City’s diversity and popularity offer exciting opportunities for service
December 13, 2016
Beyond the white sand beaches, palm trees and luxury oceanfront properties lies another Miami—in the lives of marginalized people who have arrived in this city full of promise and culture. Three Young Adult Volunteers (YAVs) from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are focusing their energies on residents of this other Miami, spending a year of service and learning in the community.
Savannah Caccamo, Jillian Gardner and Annie McAlister arrived in Miami six weeks ago, ready to begin the yearlong YAV program working with local nonprofit organizations in conjunction with DOOR Miami. Site coordinator Michelle Muñiz-Vega has been DOOR Miami’s city director since January 2015 and served in Miami as a YAV during the
2013/14 program year. The native of Puerto Rico, lifelong Presbyterian and member at First Spanish Presbyterian Church of Miami says the city has challenges that make it an exciting place to work and learn.
“The main topics we are talking about are homelessness, immigration, human trafficking and what does that look like in our city,” she says. “If you go to the downtown area, away from the resorts, you can see what all of these things look like. There are a lot of people who are not from here—you can hear the different languages and accents. When you notice the difference between the socio-economic groups, it’s as obvious as it can get.”
Muñiz-Vega has been working with the presbytery, “reminding them we have a YAV site in our city,” and helping to share some of what the YAVs are experiencing with the broader church. “You can go just a couple of blocks—from one neighborhood to another—and it is completely different,” she says. “Whether someone is coming for a weekend or for a year, I want them to notice that and ask themselves, ‘Why is Miami so segregated?’”
Muñiz-Vega says the economic inequality in the city is stark and that an introduction to this reality is part of all the programs she oversees. In addition to hosting the YAVs, DOOR Miami conducts weekend “Discover” seminars, summer “Discern” sessions and yearlong “Dwell” opportunities. The YAVs are joined in co-housing this year by one “Dwell” resident, an AmeriCorps volunteer. This year, the three YAVs are placed with organizations DOOR Miami has partnered with in the past.
Gardner, from New Jersey, serves part-time doing social media and UKirk assistance at Riviera Presbyterian Church and part-time at Gate, an alternative justice program helping young men facing gun violence charges. Caccamo, from North Carolina, works at South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice. McAlister, also from North Carolina, works at the center for women and children at the Miami Rescue Mission.
Gardner says her faith—as displayed in the public arena—is being tested in her placement. “The hurt, frustration, anger and deep sadness that I witness on a daily basis [make me] question my faith,” she says of her work with juvenile offenders. “Allowing yourself to accept these questions and new obstacles is really healthy, especially for young people.”
Simple reactions such as “God answers all our concerns” and “He’s a just God and loves us” aren’t holding up for Gardner as she sees the hurt in the young men with whom she works. Each of Gardner’s blog entries addresses a question she’s encountering in her work and life in Miami.
“Early on in this process I learned that not all my questions are going to be answered,” she affirmed. “And that’s OK. Maybe I won’t reach a place where there’s a silver lining or where my faith has grown exponentially. But by asking those questions in the first place we’re living into those beautiful moments of growth and understanding.”
McAlister hadn’t work with homeless persons before but finds the work rewarding, especially surrounded by staff at the Miami Rescue Mission who root their service in prayer. “I’m stepping out of my Presbyterian comfort zone,” she says of her encounters with the religious diversity at the mission.
Caccamo graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in religious studies and a minor in Spanish. She says she felt a call to go to seminary but also discerned she wasn’t prepared for it yet. “I wanted some life experience before going on to more school,” she says. She looked for a placement that would be “radically different than what I’ve experienced before, that would challenge my ideas about the world and show me new and different perspectives.”
She says integrating her faith with the justice work of the South Florida Interfaith Worker Justice is a goal for the year. “It’s easy for me to compartmentalize the faith aspect of it,” she says. “When I’m reading these stories on wage theft and horrible fatalities in the workplace, it’s easy for me to disconnect from the faith part. One thing I appreciate about my boss is that she sees [faith and justice work] as intertwined.”
Although early in their YAV year tenure, they all believe they are already seeing some of the purpose and vision for their work and the future take root.
“Miami is a city and a people with their eyes up to the sky,” says Gardner of the huge building projects expanding across Miami yet with a seeming lack of understanding for those who are at the other end of the economic spectrum. “The thought of them lowering their eyes—maybe in part because of what we’re doing here—is really powerful.”
McAlister says she’s grateful for having the time to “discern God’s call in my life and be open to different possibilities.” She has enjoyed seeing the many different ways nonprofits operate and is entertaining work in the field.
“I definitely was excited coming into this year, not only about living with other YAVs in intentional community,” she says, “but living in intentional community in the city where we are—like YAV alums and those in the churches we’re involved in.”
“I came here wanting to be challenged,” says Caccamo. “My goal is to continue being challenged after this year, and my fear is that I will end up having this as a piece of my life. But I want to make sure it’s more than that—that it’s integrated into my future and something I carry with me as something that changes the way I think about things.”
Gregg Brekke, Reporter, Presbyterian News Service
Today’s Focus: Young Adult Volunteers
Let us join in prayer for:
First Presbyterian Church of Miami Staff
Young Adult Volunteers Colombia
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
Holy God, through the voices of our young people, let us hear you speak. May we act to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with you. Amen.