Emilee Martell was born and raised in western Wisconsin, and studied English and Environmental Studies at St. Olaf College. As part of her Urban Servant Corp year, she serves at EarthLinks, a garden and workshop where people experiencing homelessness can gain work skills, housing assistance, and a welcoming community.
Several times lately, I've been asked, "So, is this year of service thing turning out like you expected?" The answer, paradoxically, is entirely yes and entirely no. Before I came to Denver, I understood, on a basic level, what the year would hold: intentional community with six other people, full-time work at a nonprofit, reflections, conversations, and hard questions. But I didn't have the faintest idea what all that would actually look like, once we actually began.
And, to be honest, my expectations are still misty. But here's what it's looked like so far:
The ride in from Denver Airport with a friend, zipping across the flat, dusty fields--ecstasy at the first purple silhouettes of the mountains in the distance, and then sudden, sheer panic the highway sucked us into the city. It's a trap! my little country-bred mind yelled, and it was all I could do to keep myself from launching out of the car at the next red light and running for the hills.
The next day, hot as Hades, pulling up to the sidewalk of the Five and Nine. Who were these people? What was I doing here? More panic--but later, an afternoon of chatter and get-to-know-you's, and then two USC alums appearing on the doorstep with a twelve-pack of beer. This was, we all agreed, a sign from the universe that this year was going to be awesome. We sat in the living room, talking and drinking, and I slept well that night.
Then EarthLinks: a spectacular garden, bursting with beehives, crafts, late-summer blooms, and people who were instant comrades. My first day, I made candles. My second day, my shoes were accidentally placed in a donation bin and literally walked off. But they made their way back to me by the end of the week, and in the meantime, I learned soapmaking, beekeeping, and a tremendous respect for every person in the program, staff and participant alike.
Then three weeks, gone so quickly I didn't even have time to write in my journal about the days that were jam-packed with learning EarthLinks lore, lingering over community dinners, singing at the top of my lungs in the kitchen, watching movies in the living room, listening to my housemates' struggles and triumphs. Trying to marry my social-justice fervor to the complexity of real lives, and facing, for the first time, backlash for my own ignorance. Learning that the world is a heck of a lot bigger than Somerset, Wisconsin.
One month in, listening to an EarthLinks program participant announce that she had gotten a job through a homeless outreach event, and telling us how much EarthLinks meant to her, how it had lifted her up and given her the support she needed to get through a dark time. My heart nearly imploded.
And, just last week, hiking out in the dark with four other USCers to see the sunrise, laughing and yawning on the drive up to a peak in the foothills, then sitting in a grassy meadow in mutual eager silence, watching wild, glorious colors shoot through the clouds as the world grew slowly lighter and a brilliant glow collected on the horizon-and then, when the sun appeared, cheering like it was its first dawning in the whole history of the world.
That's what Urban Servant Corps has been, so far. It doesn't exactly deny expectations: instead, it pushes them so far they explode like fireworks into something entirely new--and, usually, unexpected.