A second Buck-I-Serv trip in the books for this year’s Spring Break. This time, I had the opportunity to volunteer at Focus:HOPE in Detroit, Michigan with three students. We might have been small, but we were certainly mighty!
At Focus:HOPE, the organization’s mission is to serve the underprivileged community through meals and through Early Childhood Learning. Founders Fr. William Cunningham and Ms. Eleanor Josaitis directly responded to the racial tensions, specifically the Detroit Riots of 1967, through Focus:HOPE. Their mission continues to advocate for their mission of inclusion.
*Disclaimer: I will not be using real names of the people in order to protect privacy.
Day 1: March 9, 2020 – The day started with Welcome/Introductions/Orientation. We heard the story about how Focus:HOPE began with Fr. Cunningham and Ms. Eleanor, and just how the organization expanded through time. We were given a tour of the warehouse facilities and the Early Childhood Learning Center. Their facilities are large and expansive coverage throughout the city. There are federal and state funds that come into the organization for various needs of the demographics that they support.
Today, our volunteer time was spent at the Early Learning Center. I was in the classroom with 3-5 year olds, assisting [Ms. D] and [Ms. G]. When I arrived, there were so many kids that were excited to probably have a new face in the room. They were in the middle of playtime and they immediately wanted to play with me – I was being pulled in five different directions by the children. Their excitement was so pure and wholesome. [K] just wanted to play all the things I could play with her – baby care, drawings, phone calling, etc. [D1] had the sweetest smile; she was very quiet but it was enough for her that I would smile at her or hug her back every few times she approached. [D2] loved the attention; she made it clear that she wanted attention every time she was around me. [S] was a ball of energy in a very small human; he was all over the place! He was so eager to play everything, but especially phone calls.
All the kids were so engaged and playful. It was such wonderful energy to be around. After playtime, all of the kids cleaned up then sat on the carpet and each one took turns talking about what they did in the day. Then they lined up for gym time.
At gym, [K] challenged me to hula-hoop. I still have no abilities to keep the hoop circling around me despite having the hips for it! [S] bounced a basketball back and forth with me, like we were playing 4-square handball. Then he challenged me to shoot the ball into the hoop – yet another thing I am untalented in. He really thought just because I was almost twice his height that I would be able to make the ball in. I don’t think he was disappointed though; he laughed at me every time I missed. [T] cried about the other basketball that he kept trying to get from [Ms. D], only for him to just give it to me shortly after he got the ball. So now [S] and I had two basketballs to play with!
After gym time, the kids had lunch: rice, beans, collared greens, cornbread, muffins, fruit cups, and milk. They were so independent; they didn’t need help serving the food or feeding themselves. Not to mention, there was very little mess made. I was really impressed. Remember how as children we refused to nap? These kids were the same way. It took time to get some of them to nap, but once they were all gone – they were asleep! Just as hard as it was to get them to nap, it was also hard to get them up. Luckily, snacks waiting for them really did some impressive waking up. If they continue to stay motivated with snacks, I think these kids are going places!
Day 2: March 10, 2020 – In the morning, we were working in the Westside of the facility. It was basically their food pantry where the seniors could pick up a grocery list of items to supplement their meals. They check in, get their list, grab a cart, and walk along the assembly line of food items to pick up, scan the items at the end with the cashier for inventory. We assisted by putting the canned/boxed food into their carts as they moved along: 2 boxes of cheese, 1 bottle of juice, 1 can of beef, 2 cans of salmon, 1 box of raisins, 2 cans of pears, 8 cans of vegetables (green beans or mixed veggies), 2 bags of rice or macaroni, 2 bags of cereal boxes, and milk. We spent 3 hours helping at the Westside facility. The seniors I met while serving at Westside were so kind and sweet. Some of them talked about how they remember when they were young and could do almost anything, some of them were talking about how energetic and excited I was, and one of them was a Filipina lady who got very excited about how I spoke Tagalog.
We took a short lunch break and the headed out to deliver food packages to the seniors. We called the seniors in the zip code we were delivering to and let them know that we were delivering their food packages. Just like their supplement food from Westside facility, they received the same amount of food in the food packages. We delivered to 9 seniors and it was such a blast to get to talk to them; they were so excited. There were several seniors that were in the same area and even a few of them were in the same apartment building. Every one of them welcomed us into their homes, told us some stories about their lives, and told us to be safe before we all left out. I felt embraced by their kindness and how welcoming they are.
Day 3: March 11, 2020 – Back at the children’s! Too bad they were only half day today. We were there from the very beginning of the day this time; on Monday, we were there a little later because of the tour. The kids hang for a little bit in the morning before getting started. They start off with [Ms. S] having them count how many girls and boys are in the room, say the names of everyone that was not in the class, say the numbers that were written on the board (randomly), then draw their feelings (faces in circles). Then [Ms. S] had each one of them count from 1-10 and pick which play area they wanted to play in: toys, house area, books/reading area, writing area, etc. There were so many things for them to do and there were only 8 of the children this week, so they got to play a lot in the different areas. [H] and [K2] played as doctor/nurse and gave me different “diagnoses” and “medicines” to treat me. Because of half day, they ate lunch immediately after clean-up. Then my students and I hung tight to help clean up the classroom: wipe down and disinfect the toys, chairs, and tables.
