Monday, March 19, 2012
The bus loaded up and was off by 8:30. And we drove. And drove and drove and drove. Larry clocked in close to 10 hours today with two pit stops in between. So let me break this down for you...45 college students on a bus in mountainous areas with an unknown destination which would be their last night together as a group.
As you can about imagine, it got pretty interesting.
My first bus buddy was Katie, who is amazing, but unfortunately slept the whole time we were together except right at the beginning. Don't worry, I completely understand! I took this time to write some emails, get things straightened out for a few classes, take some pictures with the passed-out Katie (gotcha!), and start on my Yeah Buddies. These are little letters or notes that the person will read after the trip is over as a last little confession, goodbye, see you later, or really just anything you want to express. Because it's never really goodbye, its always see you later with the new family ties. I wrote about eight of these before my attention span began to drift, as usual, which turned out okay since we were stopping for lunch soon. We pulled over next to a shady Bojangle's somewhere in Tennessee, and I had a fish sandwich at Arby's while talking to Alyssa and others about the probably funniest inside joke that came up on the trip (still makes me die laughing!). I suppose the point to this was that I really felt a connection with each and every person on the bus. While eating my lenten-inspired sandwich, I was sitting next to and sharing laughter with people whom I hadn't REALLY sat down and gotten to know. We could still share this seemingly pointless, but actually meaningful, moment together without thinking about the inevitable future.
On the next stretch of road to Connection City, I did not feel any drive to complete my Yeah Buddies. I had them in my hands, but eventually pushed them to the side because of my controlling need to interact with these people before they so quickly slip through my fingers. This part of my memory gets a little fuzzy since it seems like so long ago, but I'm pretty sure I sat with Brian for a while and talked about music and life. What a great guy :) Eventually, he left me for someone else, and I thought I'd have the seat to myself for a while to write a little bit. As it turns out, fate (and the bus core) decided that I can't have a seat to myself at any point in time, so Ramo took a seat next to me. He was someone I had been wanting to talk to for a while, and for good reason. We shared stories and got to know each other better, and I realized that there was much more to him than initially came across. I found that out with almost everyone, to be honest. I've always believed that everyone has a story, as cliche as that sounds, but there's a second part to this belief.
Everyone deserves to tell their story. And they did.
I love offering a listening ear to each individual's unique story, and this trip was prime opportunity for me to do so. We pulled up to a restaurant just outside Nashville, Tennessee that agreed to feed all 45 of our mouths that night. It was super good food! We started out with some Spinach and Artichoke Dip, then I had a nice side salad with my main course of salmon with lemon. Yum. After the meal, I met the two waitresses that served us because their accents intrigued me. I found out that both their fathers are from Jordan (like, the Middle East) and came here to start a restaurant together in Tennessee. The waitresses had lived there all their lives, so even though their names sounded Arabic (I only remember Hannan) and they spoke Arabic, they had a thick Southern drawl when speaking English. So. Fascinating.
We left for our last housing site all together, performing a beautifully planned skit for everyone on the bus that would be quite strange to explain here (but if you know what I'm talking about, it's still hilarious!). The place we stayed at was a school in Nashville - it had to be big enough to host all the ISU buses for the night. We moved our things into the gym and began to play with the basketballs, volleyballs, and of course the big, colorful parachute like Kindergartners :) It was so much fun, until I felt a strong, itchy feeling on my arms and legs, which turned out to be all the bug bites that I had gotten from the oyster project that were flaring and swelling with activity. I rushed around looking for Calamine Lotion, ice, and anything else that would help. A bunch of people took care of me (thanks everyone), and I got a shower in before night activities.
Who knew what these activities had in store for my emotions?
