Posts Tagged ‘Service’

I stepped off the hour late overnight ferry from Athens across the gangplank and onto the Greek island of Lesvos in the town of Mytilene.  The Aegean sparkled in the morning sun and terracotta tile roofs boldly climbed the mountainside behind the harbor.  Historic style buildings dotted the landscape of this tourist paradise and I wondered to myself “How could this be the European epicenter of the refugee crisis?”

After waiting outside my summer accommodations for 30 minutes for someone to open the door, I abandoned my post leaning up against the door and went on the search for wifi.  Conveniently, I found those little bars of goodness at a phone shop where I also purchased a SIM card. Greece is super tight on registering SIM cards, requiring my passport, father’s name, and blood type. Ok, they didn’t ask my blood type, but the process was longer than any other country I’ve bought a data plan in.

When I finally got in touch with the volunteer coordinator, I was assured she would be there to open the door for me.  When I arrived the second time, I was brought to my room which had an absolute gorgeous view.  Yet again, I felt the guilty intrigue of basically living an island paradise life while so much suffering was going on right around the corner.  I was handed house keys and a badge and vest to be worn at all times in the camp.

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View from the balcony of my 3rd story room. The Aegean sparkles just a few blocks away; the landmass in the distance is Turkey.

After I washed the previous day’s grime off of me, I entered the buzzing kitchen to meet other volunteers from Jordan, Netherlands, Canada, and Spain.  They were making sangria and talking about the rooftop party they were having on Friday, which they assured me, I would be able to get out of the night shift (11pm-5am) at midnight so I could make the start of.

We left on foot a short while later and on the 15 minute walk to a taxi stand, the conversations of last night’s escapades, tonight’s party plans and how late everyone stays up to drink frightened me a little bit.  Either I was living in a college frat house, or the situation was so bad that people are going deep into drinking as a coping mechanism.

A ten minute taxi ride at the cost of 5.10 Euros got us to the camp entrance, which from the road you would never be able to tell was a refugee camp.  In fact, walking inside, I still wouldn’t have necessarily guessed it was a refugee camp as it differed heavily from the image I had in my mind.  There were no tents flapping in the wind or hoards of people standing in line for services like food.  There were spotlessly clean facilities, numerous garbage cans which were frequently emptied that lined main streets adorned with lights, nice looking housing units made out of vinyl, and a community garden.

kara tepe camp

Kara Tepe Camp Housing Units, Source: irinnews.org


Kara Tepe Community Garden, Source: HSA Facebook page

I felt pretty stupid for being so far from the mark with what I was expecting.  Having misguided expectations to be the norm for me as I remember the first time I set out on the Appalachian Trail in the North, I thought it was going to be a wide and relatively flat walking path in the woods.  Within the first three miles, I knew I had made a grave error in planning.

After reviewing requisite paperwork and agreeing not to hold the organization I’m working with liable if I die, recognizing that “Sexual relations with Persons of Concern is strongly discouraged” but not prohibited for some reason, and other policies like no photos within the camp, I sat around with other volunteers.  After two hours passed of doing nothing, I started to second guess my choice to be here.  “I should have gone to Lebanon,” I thought over and over in my head.  I could have done some real good, I could have built houses, ran games with kids, made a real difference in an area starving for help.

I was assured by other volunteers that it was abnormal to have so much down time, but we were just waiting for food to arrive which was very late. I was just letting my own inadequacies get to me as I quickly started to get down on myself for a number of things, already thinking I wasn’t going to make a difference.  All the other volunteers spoke different languages.  They switched flawlessly in conversation with one another between French, Greek, Italian, and Spanish. Several spoke Arabic or Farsi with residents of the camp who came to our station to get tea.  Most days, I can barely articulate my thoughts in my single native language.

What came next, was something I could excel at: carrying heavy crates of food.  A catering company provides all the meals and drops them off basically whenever they are done preparing them within a 2 hour window.  The camp is divided up into five different sections of delivery, so volunteers work with some residents of the camp who want to help out to deliver food directly to everyone’s housing unit.  As I saw this unfold, I immediately fell in love with the labor intensive process.  Sure, we carry crates that bash our knees and pull our arms from our socket, but it offers such an important opportunity to interact with everyone.


