Chapter 23: My Alaskan Adventure Takes Shape

On August 2 (my 23rd birthday, for all of you interested in buying me lots and lots of presents), I will head to Portland, Oregon for my orientation with Jesuit Volunteer Corps Northwest. After a week there, meeting with all the Northwest volunteers and staff, learning about JVC as an organization, and bonding with my new community members, I will fly to Sitka, Alaska where I will spend the next year of my life.

I’ve had a lot of fun telling people I’m headed to Alaska, but sometimes I omit a few details, so here’s a run down of what I know of the place and how my time there will look:

I will be working for an organization called Sitkans Against Family Violence (SAFV) as a women’s advocate. SAFV has a 27 bed shelter. I know some of what my job will entail, but recognize that I have A LOT to learn. As I understand it, I will go through a pretty thorough training for several weeks (months?) before I do much on my own. My tasks will include intake, accompanying those who seek our shelter services, paperwork (as all social work does) and as far as I can tell basically doing whatever is needed to meet the immediate needs of the women and children who come there.

As a Jesuit Volunteer (JV) I will be living with 5 other JVs who will also be serving in Sitka for the same August 2010-August 2011 period. There is one other volunteer who will work at the same organization as me as the “children’s advocate,” but the other volunteers work with different organizations in town. So five lovely ladies from all around the U.S. will be my community. Most JVC houses are co-ed, but we happen to be an all-female house. All the girls and I have emailed, “introduced” ourselves, and started discussing our upcoming year together. My friend Ian from Gonzaga, who will be starting his second year of JVC in Juneau, AK, has already challenged us to become the best all-female house in JVC history. I mentioned this to the girls in an email and I think we are all up to taking the challenge!

I have really enjoyed hearing all the tidbits of advice/information that people feel the need to share with me when I tell them I am moving to Alaska. My favorite comment so far was from my Uncle Ray who said, “Oh, you know what they say about Alaska: For women, the odds are good. But the goods are odd!”

Sitka is the fourth largest town in Alaska at about 8500 people. In summer, I understand it’s packed with tourists from cruise ships; the rest of the year I hear it rains. To be more specific, about 86 inches of rain annually. Awesome. My grandma asked what I wanted for my birthday and I said a new raincoat. Seriously… I’m going to REI next week to get it. But, I did request to be in Alaska and I am VERY excited to go to a BEAUTIFUL place and soak it all up. Sitka is one of the biggest commercial fishing ports in Alaska and also has quite a lot of Russian and Native Alaskan history.

Besides my job, I hear the recreational opportunities are GREAT (sea-kayaking anyone?!). I will be doing as many outdoor things as possible and yes, you will read about this on this blog (if you keep checking that is!). I have also sent in my application to work as a mentor with Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Alaska, where one of my community members will be working. As for what else will fill my time, well I’ll just have to wait and see 🙂

I have had many friends this first year out of college join JVC and they have had wonderful experiences. As a few of them are wrapping up their time as a JV, I’m just getting started. I’ve heard many great stories and listened to their triumphs and challenges throughout the year. JVC’s motto “Ruined for Life” sums up many of their experiences. I’m excited to have my own stories and also be “ruined.” Here is a reflection from my friend Emma who is finishing her year as a JV in Portland, Maine:

In the Hallway

“Miss Ackels, can I talk to you in the hallway?”

“Of course you can, Alex.”

My little 4th grade student led me into the hallway after school, and suddenly she started crying.
Amidst her tears and sobs, I caught only fragments of what she said.

“My teacher yelled at me… homework is too hard… they made fun of me… horrible day…”

I listened. Just listened. There wasn’t much I could say. I talked with her for a while, and then I
sent her to the bathroom to take care of herself.

“Take your time—take as long as you need,” I said. “Then come back when you’re ready.”

“Ok.”

Later that afternoon, she gave me a grateful hug as she left to go home.

Those moments in the hallway captured my heart. As a JV at Cathedral School in
Portland, Maine, I spent a lot of time in the school’s hallways. Although the school struggles
financially, it strives to provide a good education to its students—most of whom are immigrants
and refugees from war-torn countries in Africa. I taught Spanish, ran an after school program,
and assisted in various classrooms. Thus, as I moved from room to room, I spent a lot of time in
the hallway.

In the hallway 1st graders ran to me with hugs, and 3rd graders greeted me with jokes. It
was in the hallway that I told an 8th grader how proud I was that she raised her grades. And it
was in the hallway that I spoke seriously with a 7th grader about his behavior. A 4th grader taught
me, crying on the floor of the hallway, that children desperately need to know they are loved. A
7th grader taught me, through a humbling hallway conversation, that sometimes even a teacher
must ask a student for forgiveness. In the hallway I came to know my students, and they changed
me.

It was in the hallway that I decided to do a second year of JVC. After school one day, my
3rd grader Kevin asked, “Are you coming back next year?” I told him I didn’t know yet. “You
should,” he said, “You should come back.” And that was it. In that moment, I chose to do a
second year. He saw something good in me and told me what to do. So I did it.
Several months later, I finally decided to serve my second year in a new city, at a
new placement: Arrupe Neighborhood Partnership in Cleveland, Ohio. In Cleveland, I will
coordinate after school programs for urban middle school students. My second year is for
them. In a society that tells them they aren’t smart, successful, or beautiful, I hope to show
them they are loved. In a world where they are pushed into the margins and into under-funded,
overpopulated schools, I hope to work toward offering them the opportunities and education they
deserve. In the end, I hope to give all I can to these beloved children, knowing in humility that
they will give more to me.

On the last day of school at Cathedral School in Portland, my little 4th grader Alex
came to me in the hallway. She gave me a hug, and she wouldn’t stop. I told her it was
time to say goodbye, but she still held on. It was about a minute before she finally let go.
What Alex doesn’t know is that I feel the same way. I am struggling to let go of this
experience and this place—my first year of JVC. But as I walk out the hallways of one school, I
walk into the hallways of another. I go toward my second year knowing that the moments when
I will make the most difference, learn the most insight, and be the most heartbroken will be the
unexpected moments in the hallway.

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