heartache

I have typed and re-typed this blog post over and over the past two and a half months.  I came into this year of service knowing that my heart would be transformed, but I had no idea that would include it being broken and scattered to pieces.  It is incredibly difficult for me to squeeze the happenings of the past few weeks into a decently written blog post, but I am finally ready to share with my friends, families, and support system what is on my heart.

The last I wrote, I was starting to get the hang of my work at Casa Marianella.  Shortly after I published my last post, I took on the new job of being a case manager to three young men.  One from Eritrea, one from Somalia, and one from Cameroon.  I quickly grew to love each of them for their unique personalities, hilarious musings, and especially for their quick respect and trust in me – a stranger in this new and strange country.

The Eritrean, who I will refer to as Jon for privacy reasons, was my first.  His case was a difficult one: he had been in detention for nearly two years, but was ordered deported.  Long, complicated story made short, the US couldn’t deport him in a timely manner due to lack of documents, so he was released from detention on bond without any status.  He arrived at Casa with the shirt on his back, a backpack with his documents, and an ankle monitor.  Although our lawyer warned me that his case was one of the worst that they had seen, I quickly got attached and was determined to get him acquainted to the American lifestyle.  So, it came as a complete and devastating shock when we got a call that Jon had been arrested at one of his ICE check ins.  The government had given him a month and a half of “freedom,” only to re-detain him after his demeanor and hopes had finally lifted.

This news deeply discouraged me; we all work so hard at Casa, and seeing one of our friends being taken back to one of the darkest places he has known made me wonder if it was all worth it.

Not long after this heartbreak, my YAV roommates and I took a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border to work alongside Frontera de Cristo, a border ministry organization in the border towns of Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, Sonora.  I was in no way prepared for the onslaught of painful experiences we were a witness to.  We were presented with a perspective of migration that so few people in our privileged nation are exposed to.

The most painful for me was having dinner across the table from a pregnant mother and her thirteen-year-old daughter from Honduras.  At the time, they were staying in a migrant shelter in Agua Prieta called C.A.M.E.  As I conversed with them in my broken Spanish, they shared their hopes of presenting themselves at the port of entry the following morning so they could request asylum.  As they excitedly discussed their plans of taking a bus to Georgia to see their family,  I thought to myself with sadness that in reality, their destination was going to be a detention facility.

The next evening as my group crossed from Mexico to the U.S. for a prayer vigil, the mother and her daughter were still sitting on the curb on Mexico’s side.  The U.S. border officials were not allowing them to even step foot on U.S. soil, because it is illegal to turn away someone seeking asylum . . . if it is on American soil.  Later that evening, we brought the mother and her daughter some food, water, coats, and blankets to stay warm.  They waited until 4 am that morning.  They waited nearly twenty-four hours to be allowed to request asylum.  There was no line.

These experiences, along with the difficulties of intentional community and relationship maintenance have made for the most challenging months of my life thus far.  Although I have spent the past two months dwelling on the inequities our administration and systems directly and indirectly place on the lives of the vulnerable, I am finally catching my stride.  Jon being re-detained now encourages me to cherish the time I spend with my residents and casees that much more.  My experiences in Mexico and Arizona have shifted my perspective on which type of ministry I hope to pursue.  The heartache I experience from broken relationships of the past push me to appreciate and fall deeper into the friendships I still hold, and to work to strengthen the new bonds I am creating here in my community.

My heart has been broken, but it is on the mend and is beating stronger than ever before.

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mi casa es su casa es nuestra casa

Precisely one month ago, I parked my car in front of my work placement, Casa Marianella, for the first time.  It took me a few minutes to build up the courage to climb out of my car, but with the help of some deep breaths and a quick prayer, I did it.  Merely seconds after walking into the crowded and disorganized office, I was pulled into a tight hug. Jennifer Long, the director of Casa, said, “You must be Kailen. Welcome home.”

It is hard to believe that day was only a month ago; it feels like it’s been years.  That day was such a whirlwind of information and emotions.  In that one day, Jennifer and I went over the entire Casa training manual while simultaneously driving a couple residents down to San Antonio for an ICE check-in.  I remember thinking to myself that there was no way in hell, heaven, or anywhere in between I was going to be able to remember and apply all of the information we went over that day.

Well, y’all . . . I was wrong. I’m doin’ it.

My job title at Casa Marianella is Operations Coordinator/Staff/Donations Coordinator/Detention Support Letter Coordinator/Case Manager/Encargada/Sister/Friend.  In simpler terms, this job can be described by Casa Marianella’s mission statement: To welcome displaced immigrants and promote self-sufficiency by providing shelter and support services. 