Probably the bus core. And everyone else who had been on a tour before. All I can say is, I'm glad the shower took off all my makeup, otherwise the emotion running from my face would have done it anyway. We began with sheets of construction paper that were passed to everyone along the circle to write a little something about that person for 20-30 seconds. Everyone's page was filled front to back by the time they returned to their original spots, graffitied with compliments and little messages of encouragement. Then came the hard part. I promised myself not to lose it, but we went around the circle saying one person that applied to the question asked, like someone who makes you laugh, who you would want to throw you a surprise party, and the last question, who do you want to keep in touch with? A chorus of "Iowa"s rang throughout the room, and well...I lost it. To make things worse, the last activity that we did together was the circle of thank yous. Everyone went up to each person and said thank you, and only thank you, then moved on to the next person.
It turned into a frenzy of hugging, crying, and expressing exactly what each person meant to the other. This went on for quite a while in a beautiful display of affection. It wasn't goodbye just yet, but showing my raw emotion that much is something that I would only feel comfortable doing in such an intimate situation such as that. Even though we didn't quite follow the rules to the activity, it was amazing to see the connections that we had made out and vulnerable for the whole room to see. And that's the way it stayed. We all bunked out in that room, together, just the way it should be. I taught everyone The Interlude, and even though it was a little awkward, it was still pretty fun. Now when they come to visit a football game in the fall, they don't think that it's just some flash mob or something :) The whole lot of us really tried to stay up all night talking and writing Yeah Buddies, but I'm pretty sure we all got a little bit of sleep at one point or another. We were exhausted to the max.
At risk of giving any more information away before I write the last post, I will end it here and now, only reflecting on the beautiful day and night that brought out every feeling I could have possibly felt, from nirvana to depression. But it's not a medical problem that has given my emotions a roller coaster effect, but simply the confusion and disbelief that soon I wouldn't be able to take advantage of these 44 amazing people being right by my side.
Reality is a train, and it had a direct hit tonight.
Friday, March 16, 2012
My life is a film reel.
6:00am. The alarm rings. There's a knock on the door to make sure we're all moving and getting ready. All they told us about the final service project was that time is VERY important, so we have to get there early, and we'll be getting dirty. Very dirty. Today, I didn't complain. I got the best night of sleep in days - about five and a half hours all together. I got up, got dressed in some clothes I wouldn't mind throwing away, and I headed down to the bus, gross and smelly like everyone else. We left right on time and started doing energizers as soon as we arrived, even though no one was in the mood at 7:30 in the morning. A man gathered us around and gave us a deeper explanation of the activity for the day.
We will rebuild the coral reef. Or help it along at least.
Bug spray applied, a few volunteers helped load up a trailer full of about 600 mesh net bags of oysters. Oysters upon oysters. The 290 volunteers that we brought out to the site today were to make the longest assembly line I'd ever seen and pass each bag to the end, where they would set them on a shallow piece of muddy ocean sand. Oh, and the muddy ocean sand? We were standing in it. Losing our shoes in the mud if we stood too long in one spot, in fact, but by the end, we were okay with being soaked in mud on the legs. As we passed each bag, we sang songs, did energizers, played telephone, and fake worked out for a while (tighten the core!). Overall, it was a blast. The oyster bags are now all laid out along the shore to collect mussles and other organisms that will rebuild this magnificent natural beauty. As we walked back, we got to see the progression of other oyster bags that had been sitting there for a while, and let me tell you, they look full of life. But my favorite part was watching the tide roll in slowly throughout the morning. That was why time was of the essence. But I'll watch my time to watch that view any day.
Group picture, dumpster of old shoes, and back on the bus. I got back to my room around 11:30, showered, dressed, and did my hair in under 30 minutes. Good thing I don't take a lot of time :) We were off to the picnic at noon, and waited for the pizza meal once we got there (#waiting). Once we ate, we forever waited for the buses to be ready to take us to historical downtown (#foreverwaiting). I still don't understand why we didn't leave earlier, but pretty much the entire group was done eating by 1:45-2:00, but our bus couldn't leave until 2:45, which took away precious time in the city. No big deal, I suppose.
No big deal? But there's so much to see!
