A Summary of Holly’s Year

Blog writing is not my cup of tea. I have an English degree, do creative writing as a hobby, and have worked as a content writer for a local newspaper. I can edit blog posts easily. However, I still find myself stuck whenever it is my turn to contribute to the Sycamore House blog. I dislike writing about myself and putting it out into the world. Blogs often are marked by reflective, perhaps even sentimental, writing about what season of life the author is in. I’m a far too private person to be comfortable in this genre yet. 

All of this to say that I feel like I should be writing a long, expansive document about my journey this year. The reality is that I’ve been too stressed and too busy to produce an eloquent reflection on my year in the Episcopal Service Corps. So I’ll simply jot down my thoughts here, and that will have to be enough. 

Tomorrow is my last day at my service placement, and the service year officially draws to a close next week. We’re running through a series of “last”s in the house: last weekly meeting, last community dinner, last week together, and so on. Luckily, all the Sycamore House members are planning to stick around Harrisburg so we won’t have to say any final goodbyes yet. I’m currently planning on getting an apartment with my housemate Chloe in Harrisburg, so I have that to look forward to. Hopefully, I’ll be able to meet up with Kelsey, Kyle, and Emily as well in the coming year. We could still go to the Broadstreet Market together if we wanted to, which is nice. I think that the fact that all of us plan to stay in Harrisburg goes to show that even in the height of a pandemic, the Sycamore House still succeeded in connecting us to the community around us. 

Completing a service year during the height of the pandemic certainly wasn’t easy, but I’m incredibly grateful to have done it. My service placement at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School strengthened my ability to teach, which is helpful as I apply to potential careers in education. I also was reminded of how much I like working with kids. I taught phonemic awareness groups to small groups this year, made book recommendations as a DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) teacher, and helped kids with homework in the afterschool program. I was surprised to realize how much I loved doing all of these things. While working in a school this year was very taxing, I definitely will miss aspects of it. 

I also hope that I grew this year personally as well as professionally. I know that before I joined the Sycamore House, my life had ground to a halt due to the pandemic and a series of family emergencies. So many awful things happened (including deaths in my immediate family, family members’ having mental health crises, and breaking my elbow, not to mention the pandemic!) that I wasn’t doing much of anything other than trying to cope. I was very isolated. Almost immediately after arriving here, I found myself talking with another house member about why God allows suffering. I may not have found an answer, but I have come to appreciate God for being with us in hard times. I also have found plenty of joy and laughter this year! My students were hilarious, so I enjoyed working with them at the school. My housemates are great, so I also had many fun moments with them throughout the year. Living in an intentional community forced me out of my comfort zone in the best possible way, and I’m very grateful for it. While the Sycamore House’s community engagement was limited this year, it felt like just the right amount to challenge me (a serious introvert) without being overwhelming. I’m so thankful I got to be a part of the Sycamore House this year.


St. Stephen’s School Last Day (Chloe)

Last Thursday was the last day of school at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. We celebrated with our last spirit day- summer wear- as well as picnics, crafts, and a ceremony that honored the hard work our students put into the Race for Education this year. The most anticipated part of the day, however, was the pizza lunch. The students had been talking about that all week!

It was a bittersweet goodbye. This year has been particularly challenging, for two reasons. First, we were operating in the midst of a pandemic. Therefore, there were a number of limitations, most notably our hybrid model. Most of our students attended in person, but quite a few also tuned in online. I had to conduct lessons and manage students simultaneously in-person and virtually. I am no multi-tasker, so this definitely pushed me out of my comfort zone. I was even further stretched when we moved entirely to remote instruction over the holidays. I had never realized how much I valued and relied upon face-to-face interaction until I had to entertain easily-distracted children over a small computer screen. We also made sure to abide by important Covid-19 protocol, like wearing masks and social distancing. As those who have worked with or had children of their own, you’d know that they do not take well to honoring personal space, nor are they very keen about wearing something uncomfortable on their face all day long. We had to remain vigilant about our protocols all year, and that, in and of itself, was taxing.

The other and perhaps more significant reason this year was challenging was that it was my first time serving as a teacher. I faced a significant learning curve entering the school year, not sure how to conduct myself in front of a classroom or how to manage such a tight schedule of lesson planning and grading. I eventually got into the swing of things, and I discovered a rhythm and a place within the school. Nevertheless, most days I was exhausted by the time I returned home. I felt that I had been running on low battery most of the year. It was a relief to be done with the constant grind. In some ways, I feel I can breathe now.

