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February 17, 2006

A glimpse of the real world: Two-year-old Mennonite program throws young adults into the thick of city life

This is a story of six strangers who were picked to live in a renovated convent in Louisville, to live a life of simplicity by helping strangers in a city where they’re strangers themselves.

No, it’s not a new reality show. But here’s their story.

Eleven years ago, the Mennonite Urban Corps in Pittsburgh formed a program called the Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience. The goal was to take Mennonite college graduates from smaller towns and throw them into a bigger city where they could roam around a bit. These college expatriates would work in community centers and agencies that needed help but couldn’t afford it, and learn a little something about growing up along the way.
Pastors from the Paoli (Indiana) Mennonite Fellowship, the nearest Mennonite church to Louisville, visited the Pittsburgh Mennocorps program. They liked what they saw and decided to start their own program, modeled on the Pittsburgh effort.

Thus the Louisville Urban Corps was born in 2004.

In its second season, LUC has six participants — five women and a guy — who work in various community centers around town. They live together in an eight-bedroom apartment where nuns once slept, with three bathrooms and a huge living space with lots of hand-me-down furniture next to a remodeled kitchen where they cook dinner for each other nightly.

“I’ve never quite lived like this before,” said Maria Blough of Bluffton, Ohio.

The group’s limited culinary skills mean many nights of spaghetti or whatever they can throw together in a Crock pot. There’s no cable TV, and their apartment stays clean when the roommates abide by a “chore wheel” made of cardboard. Messages like “please quit using my soap” and “we need a wine opener” are written on a community dry erase board. For the most part these young adults get along.

“This is basically a Christian version of The Real World,” said Andrea Hagerup of Grand Rapids, Mich.

All six share a belief in pacifism, service learning and living a life of simplicity, but only three are Mennonite. Two are Christian and one doesn’t claim a religion. Blough said the program is more faith-based than religion-driven.

They each receive a monthly $250 stipend, free rent and health insurance through the end of August, when their year of service has expired. They each throw $100 a month toward living expenses, and they look for innovative ways to stretch the other $150.

“We have to do free things because we’re on a volunteer budget,” said Hagerup.
So they go on walks. Hagerup is learning to play banjo. They play soccer in a nearby field with Bosnians. Sometimes they listen to bluegrass music in a smoky bar, but mostly they watch “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” to pass the time.

Blough checked out “A Beginner’s Life to Changing the World” by Isabel Losada from the Iroquois Library. On the inside cover, she noticed a Gandhi quote that made her go, “Hmm …” It said, “Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.”

Before LUC, Blough had no idea what she wanted to do with her life. Her four months living and working in Louisville have helped her find a little direction.

After volunteering at Americana Community Center, she knows she wants to get a master’s degree in social work. She’s considering U of L’s Kent School, but her father is less than thrilled about that decision. He wants her to earn decent money.

But Blough said she’s always been interested in nonprofits, and she enjoys working at Americana, even though her job occasionally makes her want to cry. She’s a facilities manager by day, and by night she babysits a school full of children with other employees.

The kids are difficult to keep up with. They act out. Sometimes children come into the center from off the street and run rampant, and teachers in GED classrooms scold Blough for being unable to control her children.

She tries flickering the lights. She tries raising her voice, but she’s a timid 22-year-old who’s only learning how to manage discipline and make people listen.

She’s better at being a friend to these children who run around with their sagging pants and Starter jackets and tight jeans like they’re at a recess with no rules. She dances with them to rap music about shaking that laffy-taffy and joins in cartwheel competitions.

She helps them with their homework, and she’s a mentor for a few of the children. She goes to their homes and makes sure their parents are aware of what their children are doing. She listens to their stories about dying family members and loved ones that had to be left in Africa.

“I’m learning about other cultures and how hard they have it being new here,” she said. “We have it easy.”

She doesn’t always love what she’s doing, but volunteering is worthwhile, she said, because “it’s getting through to kids” and having them understand their homework and caring about what they learn.

On a Thursday in November, Hagerup and three roommates — Blough, Emily Gingerich and Alisa Hartzler — sat around an oval table in their second-story apartment in an old convent connected to a school building that used to be Holy Rosary Academy, which is now Americana. (The other LUC members were out. Keith Roberts was still working at the Highlands Latin School, and Katie Alley was out with friends for the evening.)

With a red candle burning and their bellies full of spaghetti, the discussion was random and fast-paced. They talked about cute boys, romance, moments of being on the verge of tears and good dreams. Their dreams and fears sound a lot like most college graduates.

They think they know what they want to be when they grow up, but they’re quickly learning the world is big and full of options.

“That’s why I’m in this program,” said Hagerup, who graduated last May from Calvin College. “You want to figure out what you want to do, you know? But how do you do that? I don’t know.”

Her best friend told her about the LUC program. She wasn’t sure what to do after college. She interviewed with a few public relations firms, but nothing came of it, so she applied and signed on for LUC to see what happened.
Hartzler also said she feels a bit lost.

“Maybe in 10 years I’ll know what to do,” she said. “It’d be cool to be a jeweler, but I don’t know how feasible that is.”

But she’s taking steps toward that dream. LUC hooked her up with local artist Sharon Major, who is helping Hartzler by giving her a studio with free materials to make jewelry. She works with Major only a few hours a week — the other 36 hours she’s assigned to work weekly are spent at the Cathedral Heritage Foundation and Jefferson Street Baptist Community, where she handles administrative tasks.

The LUC volunteers found their connections through LUC director Susan Rhema. For months, Rhema scoured the city looking for agencies whose services matched the interests of her participants. She wanted them to gain practical experience during their stay.

Roberts works as a gym instructor at Highlands Latin School. Alley is an art teacher at Nativity Academy. Gingerich works for South Louisville Community Ministries and the Center for Nonprofit Excellence. Hagerup also works for SLCM, writing press releases and finding ways to provide emergency assistance for those who need rent money, diapers, prescription coverage and other dire necessities.

They meet with Rhema every Friday morning for seminars about being a faithful person in a busy city.

The rest of their days, they work with those who don’t have much, doing some things they love and some things they could do without. But they’re learning about themselves by helping others and gaining perspective, which Blough said is what LUC is really all about.

Sitting around the table in their apartment, Blough, Hagerup, Gingerich and Hartzler tell stories of previous service work done for college credit, in places like Panama, Peru, Cuba and Columbia.

The poverty they saw there left them speechless. They were shocked by the nothingness, blown away by people who had nothing but still seemed happy.
Returning from these countries, the girls vowed to recognize the distinction between what they needed and what they wanted. They realized every decision they make inadvertently affects lives in the countries they visited. They didn’t want to be responsible for causing the poverty they witnessed.

That new way of life lasted a few months. Unanimously, the girls admitted they soon forgot their pledge and began living for themselves again in a country where people don’t think twice about it. They spent money on going out to eat, watching movies, seeing concerts and buying wine. They worked for corporate chains like Starbucks and grew tired of weighing all of their decisions while watching everyone else enjoy their American lives. So they gave up.

But now they remember. Their work with LUC has helped them reconnect with those insights. Working with people who don’t have much and living on $250 a month can do that.

“You learn what’s important,“ Blough said. “It shows you how to live life.”

For more information on the Mennonites’ Urban Corps program, go to www.mennocorps.org. Contact the writer at leo@leoweekly.com.