patio furniture for HER living room out of a 4-million-dollar home on top of a mountain. She and her toddler had been experiencing homelessness since he was a babe and it didn’t feel good to recognize her home she had waited on was in a place that I was told to never go to in the late afternoon because of gang and drug related crimes around the area. That the best way out of her current situation was built on “out of season” patio furniture from a rich White bachelors’ mansion. Later in the year, I bore witness during a furniture delivery to a young man’s refrigerator that was covered in sharpie marker. He came over, moved a few photos of familiar case managers and friends around to show me that each marking was a date and that date, stood for a milestone in this man’s journey- from facing homelessness, to getting connected with Homeward Bound, working with case managers, finding a house, etc. etc.- the whole freezer space was covered with dates from the past 5 years and he told me that each time he opens that freezer he says a prayer and is grateful of the food he is receiving. Recently, I hugged a gentleman that despite growing up in the macho philosophy of “men don’t cry” sobbed because he was getting a recliner to help ease the back pain, he received from years of sleeping in the streets.

Despite what these few clients have been through, I am the one that is met with “God Bless You”

As the year progresses, I have had to try to decipher why my stomach is turned at such a simple phrase that shouldn’t cause such anxiety. After 11 months, I have produced two reasons as to why I really struggle with being THANKED and more realistically PRAISED for helping another along in life after unfair and blameless circumstances. Both boil down to the issue of a white person of privilege coming and doing mission to help our souls feel good and evangelize or rather PROSELYTIZE our religion. We will get to the proselytization piece here in a second but right now, lets talk about the privilege piece. It is very easy to fall in this trap of BRAGGING on the work you are doing so that you can seek validation from others on work that is about your learning and not your leadership. I’m finding this to be more true for my next year in Tucson (on the border) than I had here in Asheville- but it is still very relevant as most of the clienteles that we serve at Homeward Bound are PoC and I am a privileged white woman who is only here for a year and is “volunteering her time”. This sense of “volunteering” makes things awkward because it activates this sense of gratitude during a valuable time of learning.

A couple of weeks ago, I led a discussion with our AYM group at the donation center, we talked about how often times, we don’t give people on the streets money- we don’t want them to use that money in an ill way- and what we are really saying here is that we don’t want them to buy a beer with it. I debriefed this conversation with my boss after the kids left and let her know that after ten months of working with this vulnerable population, I still hadn’t really thought of the situation or what the best answer was. She helped me to look at it from this light. Could you imagine living in a metaphorical fishbowl with no privacy and people constantly watching and being nervous of your every move? Not seeing you and helping your struggles but watching you for the first mistake you make whether that be a yelling match, a fight, or something that will land you in jail and “make our environment a little safer”. Judging you for being intoxicated and refusing to help you because your coping mechanism for the hell- hole that you live in is seen as the problem and how you became homeless in the first place. I honestly don’t think I could ever be sober and face my reality. The reality that living on the streets means around the clock people interactions, no real sleep at night, little resources to clean running water and food. Many face this reality everyday- many have to, because society has left them little choice.

Back to my first week in Asheville, I went on a poverty walk where a man experiencing homelessness led us- the Hands and Feet Volunteers, around Downtown Asheville and showed us the many organizations that provided services for the displaced population. There was one organization in particular that stood out to me in this walk because of the disservice I had heard they provide. In what I have gathered from my time here in Asheville this is what I know about the organization without formally being introduced to it. In order to receive services like meals and a place to sleep, you are required to attend a daily chapel service and proclaim Jesus as your savior. In working with an organization with no faith requirement and no direct affiliation to a specific church or denomination I find this troubling. The trouble boils down to this, privilege aside, if clients are telling me God Bless you is it coming from their hearts or is it a rehearsed message that allows for them to receive the things they need? Meaning, is the church doing its job spreading Christs love if we are demanding and requiring it instead of just teaching the love of Jesus? Looking at the church’s history, our white forefather theologians did a VERY wicked number on scaring people into faith and it doesn’t sit well with me that still today, we preach Jesus’ gospel through that of shame and guilt instead of radical love. What I am tiptoeing around saying here is that a man should never be woken up in the middle of the night and thrown out of a “house of God” because he wore a pentagram to bed and although he follows the rules to get by- cannot freely chose to believe in the same God you do because of the hurt you are spreading in Their (capitol Their) name. My stomach is in knots when I hear “God Bless you” from a client because I have had to learn to question the authenticity behind the words they say and take a step out of my privilege to see that help is not given openly or freely. Are the people receiving services using the phrase “God Bless You” because they have to, or are these people theological MASTERS who even in the midst of incredible odds that work against them- are able to see the beauty of God. Can I handle what it means if these people see the beauty of God in me? What does any of this mean for my faith? These are questions I am still wrestling with and I feel that I will continue to long after I leave. As a Christian, I think these are questions that have to be wrestled with and thought of often.

