Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

Precisely What They Need

April 29th, 2010 · No Comments

After a five-week hiatus due to Easter break and an extended holiday in Rome (thank you, Eyjafjallajökull), I finally returned to the Thursday club. I was immediately greeted warmly and they made me feel like my presence was really missed. I was thrilled to catch up with Duane and company about their holidays, and of course I had a chance to brag about my beautiful (and free!) set-up overlooking the Vatican dome. Don’t be jealous or anything.

After reminiscing and catching up with my fellow volunteers, we split like usual into older and younger kids. Fellow student and experienced child-worker Katie and I were the only ones working with them, and considering how difficult the kids can be, I proceeded with trepidation. When we entered the auxiliary building, we found two kids lounging on newly purchased beanbag chairs, playing Wii. A few more kids started funnelling in and before we knew it, we had a full house. Fortunately, they were all superbly behaved! A teen named Thomas, Katie, and I found ourselves embroiled in a nail-biting game of giant Jenga, while the rest of the kids wrestled on the beanbags. After much suspense, I pulled the wrong block and demolished the structure. After a few more games, we decided to set the blocks up like dominoes in a giant figure eight. All in all, everyone had a great time.

Once all the kids left, Katie and I tidied up. While I washed dishes, I met a church member. Never in my life have I discussed the weather so vigorously. I’ve officially spent too much time in this country.

After joining the rest of the workers, I noticed everyone was in high spirits. The kids in both groups were exceptionally pleasant, so moral was high all around. While we chatted, I learned that the two of the kids I spent time with had severe behavioral disorders. One of them only attends half-days at school, spending the rest of the day away from his peers who he has a history of abusing. The other has an impressive police rap sheet, and he is only fourteen. I could hardly believe my ears, considering how well they behaved.

There are, I believe, two contributing factors to their improved demeanor. The first is the selfless dedication and hard work the volunteers show week after week. Every pleasant moment spent with the kids makes up for all the swearing, fighting, and disciplinary action. It is all part of the challenge that, in the grand scheme of things, improves both the lives of the children and the volunteers that help them grow.

The other factor is humungous beanbags. Everyone loves those.

On the ride back, Duane explained to me that Lakenham, the district New Hope Christian Centre is located, has a 24 percent illiteracy rate. To draw a comparison, all of Europe has a literacy rate of over 90 percent; the vast majority is over 97 percent. Lakenham is poor, uneducated, and dilapidated. The issues faced by many of the children are related directly to neglect by their parents, or in all but a few cases, parent. Volunteers keep returning because they give the kids something they seldom find at home: love and devotion.

Hours logged: 2.5

Total hours: 10

Tags: Andrew B

Another Interesting Night

March 19th, 2010 · No Comments

Yesterday I headed back down to New Hope Christian Centre for yet another night at the Thursday after-school club. My first experience was largely negative, while the second was much more fulfilling, so I didn’t know what to expect for attempt #3.

When I arrived, I caught up with Duane and company. They seemed legitimately sad that I won’t be around for the next few weeks over break (I’ll be in the US, Greece, and Italy!), which made me feel like I was really making a contribution to the organisation. One of the best aspects of volunteering is the warm, fuzzy feeling of accomplishment. I definitely felt that way, in spades. Go me.

I spoke to the social work student Katie and Duane’s wife Clare about the plans for the evening. Since some of the children requested more music, we took out the church’s electric keyboard. Unfortunately, none of us really knew how to play. I expected lots of banging on keys and loud, discordant noises, and believe me, I was not let down.

When the kids arrived, they jumped all over that keyboard like a fat kid on a dozen Dunkin Donuts. Josh, the resident big kid (read: bully) shouldered his way through the line of kids waiting to make ‘music’ and proceeded to bang his fists on the keys as hard as he could. It is an interesting phenomenon how one bad seed can change the dynamic of a group of kids so dramatically. He was acting like a jackass, so everybody else needed to follow suit. One of Josh’s lackeys and I had the following conversation:

Kid: “Hey, what’s your name?”

Me: “Andrew. What’s yours?”

Kid: “Suck my willy, wanker!”

Me: “Pleasure meeting you too.”

I suggested to Duane that Josh and a few of his troublemaking friends be banned. So he kicked them out for a week, leaving a motley mix of impressionable children without a rabble-rousing big kid to lead them. To my surprise, most of them went from borderline sociopaths to reasonable teenagers with whom I managed to hold decent conversation. What a pleasant change.

We played cards for a while and had a pretty fun time. One of the boys informed me that my accent sounds like Duane’s, meaning I sound like a Texan. No one really knows what their voice truly sounds like to the ears of other people, but I’m pretty sure I don’t sound like a southerner. Learn something new every day, I suppose.  

