In high school, it was a service trip to Harlan County, KY that helped me know, that despite my poor self-image, I was worth it. I had potential. My opinions mattered. I realized that no matter what I ended up doing, I felt it was my vocation to be ears who feel like they’re never heard.
That awareness led me to work as a staffer for ASP for the past three summers. ASP is a non-profit home repair ministry that focuses on emergency home repair in central Appalachia. Each school year, I came back to Xavier feeling out of my element, so for me, doing an Academic Service Learning Semester seemed like the next closest thing to being in Appalachia. As I’ve spent nearly a year of my short life living and working in southeast KY, I felt like Urban semester wouldn’t elicit the same kind of gut check that I got during my time with ASP. Although my intentions for doing it were to be present with people, as a staffer, I never got the chance to sit down, reflect, delve into my discomforts and make a conscious effort to be aware of what I was doing, with whom I was working, and what my motivations were. It’s not that I didn’t contemplate these things, I never had the time to find an avenue in which I could really dissect it, identify what my discomforts were, and why they were there. Despite this anxiety, I kept plugging along, because in all honesty, there was no time to go into crisis mode; I had to plan projects, get hardware lists together, organize finances, explain how to do projects to volunteers, make deliveries, and lead reflections to get volunteers to ask some of the questions I was struggling with myself.
As each summer went on, I began to get more and more frustrated at how the ministry became more and more like a job to me. My reasons for being a staffer were what I thought was vocational, but as time progressed, the guilt of my unanswered questions and tall order that was my workload made me forget my initial, innocent motivations. I became disgusted by the idea of self-gratifying service. Instead of analyzing my own motives, I became preoccupied with nitpicking others’, bitterly judging others for being falsely selfless, calling into question fellow staffers for being hypocritical and unintentional, and tearing apart this and other service organizations for being unconscious “do-gooders”, whose thoughtless and selfish work just perpetuated the injustices and societal problems that they purportedly tried to alleviate.
Why the Urban semester? What AB Board? Why continue to do the same things I did before, which seemed fruitless and continued to prove itself more and more frustrating? I think it was an attempt to take an active role to make sense of my disillusionment, and attempt to answer some of these questions that infuriated me. What I found was an opportunity to take a cold, hard look at myself in the mirror, and what I saw really threw me for a loop. After scrutinizing my unearned privilege and hidden biases, I realized that I’ve spent so long judging others and projecting my subconscious self-criticism and fears of my own motivations on those around me that I lost track of why I even did these experiences in the first place. I became so caught up in the why’s and the who’s and the facts and the injustices and the subsequent polarization of identifying those things that I lost sight of what was important. It was my work with Sr. Phyllis Kemper, a parish nurse, that really helped me make sense of this all.
Every Tuesday morning, I walked over to St. Francis Seraph (SFS) to meet Phyllis and discuss that day’s schedule. Sometimes it was low-key, full of meetings with the SFS ministries, social service agencies in Over-the-Rhine with whom she partners, or the other parish nurses. Other days, we visited patients in their homes, refilled Medi-sets, provided condition-specific education, and walked with them as they maneuver their way through a very confusing health care system. Although parish nursing does not involve the most technical skills of all nursing specialties, it necessitates compassion and patience to tow the line between empowering patients to take initiative in their own health and stepping in to walk beside them to guide them in the right direction. It’s a really delicate balance that requires tolerance and incredible persistence: two things that hospital nurses, physicians, or really any other fast-paced, hectic profession often leave by the wayside. As the semester progressed, I learned to value that diligence set by Phyllis’ example. My time with her has reinforced how multidimensional a person’s health can be and how much of a difference it makes to make a commitment to be fully and genuinely present. That inclination to make someone feel like she’s being heard, like someone actually cares, and that she’s not just an economic burden on public health dollars, is what makes her role so valuable. No book, class, or lecture can teach you the worth of it until you see it for yourself.
In the face of complexities that come with being out in the field, it is your attitude that can make or break you; that conscience choice not to become defeated by mistakes, exhaustion of past efforts and obstacles ahead. It is a deliberate decision to free yourself from your unconscious inclinations: to fear, to be hands-off, and to give up. While I cannot operate under a guise of ignorance of the displacement, territorialism of long-term residents and subsequent polarization that exists in Over-the-Rhine, I must also refuse to fall victim to the uncertainty of who and what is right and just. Though what I’ve seen has challenged my ethical foundation, which has guided my decision making for so long, I cannot relinquish the responsibilities that come with the privilege of learning these things. That paralyzing uncertainty is why people don’t vote, don’t take initiative to invest in their health, in their neighbors, and in their potential. Instead of facing up to the challenge, they’re left feeling helpless in the wake of those who make decisions for them, not with them. That unchecked power perpetuates income discrepancies, bolsters the powerful, incapacitates the weak, and drives apart communities: all because of perceived, immobilizing inferiority.
Although the social-political sphere is far too esoteric its own good, we cannot dismiss the perspectives of how its decisions affect each individual in the community, regardless of how physically or fiscally involved each person may be. The businesswoman and disabled veteran on Vine Street are fully capable of identifying what they need from their community; they just might not know that they’re valuable enough to advocate for these things. The process of getting people involved requires that same kind of discipline that Phyllis uses with her patients. A community needs to get out of its default, careless setting to open its eyes to the reality of its neighbors, no matter how much or how little they have been pushed around or made to feel invisible. It is that intentional choice to show your neighbor that he’s worth it and that his opinions matter that makes the difference. I don’t mean to say this is a sovereign remedy to solve animosity in Over-the-Rhine or any community anywhere, but we have to start somewhere. The way Phyllis approaches her work has been an inspirational, and it’s helped me wade through the questions, remind me of the power of consciousness, and remember what it’s like for someone to reach out and help you see that you’re worth it. It’s a matter of mindfulness, being intentional, it’s putting in effort despite of it all, and it’s why I want to be a nurse.
Grace Gucciardi is a graduating nursing student who thoughtful nature blesses those around her. She has intensely wrestled with these issues while at Xavier in a way that has called those around her to more deeply consider what they do as well. She calls us to be our best selves as a community.