As I finally gathered all of my belongings for the week into a bag, I have started to reflect on the past 8 weeks of planning leading up to my first Alternative Spring Break of Site Leading. After multiple trainings & office hours with my co-site leader, calling Tasha (our site coordinator), calling Bill (our housing coordinator), & planning every last detail to make this break successful; I can finally say I am ready. As soon as the clock strikes midnight, the twelve of us in two cars will travel eleven hours to Kansas City, Missouri to work with Operation Breakthrough specifically with pre-school children & to mentor each of them.
Operation Breakthrough cares each weekday for more than 400 children, ages 6 weeks to 13 years. More than 87% of the enrolled families live below the federal poverty guidelines, most far below them.
About 20% of the children are homeless or near homeless, living in battered women’s or homeless shelters or transitional living programs. Often they sleep on the sofas of friends or relatives, sometimes even living in cars, rundown hotels or abandoned buildings. About 10-15% of our children are in foster care or other placements due to abuse, neglect or other family crises. The average income of our families is $12,898.
The coolest part, CMU students will be making an impact on them for the first time in years & will factor into returning for future years. Another cool part, my co and I are in charge of these ten students & they are putting their faith in us to make this great.
Sunday, March 6th:
After a necessary pit stop at a Waffle House, we made it to Kansas City in this beautiful 70 degree weather! Too bad we were so tired we all came back and napped after buying 400$ worth of groceries. After making a lunch/dinner & then a post dinner, we unpacked/relaxed until about 7:30pm when we decided to explore a little. We looked out over the lit city lights of Cliff Drive. It was beautiful.
Monday, March 7th:
speechless. Today was such a heavy day and it’s only day one. We started off by having a two hour orientation regarding what Operation Breakthrough does, who they help, why they exist, & what we can do to help. Tasha (volunteer coordinator) & OB CEO touched on some heavy statistics followed with a heartfelt video. This day care & early learning center is such a unique place in that not only does this community have the need for it, but the parents do as well. They told us that Troost St (where OB is located) is called the murder plaza because of the high criminal rate & constant sirens we heard to back up this statement. The kids have experienced about 4 traumatizing events in their life before they were 4 years old. One little girl specifically has experienced trauma with a gun 3 times & wonders why everyone gets hurt. That’s why OB provides therapy, music, art, & occupational therapy for the family besides just day care & educational programs. They also strive for the children interaction to be using positive reinforcement & with descriptive phrases to help them developmentally as most kids never had a parent that taught them those things like we did & are 30 million words behind the gap. They also are big on no rough housing, hitting, playing with your hair or sitting on your lap, and communicating everything to minimize the gap.
Operation Breakthrough’s goals are the center of excellence, great staff, culture/support, and accountability. They pair with 17 schools & offer service before and after schooling even past states regulations of pay. Operation Breakthrough pairs with Head Start to ensure kids experience. Both have eligibility requirements in three tiers:
- Homeless and/or Foster Care (1 in 4 kids are of this requirement)
- TNF/SSI (TNF is cash/food stamps from the state) (SSI is a disability)
- Income Eligible (under a gross of 15,000$ for a two person family even though most are well under that earning & some with even more family members)
Touring the building was also a maze but wonderful as we saw how they took an old JcPenny & turned it into a beautiful working center. They have something called “neighborhoods” split up by colors to provide the kids support within the same friends & teachers throughout their years of learning. We then proceeded by helping a coworker there move bookcases, trash, computers, desks, and supplies out of the library area to create space for a study room. By removing the desks and computers, he plans on making benches for the kids to wait for the bus on. We also cleaned out a space to fill another room for a teachers classroom to be used soon. We ended the day by playing on the playground in our assigned classrooms & hanging out with the kids. I made best friends (first letter only given to protect their identity&privacy) with 3 year olds’ A. (who loves the movie Frozen & learning how to use a hairtye) & J. (who is very curious). There was a third girl who got really upset & the teacher told her to calm down. She then proceeded to do her calming exercises (pretending to pick a flower, a zen breathing exercise, and reverse zen breathing exercise) & after doing all three, she was calm. Impressed.
