Kleshas and Tanhas

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A PTSD from Community Service

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Second semester has its unique challenges, none of which a college freshman would anticipate. After a stressful first semester of social, academic, and mental hills that had to be overcome, one would think that second semester would be a breeze. Once adjusted to a new living style, workload, and diet, the second semester was supposed to be just like the first except for new classes. However, the anxiety that I knew would develop at one point or another crept up in an unexpected manner. I think it has something to do with the spring semester’s mindset; there’s no rush to teach students how to become a college student anymore. That being said, the delayed assignments never seemed to be assigned. Without a familiarly dense course load, I grow anxious.

In a similar fashion, service at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries began to take its toll. The routine never changed. A few newcomers have joined the wolf pack that we met with every Tuesday, but I can’t blame any one individual for such a dramatic change in pace. On reentering the tunnel that we call a daily routine, you become familiar with your surroundings. The newness of space and time restraints fades as the tunnel becomes grayer and goes by unchecked as ordinary.

It’s not all that dreary, though. Familiarity allows for my service partners and me to develop deeper relationships with the clients at MNM. This opportunity is great when thinking of service in terms of being “for and with others.” Nevertheless, on the way back from service, my service partner and I simultaneously experienced a jolt of anguish. Oddly enough, she verbalized our shared feeling right after I thought, “This area is like a war zone. These people are fighting the odds here; it’s an uphill battle for them.” I couldn’t help but think of those melodramatic scenes in war films where the company is returning from the front. The troops are battered from what they’ve seen.

Yet, what I’ve seen is not just the neighborhoods in this part of Philadelphia. I am not belittling these people by depicting their environment from my perspective. That’d be cynical. This PTSD, if I may, seems to have been slowly developing like my anxiety for the workload of this second semester. The breaking point, this past Tuesday, came when my service partner and I both realized that at some point on our return trip, our relationships no longer exist with the clients at MNM. We don’t have the luxury to Facebook ‘em or shoot them an email. But we are somehow still expected to develop a relationship, which is becoming increasingly difficult during the time we spend away from them.

Within the restraints of being volunteers, we obviously don’t have access to clients’ personal or medical information. I’m not saying we should either, but it would be nice to know where Mr. Paul has gone. He was something to write about…How are we supposed to ask about him? If they wanted us to know, they would have shared. If we had access to some basic information, we wouldn’t have to ask. The last thing we heard was that he was in the hospital. And not to call out the blatantly obvious, but working with individuals of a certain age inevitably leads one to disregard a certain thought and place in the back of his or her mind.

Still, all the while, we go to service just the same. Our service is about relationships, no doubt, because we aren’t cleaning, cooking, preparing –or any type of physical labor. We found that out last semester. We don’t need to be constructing some physical memorabilia to point at after we have finished it, kicking back to relax saying, “Ah. We’ve done something good today. Check that off the list. Better yet, let’s take a photo.” What my service partners and I are left with, then, is spending time with the individual. On learning that clients at MNM, like Ms. Gladys, spend time all alone until they return to Mercy the next day, we experienced the significance of our time spent with the clients.

But where has Ms. Gladys gone off to? My service partner discovered by indirectly asking around that she hasn’t been able to attend MNM for various reasons. The fluidity of not only the comings and goings of the clients, but our coming and going causes a lot of disruption in developing relationships. I’m not sure what really can be done other than talking about it. The system won’t change for deeper relationships; I think that ranks pretty low, ironically, on the priority list for a company that has to be systematically run. I mean to say that, while idealistically, stronger relationships would be great, the structure of not only service learning would have to change, but MNM would have to somehow give some basic information on the whereabouts of the clients that we year-round volunteers have befriended. I know that may be crossing the line for the volunteer-administration relationship, which is business like, yet, how are we to just cross our fingers and hope that the same individuals will be there next week? We are prohibited from progressing in our relationships. And in that fifteen minute car ride back home, we just sit and hope that the person we just shared a joke with will be there next week.

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Written by Jack Viere

February 5, 2012 at 9:30 am

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