Kara Tepe Camp Map, Source: reliefweb.int

Each person is entitled to one plastic container (the size of a Chinese combination dish container) of a hot dish, and several other items that are delivered apparently depending on the day.  Today for lunch, it was eggplant and potatoes in some sort of red sauce.  In addition, there was a large (12oz?) cup of plain yogurt, a bag with a cucumber and tomato that people make salad out of, an 8” loaf of bread and spoon.

In each group, someone has a clipboard that goes by the housing unit records to say how many people live there. Each food item has a different volunteer to deliver it, and as I was the new guy, I handed out the saucy container that leaked red oil down my arm.  Volunteers handing out spoons must wear gloves, an option which I will definitely partake in next time. Some people lied and said they didn’t get food, which I don’t blame them for, I would be trying to eat as much as possible too.  They are denied, but the painful part was that after distribution is done, all extra food is brought back to the tea station where volunteers can take multiple servings.


Containers of yogurt await food distribution, Source: HSA Facebook page

I’m told that how we people receive food will be changing soon as Oxfam, the financier of said operation, is running out of funding for this camp.  There are 700-800 people in the camp currently, but at its height, there were 3,500 people, and nowhere near enough housing to accommodate them.  One of the most shocking things that hit me first was how many kids are running around.  It’s not uncommon to see a family with 4 or 5 kids, and many are quite young.  In my mind, I think that has to be one of the motivating factors to leave a country collapsing in turmoil; to give your kids a better life.

As wasps circled the sweet tea where we were eating lunch, Eddie who is another teacher from the US starting teaching a 3 year old boy how to play baseball, with a new plastic bat and ball the kid was carrying around.  I joined in, trying to show the kid how to hold the bat with two hands, look at the ball as it came through.  I caught as Eddie tossed some over the plate.  The kid cranked what would have been at least a double, but tried to go Bam-Bam on the rest.  We drew a good crowd who gave some cheers and laughs.  I think we’ll have some more time to drill fundamentals later.

After lunch, I went to work sorting boxes of donations that roll in each day and are tossed next to a green shipping container which houses boxes of sorted items.  On either side of the container are large tents filled to the top with clothing donations that are sorted, and counted.  Sprinkled around the area are handfuls of other boxes with more items that wouldn’t fit inside the tents.  I’m told by the guy who runs the receiving area, that they have more stuff than they know what to do with.

They had just received 50,000 individual sugar packets as a donation, which seems like a huge number, but judging by the number of wasps flying around the tea station, will certainly be used.  First, someone will have to go through the tedious process of tearing each one open to access the few grams of sugar inside.

I remember for middle school canned food drives my mom would let me clear the cabinets of things we haven’t used and must have been bought because they were on sale.  Waxed beans, beef consume, cream of mushroom, cranberry sauce, and a can of Chunky soup thrown in for every 15 cans of lesser items so I didn’t feel so bad about my donation.  Clothes donations are a lot like that as well.  I sorted through a lot of crap that other people certainly don’t want to wear, as it was clear the original owner never wanted to wear.  Bags of moldy, burnt, stained clothes triggered the gag reflex, as I threw 5 things in the trash for every one thing I sorted into a usable pile.

This was all happening amongst Greek ruins: collapsed columns, finely chiseled marble wall blocks, and probably some pottery shards that we just didn’t notice.  We were literally on an ancient archaeological site that was converted to a camp when I assume space was needed to handle the arrival of 2,000 people a day to Lesvos.


Kara Tepe: A refugee camp built on top of ancient/Ottoman ruins.  Source: Getty Images (obviously)

When needed, these sorted boxes get moved 80 meters across the gravel access road to camp and into a green shipping container to restock the supply at the distribution point.  Around this hot box is a cage where families can make appointments one day prior and show up 1 time per month to get up to one article in each category of noticeably used clothing (socks, long sleeve shirt, short sleeve shirt, etc).  This is the most stressful part of the volunteer job because you have to basically hand people a lot of crap and hope they like it.