I, a young woman of privilege get to be the one telling the story while drinking a beer- being blessed by God to be the voice for another’s experience. MY stomach turns in knots at the phrase “God Bless You” because clearly, because of my skin tone- my gender- my privilege, God has blessed me, and it isn’t fair.

From Erin Tolar - No Answers. Just Different Questions.

It was my first week on the job. We were going door-to-door in each public housing area, recruiting people for the Green Opportunities training programs. I went with my boss one day to the complex right across the street from my work building, and that went perfectly fine. However, there was an argument the next day. The team was split about whether to go to one of the other complexes, due to its reputation. Someone on the team had lived there and said it was fine. Someone else said it was a bad idea. A third person said maybe, if we had the right person to go with us who knew some people in the neighborhood and would have facial recognition. First week me was bewildered, having never heard of this place and knowing nothing about the reputation. I ultimately elected to stay at the office.

Debriefing with a coworker the next day, I had expressed my confusion: I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t know Asheville, and I didn’t know how I would react in such situations. What light could he shed? Had I made the right decision? He sighed, and gave me my first introduction to the many layers of racial politics and public housing tensions in Asheville. I greatly appreciated this, and it has led to many more enlightening and productive conversations throughout the year. However, he ended with speaking truth from a black man to a white woman: “At the end of the day, staying here was probably a good choice. However, it likely would have been fine if you had decided to go. They’re much more likely to mess with someone like me than someone like you.” Hearing those words, followed by, “The social consequences of messing with a white female are too high,” – those words will never leave me.

A few weeks ago, I found myself needing to drive into one of the public housing complexes by myself to drop something off for a student. While I’ve been in and out of several of the public housing complexes over the course of the year, it’s generally been with another staff member, and I had never been to this particular complex. I was nervous. Really nervous.

This neighborhood is considered to be one of the “more risky” ones. Students of mine have mentioned used syringes on the ground, the occasional gunshot, and searching for any way to move themselves and/or their mothers out of the neighborhood. As I drove up, I found myself getting scared. But when I pulled up to the entrance, I was shocked to find a gatehouse, complete with a gate. Unlike the other complexes I’ve been in, this community is cut off from the rest of the town. One way in. One way out. Why is there only one entrance/exit? Why is there a gatehouse in the first place? Is it to keep people out, or to keep people in? Then I felt guilty for feeling scared. I started to ask myself what made me that nervous, and whether I should have been. I now know the stories. I know that there are sometimes gunshots, which means the city bus (the only transportation that many residents have) likely won’t run to that area for the whole day. I know that I drove in as an outsider, and a white wealthy outsider at that, without knowing exactly where I was going. Was this an unnecessary risk? Should I have figured out a way to bring someone with me, even though it was the end of the work day? I also know that in Asheville, which is predominantly white and wealthy, people are extremely skittish around the public housing complexes that are composed of primarily low-income people of color. That being said, this is a really tight community where everyone knows everyone. Outsiders might be treated with major suspicion, but for those who are thoroughly entrenched in the area with strong relationships, this may be where they feel safest. I hear different stories at work from the people who live there, know some of the people involved, and have a grasp on the back story, than I hear through the official media. Conflicts tend to happen between known people in the community and their rivals, while rarely being directed toward outsiders. I know that a few people making waves can reflect unfairly and negatively on everyone. Many of our best Green Opportunities clients have come from this neighborhood, and I was wearing my GO shirt, which may have offered some layer of recognition.

So was my nervousness an overreaction? Would I have felt differently if this complex was predominantly white? As much as this kills me, I’m not sure. Have I fallen prey to the panic and uncertainty of the higher-income Asheville residents’ discomfort about the complex, despite an overwhelming majority of those people having never set foot in the area, or even interacted with anyone who lives there? I don’t know. Should I feel guilty about my own jumpiness? Maybe, maybe not. As I drove home that day reflecting on my reaction to the trip, I flashed back to that first week: “They’re much more likely to mess with someone like me than someone like you.”

Even there, as an outsider, my privilege surrounded me. While I’m not invincible, my white skin meant that anything that could have happened to me (already way less likely) would have been handled differently than if the same thing happened to a person of color. I am not more valuable than anyone else. Somehow, society has decided that I am. Why?

There are some answers to this that can be traced through the complicated strands of privilege, racism, capitalism, consumerism and colonialism. These things have been conditioned into us individually and as a society. What can I, as a person of privilege, yet only a single person, do about it? I can advocate, elevate voices of those without a platform, bring issues of justice to the forefront of whatever I do, and support organizations that serve people caught in cyclical poverty. But how do I integrate this into my future career in ministry, and what does that look like in practice?

