YAV year prepares volunteers for their next chapter in life
Emily Mikhail and Ekama Eni had been back in Texas for a week after returning from their respective YAV assignments when they sat down for an interview with Grace Presbytery in mid-August. Emily and Ekama spent a year as members of the PCUSA YAV program. Young adult volunteers explore God’s calling in their lives while being part of an intentional Christian community in partner sites around the world.
Grace Presbytery has always supported the YAV program, prayerfully awarding scholarships to send its young adults to engage in mission elsewhere.
Emily, who attends West Plano Presbyterian Church, served in Chicago, Illinois; Ekama, who attends Trinity Presbyterian Church in Denton, served in Glasgow, Scotland. Emily served with a non-profit called New Moms to help adolescent mothers experiencing poverty and homelessness. Ekama served with Colston Milton Parish Church, assisting communities facing high levels of urban deprivation that have been identified as Priority Area parishes.
Emily and Ekama discussed what it was like to live and work in an unfamiliar location for an entire year. While their specific experiences may have been different, there was a similarity in their stories.
Both graduated with bachelor’s degrees a few weeks before they left for their assignments. They both enjoyed spending time with the YAV community in their new homes. They both enjoyed their new city and culture.
“I lived on one of the busiest streets in Glasgow,” Ekama said, “I grew up in the suburbs, so it was really cool to be in the heart of the city.”
“I lived in the east Garfield park neighborhood, in a house that had been converted into apartments,” Emily said. “The people of Chicago were really nice, and I always stopped to chat with the people in my neighborhood, on the bus, at the grocery store. I made friends everywhere.”
They were very impressed with the work their respective agencies did for the community. Ekama’s assignment allowed her to spend time in the arts. She worked on music and arts projects at church, worked at a community development trust, and she helped with art projects at Just Like Us, a mental health “drop-in” location for those in recovery.
“We also did a club for young people called The Racket,” Ekama said, “with music, guitar lessons, and songwriting classes. I sat in on recording sessions in the church. I got to help plan a music festival and will go back to Scotland in September for a week to see off that piece of work that I’ve been doing.”
Emily experienced the “nuts and bolts” of nonprofit work. “In our work with adolescent mothers, we targeted issues like homelessness, housing, job support, family support,” Emily said. “I worked with donations. I was on the development team and I worked on small projects. But mainly, I was working with the volunteers, introducing them to our mission and helping them get plugged in a way they are passionate about but also will be helpful to us.”
“Church there is really culturally different,” Ekama said. “Communion has been my biggest culture shock of the year. My minister said they only do it three times a year because that is all that is required. Attitudes about church played a big part in my year because sectarianism is a big thing in Glasgow.”
“The most frustrating thing for me, both at home and in Chicago, was everyone asking me if I felt safe all the time,” Emily said. “It takes a lot of time to go into asking people why they feel Garfield Park is not safe and is so scary and that didn’t happen overnight. Running into people’s not-well-informed stereotypes of the area was frustrating.”
Looking back, Emily and Ekama said their YAV year prepared them for challenges they may face in the future.
“I’m going to stay (in Chicago) and start my masters in social work in the fall of 2017,” Emily said, “and I think if I just went straight from my bachelor’s to my master’s degree I would have floundered and would have had a really hard time. I feel a lot more ready for grad school now. I also feel ready to be in the social work field.”
Ekama plans to spend the next year working and applying for a master’s degree program. Her interests are a master of divinity degree, an MBA with a focus in human resources, or a graduate degree in conflict and dispute resolution. She said her YAV experience taught her to work and get along with people she did not know, as well as how to handle stress.
“You are entering someone’s space,” she said, “and dealing with that, navigating your way around that, is challenging. Being in the middle of other people’s relationships and personal lives takes its toll, and not letting it get to you was a learning curve. That was the biggest challenge.”
The YAV year was filled with fun, fulfillment, and frustrations, but Emily and Ekama said they highly recommend it.
“It’s a really valuable experience. Lots of young people could benefit from it,” Emily said. “I plug this program all the time.”
“It’s a really cool community to be a part of,” Ekama said, “so just do it. Find a YAV alum somewhere to talk about their experience. Have an open mind and don’t stress out about it. We want Grace Presbytery to keep supporting the YAV program. It’s a great way to engage young people.”