Later on, the boys started getting rowdy again. Instead of trying to calm them down, which wouldn’t work, I decided to channel their hyperactivity into something entertaining for me and the other adults. I taught them how to ‘elephant fight’ by putting your hand over your face with your left hand, while crossing your right arm behind the left, and swinging it around like a maniacal pachyderm. Google Images does a better job explaining than words ever could:

During the debriefing session, Duane and Clare lead us in prayer. This is something they usually do, being a Christian group. Usually I sort of zone out during prayer, not at all interested in giving thanks to the good lord Jesus. This time I actually listened carefully to their words and was moved. They thanked the lord for the opportunity to help some children enjoy their probably difficult lives. They thanked Jesus for the human capacity to empathise, giving us the ability to put ourselves in the shoes of the kids and really help them. I thought their words were so moving, I even said Amen in the end.

Hours logged: 3

Total hours: 8.5

Tags: Andrew B

A Complete 180

March 13th, 2010 · 2 Comments

Not exactly knowing what to expect after last week’s experience, I headed over to New Hope Christian Centre for another few hours of rowdy 13 and 14 year-old boys and girls. When I arrived at 18:00, I helped Duane and crew set up for the night’s activities. Considering how all attempts at organized activity failed miserably last week, I thought to myself that it might be more effective to load up tranquilizer rifles instead of inflating balloons. But hey, I’m not in charge.

I had the option to help out with the younger and generally better behaved kids. But since the only two volunteers for the older ones were Clare and the 22-or-so year-old Katie, I thought my services might be better appreciated with them. We discussed my suggestion last week for an elected youth council of sorts. We decided to focus on group activities and bring the subject up next week.

Around 18:45 the kids started funnelling into the church. As usual, they were rowdy and loud, so I immediately started dreading a repeat of last week. Fortunately, many of the especially problematic children didn’t show up, leaving us with a manageably small group of fifteen or so. Some of the boys went outside to play manhunt with Duane, their favourite game. I stayed inside and taught three boys how to play the card game of the gods, Egyptian Rat Screw. I introduced the game as follows:

Me: “Hey do you guys want to learn a card game?”
Boys: “Nah, learning is boring.”
Me: “It involves slapping each other.”
Boys: “Teach me your ways, Sensei.”

OK, so the last part didn’t go precisely like that, but you get the idea. Needless to say, the boys loved the game and wanted to teach it to everybody. During the debriefing later, Duane asked how the older group went. Clare told him that “Andrew had them eating out of his hand.” Hearing that was pleasant, especially considering how helpless I felt the previous week.

Overall, the children were much better behaved this week. Violence was kept at a minimum and I was actually able to hold a reasonable conversation with some of them. I believe the more experienced volunteers are starting to see my potential and have been taking many of my suggestions to heart. I am honestly looking forward to next week’s Thursday club.

Hours logged: 2.5
Total Hours: 5.5

Tags: Andrew B

“If You’re Gonna Fight, At Least Take it Outside”

March 5th, 2010 · 1 Comment

My paper topic is on special education, what better place to volunteer than a school with a renowned special ed. program. Unfortunately, as Anya noted a while back, lengthy background checks are required for working with children. So I went to plan B: contact every volunteering and community service organiser Google has to offer. After a long and annoying process of playing email tag and waiting around for hours in coffee shops for my contacts to arrive (they never did), I finally managed to cement a legitimate volunteering opportunity. Duane Elkins is a 30-something man born and raised in Texarkana, Texas. He moved to Norfolk about 10 years ago and married a local woman. As a result, Duane has by far the coolest accent in the history of accents. Take hokey southern and mix it with hokey Norfolk, and you get Duane. But I digress.

Duane and his wife Claire (pronounced “Cleh”) run an after-school program on Thursday for children in the Lakenham area out of a church. A group of volunteers spend time and play games with whoever decides to show up. The area is economically deprived and many parents do not pay their children adequate attention. Some of the parents have learning disabilities. Others are too busy working long hours. And of course, some are apathetic.

I took the #004 Anglian from the central bus station to Lakenham. The stop I needed was at a pub called, I kid you not, “The Cock.” Asking the bus driver to take me there was just as awkward as I expected it would be. When I arrived at the church at 18:00, I found Duane and he introduced me to the other volunteers. It was a motley crew of young, middle aged, and older folks all there free of charge, taking valuable time out of their busy schedules to give local children something to do and keep out of trouble.

Duane explained to me that all children are welcome regardless of age. Some of the kids have special needs; others just have nowhere else to go after school. There are no written rules anywhere. If a child is especially poor behaved, he is kicked out, “banned,” for a fortnight. The goal of the program is to teach the participants how to respect authority and each other while having lots of fun in the process. Some nights are successful and all around enjoyable while others are a nightmare. My first experience falls into the latter category.

The plan for the evening was to make paper mache for the young kids and teach the older ones a game called murder mystery. I chose to help out with the older crowd. Claire and a younger woman studying social work accompanied me. They explained to me that the older ones are sometimes very difficult to handle. Many of them have parents who never taught them the meaning of respect.