Tuesday, March 8th:
Returning to the classrooms was such a wonderful experience as the kids I connected with yesterday ran up to me with such excitement and love and I couldn’t resist but feel loved and that I am having an impact on these kids. After playing on the playground and dancing with the 3 year olds to whip & nae nae, I really got to connect further with a couple of the kids in our class and other surrounding classrooms. We then experienced what the Operations Breakthroughs Warehouse consisted of and the purpose behind it. It was so shocking to see the amount of new or barely used fridges, dressers, beds, & holiday items donated for OB to give to these families in need. We also got to sort and organize their donation clothes closet by size and items that they can actually utilize as they need to be able to put those clothes on the kids after an accident without needing additional items i.e no bibs (as those need a shirt underneath), dresses (those need leggings underneath), etc. Theresa, Operation Breakthroughs Behavioral Therapist, talked and answered any questions we had which was super beneficial to us. Especially hearing her perspective on the families and the judgement people have on them in the absolute negative or opposite way it should be. We ended the day in the classrooms after all the inspiring talk and work to make this day wonderful.
Exploring the Bruce Watkins Museum was also very amazing as he has held many impactful and powerful positions especially regarding the railroad history and selling of slaves.
Starting only an hour in the classrooms this morning, was an amazing hour but also an eye opening hour. Just like every morning, we reviewed breathing exercises, sang some songs, & split off into different activities. During this activity, a couple kids were playing with some dolls. At one point, we pretended the babies needed to go to the hospital. This is when a little boy then proceeded to pretend a cop was there. So I saw this 3 year old yell “don’t shoot” as the little girl playing along started to punch the invisible cop (and not just a little punch but a full brawl). I was so stunned that they seemed to have much experience with this and only being 3. The teacher stepped in and explained to them how cops are there to protect them not hurt themselves. She also reiterated the song they sing “no hurt no hurt, stick together stick together, have fun have fun.” We helped Tyler after this morning classroom activity by cleaning up the outside classroom. We pruned trees, raked pebbles back to the top of the hill of the pathway, restocked bricks following the pathway, raked leaves, and weeded the garden. My favorite thing about doing this indirect service is knowing that these kids will get to experience these important life skills of gardening, going outside, and plants. We then got to go into the “makerspace” room with our classroom blue 3. This is almost a small science, creativity space for the kids. We helped sort thousands of clothes to put onto tables for the families to sort through and pick out for their child like they do every wednesday. I helped make blocks with pictures from the story Green Eggs & Ham for the Occupational Therapy room & ended the day back in classrooms. But we also got to experience Kindegarten classrooms for a little where I met a fashionista, a girl who was asking me how to spell pizza, & another who was a cheerleader but too shy to even say much or show much. Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed that new experience and the day as a whole. (Especially ending the night by crossing the state line into Kansas just for Gelato ice cream/bonding as a group).
I also relate to the saying of “those privileged to touch the lives of children and youth should constantly be aware that their impact on a single child may affect a multitude of others a thousand years from now”.
Today we started out later by an hour because we were going to be working longer than usual so our day started out very odd. By the time we got to our classroom, it was time to go outside on the playground as usual. When we got out into the beautiful 70 degree sun, we were joined by our usual orange classroom. One little girl specifically latched on to me from the orange neighborhood. She never wanted me to put her down and was constantly playing with my hair. It was also odd how one little boy from our classroom just became very sleepy. J. was so tired that as he was riding his bike, he all of a sudden slowed to a hault to fall asleep on his bike. This was so cute to see but also so sad as all he wanted to do was sleep but we couldn’t let him because nap time was coming later. The saddest part was realizing he is so tired because his parents clearly didn’t have the time or support to make sure he was put to bed at a decent time which made him suffer at school. When we went inside, they had to wash their hands before lunch and J. once again was so tired that he cried and didn’t want to move to even the sink a couple feet away. I felt like his mother for the day to ensure he got some attention from me at least and through his tired tantrums, he still did what he needed to do without getting in trouble as this wasn’t his fault. This was also the first time we got to watch how lunch occurred as they expressed their purpose behind having family style meals from the first day. They turned off the lights and played music to set the mood of relaxation before nap time, and had the kids pass around the food and scoop a certain amount of each food group onto their plate.
