BY AMY MALTZ
As of today on September 8, 2018 at 1:25 PM I have been a resident of Praxedes house for 3 weeks, 1 day, 16 hours and 25 minutes. In this relatively short amount of time, I can easily say that I am happier and healthier than I have been in well over a year; something that I truly could not have anticipated. Last August, myself as well as the other El Paso volunteers left a wonderful week of orientation at the Motherhouse to move into our new space and build community in a new place. Despite having such an incredible experience encompassed by love, compassion and welcoming at the Motherhouse, I left that week with a feeling of overwhelming dread. I was incredibly excited to explore a new city and continue to connect with my sweet housemates, but every time I thought of beginning my new job at The Opportunity Center for the Homeless, I felt as though my stomach was physically turning itself into knots.
Allow me to explain the source of this discomfort:
In October of 2017 I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and spent the better part of my senior year of college working to cope and understand its role in my life. This diagnosis was a shock to both myself and my family as I had never before experienced anything close to anxiety or mental illness before. After many journaling entries and counselling sessions I have been able to trace this sudden onset of anxiety to a very specific experience that I had during the summer of 2017.
Between June and August of 2017 I applied and was accepted to a summer program called the MICAH Summer Fellowship. This fellowship is remarkably similar in its structure to Loretto Volunteers. It is based in intentional community and encourages participants to immerse themselves in the values of simple living, community, spirituality and social justice. During our time in the program, we lived onsite and alongside a community of previously homeless families.
During our first week of living in this community, my roommates and I realized we had a visitor who liked to sit on the back porch of our ground floor apartment. Andre, a young homeless man who lived in the community had taken up residence right outside our sliding glass door. It was clear that Andre faced his own struggles with mental illness. He frequently yelled and banged on the sliding glass door, sometimes so hard that we were afraid he would break the door itself, failing to understand that he did not know those of us who lived inside. Though I rationally knew that Andre likely would cause us no deliberate harm, his proximity and volume elicited my first experiences with panic and anxiety.
I realize now that there is an element of implicit bias, a product of my white privilege, that fears homeless men with mental illness. Though this fear is absolutely irrational, it manifested into a wider experience with anxiety itself. In the months following my experience with Andre, each time that I passed a homeless man on the street, my heart started to quicken and my throat felt as though it was closing. My anxiety eventually began to make itself known in my day to day life with or without a trigger with a homeless individual. My previously extroverted, bubbly personality morphed into one of isolation and lack of joy.
Thankfully, I am incredibly lucky to have both attentive parents and access to mental health services and with a combination of both, I began to stabilize and become more of my old self by the end of my senior year. It was also around this time that after months of uninspired job searching for a post-grad position, I was guided towards applying for Loretto Volunteers and was offered the final open spot in El Paso as an assistant to social services at The Opportunity Center.
The OC is no ordinary homeless shelter. Not only do they run over 12 different housing centers for homeless folks of all backgrounds and experiences, they do so by welcoming anyone to use their services regardless of race, ethnic origin, gender, language spoken, or, religious beliefs, and regardless of mental, drug and alcohol problems. As a result of this open door policy, many of the clients of the OC struggle with a wide variety of mental health issues and have experienced huge amounts of trauma in their lives. I knew that should I accept this position with Loretto Volunteers and at the OC, I would be placing myself in direct contact with the same types of experiences that originally triggered my anxiety. After deliberating with myself, my family and my counselors, I decided to accept the position, knowing that in order to find self fulfillment, I needed to do work that both challenged my privilege and attempted to disrupt inequity. I had faith that this position would do just that and I was so excited to join Loretto Volunteers.
Fast forward to exactly 3 weeks, 1 day, 16 hours and 25 minutes ago, and perhaps it is more clear why the mere thought of my first day of work brought panicked tears to my eyes. I braced myself to put up a brave front in front of my roommates and the other members of the Loretto community.
Incredibly, despite the emotional build up and dread, my experience at The OC has been anything but anxiety inducing. The organization is fast paced and staff are constantly kept busy attending to various crises amongst clients. However, no matter how rushed or stressed a member of staff is, they have taken the time to welcome me into the fold, have generously answered all of my questions and intentionally gotten to know me. The OC is a model of intentional community with even many of the clients going out of their way to introduce themselves to me and make sure I feel safe and protected in their space. I spend the majority of my day working one on one (primarily) with homeless men who face mental health issues and challenges with addiction. And yet, rather than feeling the familiar tide of panic washing over me, I feel a sense of comfort and meaning. Becoming a part of the OC has allowed me to begin to heal, and that has been the most beautiful part of this experience thus far.
This is the power of community. When we take the time to cultivate connections with one another, medicinal and magical healing can take place. When we begin to search and revel in the inherent humanity that each individual has, regardless of past experiences, we create a foundation upon which true equity can build upon. I look forward to continuing to find ways to bask in the power of basic human connection.
Amy Maltz is from Salem, Oregon and is a recent graduate of the University of San Diego with a major in Ethnic Studies and a double minor in Women’s and Gender Studies and Theology and Religious Studies. This year Amy has joined the first cohort in El Paso, Texas as the volunteer for The Opportunity Center, a multi-faceted resource center for homeless folks. Amy loves to read, dance, have deep talks and is an aspiring vegan.
In Their Own Words
We invite you to get to know Loretto Volunteers and the program here. Volunteers introduce themselves and reflect on their experiences.