It’s high summer and there are no men’s shorts left.  Our clothing line for 5-10 year olds consists of a couple pairs of sweatpants and four boys shirts that are extra wide.  If people thought they were going to get shoes on their visit, they will be upset to see we have one pair of black dress shoes in size 39 with a hole worn in the side.  While some people are truly grateful for whatever they receive.  Others are visibly upset, throwing clothes back at volunteers and ripping appointment tickets in our faces.  I get it, a lot of what we show isn’t something I would want to be wearing.  When it’s upwards of 90 degrees and a man asking for shorts is shown a pair of corduroy pants two sizes two big and told there is nothing else, I would be frustrated too.

As I try to channel my inner fashionista in the awkward process of looking at a person’s body and bringing them a couple pairs of underwear that I think might fit, I enter a new level of uncomfortable failure. A woman from Lebanon tells me she is thankful even though the 7 dresses I showed her were not to her liking and she left empty handed.  A man from Iraq leaves with nothing after requesting a black shirt and sees the only one we have has a yellow kangaroo having sex with a giant rat on it.

Appointments often take a full hour.  Residents are not allowed to see our clothes selection so we try to communicate regarding what they want, and then bring out 4 or so items, hoping that they pick one of them.  The process is exciting when someone chooses something you bring them, but you have to work for those moments.  Already, I have held up skirts to proclaim their beauty and moved my hips to make the fabric sway in the wind.  The family I was helping got a laugh out of that, but didn’t like the skirt.  The most powerful summary of how clothing distribution works can be tied together with one simple fact: the second word of Arabic I learned here was “mafi” which translates roughly to “there’s no more”

Ramadan had just ended and it was tradition to give gifts and get new clothes celebrating the new year holiday of Eid.  Many families had been disappointed with the getting of new clothes part, but one NGO that works in the camp bought toys for all of the kids; certain packs for boys and certain packs for girls.  Just around 10pm, it was decided without a plan, we would pass out toys to kids who were all wondering around the camp.  When they saw what we had, hoards of little ones flocked to us.  We went from housing unit to housing unit asking how many children they had.  As people saw what we were passing out, they gave us inflated numbers of phantom kids and we ran out of toys as we got just about halfway through.  The Santa Claus feeling I got from kids following me around kissing my arms asking for toys was quickly turned into despair as we had to make plans to buy more tomorrow and simply tell bright eyed children who just wanted some hope to play with, “mafi.”

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As co-advisor of National Honor Society, it was my job to secure the guest speaker for the induction ceremony.  In the past, this job had led me to driving across the state (having a friend do one leg too) to pick up an Abraham Lincoln impersonator to inspire our kids.  With school renovations underway and induction shifting to the stageless cafeteria, I couldn’t bring myself to plead with a local celebrity to be our guest of honor.  I decided this year I would fill the role in the hopes students would connect with me, and thus my message as I am someone they know well.

Gathering before the ceremony started, everyone looked pretty displeased that I had several pages of medium typed font in front of me.  I had actually written a speech in two parts so I could feel the audience out and continue on if I still needed to make my point, or stop at the first ending spot if I had made my point adequately or it was running too long.  I asked a couple students if they wanted the long version or the short version, and no surprise the small informal poll yielded no students voting for the long version.  I guess this means I can be guest speaker again next year since I already wrote what works out to a second speech.  The transcript of the speech I actually gave follows.


It was just ten years ago that I was sitting in the position of the new inductees behind me.  And while I like to tell people that I am 59 years old and just aging well as a way to establish reputability as an authority figure, I am only 28 and graduated from Sheehan high school in 2005.  I remember sitting at our very formal induction ceremony in the library, entering and exiting with candles ablaze in a ritual that I likened to a cult induction at the time.  I really had no clue what NHS was all about, I just knew I got good grades, did a lot of community service and somehow ended up in this organization surrounded by all the top brainiacs in the school, knowing this would look good on my resume.