Day 5: March 13, 2020 – We worked in the morning only because the students were set to leave after lunch and be back on Ohio State’s campus by a certain time (aka: be back for all that’s going on with the Coronavirus). We stood in an assembly line putting the food that gets delivered to the seniors as their food packages. I don’t know how many boxes we made today, but I know we were working and we worked pretty fast. In Day 4 (which I missed), they were able to make 420 boxes in an hour.
Being at this organization over the last week reminded me a lot about the my first dreams and goals of when I still wanted to become a medical doctor. A younger J-Mi wanted to become a doctor and after having enough money, building a foundation that was similar to the service that Focus:HOPE does. I envisioned my organization having a medical clinic, an educational learning center for all ages, a facility that supports homelessness, and a dining facility with a food pantry. This dream came from my own history of being born into a very impoverished neighborhood of the Philippines and growing up in a low-income community in Los Angeles. Though the dream of being a medical doctor is no longer what’s current, I still have aspirations of being able to help those who I can with the power and privilege that I have. However, that may now look like volunteering rather than building my own organization.
The Children: Working with the children had me considering being born into being impoverished. For the first few years of my life while my mom and I were still living in the Philippines, we lived on the side of railroad tracks with very little to eat. When I tell you about how these children were so independent and self-sustaining, it didn’t feel so much of a surprise. All the children in the space I was working with during my time at the Early Childhood Learning Center were children of color. I think there tends to be a pattern where people of color grow up to be more independent and self-sustaining because they have to be, regardless of what context or environment has brought them there. Growing up with a similar background, I’ve always known what it was like to have to think about things from an older perspective. I was expected to grow up sooner and I didn’t get as much of being young as some students have.
It’s wonderful to see how these children are getting a childhood and a learning experience. In these classrooms, they aren’t just students – the teachers in these spaces really care for them, some like their own kids. A lot of the teachers have been a part of Focus:HOPE for a long time, and sometimes you bear witness to burnout. That’s not what I saw while I was there. What I saw was warmth, concern, and the kids being able to be their own. These teachers have completed some of early childhood education certification or degree, which means they could have gone and taught at other schools or they could have gotten jobs with more benefits, among other things, but they were here – and that is something admirable. They wanted to be in Focus:HOPE, they wanted to work with the people and the children at this organization, and I truly have so much appreciation and respect for the way they are committed to their job.
The Seniors: I don’t consider my grandparents “old” despite being of elderly age (they definitely count in “Seniors”) because of how I see them function. They’re able to do anything without help or without other people needing additional help, and I especially know that considering that I don’t live near my grandparents. The thing is, my grandparents aren’t very far in age from the seniors we met at Focus:HOPE or while delivering food packages to their home. I couldn’t imagine my grandparents needing so much assistance, which really helps me see how privileged my family has been. To be able to function and sustain completely on one’s own at an elderly age is definitely coming from a privileged stance. Hearing a lot of the seniors commenting on how energetic I was, or how much more strength they had when they were my age, or anything that comments on being younger. I hope that people choose to be kinder.
We also met some awesome Ohio State Alumni during our trip! One of the alumni we met was someone who was one of the Brutus Buckeye mascots while he was an undergrad at Ohio State. In one of the years that he had been the mascot, Brutus Buckeye had won the national championship for best mascot. Oh, and he gave me a signed photo of him during the Ohio State vs. UofM 2015 game. I can’t even tell you how excited I was.
This city – it takes my breath away. Downtown Detroit reminded me a lot of Downtown LA. Sky-high buildings and plenty to explore. It was just a lot less congested with people and with traffic than LA is. It was amazing and it was beautiful to be able to explore some of the city while we were here. Sights seen were:
- Riverside Park – Taking pictures on railroad tracks, with the sight of Downtown Detroit in the background.
- Ambassador Bridge – The bridge that connects Detroit to Windsor, Canada.
- Mexicantown – A neighborhood in Southwest Detroit with restaurants, bakeries, and shops offering traditional Mexican food and baked goods with sights of beautiful decorations and showcase of Latinx art.
- Ashe Supply Co – You know I had to stop by for coffee, especially a local place.
- Comerica Park Tiger Stadium – The stadium for Detroit Tigers. One question – Why were there so many tiger statues?!
- The BELT – An alley in Downtown Detroit featuring beautiful murals of various artists.
This was an experience that had me deeply reflecting (and TBH crying) at how far I’ve come from my childhood. I came from a very impoverished background when I was born in the Philippines and grew up in a low-income community in Los Angeles. This week was a humbling reminder of my beginnings and what makes it so important that I continue to give back in the ways I can.
Until next time,