To understand Casa’s work, it is important to (try to) understand our country’s immigration system.

In the past month, I have learned the plethora of statuses an individual can achieve upon arrival to the United States (asylee, withholding under the Convention Against Torture (CAT), withholding under 241(b)(3), parole, bond, Release on Recognizance . . . ).  I have learned that until an individual is granted one of these statuses through a court hearing, they are often kept in detention centers sprinkled throughout the country.  Most of the residents we house at Casa come straight from these detention centers.

Above all, my job at Casa is to welcome immigrants of any and all statuses to America as hospitably and warmly as possible.

Of course, I do so much more than smile and say, “BIENVENIDOS.”  This job is exhausting, but I have already learned so much more than I could have ever dreamed.  Casa Marianella is a magical place full of life; as my fellow staff newbie, Ellie, said, “There is so much culture clash that there is almost NO culture . . . we are all stripped to our purely human selves.  Here at Casa, we are all just humans being humans.”

On any regular day, I hear about five or six different languages being spoken.  I smell traditional foods from dozens of countries in Central America and Africa being cooked.  I come up with new handshakes with residents and hand out ungodly amounts of eggs and coffee.  It truly is my new home, their new home . . . our new home.

Below are pictures of the artwork that lines the fence in Casa’s backyard.  I see these every day, and every day I am struck with their beauty.  Many are painted by past Casa residents.  Enjoy.

Until next time. xo Kailen

BRAIN OVERLOAD

Since I’ve written last, I have driven over twelve hours from Colorado to Texas, flown to New York and back to Texas, and settled into my new home with my seven other roommates from all over the country.  This entire time, I have been orienting, training, and exploring.  There is SO MUCH I want to tell everyone, and I could honestly write a three-part novel series about my experiences.  To spare you all – and myself – the time, I have compiled a list of fifteen things I have learned since this adventure began.  If anyone wants more details about the dizzying changes I have been enduring, please feel free to ask me ALL of the questions!

List of 15 Things I’ve Learned in the past TWO WEEKS:

  1. From this point on, intentional christian community, simple living, cross-cultural mission, leadership development through faith in action, and vocational discernment will guide and drive me and my fellow YAVs throughout this year.
  2. NOTICE, WONDER, PRAY, ACT, EVALUATE, AND CELEBRATE. Repeat.
  3. There is a different between equality, equity, liberation, and REALITY.
  4. It is important to call people IN rather than call people OUT when one notices discrimination, hateful speech, or any disrespectful action.  This is an incredible challenge.
  5. Always ask the hard questions, but never expect or demand answers.
  6. My NEW favorite worship song is composed of five letters: sanna (short for Hosanna).
  7. Sometimes the best way to help, love, and serve someone is to establish strict – but fair – boundaries between them and yourself.
  8. Being passive in difficult situations does SO much more harm than many realize.
  9. The New York City Subway system REALLY needs to work on their handicap accessibility.
  10. Myers-Briggs and Enneagram personality testing is sorcery (or psychology…same thing) and makes me feel PERSONALLY ATTACKED.  But on the real, they are great tools for self reflection and realization.
  11. I am NOT NEEDED in the communities I will be serving. God is ALREADY THERE.  I am not the savior. I will be learning and growing alongside.
  12. Austin, TX is indeed weird, but in the BEST way possible.
  13. Trader Joe’s is the best grocery store EVER. H-E-B is a close second.
  14. Living in the middle of a seminary campus means seeing LOTS of dogs, LOTS of children, and LOTS of incredibly kind humans.
  15. It is possible to develop a deep, genuine love for a completely new community in UNDER TWO WEEKS.

I start my service placement at Casa Marianella, a shelter for displaced immigrants on September 4th.  Keep an eye out for an update on the work I will be doing SOON.

Until then. xo Kailen

home is where the heart is

One of the first questions people always ask me when they meet me is, “Where are you from?”  I always hesitate before stringing together a response that, admittedly, only makes sense half of the time:

“Well…I grew up in a tiny town in Colorado.  But it’s so close to the border, it is basically Kansas. In fact, the closest Walmart is 30 minutes away in a neighboring Kansas town, and, not gonna lie, I spend a LOT of time there.  But my entire family is from and lives in Nebraska, and I went to college there, so…yeah.  I guess I’m from Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska.”