When the guest speaker took to the podium, I struggled to understand his initial words through his heavy spanish accent.  This man was a Costa Rican banana farmer, which I thought sounded so cool and adventurous at the time.  My mind wandered to thoughts of jungle canopies and tropical weather with great surfing and ziplining.  I wondered if I could move to Costa Rica and how much my mother would be upset if the idea of plentiful yellow-peeled fruit would lure me to a foreign country.  The daydreaming was shaken off when this man started to actually describe his day to day life and as I focused in, every syllable of his life’s story hit me right square in the heart.

Working for 16 hours in jungle heat, with a shirt tied around his head to protect him from the sun and absorb endless waterfalls of sweat, he had to tie surgical tubing around his arm as a tourniquet because hours of overhead slashing with a machete caused SEVERE pain.  That was the one thing I can vividly recall; I distinctly remember thinking, “holy______” (expletive deleted).   I mean try to simply hold your arms above your head for two minutes and you’ll understand half-a-percent of his struggle.  Diving deeper into this thought shook my very existence as a white middle-class youth.  This was one of those made for TV moments where the camera would pan away from the speaker, and zoom in on me as my the wow factor coursing through my naive little mind pushed my head back to make my eyes bulge and my chin appear in triplicate. The world was so much bigger and much more full of pain than I had ever cared to realize.

This man….he took on this chopping challenge every day because it’s what he needed to do to support his family of 6 kids..even though daily pay was a pittance, it was the only work available.  And let it be known that this was 16 HOURS!!! 7 DAYS A WEEK!!!! Go to Price Chopper right now and you will see that bananas are only $0.49/lb with most of the profit being siphoned off by middle-men and suppliers.  This man however was not at our induction to beg for money, or to highlight the plight of a farmer.  He exuded pride as he talked about how hard he worked for his end goal of supporting his family.

This man was brought to us to talk about the NHS pillar of character.  He was proud to have this opportunity to provide for those whom he loved. He did not think the job was below him, or reject it because he was clearly intelligent and much more educated than you might think of your typical second-world farm-laborer to be.  But he was willing to do the job that many people simply wrote off as beneath them, or too difficult. As Thomas Edison used to say, “opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”  You see this is the generation that constantly gets a barrage of bad press of being lazy and not caring, but I see the group behind me as the epitome of answering the call to service.  As they can now, may they forever be able to recognize and create opportunities with whatever lies before them. Most importantly, I hope they will not just wait for opportunity to come to them, but to be ambitious enough to seek it out.

Try new things, get a world of experience.  You will learn SOOO much, you will be able to determine what you love and what you need out of life.  Even if you think an opportunity is not up to par with your standards have confidence that the smallest opportunities seized by driven individuals can be built beyond your wildest dreams. Just a generational comparison to think about: My grandparents’ generation had a word for flipping burgers…something that is characterized as low end and meaningless.  They called it “opportunity.” That is what I was taught to do as an NHS member myself, and that’s what I know all these fine young men and women behind me will continue to do.

The pillars of Character, Service, Leadership and Scholarship are not just whirlwind virtues that look good on paper, it is what your peers, a council of your teachers, your school administrators, and your family all know to be the capital “T” truth of what they see in you.  Don’t sell your potential short in all the days from this one to the last.  Right now you are surrounded by people who not only recognize and applaud your accomplishments to this point, but who believe in your potential to the very depths of our core  to make your mark on this world.  Use this moment of being part of an organization that supports excellence to reach out and make a difference to everyone in every way possible.  As you continue on this path, may you always feel the love from all corners of this room and beyond.  Know that wherever you are and wherever you are going, we are proud of you, and we believe in you.



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Remember our brothers fallen and goneImage
The ones who fought that our lives might go on

Compelled by duty; for service, not green
For God and for Country, hope in the unseen

Protect and defend constitutional ideals
From private first class to elite navy seals

Freedom has been built by generations lost
Sacrifice of life was the ultimate cost

May perpetual light shine upon their souls
Respect and Honor for whom the bell tolls




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