At the same time, I am heartbroken. I fell in love with my students this year, despite the numerous occasions they tested my patience and sanity. They all hold a special place in my heart and I have fond memories with them. I also know that I will likely not see any of them again. Perhaps I will be lucky and run into them downtown or at the store, but it is more likely they are simply a part of my past now. I do not do well with good-byes. I usually find them awkward because there is so much that can be communicated at that time that I don’t have the opportunity or words for. Good-byes can often be filled with regret for me. I’m not sure what mood to approach many of them either: light-hearted and hopeful of some future together or sad and sentimental of times gone by? It’s hard to say. I tried conveying to my students how glad I was to be their teacher that year and how much I will miss them. Prayers that they all have another successful year at school and that I get to move on to something exciting too!

Life Post-Vaccine (Kelsey)

As we venture into this new phase of life with vaccines, I have found myself reacting differently than I thought I would. I had assumed that a lot of pressures and anxieties would be lifted, but the strange reality is that I am now experiencing new anxieties in how to navigate this new post-vaccine world. I can still remember the first time last year when I went to a shop wearing a mask and feeling so confused and uncomfortable. That memory feels like it happened a lifetime ago but also like it was yesterday. At that time, not much was known but all the experts were stating that masks were the answer.

Since then, COVID-19 has evolved so much and so much has been learned. Throughout these past months, I would constantly tell myself that I could not wait for things to go back to normal and live mask-free. But as we enter this new “normal” and the government is saying that vaccinated people can be mask-free outside, I find myself struggling to feel comfortable in the ways of the old normal. I want to be a responsible citizen and follow the guidelines, but at times, I feel like they are changing so quickly.  The other day I went to a restaurant, and they had a sign stating that if you had been vaccinated, you did not need to wear a mask. It was the first time I had seen that sign and it felt weird. Part of me knew that I was allowed to be maskless and that it was safe, but another part of me felt super uncomfortable and I had an overwhelming feeling that I was doing something wrong.

It’s strange how in such a short amount of time so many feelings and attitudes change and develop. As time passes and more people get vaccinated, I hope those anxieties dissipate. I think it is important to remember life pre-COVID, but to acknowledge this new normal may reflect the past but will be different in so many ways.

A Reflection from Kyle

As we come close to the end of our year here at Sycamore House, I feel more comfortable looking back at it and reflecting on what’s happened. 

Frankly, in absolute, earth-shaking terms not a lot has happened. The COVID-19 pandemic has more or less kept us inside for months, and we’d only occasionally go out for dinner and scurry back home or maybe walk along the riverfront. I’m told that Sycamore House was known for grandiose social events and a great deal of involvement with the community. There were apparently miniature concerts in our little basement. We’d meet with members of the Board frequently. We’d be out and about doing a lot of things. All things that I know intellectually, yet have no visceral frame of reference for. 

And yet, despite how difficult this year has been in many respects, I’m also grateful for it. I actually am grateful that not a lot has happened. I have been frequently described as contemplative, serious, and quiet — none of which I deny. I frequently acknowledge that I am more or less an introvert. That is, social interactions do not so much energize me but drain me, (which is not to be confused with social anxiety or awkwardness). It would frankly have been much harder for me if I needed to engage with people so frequently in the ways that previous alumni have. I’m grateful for how quiet it has been. It has enabled me to have the quiet space that I need, and to focus on my work which requires almost constant empathetic engagement with people who are either in crisis or close to it because of the very same pandemic keeping us pent up here. 

I think I can be reasonably sure that I have done good, necessary work in my capacity as an ESC volunteer partnered with CONTACT Helpline. I’ve served Central Pennsylvania’s community in a hard time for everyone, and while I won’t reiterate what my day-to-day is like, it’s had an indelible impact on me, both as meaningful service and as an obstacle and stressor. 

Today, we had an “adult forum,” or Q&A in which we answered questions posed to us by our program director and members of the community. When asked what a valuable takeaway from this year was for me, I said without hesitation that it has been learning how to listen. 

I used to think I was a good listener, but truthfully I was very bad at it. If the conversation was one I was interested in, I’d constantly interrupt the other speaker. I’d dominate the conversation. I’d be sharing knowledge, giving advice, bursting through the seams with words. 

Instead, I’ve learned to shut up and listen when someone needs to talk. I’ve learned to patiently participate – and not just by enduring until I have my ‘turn’ so to speak, but by also caring about what the other speaker has to say. It was a kind of gift which I was immensely skeptical of in my intellectual pride at the beginning of the year, and now in which I wholeheartedly believe, even if it doesn’t always magically solve whatever problem or hardship is being expressed. This is a skill that I’ll take with me throughout my whole life, and one I suspect will be invaluable when dealing with other people, which will always be a part of the human experience unless I find myself in a truly exceptional and dire situation. 