Over the past eleven months, I haven’t had any dazzling insights into how to combat economic inequality, reduce societal racism, or solve cyclical poverty. My thoughts have simply become more nuanced as I work and learn alongside people who are deeply affected by injustice every day. No answers. Just different questions.

From Klari Farzley - Growing for Change

One of the biggest growing experiences I’ve had this year began with a tray of seedlings donated to us at 12 Baskets Cafe. They were in terrible shape. A few of them were already completely dried out. And I didn’t know the first thing about plants so I figured they were all just dead. But right as I’m about to dump them in the compost with the rest of the moldy, donated fruit I hear someone say, “Wait, let me see those.” This was David, a retired Gardner who volunteers at the cafe. He looked at their withered leaves and said, “You should take them home and give them some love.” 

If you don’t already, something you should know about me is that I tend to get overly enthusiastic about new projects. It’s kind of like that children’s book about the mouse who gets a cookie, but then he’s gonna need a glass of milk and a straw, then a napkin because now there are crumbs all over his face. These seedlings were my cookie, and gardening was now going to be my passion. Doesn’t matter that I had no clue what I was doing. I was going to plant these in the cafe’s garden and I was going to pull weeds, read moon charts and start smelling dirt or whatever else it is gardeners did. 

That’s where Joe came in. The gardener at Brooks Howell. A kind and thoughtful man, but also very German. Meaning he has a very stoic, straightforward attitude, and a dry sense of humor. I brought three of the worst looking seedlings to him and asked if I could put them in the ground somewhere. I mean they were plants, all they needed was to be put in the ground, right? He looked at the plants, looked at me and said “No. Wait here.” He disappeared for 15 minutes. When he came back, he had a bucket of compost. He explained to me that If I put my plants in the ground as they were, they would die. He pointed to the sad, dry soil around my plants and said “You see this? Dead. Now look at the compost. It is alive.” And it really did look alive. If you looked at it as a whole, not focusing on any one little worm or bug crawling around, that pile of compost was moving. Constantly changing, growing and producing. Thumping like a heartbeat. He showed me how to transplant, how to put some mulch on top of the soil so it wouldn’t dry out, then he poured some nasty smelling organic stuff on them and put them outside of his office.

“I will water them,” he said, “Now you must do is come and talk to them three times a day.” Well I thought that was a hilarious joke. But he looked at me and said he was very serious. I had rescued these plants, and they had been a part of my social life for the past few days. They needed to know that I still cared about them. So I did just that. I checked up on my plants in the morning, when I got home from work, and before I went to bed. 

I did the same with the seedlings I planted in the cafe’s garden. I checked on my cucumbers every day touching their leaves, and pulling out weeds that sprouted around them. I even built a makeshift fence for them using posts and old wire. And after about I week, I realized that I wasn’t the only one in the garden anymore. This space that hadn’t been tended to in a year was now teeming with people coming out to volunteer or offer advice. And everyone’s presence provided something different and useful. Neisha stopped me from pulling out an English Burdock plant that I had mistaken for a weed and explained its medicinal value.  David identified plants and flowers that were already growing there. Tom told me about how to get rid of the beetles that were eating away at my cucumber leaves. Alex pulled out all of the weeds, Jennifer built an enclosure for the tomatoes using an old pile of bricks and Sam tied them to stakes so they would be supported and grow upright. Those pepper, squash and eggplant seedlings were never dead, they just needed nurtured. And when they were, they grew.

My spontaneous decision to become a gardener taught me so much more than how to grow my own food. It taught me that a good community is like that pile of compost. Alive, enriched, and evolving. In one teaspoon of soil there are more organisms than there are people on earth. 

And yet not one participant’s role insignificant, because each one contributes to its growth just by living. Gardening taught me that I can’t do it alone. Whether that’s a plant, or a garden; a relationship or a community. When we use our time and energy to work and care for one another, we all grow tall and strong. And we bear good fruit.

From Brittney Heun - A Lesson on Death and Acceptance

Death is inevitable...and, death is beautiful. One of the most unexpected challenges for me this year has revolved around death. I have always had a complicated relationship and history with death, and had not planned on having it dug up and expanded upon this year. This year I have witnessed a few members of my community at Brooks-Howell pass away, and it has been tough at times. I will not stand here and pretend that all of them have hit me to the core, but some have been harder to process than others. What I can say for certain, is that each of their deaths have affected me in some way or another, and, if I am being honest with myself, I am grateful for the experience to share in a small part of their journey.

My work at AHOPE has given me a new understanding of life and death. I have seen people healthy and well one day, or as close to that as possible, and the next  they are being treated with Narcan because they ODed in our day room. I have seen folks in the throws of heavy substance abuse as well as clean and sober. All kinds of people have walked through the AHOPE doors and it is our job, to treat them each as their own person and help them the best we can. This can be as simple as handing them a towel so they can shower, or spending a container run, or 2, listening to their story and making sure they feel heard and loved.  Because of this, I have even had a client come up to me at the bus station and thank me for being his “therapist” and always taking the time to listen to his stories. 

