Celebrating small victories in a new kind of life

A breath of fresh fall air in New York City, 2015. (Brenna Neimanis)

Notes from the Field includes reports from young women volunteering in ministries of Catholic sisters. A partnership with Catholic Volunteer Network, the project began in the summer of 2015 This is our third round of bloggers: Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd Volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility serving adolescent girls in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Kerry DiNardo is a Notre Dame Mission Volunteer AmeriCorps member serving at a Cristo Rey school in Boston. This is Brenna's first blog; read more about her here.

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"It is not about creating the perfect future. It is about responding to another human being who is suffering in a very particular way, and responding to them in a very particular way, with the expectation that that is the starting point of what we are as human beings."

I have written this quote in countless notebooks and book margins, and it has stayed a note in my phone since the day I heard it. It has been with me for so long now that I cannot even remember its origin.

I derive such peace from this small reminder to simply love others in their current state. How beautifully unique we all are, and how much we seek to be cared for and understood. We are all brothers and sisters, and in urgency and intentionality we must care for each other in times of suffering. This is where healing begins and futures brighten.

When I was in college, I spent my summer months serving in India, Thailand and Laos, working with survivors of sex trafficking. Building relationships with these individuals and aiding in their healing has impacted me greatly and has continued to fuel my passion for seeking justice. I learned the importance of relationships and meeting people where they are.

There is such power in simply being present, simply being open to listening to someone's story without looking for the perfect response or advice to give, just being. Stories of strength, resiliency, and the love of God are present in every survivor, and it is beyond encouraging.

These experiences and an ever-increasing love for people and justice have brought me to where I am now.

The Brooklyn Community of the 2015-16 Good Shepherd Volunteers (Courtesy photo)

I am currently a Good Shepherd Volunteer in New York City. My interest in the GSV program began after someone in my life whom I greatly respect interrupted a completely unrelated phone conversation to tell me about and encourage me to look into the program. I had never heard of Good Shepherd Volunteers but politely said I would take a look, mostly so we could continue our previous conversation.

That night, I went online to look at the program and was immediately intrigued. Typed in bold across the top of the website were the words "social justice," "simplicity," "community" and "spirituality." These are the four tenets the program is based upon. I immediately felt very understood by the person who had so adamantly encouraged me to explore this option, and I could already feel a deep connection to the program itself.

At that time, my entire life was consumed with balancing social work, humanitarian affairs work, serving on the executive board of my campus ministry, living in an intentional community with seven other women, and diving deeper into how to live a life of simplicity and sustainability. So the program seemed a perfect fit.

I was pretty much sold on the idea and was sure I would be practicing these four tenets in Thailand or Chile, living ever-so-simply and being immersed in a new and foreign culture. Never did it cross my mind that I would be pulled (a little against my will) to a culture even more foreign to me: New York City.

If ever there was a place in this vast world that I could have adamantly said I would never live, it was New York City. Unlike many of my peers, never have I dreamt of living among the skyscrapers in the "city that never sleeps," when I could have instead Mother Nature surrounding me and a self-determined bedtime of 9:30 p.m. The desire was far from present.

But here I am, serving in New York City; more specifically, the neighborhood of East New York in Brooklyn. It's awfully funny how that works.

I live in an apartment in Brooklyn with three other GSVs, all working at different social service sites throughout New York City. We live on a teeny-tiny stipend and pool our money so we can buy groceries from our hotly debated communal grocery list. Twice a week, we plan community and spirituality nights to discuss social justice issues, simplicity practices, and various spiritual topics and practices.

I work full-time at a juvenile justice residential facility for girls between the ages of 14 and 17 who have been arrested and are serving their time in this therapeutic placement. My days are spent counseling and spending time with the youth, listening to their stories and assisting in their healing process any way I can. Each of these girls has experienced significant trauma, and with the use of trauma-informed care, we are able to recognize that each individual has a unique story and to cater to her specific treatment needs from that foundation.

Yet even though the girls have endured mental, physical and sexual abuse, life in the foster care system, sex trafficking, natural disasters, and immense community and gang violence, they are so much stronger than one could ever think possible. Their resiliency is inspiring.

Because of the nature of the work, I have some pretty tough days, and my neighbors have seen me crying on my walk home from the subway on more than one occasion. But it is an experience that has already challenged and changed me drastically. My residents can be a little harsh at times, but, oh, am I finding such joy and gratitude in the little things and getting to celebrate small victories each day!

Art therapy work in progress at the juvenile justice facility where I serve. (Brenna Neimanis)

That fact that my eyes well up with tears of joy when I see a resident control her anger and breathe through a situation in which she would normally throw a chair is beautiful to me. Or when I go an entire day without getting cursed at or without having to break up a fight, I smile the whole way home. Even just being acknowledged and greeted by a resident who may not be too happy with me at the time is pure joy.

My reactions to seemingly straightforward situations have become trauma-informed, and my entire mindset has changed. I never realized how often I made judgments about people acting a certain way without considering what each individual's story or trauma history could be. It has made me much more patient and has challenged me to seek grace for myself and love people more unconditionally.

But it has also made me very confusing to people who view these situations differently. How many times have I been called a "bleeding-heart social worker" for presenting a potential backstory to an individual behaving in a challenging way? I can't even count the number. But I think that's important.

Though it can be a dramatic work environment, I love the relationships I have built with these youth and cannot wait to see them continue to heal and grow.

I have been working here for just over six months now, but I have learned more than I even thought possible. I look forward to the months to come and to be able to share my experiences with you all!

[Brenna Neimanis is a Good Shepherd volunteer at a juvenile justice residential detention facility that serves adolescent girls in Brooklyn.]

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