We split off into small groups of four or five once we got there and decided on things we would like to do. I went with Connor and Ashley squared. The first and best decision we made was to go into the gelato shop just off King Street called Paolo's. Inside, we met an Italian lady from Florence, who made gelato with her husband in this small shop. Let me tell you, that was the best gelato I've ever had. Confession: I don't have a lot of gelato, but I feel like this might be a contender for people who do. We chatted together and she gave us directions to a few restaurants and other fun things, so we took off for some other fun things. We walked King down to Market Street, where we actually walked through a real live market! So many cool things. I bought an amazing, handmade ceramic mug that I plan to use for my tea from now on. There were also basket weavers and different clothing to choose from. Connor was very into going to see the Civil War remnants like Fort Sumner and the Battery, so we took a long walk across what seemed like the whole city. But man, was it worth it. I enjoyed every second of walking through Charleston and simply enjoying the view and the breeze off the hah-ba. When we realized we may not have time for anything else, we raced back to the bus to arrive right on time. We didn't get any food, so Connor and I scarfed some Popeyes to hold us over. I'm still not sure why we needed almost two and a half hours to get ready for Celebration City, but it gave me good time to write some blogs since I was behind.
8:30. I slip on my dress, fix my hair and makeup, and head down to the celebration. The reflection of the entire trip was so awesome - all the buses had a couple people share their experiences, then they all sang a bus song created from the melodies of other songs, but with original lyrics to STLF. Everyone's performance and trip sounded absolutely wonderful. We share, don't compare here.Recognition was given to appropriate people, and (I didn't think this was possible) it made me feel even more blessed to be riding ISU bus three: mystery! We rocked the house down, took some pictures, and now I'm in sweatpants, blogging about my day. I'm very tired, so my bed sounds so nice right now - not to be anti-social or anything. I can hear them screaming and shouting at the top of their lungs and all I can think is: how do they have the energy for that?!
I'm pooped. And everyone feels it too.
But as much as I want to sleep in my own bed again, I wish all 44 of these people could sleep in it with me. ... well, that came out wrong, but I think you know what I mean :) I started to become teary-eyed when the speakers began to talk about making this experience more than just the nine days, but in the back of my mind I know that I may never see some of these people again. Of course I would hate for that to happen, but we're all busy people and things happen. I'm gonna miss these guys. And the final stretch of reality begins tomorrow morning at 8:15.
Confession: This roll of film engraved in my mind has been the most real thing to me in a long, long time.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
What a way to start the day.
Despite this awakening, I knew today was going to be another amazing day on the tip-top trip of trips. Surprisingly I had time to get ready, dressed, and eat breakfast while still loading the bus on time, then we were off to the service project for the day. This was one of my favorites - the arboretum. In accordance with North Carolina University, this arboretum was a beautiful blessing to the locals. We were introduced to a lady named C.C. (she said just the initials), and handed off to many different jobs around the site. Two people here, three there...washing fountains to spreading mulch. I decided to spread some mulch around the parking lot with Ashley and Ramo, who were delightfully eager to know the UNI fight song. Now listen...I'm not the best singer in the world, but I'm pretty proud of the progress they made and all the other people that were watching and listening. I'd say about four or five people know it all the way through, but the entire bus has heard it sung at least from afar. I'm also proud to say that I know the Illinois State fight song like the back of my hand - pretty well, but sometimes there's a blemish or two that I don't know about :)
Together we spread mulch across a few parking lots, dug a trench next to a relocated bay leaf bush, and cleaned up some branches and twigs for easy pickup. The people running the arboretum were so kind, had wonderful accents, and treated us like family. They made us a big taco buffet for lunch, and everything was much appreciated on our part. We had the chance to explore the grounds a bit, so I walked around with Molly and got to know her while seeing some amazing upkeep on this beautiful garden. They have what's called the Ability Garden, where kids with disabilities can go to get away for a while with supervision and guidance. Like I said, this place is nothing but a blessing.
We said our goodbyes, the bus was loaded, and we were off yet again to another adventure. This time there was no guessing game or surprise; we all knew what came next.
Or so we thought.