The year has been difficult, it’s true. But God has a way of pulling the good from the bad, and I’ve seen that play out this year as much as any other.

Holly’s Highlights of the Week

I thought for this blog post I would share some highlights of this past week

On Tuesday, I had an outdoor, socially distanced dinner with my mentor, Charity, and her husband. We met in their backyard, and they treated me to great food and great conversation. My mentor is someone my program director matched me with, who works in a field I am interested in so she gives me advice on finding my vocation. Charity works as a Program Coordinator for a local ESL program. I am certified to teach ESL, so talking with her has been helpful in terms of learning from someone successful in that field. 

After having dinner with my mentor, I rushed back to have our weekly community dinner at the Sycamore House. I already ate, but community dinners are more about spending time with the other Sycamore House members than eating anyway and I enjoyed getting to know my housemates better. Community dinners in non-pandemic times were usually a time of reaching out to the local community of Harrisburg, but due to Covid-19 precautions community dinners are currently limited to Sycamore House members. This focus on building community with each other is sort of nice though. These weekly dinners have helped us meet our goal of living in an intentional community with one another. 

On Thursday, I attended my martial arts class in the evening. This martial arts class is free for Sycamore House members this year, and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to brush up on my self-defense skills and get back into shape. I mastered two forms (katas) on Thursday, which earned me a stripe. Essentially, that means you move to the next level of training. This was really exciting for me. The martial arts class takes precautions like temperature checks, sanitizing your hands before being allowed to join the class, masks, and distancing so that it’s safe for everyone there. 

This past Friday, I and another member of the Sycamore House went to the Shenks Ferry Wildflower Preserve to hike on a trail and learn about local plants. I found new contenders for my favorite flower, such as Jack-in-the-pulpit, yellow violets, bloodroot, and red-dead nettle. The latter two plants I like primarily because their names sound like something out of a fantasy novel. Our guide was Kathy Yorkievitz, who was kind enough to drive us out to Preserve and share some botanical knowledge. As the trip was outdoors and Kathy is vaccinated, we also did not have to worry much about Covid-19 exposure (although we still wore masks just in case). On the way to the Wildflower Preserve, we also stopped at a local creamery to get ice cream and say hi to some cows. It ended up being a fun adventure! 

Finally on Saturday, one of my housemates’ family came to visit her so I tagged along for an outdoor meal. It was cool to try out a local restaurant I hadn’t been to before and to meet my housemate’s family. The Sycamore House still has a restriction on visitors entering the house, but meeting outside with masks on (when we weren’t eating of course) was a great way to still see people without risking potential Covid-19 exposure.

Vaccinated! (Kelsey)

This past week, all the members of the Sycamore House received their COVID-19 vaccines! It is truly a time to celebrate and start to look forward to a healthy and safe future. As most have experienced, trying to schedule a vaccine appointment is a monstrous, frustrating task, and the Sycamorians were not exempt from that experience. Thankfully, a number of spots opened up with phase 1b of Pennsylvania’s vaccine roll-out plan and we all secured appointments throughout the week. Each of us are experiencing different side-effects from the shot. Some are feeling the full spectrum of post-vaccine symptoms, while others have none at all. Personally, I had the worst nights sleep due to having the sorest arm in the whole-wide world, but thankfully no other symptoms.

As a household of five people, who each have different placements, schedules, and lives, discussing COVID and establishing COVID precautions is something we have taken very seriously. It is a very unknown virus and unknown time, so we as a house have made the commitment to have weekly check-in and updates about COVID. At times it can feel tedious, but in the end, we are creating an environment and home where each of us feels safe and secure. The whole house is looking forward to the spring  and hopefully having the opportunity to meet more of the church and community.

A Promising Sign of Spring (Chloe)

Spring is finally rounding the corner, even though we definitely still have some significant cold spells. Nevertheless, I am feeling a sense of hope with the oncoming season of blooming and a feeling of refreshment after a long, cold, and at times agonizing winter. There is no denying these last few months have been difficult and draining. This pandemic year has tested my resilience, commitment to self care, and ability to fend off feelings of isolation and despair. I am glad we seem to be cresting that horizon and beginning a new time of renewal. If only we could commit to not jumping the gun on loosening social distancing restrictions! Even amidst this spring optimism, I am concerned about the rising covid cases and deaths. I so long to see certain friends in person and travel back to familiar places, but cannot do so yet with a clear conscience. I hope we do not fall into a false sense of security, but stay patient with this transition back to more normal life.