After lunch, they got ready for nap time & we went to help with grabbing the rest of the clothes out of donation closet as that room will be restocked soon to be put out again for parents to utilize. We got a walking tour around a couple blocks of Operation Breakthrough and with some of the parents to hear their side of how OB has affected them. This tour was absolutely wonderful, eye-opening, & everything we needed to hear as a group of predominately privileged college woman. One of the moms first explained to us how she has grown, shaped her life for the better, but still sticks to how she was raised to raise her kids. This means she finds whooping her kids acceptable but she has to have a social worker (as long as she is okay with telling her before hand she was reporting her, they became good friends on a respectable level). We then walked to this apartment/shelter complex for those who have been homeless. When we got there, the mother told us how she used to bounce from house to house which is already an unstructured and unhealthy living situation but also those houses being unhealthy in themselves. The mother felt she was being used by this girl next door who was originally her friend & so what people do to get back at them is make them a nuisance by lying to the cops about how bad of a mother she is. This caused the mother to be evicted and house hop where she landed in a place that was used for under aged illegal drug use. This caused her son of only one years old to go into a coma for 5 days by getting a hand of these drugs and taking 13 pills (where 1 knocks an adult to sleep quickly). The little boy now suffers a speech impairment along with having a broken femur at one point also from being under his fathers care at the time of these events occurring. The place they are staying now originally has a wait list as does the only two other shelters but the difference with this one was from having the connections with her social worker through OB, she was able to be put into an apartment complex with others of similar cases. She explained the strict rules as for 30 days they have to be in the household by 6, no visitors, and keeping the apartment clean as they do weekly inspections. As we continued down this tour, this new mom associated with OB discussed education for her children. After dropping out of high school at 16 to have her first born, she started to give up and stress especially with her other kids coming along the way. She discussed how the school system around there has been recently unaccredited which has put the most strain on her and her kids education. So she now has her kids going to charter schools out of town to get a proper education that will help pay after for college as well. She got lucky as her Kindegarten child was the one to make this happen as through a lottery system was the way her kid got chosen and once one child is enrolled, siblings get placed into this amazing school as well (as the wait list is incredibly long and your chances of getting in usually takes years). She has a kid in college right now, one about to go to college, herself taking and finding online classes to finish her GED to get a job, & being a single mother of 7. I was thoroughly impressed with her determination in herself and for her kids future. The last stop of the tour involved a mother talking about the financial stresses and bussing system. There isn’t a grocery store nearby so she has to go to a dollar store (still not a grocery store but the closest she could find), she dresses to impress to decrease judgement on single mothers in the hood so her kids wouldn’t be hotlined, and her taking of the clothes giveaway OB has since it is cheaper to just throw away dirty clothes than to take them to a laundry mat as she gets them donated from OB. She also touched on how the bussing system may take an hour between routes or varies causing a great deal of stress with getting her kids to school on time & herself to work on time as if either is missed, it will cost her causing her to be at the mercy of the bussing system. If her kid is tardy to school or picked up later, there is a $5 fine. If she is late to work, she can be fired. If she missed the bus, she will have to pay for a $17 taxi ride which those are flat rate so they don’t care if you’re in a hurry. She even said how one time her son tripped in the road & lost a shoe and almost got ran over as a car wasn’t slowing down, so she quickly pulled him by his hair to move him out of the way right before the bus ran over her kids shoe. Absolutely bizzare, eye-opening experiences to their life.
We went back to classrooms after that where I got to read a multitude to books to the kids. The quietest kid finally warmed up to me and wanted me to read all of these books while he sat on my lap. Of course this sparked other kids to want the same and so I always had two kids on my lap at all times. I even re-read the same book to the same girl M. as it was her favorite book. By the end of the classroom time, we finally got to see what the parents interactions with the kids were which was interesting.