Sometimes the recipient of this jumbled response just smiles and nods, but most of the time they look at me like I just made a very simple question very complicated.  News flash: I do this often!  I like to think of it as one of my many charming qualities.

Last Thursday and Friday, I was able to get a couple of days off of work so that I could visit my college town one last time before I make the big move to Texas in two and a half weeks (!!!).  In the two days I was in Nebraska, I visited my college roommates in Omaha for dinner, I stopped by the First Presbyterian Church of Hastings to chat with the senior pastor, I dropped by my previous job, St. Joseph Gift and Thrift Store and caught up with my ex-coworkers who have become dear friends to me, and on my way home I was able to have dinner with my grandparents in Alma, NE in celebration of my Grandma Sandi’s birthday.  It was a busy two days, to say the least!

Although I was running around Nebraska like a chicken with its head cut off, I also had a lot of time to myself.  I treated myself to some light shopping, a pedicure, and a massage. I was even able to finish the novel I had been working on for a couple of weeks in the Hastings College Perkins Library, which was where I spent about 95% of my time at college either studying, reading, or procrastinating.

Because I was so preoccupied throughout my entire trip, it did not dawn on me until I pulled into my driveway in Burlington that I would not be returning to my home in Nebraska again for at least four to six months.  To some, this may not seem like that much time, but I have been making trips to and from Nebraska at least once every other month for the past twenty-two years…which is coincidentally how long I have been roaming the Earth.  I couldn’t believe it, but I had said, “See ya later!” to one of my favorite places.  And in two short weeks, I will be waving farewell to the tiny town that raised me.

It would be very typical of me to obsessively fret about this (terrifying) fact until I drive myself bonkers.  But, I am happy to report that although I am thoroughly anxious to leave the area that I call home and for my life to change, I believe that I am ready.  Colorado, Kansas, and Nebraska are my home trifecta and will continue to be, because these places contain some incredible people that I am blessed to have come to know and love.  These places are also the locations of so many organizations, high schools, colleges, coffee shops, thrift stores, dive bars, and houses that have provided me with comfort, excitement, and love.  It will be difficult for me to navigate an entirely new city filled with a million unfamiliar humans, but I have no doubt I will discover many more people, places, and things that will win over my heart.

The saying “home is where the heart is” may be a cliche, but dog gonnit, it’s true!

I am so excited for this next leg of my life journey.  Austin is going to bring new friendships and adventures, and I can’t wait to keep all those back at home(s) updated!

assiduous

A week ago, I stood behind a wobbly stand on equally wobbly legs.  I was in front of one hundred students, professors, and community members who actively serve the Hastings and Hastings College area in various ways. A few weeks prior to the luncheon, I received an email from one of my religion professors asking if I could speak at the luncheon about my experiences in service and service learning at HC, as well as what the luncheon’s theme, “Serving our Local and Global Community,” means to me.  I timidly gazed out into the crowd, and in return I received kind glances from my classmates and mentors.  I had prepared adequately for this moment, so I swallowed the lump in my throat and began to speak:

“Hello, everyone!  My name is Kailen Soncksen, and I am a senior Health Systems and Religious Studies double major.  I want to begin by saying what an honor it is to not only be speaking at this luncheon, but to be in a room full of the most servant-hearted people on campus.  Hastings College has such amazing service opportunities for students to get involved in, whether that be through peer education, tutoring groups, clubs for advocacy, food assistance programs, or any of the other diverse organizations available.  I am so happy to see that so many of you have established meaningful connections with an organization – or a few organizations, I know how thinly many of you stretch yourselves – that work for education and equity.

I remember when I first began to get that itch to serve my community for non-obligatory reasons.  It was my freshman year, in Dr. Heriot’s INT class.  Because it was a service learning class, my classmates and I not only read about and discussed the deeply rooted issues of food insecurity throughout the country and world, but we experienced these issues first-hand while venturing out of the classroom into homeless shelters and food pantries.  The time I spent working with the individuals that ran these organizations inspired me to not only change the way I looked at the world, but also how I see myself working through it.

In the three years since that spark ignited, I have made many changes to commit my life to service.  During my sophomore year, I joined the peer education group BACCHUS.  BACCHUS stands for Boosting Alcohol (and drug) Consciousness Concerning University Students and is also ironically the Roman god of wine.  Being a part of PUN, aka the Peer Umbrella Network, has given me many valuable skills throughout the years.  Every year, BACCHUS and other PUN groups lead presentations, discussions, and activities with HC students pertaining to each specific group.  With BACCHUS, we focus on ways that college students can partake in LOW-RISK drinking behaviors.  Although it can be difficult to get these topics through the minds of students our age, we provide incredibly important information about recognizing alcohol poisoning symptoms and ways that bystanders can help save a life.  The service that peer educators provide is in their name – EDUCATION.  I am a firm believer that education is the first step that leads to change.  It is great to see the differences that Peer Educators are making throughout the many realms of campus life.

