During spring break 2019, we traveled to Bloomington, Indiana to spend a week working with Middle Way House, an organization dedicated to working with survivors of domestic violence and human trafficking. Among the work that Middle Way House does, such as provide temporary 90-day housing, semi-permanent 2 year housing, and other services to survivors, one of their more unique programs is their after-school Youth Program.
We worked in the Youth Program from Monday March 4th to Friday March 8th, from 3:30pm to 8:30pm. Each day we would arrive at around 3:20pm and put our coats and belongings away, before going to the program room where we spent most of our time. We would wait for the HeadStart students to arrive, and when they did we often started the time with them by playing Just Dance 4 on the Wii or running around outside on the playground. As the different buses dropped students off throughout the first hour, we engaged the kids by playing games, dress-up, doing piggy-back races, or reading stories while we waited for snack time at 4:30. Snack time was always followed by some programming, which ranged from art club, science club, techie time, cooking club, dance club, and even building healthy relationships club. We were able to help out with programming, which was mainly run by Indiana University students who are regular volunteers. The kids in the Youth Program love programming time because they got to do different activities each week. After programming we had homework time, which was probably the most difficult hour each day. The Youth Program currently has kids ranging in ages from 3 years old to 14 years old, and the difference in engagement for homework time was a challenge. Obviously, the 3 and 4 year olds did not have homework, and the majority of kids under age 11 did not have homework either because elementary schools in the area have been moving away from required homework. During homework time, for these students, we were supposed to read to them, or if they could read, have them read to us. Even with older kids who enjoy reading, being forced to spend an hour reading when you could be playing with all the awesome toys that the Youth Program has could be kind of difficult. We did find that it was rewarding to engage the kids with reading, however, and be able to then transition to educational games afterward to finish out homework time. After homework time, there was more free time and sometimes even more programming, and then the kids would begin to be picked up from the program. By the end of each day, we would be completely tired, but satisfied with the fun we were able to provide for the kids.
We had hoped before the week began that we would be able to gain a better understanding of the impact of domestic violence, to learn about how a domestic violence shelter supports survivors through programming, and better grasp how to return to campus with plans to bring awareness about this issue back to our communities. We were definitely able to recognize the impact of domestic violence, mainly through the behavioral patterns and engagement differences with kids at the Youth Program. The programming we worked on during the week was both engaging, educational, and age appropriate, which is really important for kids who have been affected by domestic violence, who are sometimes unable to just be kids. Finally, we were able to return to campus with a drive to bring this issue back to our communities. We are hoping to have a dialogue event about domestic violence awareness, possibly with a panel, but that is still in the works.
One challenge we encountered was leaving at the end of the week. We knew from the very beginning that we would need to make it clear to the kids that we would not be returning after the end of the week. Even though we discussed this issue nearly every day in reflection, when the time came to begin saying goodbye to kids, it was hard not to get sad ourselves. The staff at the Youth Program really helped us out, reminding the kids gently but firmly to say goodbye to us, and to thank us for coming. Most of the kids left without incident or being really upset. It was difficult to leave the program and recognize we probably would not be going back and that we may never see any of those kids again. However, given that we were able to spend our time on spring break productively by playing with those kids every day, we hoped that we were able to have a net positive impact for the organization, while also learning a lot ourselves to bring back to our lives here on campus.
The leadership skills of each member of our trip shone through when we were faced with challenges at site. Before the trip, we recognized that we all had different starting places of background knowledge, that we would have to spend a lot of time reflecting on our experiences, and that if we needed help, we would have to lean on the staff, who have much more experience than we did. When faced with challenges, we worked with each other to solve them, and when we weren’t able to find solutions, we enlisted staff at the Youth Program to help. Every night, we reflected on that day’s experiences, usually discussing at length any of the challenges we had faced that day. As the week went on, we found ourselves developing and growing as leaders and volunteers within the organization, learning how to tackle challenges and dilemmas with less worry than at the beginning of the week. This growth and development was invaluable for the first hand experience it provided us to be able to bring back to Michigan.
By Meredith Days