Let me back up. While getting ready this morning, some of the bus core said to put our swimsuits under our clothes because we might be getting very wet at the arboretum while doing work. Nothing of what we did there was even remotely close to getting soaked - unless you fell in the pond. So here we are, on the bus with our bus buddies (mine was Nick - he's awesome.), sitting in our dry swimsuits, but none of us seemed to mind or care. When we get farther into South Carolina, the core announces that we have to make a pit stop for about an hour to check tire pressure. And I'm pretty sure we all bought it :)
We were actually stopping at MYRTLE BEACH.
To even begin to describe how excited I was is a challenge. I grabbed my towel and shower shoes and headed to the beach. I let my body go numb while diving under and riding with the waves in the ice cold water, walked along the beach in search of seashells and shark teeth, and chilled while sun tanning on the warm sand. We stayed for two hours, and my still mind couldn't fathom the idea that we were by the ocean when we left. A couple more hours of switching bus buddies, and we finally made it to Charleston, where we were allowed about and hour and a half to venture for food on King Street - the busiest one, it seemed. My group of Ciera, Connor, Krisy, Ashley K., Ashley F., Molly, and Eric found a fantastic barbecue restaurant called Jim and Nick's. The food was fast, the ribs were great, and the biscuits were like heaven in my mouth. Definitely a recommendation for those traveling to Charleston anytime soon.
We made it back to the bus and pulled into the hotel, where 290 other STLFers were waiting to meet and greet us. I met up with my UNI people again and swapped some stories, but I couldn't leave the comfort of my bus people. We were debriefed on the hotel situation and the service project tomorrow, and all of us signed up to see historic downtown Charleston for tomorrow because we had already been to a beach today (which was the other option). After that, most of the group gathered into one room to work on our bus song - more details to come after tomorrow night - and it really showed the dynamic of this group to keep together and work on a common goal as a team, even though we were all exhausted. I finally went to bed around midnight in the comfiest bed I've laid eyes on since I left Cedar Falls a week ago. It was even a Sleep Number. Yeah.
Tonight, the only thing that runs through my mind is three days...only three days left. But this is far from a countdown of good measure. It is a countdown to when reality sinks in again, and I wake up from this dream.
This incredible dream, in which words to describe are close to impossible.
Waking up is like the sun exploding.
I know I start out each of my posts with some complaint about the early rise, but let's think about this for a second. Spring break is typically a time of relaxing and laughter on a beach with some friends whom are more than acquaintances. It is about taking a break from reality to sleep in and enjoy life. For STLF, this difference makes a difference. We wake up early and go to bed late to serve the amazing communities across the United States. Or in our case...just down the east coast :)
At 8:15, we giddied out of the church's parking lot and split into two groups on the bus. About 20 of us were to be dropped off at Hope Thrift Store in a strip mall in town to help out with some organizing, cleaning, and moving furniture for some customers. The other 25 traveled a little farther to the Hope Church: a non-denominational Christian church just outside mainstream Richmond. The building is absolutely beautiful, inside and out, and doesn't look like the typical place to ask for help and volunteers, especially for nothing but cleanup and organization. The Hope church is fairly new, founded only a few years ago. In the past six months, the average attendance for events and services has jumped from about 400 to 1500 people, and the seven-person staff is struggling to keep their head above the water. With no money to pay a custodial staff, the building usually goes untouched unless they find some free time among planning, organizing, developing, mediating, and reflecting with the community.
Needless to say, we took a load off their backs without even knowing the half of it.
And they let us know with a wonderful lunch from McAllisters that was delish :) We met Pete, the main pastor at the church, and he welled up with tears while telling us the impact we've made, and it made it very real and emotional for us. We took off southeast down the highway when they revealed the next city through a little bit of Mad Gab and hints
Wilmington, North Carolina. Home of the set of One Tree Hill.
The bus ride was so much fun. I sat with Tay-Tay and we had a nice heart-to-heart before playing bus games and trying to figure out riddles with everyone. A bus ride that was about 4 and a half hours felt like it took 10 minutes. Times flies when you're in good company :)
Arriving in Wilmington was like a dream. It was a mixture of beauty and culture all culminated into one city - and I didn't even see the whole thing! The entire bus walked down by the beach, when split off into a few different groups, even though we all ended up at pretty much the same restaurant (at least the same area) for dinner. This cute little Italian restaurant caught our eye, and 11 of us got a table out back to enjoy the sunset while enjoying our dinner. It was so beautiful, even though we didn't get our food for an hour. But the experience was still wonderful with the great company.
