Reaching Out in the Ten Directions: How Sangha Members Are Helping in Their Communities
During this time of shelter-in-place, we are facing huge challenges in the area of public health as well as social and political upheaval. It is easy to feel powerless and confused about how to act effectively in the world; how to help. Those who, before Covid-19, were actively involved in volunteering their time and energy in support of the poor, the imprisoned, and the ill have found most of those face-to-face, warm-hand-to-warm-hand avenues closed. “How can I help?” is a question many of us face.
The gift of Dharma is available through many online sources, but not everyone can offer lectures, classes, or zazen instruction. Though there is no answer that applies to everyone, some of San Francisco Zen Center’s sangha members have found ways to reach out even under these circumstances.
Stacey Greenblatt, a City Center resident, has been teaching schoolchildren the basics of mindfulness. She writes:
Before shelter-in-place I was going into the kindergarten classroom for 30 minutes a week teaching a mindfulness curriculum which involved breathing/focusing exercises, storytelling, movement, and various awareness exercises. After things went online I had the opportunity to lead two modified sessions on a Zoom meeting for about 10 or 15 minutes. We did some ‘focus time’ by having them focus on their breath for a couple of minutes. They took turns reciting a mindful poem and we went over brief breathing exercises, such as pretending to breathe in the smell of a flower and blow out a candle.
On September 10 we will have a training to prepare us for doing the Zoom calls as it is more challenging to begin working with new children online. If anyone is interested in volunteering or knowing more about the program, you can check it out at https://www.mindfulartssf.org or contact Mindfulness Program Coordinator Kayla Schneider-Smith at email@example.com.
Louise Madrid is working with an older student. For several years Louise volunteered at City Center on Thursday afternoons, cooking and delivering lunches to the residents of Richardson Apartments, a permanent housing facility for formerly homeless men and women. While both SFZC and Richardson Apartments are closed to non-residents, Louise has found another way of being of service.
Shortly after the shelter-in-place order, I was looking for a way to help students who were suddenly faced with distance learning. I’m new to the area and I met someone who had been volunteering in the San Rafael school district. She introduced me to a family with a 6th grade student at Davidson Middle School who needed one-on-one help.
This student lives in the Canal area of San Rafael, which has been hit hard by the pandemic, and her parents are essential workers. She had been struggling to keep up with her school work in this new remote learning environment. She was also dealing with the fears of the pandemic. Unlike me, she knows several people who have contracted coronavirus and knows someone who has died from the disease.
Math was her most challenging subject. As a former Middle School math teacher, I especially enjoyed helping her with math and we worked together for the remaining school year. Over the summer we also decided to read a book together, both for enjoyment and to practice language skills. This turned out to be a great way for me to get to know her better and we’ve thoroughly enjoyed our summer reading time. We will work together in the new school year as well.
One of the initial challenges was getting used to working with a student online. But with Zoom and other technology, this was quickly overcome. Most students are quite proficient at the technology from their end. They can navigate to their assignments and share what is needed to get help.
It has been a joy to work with a student during this pandemic. The personal connection with a young student has been rewarding and heartwarming and we have created a strong bond. It has provided new purpose and meaning during this very isolating time.
If you are interested in helping in a similar way, many parents have children at home who need help with their school work. I recommend asking extended family, or neighbors, or essential workers that you know. The need is great and a little help goes a long way.
Also involved in reaching out to students, though in a different way, is Dan Belsky, a SFZC employee, Tassajara alumni, and former Oakland public middle school teacher. He and his wife, Beth, both Oakland residents, have become active in advocacy to promote increased funding for public schools. “Because we are new parents, this is an issue that really resonates for us,” said Dan. They are making phone calls and texting to advocate for increased state education funding.
Another Thursday volunteer, Susana Millman, has been active remotely as well. She has joined, with other members of the Saturday Sangha, a campaign to reach out to voters (specifically in communities of color in areas threatened by voter suppression) through the mail, to encourage individuals to make sure they are registered and will be able to vote in the November elections. Also involved in a similar effort is Tova Green, a resident City Center priest.
Susana also volunteers for the San Francisco/Marin Food Bank, as does SFZC Outreach Coordinator, Jeffrey Schneider.
The Pop-up Pantry that Susana and I volunteer for prepares 650-700 bags of groceries each Tuesday for pick up by the recipients. There are other Pop-up Pantries throughout the city which do the same. I have been moved and saddened by the need that this number expresses and also moved and encouraged by the sight of so many volunteers showing up to help their neighbors.
Since the beginning of shelter-in-place, the need for the Food Bank’s service has risen dramatically. Currently approximately 60,000 families in the Bay Area are receiving groceries. When I spoke to one of the staff at the Pop-up Pantry, he said he thought the numbers had just about doubled.
One of the other challenges facing the Food Bank is that many of the City workers who were detailed to help with distribution are going back to work, especially as the libraries begin to reopen in limited ways. I’d really encourage anyone with a few hours to offer to check out the volunteer opportunities.
One of the great things about the Pop-up Pantries is that they don’t require any sort of long term commitment. You can sign up for one three-hour shift. If that works for you, you can sign up for another. But there is no pressure to sign on for a longer period of time. And since they are running Monday through Saturday in San Francisco and in a variety of places throughout the City, it’s easy to find a day that works.
Anyone interested can check out the various programs and volunteer opportunities at https://www.sfmfoodbank.org.
For many years a number of sangha members have volunteered to be pen pals to incarcerated men and women. During this time of near universal lockdown many prisoners find themselves either in prisons within prisons, restricted to their cells without visitors (including teachers, volunteers, clergy), without programs, religious services and often without Yard privileges. They may be living in crowded dorms where social distancing is impossible. Many prisons have had high rates of infection.
It is particularly under such dire circumstances that a letter from outside, from a concerned Dharma friend, can make a difference in someone’s day. When a prisoner writes to SFZC, he or she receives a prompt reply and a Buddhist book if that is the request. If the person is looking for an on-going correspondence with another practitioner, their name is added to the waiting list until one becomes available. Until that time they are encouraged to continue to write to the outreach coordinator who acts as a temporary pen pal. Over the past ten years Jeffrey has responded to several thousand letters. SFZC has also taken on the correspondence for a number of other Buddhist groups who can no longer sustain a pen pal program of their own.
This is an easy way to make a great difference in someone’s life. Anyone interested in learning more about the program is encouraged to enquire through firstname.lastname@example.org. For pen pals, Outreach is looking for people with an on-going, established Buddhist practice. Not a teacher. Not a mentor. But a “good spiritual friend.”
Although we may sometimes feel powerless and confused about how we can be of service, there is always a way to enact the great vow of the bodhisattva: I vow to live and to be lived for the benefit of all beings.