The kids were so badly behaved it was actually frightening. The moment they arrived they started going crazy, swearing, fighting each other, and throwing playing cards and tea bags around the room. It was impossible to control this group of 13 and 14 year-olds. The boys were violent and crude and the girls were just plain mean to each other. The whole situation was not at all how I imagined.

The worst part was the complete lack of authority from the adults. I felt helpless standing at the sidelines while the kids trashed the room and fought each other. At one point Claire yelled at two of the boys, “If you’re gonna fight, at least take it outside.” One of the combatants, 13 year-old redheaded Liam is a known drug dealer. A few weeks back, another kid, Ben, misbehaved and was chastised by Duane. Ben proceeded to call 999 and report that Duane was abusing him. The police, knowing better, ended up escorting Ben home while Duane shook his head in frustration. Last night, another child whose name escapes me kicked the chair legs out from a sweet little girl called Georgia, knocking her in tears to the floor. Duane banned him. The kid called him a “fucking faggot” and stormed out. We never managed to teach any games.

After all the kids went home, the volunteers met to debrief. During the meeting, we chowed down on birthday cake and discussed the evening. Apparently, this was the worst and least successful night in months. I guess I chose to right time to start. We brainstormed new ideas to keep the kids in check. Someone suggested a list of written rules up on the wall and a yellow and red card system for those who break them. I proposed an elected system of government, entirely managed by the children. They are clearly already in control, so why not give them some structure to work with?

Eight year-old Ashley, the severely ADHD son of a volunteer, noted that the lack of rules is what separates the group from school. His contributions were helpful and valid, so he was treated like an adult. Ashley embodies the essence of what the group is meant to be. He treated us with respect, so we reciprocated. I was surprised at his precociousness, despite his hyperactivity and young age. Ironically, the older kids pick on Ashley while they should be emulating him.

Around 21:00, the meeting was over and we cleaned everything up. I had a nice conversation with Ashley about WWE wrestling. Did you know that The Undertaker was still competing? He must be in his forties! Overall, my first night at the Thursday youth club was an interesting one, to say the least. I am looking forward to going back next week to a hopefully better behaved crowd.

Time logged: 3 hours

Total time: 3 hours

Tags: Andrew B

Sense of Community

September 6th, 2009 · No Comments

There will never be complete peace and unity with a community.  Unfortunately, the same is true for a religious group.  There will always be arguments between the more orthodox members of the society and how they interpret scripture, rules, or messages, and the younger generation that was raised in a very different world from their predecessors.  In some cases, these arguments lead to forward progress for the religion as a whole, for example with more equality for women or more opportunities for all members of the congregation.  However, just as often if not more so, this can lead to divides and people leaving the faith altogether. 

In many ways Sikhism and Hinduism are very similar.  Both religions believe that shoes should be removed before entering the inner sanctum of the temple, that peace is a necessary force in life, that donations and charity will hold you in higher stead with the god(s), and that life is a journey to learn from.  However, when observing the people at the Sikh and Hindu temples I discovered another thing that both religions prize – children.  There was a definite sense that the children were learning to respect their religions from a very early age.  In the Gurdwara I saw a little girl of about 4 tying a headscarf onto her squirming little brother.  Obviously this girl had learned that in her faith, covering your head is necessary inside of the temple.  In the Hindu temple, many young children went up to their parents to get change to offer to a particular deity in prayer. 

The other thing that struck me as interesting was how the Sikhs and Hindus have adapted to being in the United Kingdom.  Some changes are quite obvious, the Sikh men cannot carry their defensive swords due to British law.  However, it is interesting to consider that some Sikhs have been forced to remove their head-covering or trim their facial hair due to the parameters of their jobs.  The changes for the Hindus are not as obvious.  It is, of course, possible that some Hindus have rejected the idea of obstaining from meat and fish since entering the UK, but that doesn’t seem to have the same direct correlation as with the Sikhs and their changes. 

Although this blog post is supposed to focus mainly on the Sikh and Hindu religions, I would find it amiss if I did not mention problems and arguments within my own faith.  I stated at the beginning of the post that all religions have problems, but sometimes the butting-of-heads between the younger generations and those who are more set in their ways can end in forward progress.  I’m a practicing Roman Catholic and I know that my religion is not perfect.  However, I think that the stubbornness of those people who are high up in the Catholic hierarchy on the issues of married priests, female priests, homosexuality, etc. are going to cause the faith I believe in to crash and burn in the future.  (Can you tell I’m liberal?) 

In many ways, this links directly to the Sikhs and the Hindus.  Both are being forced to adapt to their surroundings, both religiously and culturally, in Britain; some as second-generation immigrants who believe in their religion to a degree and others as die-hard orthodox followers.  In order for their religion continue to have forward progress, these people need to sort out their differences long enough to come to a consensus.  I hope my Church will do that too.

Tags: Kelley