The bus took us to where we were staying for the night, which was a school of some sort with a big gym and upstairs rooms with couches. I claimed a couch, of course, and played frisbee, soccer, and volleyball until night activities began. Tonight was a complete reflection on our time together. From the service projects and the trip in general to simply thanking some people for little things they've done, we put it all out on the floor. Some students had a much different experience than I did, but the most important thing is that we did it together and enjoyed every second. I couldn't have asked for a better group to share this experience with.
The reflection took 4 hours, just like the activity the other night, so this post is much delayed. Just goes to show that I'm experiencing so many incredible things that something as tedious as blogging is put on the back burner.
And it only gets better from here (believe it or not).
Monday, March 12, 2012
The more sleep I lose, the better this trip gets.
Well, maybe that's just the way it seems. I've been getting less and less sleep each night, especially because I'm used to getting eight hours of sleep every night. My inhibitions melt little by little every day, and I can start to be all of myself around everyone. I was fortunate enough to take an (ice cold) shower last night, so I didn't have a lot of getting ready to do. I slept in til 7:30. If that's even considered "sleeping in."
We left for the service project at 8:30, with the skies yelling "rain storm!" at every turn. An enthusiastic lady named Lousa showed us around the children's clinic that we would be helping out today after walking about a half mile up a long path too small for a bus. It looked like a pretty run down street out in the back of Charleston. The lady told us we would be picking out shards of glass from the children's playground that had accumulated over the years, along with cleaning up the debris from a recently torn down trailer across the street. Oh, and 14 Notre Dame students were also there to help us!
But almost like clockwork, it began to rain as soon as we arrived. She brought the group of around 60 inside a small school of two main rooms and a hallway. Immediately, we began to move cabinets and rearrange, then the cleaning ensued. We bleached the tables, chairs, doors, windows and everything else in direct vision of our sponges. I talked to a lot of great people while I worked and solidified some awesome friendships. Eventually the rain tapered off and most of the volunteers went outside to complete the job we came to do, but Lousa appreciated the help we had inside, so that's where we stayed. I buzzed around that place like it was my job, and the music in the back room was enough to make it a wonderful experience.
We came to find out that the trailer that was recently torn down used to host an extremely popular met lab. The children that attend this organization used to play in the yard of the man who owned the property, fully aware of the danger hovering over. It was a blessing to see it down and, for the most part, cleaned up by the time we left. The smiles on everyone's faces and the cheers on the bus told us that this was the best service project yet.
We ate lunch back at the Methodist Church, then got right back on the road again. This time we were headed for...
My mind is still blown by all these amazing cities and awesome views. The trip was about five hours long, in which I chatted, took a small nap, juggled apples for everyone, and watched most of The Help while bawling my eyes out in front of the tv. I'm such a sap :')
Our first stop was about 20 minutes out of Richmond at the biggest, sweetest outdoor mall I have ever been to. Alright, alright...its the ONLY outdoor mall I've been to. But it was still awesome. We got some grub at the food court, then checked out a few shops for some shoes before ultimately giving up and heading back to the bus. I went to shops like H&M, Macy's, and Urban Outfitters for the first time. Crazy, I know!
The bus took us to First Presbyterian Church, our hosting for the night. The group was told a little bit of history of the place, moved our bags into the giant basement, and messed around a little bit until night activities. Not as deep as last night, but the activity tonight was just as moving and eye-opening as the last.
Tonight, everyone stood in a circle facing the outside with their eyes closed. If a leader came and tapped you on the shoulder, you were able to come to the middle and open yours eyes. You were asked a series of questions, such as: Who makes you laugh? Who do you believe in? Who would you want to get coffee with? Who do you want to keep in touch with? And various others. If the question applied to anyone you saw, you went and tapped them on the shoulder. The taps were unlimited; you could tap everyone or no one. Ultimately, it helped us to think about not only our internal struggles, but the people we've connected with. Our new relationships and these things we take for granted now were reflected upon tonight, and I really appreciated this activity.
