All kinds of changes are afoot here at Chez LazyBuddhist. In addition to becoming a half-time college student, I’ve started down the path of do-goodery. In my mind, I always thought of myself as a do-gooder, but it was all intent and not much action.
Living in Richmond, California, I can see around me a lot of need. Less than a mile away from my cozy enclave of Point Richmond is the neighborhood of the Iron Triangle and the community of North Richmond. Richmond’s reputation as being a dangerous place to lives mostly comes from the crime, gangs, poverty, addiction and hopelessness in these two areas. In addition, both are directly downstream from the Chevron Refinery, so the health of the neighborhood is not good – the pediatric asthma rate in those neighborhoods are so high, hospitals may as well hand out an asthma inhaler with every new birth.
Three years ago there was a crime committed that got nationwide attention: the gang rape of a 15-year old girl at a school dance at Richmond High. Even now as I write this, my heart hurts for the girl, for our youth, and also for the community. At the time, I wanted to find some way to help to stop the cycle senseless violence that so many young people in our city seemed to be involved in. But, nothing presented itself in a way that made sense for me.
Fast forward three years later. This week I started volunteering at Richmond High as a writing coach through an amazing program called WriterCoach Connection. (Go ahead, click the link and go read about them, especially those of you in the Bay Area who are looking for a well-organized, worthy group to volunteer with. I’ll be here when you’re done.) I had learned about the organization from a couple of writer friends of mine who had volunteered with them in the Oakland schools. They both seemed to really enjoy it. So, when I learned they were expanding their program to Richmond, that’s when I knew I found my foothold into community do-goodery.
Most of the volunteers I trained with were Richmond residents – parents, grandparents, retired educators, writers – who, like me, wanted to find some way to help their community. Even after six-to-eight hours of training we were still nervous about our initial encounters with the kids. Would they like us? Would they see we had no idea what we were doing? Would they even be willing to accept our help? How am I supposed to help a kid compose a thesis statement when I barely remember what one is myself? Oh sweet Buddha, what in the hell have I gotten myself into?
The time finally came Thursday morning. About a dozen of us volunteers piled into the coaching room where we were given a pep talk by our amazing site coordinator, Karen. We then marched as a group way across campus to the classroom where the kids we were going to work with were waiting.
While I didn’t expect that we would be greeted like the Allied troops liberating Paris, I was a little unnerved to see a sea of such impassive faces. Not one of them cracked a smile to see our little parade of well-intentioned volunteers. Karen introduced the program to the kids, and we each introduced ourselves and announced which two kids we would work with. Mine were Fernando and Vanessa (not their real names). First up, Fernando.
Perhaps the most nerve-wracking thing was the specter of awkward silence during that first long walk back to the coaching room. But, Fernando was easy. We talked about music and the Raiders, and the heartbreak of being a fan of a team that never wins.
The assignment we were to help the kids with was a personal essay they had to write about an experience they had with discrimination. They were to bring with them their first drafts. Fernando’s story was about a Muslim friend of his who dresses in accordance with his culture and religion, and is given a hard time at school because of it. I was encouraging Fernando to use more detail and examples in his essay. For example, I really wanted to know what he meant by “they give him a hard time”.
“So, do they call him names? Do they bully him? More details will make the reader really feel for what your friend has to deal with”, I said.
Fernando looked away pensively. “Well, they call him a terrorist and stuff and no one wants to hang out with him.”
“So, they kind of shun him?” I asked. “Do you know that word?”
“Shun, shun” Fernando pondered. “No, what does it mean?”
“Let’s go get the dictionary” I said as I started to get up, but Fernando was already at the bookcase grabbing the Websters.
We looked up the word “shun”: to avoid deliberately; keep away from
“Yeah! Yeah! That’s it. They shunned him” Fernando said as he scribbled the word on his paper. “I’m gonna use that word.”
Our time ended too soon. We were on a roll.
“So”, he said as he was packing up his stuff, “are you regular?”
My first impulse was to make a joke about that being a rather personal question, but I knew what he meant. “Yeah, I’m going to be your regular coach.”
Fernando looked away as he hoisted his backpack over his shoulder and muttered an almost imperceptible “cool”.
Working with Fernando left me with a serious case of the warm and fuzzies. My other student, Vanessa, was more poignant, and broke my heart a little. No, she broke my heart a lot. Her pain was so evident. I’m hoping eventually she’ll come to trust me. But, I look forward to working with both of these kids.