2018 Love Letters: A Drop in the Bucket. An Overflowing Cup.

It’s been a really intense few months for me, and I’m grateful to my Keystrokers who have stuck with me through intermittent posting, heavy topics, and everything in between. Fortunately, I think I’m starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and there will be some exciting new opportunities and developments in the next month! Stay tuned for lighter content and what I hope is a more frequent posting schedule.

In the spirit of this season of giving and gratitude, I wanted to devote some creative energy to recognize some of the practices, people, and organizations that helped get me to this “not great, but getting better” point.

My first “love letter” is to the Refugee Development Center (RDC). In September, I started volunteering as a tutor for their English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program. The RDC provides a lot of different support services for refugees and other migrants to the Lansing area, including educational programs like ESOL classes, after school care, community orientation services, and more. Fewer than 1% of the 6.5 MILLION displaced people worldwide ever resettle, so the RDC plays a crucial role in helping those who come to Lansing become part of that 1%.

During my orientation, the staff talked about how, while the work they do is important, it still represents just a “drop in the bucket” toward fixing the crisis facing these millions of displaced people. But, I know that there’s only so much impact that one person can make from where they are. And to me, helping new members of my community navigate the challenge that is learning a new language (especially English, and especially as an adult), was the drop I could offer from where I was…on the edge of a gigantic, cavernous bucket.

I remember how nervous I was on the first day of class, worrying about if I would be a good teaching assistant, if the language barriers would be too much, or if I would accidentally do something ridiculously offensive.

I’m happy to report that, once again, I was worrying about things that didn’t come to pass. Volunteering with the RDC was something that helped refocus me on the community- and purpose-driven aspects of my identity that got pushed aside in the middle of (understandably) distracting traumatic experiences. As I navigated some major personal crises, helping ESOL students remember the alphabet better and start learning grammar gave me a little bit of “soul food” each week to keep me grounded enough in who I was to avoid drowning in anxiety and self-doubt.

Watching students grow over the course of the semester was easily one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had. That growth often manifested in something as objectively simple as remembering how to write the date, but when you start to think about the challenge of learning a new language, as an adult, in a new place you never thought you’d be in, after likely experiencing things most of us could never imagine…writing the date becomes a major, major thing.

There were times I would literally leave class and cry in my car on the way home because I was so proud of the student who was able to understand a worksheet on common jobs or who became faster than his wife to recognize some of the letters of the alphabet. These are people who showed me joy in some of the most simple things and who were so profoundly grateful for the small part I played in their education.

I even learned some new words and phrases of my own, like “my name is Katlyn” in Russian, “watermelon” in Sudanese, “Sophie” in Arabic, and “hello” in Vietnamese.

I also learned how to be patient when it takes a few tries to pronounce “house” correctly or remember which words are for which directions. As my patience with others strengthened, I noticed my patience with myself grow, too. It was easier for me to be gentle as I struggled with anxiety management or depression lows or making nutritious food decisions, because those were my alphabet and vocabulary “words.”

There were many times after a tough day at work (which was almost all the days for the last six months or so) that I just didn’t want to show up. But the knowledge that the RDC’s drop in the world’s bucket is a full glass for so many of its students helped me push through those emotional obstacles…as did knowing that my “drop” is tiny but meaningful to so many.

My first semester of tutoring came at a time when I desperately needed to cultivate more patience and self-compassion. Showing up for the students reminded me how to show up for myself and heal my heart. Most importantly, it gave me the chance to serve some of my community’s most vulnerable members by helping them cultivate crucial skills of communication and understanding. It’s a drop in the bucket. But it’s also an overflowing cup.