After that, I taught The Interlude to some of the group, and I plan to teach the rest with music tomorrow, along with the fight song later in the week. We told our most embarrassing stories tonight and just stories of our lives in general, and played a few games recently learned and loved.
Today, I came completely out of my box. I'm sharing things on the bus microphone, telling stories to the whole group, and even juggling for a free Honey Bun. But when it all comes down to it, I just know that...
We're all trying to make a difference, one city at a time.
But only four hours of dreaming about all those moments just isn't enough.
7:15. My eyes struggle to open with the grogginess of last night's slumber. I stuck my headphones in my ears and turned on a quick tune, fully aware that only one bathroom would not be able to pump 45 college students through in only an hour. I didn't dally - quickly got in line and was getting ready when I caught wind of a group leaving for church. Church on a Sunday morning in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania? Is that even a question? I sped up the getting ready process and hopped in the car. We only got lost once...okay, twice...but the church was absolutely breathtaking, the priest was a lovely man, and the company was wonderful.
When we returned, I stuffed down a pop-tart to hold me over, grabbed a dirty sweatshirt, put on a bright orange vest and gloves, and headed out to the work site. We were to clean up a couple illegal dumping areas along a few back streets. I found things from Jolly Rancher wrappers to tires and sinks. At one point, I found a 13-pound bowling ball that I subsequently named Tyson because it was the street's name and rhymes with Wilson :) I got to know a few people a little better, but was mostly focused on cleaning up the area. As we were leaving, I stood in awe at the progress that had taken place. What looked like a landfill before had the potential to be a beautiful area again.
Our group had been split into two, so the other service project that was happening was in a run-down, abandoned area that was slowly recovering, about a 15 minute walk away from us. Their job was to clean the trash from a large area along the street, mow it down, and clean the debris. This area is actually part of a local high school's service project to plant a garden and help revitalize the neighborhood. We simply kicked it off for them :)
The staff at the place we stayed made us a delicious lunch of barbecue ribs, macaroni and cheese, and green beans. We ate together on the sidewalk with the warm sun beating down, watching the cars go by in this diverse part of the city. After lunch, we loaded up the bus and took off, heading south.
To Charleston, West Virginia.
The capital of one of the most diverse cities in America.
We rolled up to the capitol building for a short walk around the grounds. I explored the area, feeling the 68 degree weather overcome me and slowly take over my current mood. I raced Brian to the top if the stairs, posed with Ashley for a quick picture, and jumped for an awesome shot of the whole group (coming to Facebook soon). I treaded back to the bus on my own, trying to fully take in the beauty of this place while thinking of how blessed I am to be in this moment.
The United Methodist Church was our place of stay for the night, and also provided the group with dinner, breakfast, AND lunch the next day. Yeah buddy to delicious free food! After getting our stuff inside, Brian, Ashley, Katie, the other Brian, and I explored the three floors of the church, eventually finding a small chapel with a piano, chairs four the choir, and an organ. No, not a spleen or anything like that, but I had no idea that Connor knew how to play that complicated instrument.
Next came the night activities. We started with a couple energizers at nine, some dancing and singing was just what we needed to bring us together before the heavy activity to come. The bus core lead us up to a small room upstairs while we had our eyes closed, hands on each other's shoulders in a single file line. I was behind a really tall guy, so I had some trouble getting up the stairs blindly :) We began around 10, and went around the room sharing our struggles - all 45 of us. And let me tell you...
It got heavy.
In fact, it took us four hours to get through everyone's stories. But at the end of the night, we left that dimly-lit room a lot stronger and a lot closer than ever imagined. I connected with people in ways that I thought were only possible in movies and dramatic Lifetime originals. I want to know these people on a different level...I already do.
It's purely impossible to think I'll never get to see these people again after Saturday. How could connections this deep turn to something so distant?
Live in the moment, especially when time is against you.