After every kid was picked up, we split up into every neighborhood to clean the walls, the bathrooms, & cubbies. We were then served homemade pizzas by OB (about 12 pizzas to be exact haha) as we sat around a little kids table in kids chairs to enhance this dinner. Tasha (our coordinator) sat with us and explained some of the experiences she had as a teacher and we were shocked to say the least. To think that the kids know these things, can act or do these things, even think the way we as adults do; was scary. These were things I would never think of as being that young or would have experienced and so this was very eye opening to hear.
Today was so heart wrenching as it was our last day at OB. We started with classrooms & playing outside on the playground where I saw that same 2 year old from the orange neighborhood who wanted to be held again. Only this time, the teacher was strongly against this because she apparently has problems with going to strangers and doing the same thing. So instead I taught her how to play soccer and to stop the ball with her feet and not her hands. Afterwards, we had lunch & the best part, once they say something good or smart, the teacher says “kiss your brain” and so they kiss their hand that then tops their head. During their nap time, we debriefed with Tasha & wrote our thank you’s. This is where it started to get tough because we had to say goodbye to those who felt like our own now. Back in the classrooms, we finished up our usual routine with an added birthday celebration, & the bittersweet goodbye. We even got to watch a class sing some songs to us which were the cutest remixes and thank you songs. I cannot thank Tasha enough for being such an amazing site coordinator and allowing us to work with her kids. They are so precious & everything they stand for is wonderful.
We ended the day with exploring the Nelson-Atkins Museum: where we met an alum who worked there, watched some ballerinas get their pictures taken doing some moves, watched a couple do some intense yoga, and watched someone get engaged two feet from us!! We ate our night out at a BBQ & of course revisited the gelato.
Exploring the Hallmark Welcoming Center in Missouri was very traditional & informative of the world known company of Hallmark. Anything from movies & actresses to how they make cards & bows to thousands of ornaments. Right next door was the Kaleidoscope (intended for kids) but we got a quick view before the next round of kids went through. This place was SO COOL. It was a giant room to paint, explore, & even make yourself a kaleidoscope on the wall.
We then travelled to St. Louis to explore the famous monument, the arch, & then to the City Museum to feel like a kid in an adult playground. The City Museum had tunnels, caves, slides, half ramps, tree houses, steel cages to crawl through, mazes, & the 10 story slide! I have never found my happy place until then.
There are a couple valuable life lessons I learned while on this break..
- Be a willow. I first heard of this term a couple years ago and never fully lived up to this until this break. Every AB experiences this but it was this break specifically that lived up to it. “Being a willow” stems from willow trees since they move with ease and sway with the wind; more specifically, they go with the flow. If plans don’t go the way they were planned, then go with the flow and do the next best option. Don’t get discouraged or let it put a wrench in the plans. Being a willow allows you to agree with the majority, to experience as much as possible, and sometimes with little to no planning or communication. To those Type A planners (which I can definitely be at times), you cannot be that strong headed planner with ABs. There are always something unexpected to happen that you need to be able to go with the flow and not freak out because it wasn’t in the plans.
- Compromise. Being able to compromise and accept others’ differences is also something essential to making it work. We learned the basic concept of compromising where we need to understand each other’s opinions, leadership styles, personality type; & know how to go from there to make a united front.
- Calm your body. Learning from Operation Breakthrough kids about the tantrums turning into calming oneself, I plan on adopting this into my life. They did different activities to calm their body before they exploded and hurt anyone around them, along with apologizing afterwards. This is such a basic concept that I’ve lost sight of when I get stressed out or angry. Especially as on our AB you are around these group of individuals for a week 24/7, being able to calm your body before saying or doing something you regret, was helpful to learn.
- Love yourself. After many reflections, I noticed how deeply hurt some individuals were or what those past experiences have taught or changed them. Love yourself (as Justin Beiber would say) before moving on with your life. Taking the time to realize your unique abilities, your differences, and your emotions perceptions to experiences and realizing your new feelings. By doing this, you realize that the disagreements or different opinions may challenge your opinions but will only help you in the future. By loving yourself, you also love others around you for those differences.