Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Amate Magic Volunteer Reflection

The following is a reflection by South House Volunteer Anna Paige Frein - she shared this reflection at this year's Amate Magic benefit dinner, held on April 17 at Chicago's Navy Pier Grand Ballroom.

Good evening everyone and thank you for celebrating Amate House with us tonight! We are so excited to have all of you here. My name is Anna Paige and I am a current Amate volunteer in South House. I have had the privilege of serving at St. Sabina Catholic Charities this year. St. Sabina is a part of Catholic Charities’ Emergency Assistance Department, so as an intake worker I primarily assess clients in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood for our food pantry and clothing program.

I decided to do a year of service a little over a year ago with a few personal goals in mind. I was finishing up my MSW and I knew that a year of service could provide some good social work experience, I wanted to continue growing in my Catholic faith while finding a way to incorporate it into a career path, and honestly as a born and raised Arkansan and an Arkansas Razorback alum, I was tired of the same old scenery so I thought Chicago would be a good change for a year.

I got my site assignment at St. Sabina around the time of the explosion of national news coverage of the gun violence on the south side of Chicago, and to be honest it intimidated me. I grew up in a small sleepy town in the delta where gun violence rarely occurs and where you can make the front page in the local newspaper for catching a 30 pound fish.  Many people back home would react with alarm and worry when I told them that I would be working in Chicago for a year. “Why would you wanna move up there, honey?”, they would ask with true concern in their voices.

Needless to say, I probably looked like a deer in the headlights on my first day at St. Sabina. In fact, my parents wanted to come with me to the agency when we first arrived in the city. My supervisor, Ms. Tillmon, promised that she would take good care of me throughout the year and she has definitely kept her promise by fostering both my professional and spiritual growth. Looking back now, I recognize that if I had never decided to do a year with Amate House then I would still hold that ignorant fear of communities like the south side of Chicago.

The only thing I would know about this part of the city is what the news stations repeated over and over again last summer. I wouldn’t know how resilient and faith filled most of the people are here. I wouldn’t have as strong an understanding of the struggle of poverty and the different levels of the human experience. I wouldn’t have met the homeless woman who came to me crying because people were making fun of her dirty clothes at the bus stop. I wouldn’t have met the single father who is always smiling even though he was just diagnosed with cancer. I wouldn’t have met the man with crippling arthritis who thanks God  for the ability to get out of bed and live another day.

And I am definitely not the only one who has had this experience this year. The fact that 26 other young volunteers from around the country decided to dedicate a year of their lives serving others is such a unique and beautiful thing.  Amate House introduced me to some of the most brilliant and courageous young adults around and I know that we have all been challenged and experienced growth because of this program. As we all embark on our different directions this June I know that we will all take a piece of Amate and each other with us.

Thank you again for supporting such an incredible program tonight. We hope you enjoy the rest of your evening!

Thanks to everyone who came out to support us at this year's Amate Magic! If you missed us that night, check out the feature video from the program below!

It's not to late to apply to be an Amate House Volunteer! Download the application at

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Twelfth Station: Jesus Dies on the Cross

The following is a Lenten reflection written by Danny Tortelli, one of this year's South House Volunteers.

Maybe a week before Thanksgiving break during my first year of Amate, I found myself standing in the cafeteria of Perspectives as a lunchroom chaperone. I wasn't in there long before an 8th grade scholar of mine, Kenny, came up to me.

“Mr. Tortelli, you get my Turkey-gram?” With my mind in a million other places, it sadly took me a moment to figure out what he was talking about.  It was an assignment that was given to the middle school students in their Disciplined Life (or “character-building”) classes. Here, each student would write a turkey themed telegram to a staff member about how grateful they are for said individual. At the time I highly doubted I, as a first year volunteer teachers-assistant with a last name only 2 letters away from “tortilla”, would be receiving one of these kind and cute affirmations when it seemed only the well-seasoned, easier to pronounce staff members were getting them.

“No, I haven't,” I told him. “I don't have a desk for deliveries.” He laughed and shook my hand. “Oh, they're probably gonna deliver it right to you. I wrote one for you to say thanks for helping me on my math test.” At this point I didn't really care where it was, or if I ever got the chance to see it. The thought in itself was warming, but to get to the heart of why this Turkey-gram meant so much, you need the whole story:

This same student had his fair share of setbacks. Behaviorally and academically, he struggled. Very cordial and kind when talking one-on-one, he would often zone out, talk to other students, or “explore” the fine inner-workings of writing utensils instead of paying attention to lessons when working alone.

At the end of my first day of interventions with him, it didn't look like we'd be going far that year. I spent as much time that first day getting him to stop cracking jokes and pens as I did rehashing algebra. Nearly every day after, we tried and tried again; working one-on-one after the teacher had given her directions, trying our hardest just to reinforce new material.

I had tried being more lighthearted with him in our one-on-ones, and even took him to other classrooms to get away from possible distractions. He responded better when the pressure of his classmates wasn’t as high, and I think he even grew to enjoy class a bit more. It became a point of familiarity for Kenny, or a checkpoint throughout his day, and mine. When we’d see each other in an earlier class he would always make sure to ask, "You gonna pull me out of math today?"