Well today, I am switching roles. Now I am the one talking and telling my truth to you all. Now, before we get in too deep, I want to preface my story by saying that I do NOT have all of the facts, but I have some opinions, and I am hoping that you can take them for what they are; my opinions. For about a month and a half I have been trying to comprehend and process a couple of deaths within the homeless community. I am going to use my vulnerability muscle tonight and use you all to help me work through it, so bear with me please!

A particularly fascinating part of death is the grieving process. In early June a housed client of ours passed away, I believe of natural causes but I could be wrong. I do not know the specifics of this client's life, but from what I have gathered he was a beloved member of the community. Full of life, and a jovial spirit, he touched the lives of many people around him. When he passed, I saw how 2 communities had very different ways of handling this death. The way I understand it is that his case managers and other staff members that worked with him at some point on his housing journey with Homeward Bound grieved his loss, while others, like myself, were maybe a bit removed from it all. On the other hand I saw my roommate and her community at 12 Baskets really mourn his passing, and even raise money for the cremation. I believe that he even received 2 funerals, by 2 different organizations. It was truly amazing to see that no matter what the grieving process looked like, his death was met with love and kindness by everyone.

Unlike this client, we had an actively homeless client  that passed away and was not met by that same love and kindness, which she deserved. I do not have all the facts about her death, nor do I pretend to, but what I do know is I believe that it was not treated justly. This client did not die of natural causes, and the original police report has found their death to be “suspicious,” which to me usually mean foul play of some sort. It has scince been decided by the police to have been a suicide, and not foul play. I never saw a police report and got most of my information through the grapevine, but I choose to believe that those findings are inaccurate. I am struck by the lack of community bereavement I saw after this client’s death. 

Hang on tight because this is where I get real and vulnerable with all you lovely people. I related to this client on some level, and it scares me. I connected with her introvertedness, her lack of community, and her proclaimed nerdiness. About a month or so after I found out about her death, I was talking with a client in the container room who, at that moment was particularly scared and amped up. She told me that she stayed with the deceased at the Salvation Army, and knew that she didn’t really run around with a tight circle or with other people really. This client also agreed with me and told me that others felt that her death was not quite what we are being led to believe, as well.

I am left with some questions now. Was this client’s death treated differently because she was homeless? Was it because she was introverted? Was her worth diminished because of her introvertedness? Maybe it was assumed that no one would care? Well, I care! But, how do we get justice for all of those marginalized people that society deems expendable? 

At a team meeting about a month ago, my boss Nicole had mentioned a book she was reading called In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Garbor Maté. His book deals with addictions and the physical manifestations they bring about. Nicole had read us a quote, and a particular phrase stuck out to me. This phrase is  “Unconditional Acceptance.”

I believe that at AHOPE we do our best to try to practice unconditional acceptance everyday. Similarly, I believe that many of the organizations that I know of in town, that serve the homeless community, do a good job practicing it as well. However, I wonder what it would be like if society as a whole practiced it. Maybe, we could end the stigmas behind homelessness and treat every human being with love and kindness. If we are all beautiful, beloved children of God, then how can we let our brothers and sisters suffer so much? How can we stand by and watch as society forgets about our siblings? I understand that these are not easy questions I am asking, but I believe that they need to be voiced. I am in no way an expert on law, addiction, or poverty, but I am however, a person who has spent the past 11 months working immersed in a community that is full of people that have been affected by all of those topics. I have heard their first hand accounts, of how they struggle against them everyday. Due to this work, I have gained a new awareness that I never had before.

As someone who grew up in North East New Jersey, in a town where I had never seen homeless folks around, only heard the gossip about the man who slept in front of the Starbucks every once in a while, or about the man pushing a shopping cart up the main street  and the debate over whether he is homeless or a millionaires that chooses to live on the streets for whatever reason. On the flip side of that, I can hop on the train and go about 30 to 40 mins east to NYC and see people experiencing homelessness on every street. Since moving to Asheville, I have seen that homelessness is very different here than it is in NYC, and learned that each city has a different approach to it. So how can I now take what I have learned from my time serving in Asheville, to the North East?

I believe that one of the key pieces of this year that I can take with me is this idea of unconditional acceptance. Once we accept that there is a problem, and grasp the severity of homelessness, poverty, and addiction in our society, maybe then, we can try to fix it. I do not expect my words here tonight to change the world, and I wish they could do more to bring justice to our client who was killed and others like her. I wish I could end chronic homelessness with the stroke of a pen, but we all know that is not possible. What I can do, is keep all of the lessons I have learned this year close to my heart. I will keep all of our clients in my heart as well, and hope that maybe, just maybe, a couple of them will remember me and know how grateful I am to have been a part of their journey. 

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