Monday, May 23, 2011

Portland and a World that is Just Small Enough

As I have mentioned before in this blog, I am fortunate enough to go to a very community-oriented yoga studio, Yoga Northwest.  I have met many amazing people in the short time I have been going there, and the woman who I met with for the project is no exception, though I never would have known it, my shortsightedness being what it is.

Tobey is a woman I have seen several times in some of the yoga classes I have attended.  She is tall, thin, blonde, and naturally attractive.  Though she is an older woman, you would never guess it to look at her.  She is remarkably fit and she carries herself lightly.  Her daughter, who sometimes attends class with her, is also naturally beautiful, very well put together, and the two of them obviously share a strong bond.  Due to their appearances, individually and as a well-formed set, I always imagined them as having a beautifully manicured and privileged existence.  I had the opportunity to meet and converse with Tobey in a yoga philosophy course I am taking at the studio, and could not have been more surprised at her grounded and matter-of-fact approach to all things human.  In fact, within several minutes of talking with her, I felt as if we were almost kindred spirits.  Shortly thereafter, she told me she had a Portland Place for me to visit with her.

We met in front of the yoga studio late one rainy morning, and headed West over the hills of Portland.  As she began telling me the back story to the place we were going, it seemed that, as usual, my assumptions about her had been, for the most part, absolutely incorrect and based on my own insecurities.  It is more surprising to me at this point that I am used to this revelation, rather than being surprised that my insecurities often lead me to perceive others with at best, a distorted and dingy lens.  Maybe someday soon I will learn to keep my insecurities to myself so I can avoid surprise altogether.  Dare to dream.

On our way to the Portland Place, Tobey told me how she came to know of it through a series of circumstances and remarkable people.  Several years ago, she was considering having her daughter volunteer at St. Mary's Home for Boys.  It turned out this place was not a good fit for her daughter, but Tobey decided it would be a very good place for her.  Uncanny, actually, because back in roughly 1997 or 98, I had the good fortune to volunteer, through my studies at The Oregon College of Art & Craft, teaching ceramics at St. Mary's Home for Boys.  The experience was an incredibly humbling and challenging one, and at the end of each weekly two hour session, I was exhausted in a way that left me feeling like I had earned every ounce of it.

Initially Tobey had been on the board of the School, planning and executing some of its first fund raising events in order to keep it open and functioning, but she also wanted to be a mentor, and though there were a few regulations against it, she was able to do both for several years, until at a certain point it became clear that she had to choose one or the other, so she chose to go with mentoring.  It was the thing that mattered most, she thought, the thing that she felt made a more meaningful difference.  She told me that she had no illusions about the impact she made on the various boys she had mentored, she just hoped that if only for a day, she might have made it a bit better for them.  A simple wish, but admirable, given the situation these boys find themselves in.

We arrived at the location I remembered, but the campus seemed foreign to me.  When I was volunteering at St. Mary's, there had been a few very old buildings, a bunch of trailers, and the art building, which was in dire need of attention.  The campus today tells a story of enthusiastic community support and miraculous transformation.  Not one of the trailers remain, and the campus is filled with new buildings: a gym, several dorm buildings or "cottages", a learning center, a cafeteria, a chapel, and a building for administrative staff.  The care that had been given to the boys by the staff at St. Mary's was echoed in the support St. Mary's received from the community.

Many years ago, St. Mary's was told by the state that if the school did not make the necessary improvements, it would no longer be eligible for state funding.  The school hired a planner and came up with a number: fifteen million to make the improvements necessary.  A consultant they hired to assist in attaining these funds told the staff at St. Mary's that it was impossible, so they did not renew his contract, and rolled up their shirtsleeves and did it themselves.  With some luck, some grant funding, and some very generous benefactors, St. Mary's did raise the money necessary to make all the improvements required by the state, and in so doing, built an amazingly functional and well designed campus to house and rehabilitate severely abused boys.

Tobey and I went inside the main building and met with Lynda Walker, who gave us a brief overview of St. Mary's and its role in the community.  The school took the boys all others had given up on, many of them had been severely abused and had started to abuse as well; animals, other children, and very often, themselves.  There is no other program like it in the country and boys come from all over the U.S. to attend.  Many of the boys have gone from home to home from the time they were very young.  One of the boys had been through 49 homes in the past 7 years.  Lynda spoke with great compassion about each child the school had taken in, and also, with great hope.  She believed that even if everyone else had given up on these boys, that St. Mary's could and would help them.  The school's numbers reflect her optimism: 8 out of every 10 boys who graduate from St. Mary's ends up either back in school or, if they are 18, gainfully employed, and not offending again.