During those first few weeks, there were definitely moments of hope; good marks on class work, getting problems correct on homework, more participation in class and so on. He even began beating me to the punch with a lot of the practice problems and getting them done without my help. However, the progress often stalled and seemed marginal. There were just as many instances where he would be marked for things like “incorrect”, “incomplete”, “needs to show work”. Even after the third week of learning “how to find the missing side length of triangles”, it was a stretch to get him to identify which side is the hypotenuse. For those like me who shamefully can't remember on their own, a hypotenuse is the side opposite of the right angle.

As our triangle unit was ending, there was a looming two-part test that drew nearer and nearer. I was getting anxious: from my own bad math experiences to the realization that this student wasn't doing well in class, I couldn't help but be a little fearful. The day before the test, while working alone on a review sheet, he could barely answer the first two hypotenuse questions on his own, and even when he did they were incorrect.

I left our class thinking I'd failed him. This happens often to me at school. One day I leave believing I really made a break-through with a scholar, getting them to pick up their character and stay on point with grades, and the next they give up the effort, pick fights, talk back, and lose respect for everyone in the room, including themselves. Kenny could certainly be that kid at times. I assumed the next time we'd see each other it'd be with a fat “F” and a heavy chandelier holding over both our heads for the rest of the year.

It wasn't until he pulled me aside at the end of the next day to tell me how wrong I was:

“Mr. Tortelli, Ms. Reigelmeyer graded my test in class and said I got an A.”

He’s lying, I thought. “Say what?”

“Yeah, she graded it and said I better do just as good tomorrow on the next part.”

No way he passed… let alone aced it?! He cheated! He must have wrote the answers on his hands... something!

He reached to shake my hand. Clean as a whistle.

Meanwhile his teacher, hearing our conversation from her room, stepped out to congratulate the two of us and, more importantly, verify that “He’s telling the truth!”

I can’t talk about the death of Jesus as if I’ve ever witnessed or been part of something so tragic, but I can talk about the loss of hope. The ever pounding questions that rush through my head daily: “Am I getting through to this student?” “Am I a good enough role model?” “Am I the right role model?” “Will I, or even this school, ever be enough for these kids?” In a sense, there is that death: Inspiration, courage, the aforementioned hope. They can all disappear at the first sight of failure. It doesn’t take much for us to fall, but there are moments around you when you realize you’re doing alright.

In seeing Jesus on the cross, he carries his mission to its completion – despite the hardships, failures, and fear he must have faced, he is faithful to the very endFor me, the Turkey-gram itself was great, but more than anything it was a reminder that our work does go to some purpose. Kenny got an “A.” He thanked me, and I am so very grateful. Now a freshman in the High School of Technology one floor above us, four inches taller and about 30 pounds heavier, he continues to thank me at least once a week when he runs up to me on the way to my car after school, smiling ear to ear, and tackling me to the ground with a bear hug, shouting “Mr. Tortilla!”.

The story goes that Jesus died so that others may have a better tomorrow. While we should strive to never give up our hope, it’s reassuring, as I learned, that even if it does die for a day, it can still dawn a better tomorrow.

This reflection based off of an original story of mine, “gratitude in the grind”. You can read that post in it’s original entirety and more on my blog: Danbook

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Tenth Station: Jesus is Stripped of His Garments

The following is a Lenten reflection written by Anna Paige Frein, one of this year's South House Volunteers.

Here we see Jesus being stripped of his clothes symbolizing a stripping of not only his divinity but his human dignity. This is a final moment of humiliation for Christ on his journey to the cross. As the crowds gathered to mock him, He was left exposed and ashamed. Despite this humiliation, Christ continued in silence trusting the path of salvation before Him.

Throughout this past year at St. Sabina Emergency Assistance Department I have encountered clients who are on their own journey of suffering like Christ who have been stripped by the difficulties of the world and have come to a point of feeling exposed and ashamed. Some have been stripped of their income and feel ashamed because they have to use a food pantry to feed their families. Others have been stripped of their possessions and feel shame because they do not have a nice shirt to wear to a job interview. Still others have been stripped of steady employment and feel exposed because they have not been able to pay their rent and are facing eviction.

A few weeks ago a woman came to our food pantry looking for assistance. She had left a domestic violence situation the day before and all she had were the clothes on her back and a few dollars in her wallet. She had been stripped of her home, her relationship, and her self-respect and she did not know who to turn to because she felt too ashamed to ask her family members for help.

Many clients at St. Sabina admit to me that they are reluctant to ask for help because of the sense of shame associated with it, but the real shame today is that we often forget that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ. We forget how to love others for who they are because we are more concerned with what they have. At the end of the day if you take away money, clothes, possessions, or status then all we have left is our being. It is then that we discover that we are all equal and created in the image of God.

Admittedly, I have not personally felt the shame associated with being stripped of money, possessions, or status like my clients. I grew up in a stable home with parents who could always provide for me. So when I reflect on this station during Lent, I think about the things that I personally need to be stripped of in order to love unconditionally. These things include my pride, self-centeredness, and social prejudices. This helps remind me of our equality and our responsibility to love each other just as Christ taught us.