Showing Up at Virginia Supportive Housing

Noah Hillerbrand, ’18, is a Bonner Scholar. His reflection describes his time at Virginia Supportive Housing, a nonprofit that aims to end homelessness by providing permanent housing and support services.

My favorite community engagement time during this Bonner cycle was serving dinner at Virginia Supportive Housing. It reminded me very much of my past service at Inspiration Cafe. In both cases, it is the conversations I have with the people there that engage me the most and leave me feeling changed. In fact, during the time at VSH we had so many “cooks in the kitchen” that there was very little for me to do during parts of the prep. This gave me the opportunity to sit and talk with the people there. It can be difficult at first to strike up a conversation with someone who’s story is so different from my own, who’s identity is different than my own. On one side, you have me. A college student. High school graduate. I come from a stable home. On the surface, my identity is different than the people I spoke with at VSH. But by showing vulnerability, opening up and learning about people with different stories, I found that our identities had many similarities. Some of these things are seemingly shallow. Both myself and one of the patrons there identified as football fans. Other things were more personal. And as to be expected, there were many things that were different. But the sharing allowed us to connect.

Earlier tonight, I went to UR Zen meditation. One of the topics we discussed was that when someone is facing a problem, it is not always the best, or necessary, to help them. Sometimes we don’t have the skills to help. Sometimes it is important for the person to fix a problem independently. However, it is very important to be in support of someone. For me personally, this also includes a religious aspect. I like to call it the ministry of presence. This is really what I find important about doing service like we did at VSH.

It is important to open up and learn from people whose identities are different than our own. We can’t completely solve the problems many of the patrons at Virginia Supportive Housing, but by showing up and sharing, we support them.

Exploring Healthcare in Richmond

Mony is a junior Bonner Scholar who grew up in Egypt. She is double majoring in Healthcare and Society and Psychology. She has been serving at Crossover Clinic for the past two years. CrossOver Healthcare Ministry is Virginia’s largest free health care clinic, serving more than 6,815 patients every year.  The majority of the population they serve are the working poor who often have to choose between food, shelter and health insurance and cannot qualify for Medicaid.

So what work do you do at CrossOver?

“I work as a patient advocate. I am usually in the front office: checking patients in, making appointments, if they had questions about bills or questions about physicians, I answer them. If they have concerns, I talk to them and see how I can help and if I can’t help, I talk to my supervisor. I also translate for Arabic speakers. I love the experience of seeing what happens inside the exam room.”

Did you find anything surprising when you worked at CrossOver last summer?

“When I translated for Arabic-speaking patients, it was shocking how many details got lost because I couldn’t necessarily translate word by word into English. There are words that don’t directly translate. So that was a little bit tough because sometimes there were some medical terms in English that are very different in Arabic.”

Did you volunteer back home?

“Ya, I volunteered a lot back home. I worked in first aid organization that certifies people in first aid and CPR. I also volunteered during the revolution [in Egypt] with the Red Cross and I volunteered with the doctors and nurses in Tahrir square. People came with injuries, and I also listened to people’s stories and saw the proof of their stories.”

Do you see any of the skills or experiences from your service relate to what you want to do in the future?

“We work with people who are uninsured or have really low income. Well, since I started working at CrossOver, my ultimate goal is to work on national healthcare policy and provide insurance for as many people as possible because it is really awful not to have insurance. The government is supposed to help people–all of the people–and the doctors have an oath to not do any harm. My time at CrossOver has also taught me about how to be dedicated to one task and how to build a backbone and communicate effectively with patients in the clinic.”

This interview was produced by Bonner Senior Intern, Aarti Reddy, and Junior Class Representative, Raef Lambertson.

Stepping into a Coal Miner’s Shoes – Beckley Mine Tour

By Omar Farooq, ’16

Applications for SEEDS 2015 are due Friday, November 7 at midnight. To view this and other student reflections from SEEDS, check out their online journal archive

Clunk! I heard an old, rusted metal switch go off. I was staring into a dark abyss. I made sure my eyes were open, fearing I had gone blind. Despite having about thirty people around me, this darkness brought about emptiness and loneliness. I had lost my bearings and was trapped. The dark coal walls seemed to be closing in towards me. To my relief, and that of everyone around me, the tour guide turned the lights back on.

Over the course of the SEEDS trip, we got a hands-on experience of being in a coal mine. The Beckley Mine was operational in the early 20th century. It was closed and then reopened in the 1950s. Much later, it was bought, renovated and turned into an exhibition. The exhibition not just includes an actual coal mine tour but also depicts different parts of a 1950s coal camp, like a church, school, superintendent’s house and miner’s shanty. However, above all my favorite part of the mine tour was when the tour guide turned off the lights in the mine.

After visiting a coal mines in War and Beckley, and hearing people’s stories, I was able to paint a picture of how it was to be a coal miner. Imagine yourself crouched, in a dark, suffocating place, putting in your blood and sweat eight hours a day to get a below average wage. Your happiness and fate was tied to that one-inch, yellow flame on top of the small carbide lamp. You did not know if you would be the seeing sunlight ever again.

The risks of the coal mining were enormous. For starters, you could be buried alive due to a cave-in. Moreover, working with dangerous heavy machinery could lead to fatal injuries. Machine nicknames like “the widow maker” were not misnomers. Additionally, your lamp, which is your last ray of hope, could trigger a methane gas or a coal-dust explosion. Adding to the list, you also could get poisoned due to dangerous gases like hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide. Even if you’re lucky to escape all of the above, health problems like the black lung disease will slowly kill you from the inside.

However, since the 1950s coal-mining practices have improved, either because of technological advancements or government regulations. Despite, through Scotty’s stories we learned about a lot of problems that still persist in the coal mining community. Mountain top removal, which is the main method of coal extraction in West Virginia, leads to deforestation, loss of habitat and eventually deprives people of clean ground water. It can also lead to atmospheric pollution due to the explosives used to blow up mountains. The lack of economic diversification in coal communities, as machinery replaces labor and as coal towns are abandoned, eventually leads to poverty. Poverty then, ends up becoming the root of health problems and poor education. Furthermore, people try to rely on false disability benefits, which is a burden on taxpayers. On top of that drug abuse worsens this vicious cycle.

There are two sides to every story and we need to consider the other side too. Coal mining does bring a source of livelihood to these people and coal is important to power the American economy. The solution to these problems is not to completely stop coal mining. Grass-root level steps make small differences over time but there also needs to be some top-down effort. Coal companies need to be more strictly monitored and regulated in terms of the externalities of their operations. Authorities need to make sure that removed mountaintops are reclaimed and there is a sustained supply of services like clean water, education and infrastructure to the people in the community. Secondly, steps need to be taken so the community is less dependent on coal by providing people other economic alternatives.

Stepping into the shoes of a coal miner was a life-changing experience. Hearing about all these problems, I got slightly disheartened at first. I felt like the actual service work we did over the trip had extremely little tangible effect on solving these problems. I began to ask myself questions. What could I do as an individual to help? Or can I even do anything significant that will help? The answers lied in the power of stories, service learning and spreading awareness. The knowledge of what is going around you is one of the most important weapons in your arsenal. By sharing this knowledge, we can empower people to make wise decisions and hence make this world a better place for the future generations. I will carry a part of West Virginia in my heart, wherever I go. Marsha and Scotty shared their stories to make an impact and now it’s my time to share mine.