Fortunately, last Saturday, we were blessed with an especially beautiful day and promising harbinger to warmer weather. Holly, Kyle, and I took advantage of this opportunity and accepted Kathy and John Yorkievitz’s gracious offer to join them on a hike at Hawk Rock. We anticipated taking a rather leisurely route in order to just soak up the scenery. While the views were certainly good, I can’t say our trek was easy. I was working up a sweat! The trail was steep and particularly rocky and our footing was not so sure at times. It was narrow too, and making room for passerby challenged our climbing and scrambling abilities. All our huffing and puffing paid off, however, when we finally reached the peak. We were afforded a gorgeous view of the river, valleys, and mountains surrounding us. We briefly took off our masks so John could capture a good picture of the three of us. When it was time to share our highs and lows of the week during our formation time that Sunday, each of us stated that our hike was an especially enjoyable part of our weekend. I look forward to spending some more time together as an entire house outdoors in the coming months.

Finding Rest in New Seasons (Emily)

As the seasons change and spring is on the horizon, feelings of newness begin to fill the soul. The occasional sunshine that we have been experiencing here is a refreshing reminder of the warmer months to come. Growing up, most people’s lives are structured around an academic calendar because of the strong influence that school has on our daily, monthly, and yearly schedule. After graduating college it was a difficult transition into the mindset of work being the same day after day, month after month, and the realization of no holiday recess or long summer break to look forward to was challenging. Although I only stayed in my first job after college for about eleven months, it was enough time to teach me the importance of self care and finding things to look forward to. Whether that was a night off where I treated myself or a weekend getaway to visit a friend, having things planned in the future for myself to enjoy became very important to me. 

Just over a year ago is when the country first started experiencing the tragedy and impact of COVID-19. It started with extended spring breaks, a few extra days of vacation, and a more relaxed work day as many began working from home. At first, students were excited for the extra few days on the Florida beaches and employees were probably glad for a couple days away from the cubicle; at least I know I was. But looking back now, no one expected for things to go the way they did. No one anticipated schools to still be offering virtual learning or organizations with no return to office date in sight. It is overwhelming at times to think about the ways that our daily life transitioned so quickly, and for much longer than we originally thought. 

As a graduate student at Messiah University, I have been able to see how the school is doing its best to facilitate breaks and rest for the students. This year they offered a long weekend with no classes but full of activities and things to do on campus for the students. In the time of the semester when students most need a break, it is hard to be so restricted in how to find that. I think one of the best aspects of the Sycamore house is the opportunity that Fridays bring. Although I haven’t been able to join as much as I would hope, Fridays are designed as a day with no work obligations and a time for Sycamoreans to experience and develop other parts of themselves and their life. Whether this is through service, self care, or vocational exploration, Fridays offer a respite from the work week and the responsibilities that come with this year. 

Being able to find something that can provide the rejuvenation needed is the first step, and being committed to that time is the second. I know I am guilty of not using my rest time in the best way but instead wasting it watching Netflix or aimlessly searching the internet. I hope that in these remaining few months in the Sycamore house, we can all be committed to letting ourselves find rest and absorbing the new life and refreshing air that comes with Spring and Summer. I hope that we can recognize the year we have experienced, and are still experiencing, and be able to identify ways to help ourselves feel joy, feel rested, and feel equipped to finish our placements, our academic years, and our time in this community. Another transition is on the horizon for us all, and I am excited and hopeful that we can find rest as we continue on through this next season.

Kyle and His Experience at CONTACT Helpline

Here at Sycamore House, the core of our mission is the volunteer placement that we sign up for when joining ESC. At the beginning of this year, I joined CONTACT Helpline, a local organization partnered with United Way and its service 211. 

In a nutshell, 211’s primary purpose is what we call “information and referral” (I&R). If, for example, you got behind in your rent and you’re in arrears for an amount greater than you could afford, you could dial 211 and a Pennsylvania-based area code would bring you to PA 211. Certain regions may have their own specific lines, but some can get queued into the state line, so I will get calls in a variety of counties that fall under my service area, such as Wayne or Franklin. (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have their own separate 211s though, for example). Operators like myself will do our best to find resources that could help with any given situation, be it rent assistance, affordable legal representation, food pantries, and more.

Another service we provide is an emotional helpline or “warmline,” as some folks call it. The idea is that it’s not a crisis service, but rather serves all the people who may not be in crisis just yet or have come out of it but need someone to listen to whatever could be in mind. We’re not a talkline insofar as we have any input. Part of our training is to be “client-centered”. We don’t have the solution, but we believe that the client does, in a sense. All we do is try to listen and understand, and sometimes that’s enough for someone to share his or her story and come to a better self-understanding without us trying to bumble through giving inane advice. In that sense, such a service is a gift we hope to provide, if it’s useful to the client. This line is entirely anonymous and judgment-free, and that helps people share what they need to share. 