During my junior year, I became the director for a student-ran non-profit, Food4Thought.  Every week, Food4Thought packs meals for elementary school-aged children who are on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program.  With the help of many on- and off-campus organizations, we deliver the meals to the five elementary schools in the Hastings Public School system.  Then, teachers, counselors, and principals make sure the students leave the schools on Friday afternoon with their meals in tow.  Because of Food4Thought, these students have nutrition over the weekends that they normally wouldn’t have.  This way, they can focus on their schoolwork on Monday morning rather than their empty stomachs. Food4Thought currently serves 103 families within the Hastings Community.  Sadly, this is only a fraction of those who require this type of aid, but we do all that we can to feed the youth of the Hastings community.

By becoming director of Food4Thought, I also landed a spot on the Board of the Open Table, which is a faith-based food assistance umbrella network that meets to discuss food insecurity within the local community, and ways that we try to combat the issue.  The Open Table helps coordinate the Sack Lunch Program out of Catholic Social Services, which hands out approximately 3,000 meals every month to anyone who needs it. Both Food4Thought and the Sack Lunch Program survive solely through donations, grants, and volunteer help.  It has been an honor and privilege being able to witness the amazing generosity that comes from the Hastings community to help support these programs that are now near and dear to my heart.

This year, I was hired as an assistant manager for the St. Joseph Gift and Thrift Store, which is also a part of Catholic Social Services.  Here, I have had the opportunity to help provide household kits to individuals and families who are in dire need for appliances, linens, dishes, eating utensils, and the like.  Not only this, but I have seen how valuable recycling clothing can be.  Rather than simply throwing away unwanted or soiled clothes, St. Jo bales clothes and donates them elsewhere nationally and internationally to communities that are not lucky enough to have an over-abundance of clothing items.  My time with the thrift store has taught me to look deeper into the issues of not only individuals, but entire communities and cultures.  This way, the services we provide to others will fit the needs that they actually have, rather than the needs that we may think they have.

These experiences, along with my international studies, additional service learning experiences, and religious studies have lead to my application, acceptance, and placement with the Presbyterian Mission’s Young Adult Volunteer program.  In September of this year, I will be moving down to Austin, Texas to work alongside local nonprofits that combat the root causes of food insecurity, homelessness, xenophobia, and poverty.  I will be serving the Austin community for an entire year while simultaneously examining my personal beliefs, values, and calling.  Although a lot can change in a year, I am very confident that my steps after my year of service will be towards a theological seminary, where I can continue my studies of Christian Theology and how we are all called to serve and love one another.

Before I step away from this podium, I would like to leave you all with some final thoughts.  I know that every single one of you in this room has a passion for some form of service, whether that be educating others, providing food, drink, and shelter, or by simply listening to others when they need to unpack their thoughts.  Because I know this, I know we have all decided that we want to change the world, because let’s be honest: the world needs some serious help.  But, where do we start? The theme of this luncheon is “Serving our Local and Global Communities.”  All of us here have served our local communities in one way or another, but what about our global community?  Many services that we provide may seem like “band-aid” solutions that only skim the surface of the infrastructures that make up the wicked problems we see throughout society.  This can be discouraging, but the work we do locally is essential to the development of solutions that can be enacted globally.  I encourage everyone to act locally and simultaneously think globally.  Remain active through your physical services, but also remain active in your search for meaning in the world.  The world can seem big and scary, but if we all work together, we can be bigger and scarier!”

As I walked back to my table, the room erupted into applause.  I looked over and made eye contact with my roommate.  She gave me a huge smile, which immediately reassured me.  Preparing this speech forced me to understand and appreciate the numerous organizations I have had the privilege working with in the past four years.  Although I have oftentimes felt as though I was up to my eyeballs in stress, I would not trade my experiences for the world.  I am excited to see where the next four years lead me!

the journey begins

I will be regularly posting my experiences and thoughts in response to my year as a Young Adult Volunteer with the Presbyterian Mission.  I may tell stories; I may rant; I may unpack my thoughts.  I would like to thank you – whoever you may be – for experiencing and thinking along with me!