I had the opportunity to meet the boy who Tobey mentors, I will call him "Johnny", and sit with the two of them at lunch with two other boys in the school's cafeteria.  It was a pretty good meal for cafeteria food; deep fried tater and sweet potato tots, (I happily ate all of the sweet potato tots as the boys did not want them), mini burgers, salad, and on each table, a big pitcher of chocolate milk.  If the boys ate all of something and wanted more, all they had to do was raise their hands and more food was supplied.  We sat in the clean bright cafeteria and ate, and for the most part, I listened to the conversation between the boys, which was surprisingly mature.  At one point in the conversation, Johnny was saying that he would most likely choose not to graduate as he was thinking it wasn't worth it, while the other boys at the table were trying to convince him to do it, telling him that if he did, he would get money for college, and even if he ended up deciding not to go, it is always nice to have the option.  It was a very serious conversation, and one which made these young boys seem more like young men.   All of twelve or thirteen, they were making an attempt to plan their lives.  It was remarkable, in that many kids that age aren't even planning for the rest of the week.  What a luxury it must be for these boys to be able to plan anything.  A luxury I have always taken for granted due to the fact that choices, another luxury, have always been available to me.

After lunch, the kids lined up and walked to their "cottage", or dorm.  The cottages are divided by age: boys from nine to thirteen years of age reside in the Ford cottage, boys age thirteen to sixteen reside in the Steel cottage, and boys from sixteen to eighteen reside in the Meyer cottage.  A fourth cottage, Howard, is for the boys who are able to initiate a more independent lifestyle.  Once Johnny and the other boys arrived at their cottage, they practiced lining up quietly, three times.  The way it works at St. Mary's is that the boys are constantly being evaluated and receiving or losing points, based on very simple but important things that most people do throughout the day without giving much thought to it.  So, if the boys accumulate enough points, they get certain benefits, leading up to taking trips off campus, and eventually, graduating.  Every day they start fresh.  Nothing that happened the day before is held against them today.  As I watched them line up, and the staff direct them, it appeared to be the perfect way to practice awareness; everything you do, and the way you do it, counts.  In addition, nothing that you did the moment before will reflect badly on a success you achieve later.  Simple habits being rewarded simply and directly.  Incredibly transparent and logical.  It was easy to see how the system could work, and why, 8 out of 10 times, it did.

Art at the Studio
Tobey and I said good-bye to Johnny and found Lynda for a tour.  She took us around to all the new buildings, and told me the magical story of the funding of St. Mary's.  She told me that certain grants which St. Mary's had applied for were doubled on more than one occasion, how several local and National foundations stepped up and funded building projects and equipment projects, sometimes without even being asked.  She showed us the music room, the profoundly simple yet exquisitely beautiful chapel, and then, we went to the art building, where I saw an old classmate of mine, Jacob, working.  He was heading up the arts program at St. Mary's while earning an MFA.  He had started at the art school the year I was graduating, and had been working and making art ever since.  This is going to sound cliche, but Jacob is a big teddy bear.  I know, not original in any way, but the guy just is; adorably pinchable cheeks, a great big radiant smile, and a big hug for anyone who is willing.  Generally a pretty happy, friendly guy.  Really, perfect for that environment, and had that art studio improved!  When I volunteered, we had to piece together art supplies for the boys to use, Jerry-rig the kilns, and literally scrape caked-up, years-old clay off of the wheels in order to get them to work.  I barely recognized the studio now, organized and well-stocked, it seemed to have transformed inside its sturdy concrete walls, and the work that had been made over the years within them was displayed in and around the building.  It was indeed a flourishing studio.

At the end of the tour, Lynda brought us back to her office to give me additional information, her card, and a book by Howard "H" White, the V.P. of Brand Jordan at Nike and a long time friend and supporter of St. Mary's.  Lynda and Tobey each told me that the book had been incredibly inspirational for them both.  High praise, coming from two incredibly inspiring women.

It is a strange feeling to leave a place like St. Mary's, having been given the tour and the inside scoop, having had the privilege of sharing a meal with the boys the school is helping.  It tears me up to think of the abuse these kids have endured, some of them from the time of conception, and the incredibly hard work they have to do in order to ascend from the deep dark that pulls them downward.  Conversely, it is inspiring to see a little bit of hope peaking out from behind their eyes and the corners of their mouths as they attempt to swallow their smiles and their tater tots with a big gulp of chocolate milk.  It is no wonder so many people want to help these boys and this place.  It is no wonder that Tobey chooses this place as her favorite, and how lucky she is to be able to choose it!  This place is not just helping to segregate and occupy these boys, it is providing a vehicle of transformation, and it is not only the boys who are transformed.  Everyone who works, volunteers, or even visits this place learns, much like the boys do on a daily basis, that there are rewards for careful attention to simple but important things.

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