If homelessness or imminent homelessness is involved, 211 operators will transfer someone to the various queues run by housing specialists. I also happen to be one of those specialists and I will alternate my days based on the schedule I am given between 211 and housing calls. In the housing and homelessness prevention role, I perform an intake for 211 folks and try to find whatever resources are appropriate, such as emergency shelters, eviction moratorium resources, etc., as long as they are available and the client agrees to them. One thing we try to do is, if possible, provide services that the client agrees to. We require consent, for lack of a better term, and will not push anything unwanted on clients. Part of our philosophy is giving folks who have often been put into bad situations unwillingly some semblance of control and choice. 

Of course, sometimes the job is not always so neat and clean. There can be an astonishing lack of resources out there, or eligibility criteria may not be met by someone who needs help. Despite being someone who merely provides information for resources that can help rather than actually running or controlling the organizations in question, it often breaks my heart when I have to tell a caller that there is nothing available. People’s reactions vary greatly; some understand and let it go, some yell at me or accuse me of purposefully trying to neglect or sabotage them. Whatever it is, I never take it personally. Many people, especially during the winter combined with a long and unforgiving pandemic, were in crisis mode and stressed beyond belief. Often, I cannot blame them for their feelings and do my best to sympathize. I even empathize at certain points since I too come from a rough background. 

Ultimately, I can say that it really has been a year of service. The work here can often be difficult, but it has been far more meaningful and impactful than most other lines of work I could have or would have been doing otherwise. Instead of spinning in a desk chair doing data entry or sending standard-form emails for HR, I’ve been able to perhaps give someone a second chance, find a place for them to go when there was nowhere else, or listen to that dark story that needed telling. My thanks go to ESC and the Sycamore folks for making that possible.

A Day in the Life of Holly

I thought I would explain here what an average day at my placement looks like. I serve as a building substitute, DEAR (Drop Everything And Read) teacher, and after-school worker at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School. Here’s a rough schedule of what my days are like:

I try to wake up at 7:00 am to have coffee and breakfast before heading to the school, which is right next to the Sycamore House. Since it’s a short walk, I usually go to the school around 8:25 am. At 8:30 am, I sign in and my workday begins. The front office lets me know each day whether I will be subbing that day. If a teacher is out, I could walk into the office to sign in and be told to immediately head over to a classroom for the day. This past week, I subbed for first-grade and third-grade. Once I get to the classroom, I usually receive sub plans and go from there. 

If I don’t have to substitute that day, I begin logging the temperature checks (a Covid-19 precaution the school takes) into a database. Once I finish that, I work on sorting the school lunches and taking any extra food we have to the community pantry outside the school. If I still have extra time, I disinfect the school. I can also use this time to pop in and out of classrooms, asking whether any teachers would like support. 

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I teach DEAR (Drop Everything and Read) classes in the mornings. This is largely independent reading time, and each student silently reads a book of their choice during this time. I help students check out ebooks from the library system, and give reading recommendations as well. When I’m not helping a student, I take out a book of my own and read with them. 

After my morning duties and DEAR classes, I deliver lunches to classrooms. Due to the pandemic, students stay in their classrooms for lunch instead of spreading out across a cafeteria. Once the lunches are delivered, I head to my first lunch duty at 11:35 am. My first lunch duty is with third-grade. After this, I go to fifth-grade lunch duty at 12:10 pm. Once both my lunch duties are done, I have a lunch break myself. Normally I head back to the Sycamore House for this, considering how close it is to the school. At 1:15 pm, I am back in the school and sign back in at the front office. 

In the afternoons, I do phonemic awareness interventions with small groups of students. I like working with students in small groups because it allows me to get to know the students better. I motivate the students with games like hangman if they stay focused during all the other activities. I also go to help out in fourth grade on some afternoons. I do classroom support and small group interventions until the end of the school day. 

At 2:40 pm, I head to the after-school space and prepare for the kids to arrive. I grab a walkie-talkie, prepare snacks for the students, and get my clipboard to take attendance. By 2:50 pm or so, the kids have shown up. First, we offer them their snack, and then they have to work on their homework before they can play. Once their homework is completed, we play games like capture-the-flag and dodgeball. By 4:30 pm, once every student has been picked up and gone home, Chloe and I disinfect the after-school space. We usually head home to the Sycamore House around 4:45 pm.