Alumni Spotlight: Corinne Vandagriff on Helping Adolescents Navigate Stress and Trauma in Healthcare

Avodah alumna Corinne Vandagriff (New Orleans Service Corps, 2016-2017) hopes to change the way children and adolescents experience stressful situations. For her, the work is deeply personal. At 19, she met a child life specialist for the first time, due to her own experiences with a chronic health issue. She was introduced to the Child Life field, which she’s now studying at the Bank Street Graduate School of Education in New York. She will graduate this spring and take the certification exam to become a child life specialist. 

Corinne came to Avodah with a background in sexual health, and was able to get on-the-job experience in the field through her Service Corps placement. She served as a Life Skills Coordinator for CrescentCare, a health and wellness center originally founded in response to the HIV epidemic in New Orleans. She facilitated skill-building programs, as well as provided testing and counseling, for individuals living with HIV. The position gave her concrete skills for working in HIV and healthcare and further developed her ability to connect with clients.

As her service year came to an end, she connected with an Avodah Advisory Council member, Julie Finger, for career advice. Advisory Council members are volunteer community leaders who assist in furthering Avodah’s mission within our local program cities. “That’s one of the great things about the Advisory Councils at Avodah — they are so invested in the Corps Members,” Corinne said. 

Through this connection, she found a job working with adolescents on health promotion and sexual health in the research division of the Tulane Medical School. She built relationships with and supported participants to keep them engaged in the process. She worked most closely on a study looking to determine if an injectable form of HIV-prevention medication would be as effective as the daily pill already on the market. She helped identify people eligible for the study, kept them invested in the trial, and conducted harm reduction and sexual health counseling each time they came in. 

“That trial has since concluded and it was found that the injectable form is actually more effective than the daily pill. It’s really exciting to have been part of a study that will have such an impact on sexual health. Research rarely works out that way,” Corinne said.

Corinne and a few of her New Orleans housemates.

Her Avodah placement and position at Tulane helped her realize she was most energized by providing emotional support for patients and helping them better understand what was happening, but she wanted more tools to do that work long-term. She made the decision to leave Tulane and pursue a masters in Child Life, the field that she was introduced to as an adolescent. 

Child life specialists support children and families as they navigate stressful and/or traumatic environments, particularly those that were not built to consider a child’s developmental needs. A relatively young field, it is currently primarily present in children’s hospitals. Specialists provide psycho-social care, doing what they can to make experiences less overwhelming and mitigate trauma. 

“As an example, MRI scans can be scary. For kids, they’re still building the part of their brain that can even process what the experience is. They might not know how to ask the questions they need to ask to feel safe or advocate for themselves,” Corinne said. “The child life specialist would likely go in and show them a model of an MRI or play the MRI sounds. They might talk about it as though they’re going to be in this big spaceship — provide them with any sort of information to make the experience less scary. If the child goes through an experience like an MRI that is traumatic, it is the job of the child life specialist to help them process that.”

In addition to medical education, advocacy is a huge part of the role. Specialists advocate for the needs of the family, which could include thinking about things like race, ethnicity, religion, family structure, or sexual orientation. It could also mean considering questions such as ‘What is the family’s communication style?’ or ‘What can we provide to help everyone feel safer and more comfortable?’ 

While family-centered care is a core value of Child Life, as set by the Association of Child Life Professionals, the field’s lack of diversity does not reflect the diversity of the families served. A 2018 survey of 108 child life specialists noted that specialists of color were less likely to have heard about the field through personal connections and felt less supported throughout their certification process. As the study summarizes, “the homogeneity of the field relates directly to the services child life specialists aim to provide.”

“It is a very white, cis woman, Christian field, which we know has an impact on the care families receive,” Corinne agreed. “Because I am Jewish and queer, I am still somewhat unique in the context of Child Life. I am committed to an anti-racist, culturally responsive practice and the education I received through Avodah has allowed me to continue building that.” 

Corinne and housemates in New Orleans.

While it’s been over four years since Corinne graduated from the Service Corps, the Avodah network has continued to support her, be it through conversations with other alumni in healthcare or finding temporary housing when she’s had to leave New Orleans for practicums. 

“I am still very close with many of my fellow Corps Members… My community from Avodah is still a huge part of my support system.”

12 Avodah Artists & Creators to Support this Holiday Season

In an economy dominated by Amazon and big-box stores, we know small business owners and creators are facing an increasingly difficult battle for customers. This season, we encourage you to shop small. In addition to shopping at stores local to your area, we’d like to encourage you to support the Avo-fam, too. 

Here are 12 Avodah alumni who are artists and small business owners you can support this giving season. 

 

Mezuzot from Slow Makers Club, earrings from Little Furey, moon design from Cards on a Mission, and earrings by Jordan Aiken.

 

Sarah Gordon – Jewelry and Ceramics from Slow Makers Club

Sarah settled in Philadelphia after participating in our Service Corps and has since co-created Slow Makers Club. Each quarter, 10% of all ceramics and earring sales from the shop go to support a different Black and/or queer-led organization in Pennsylvania. You can see more pieces and stay up-to-date on new offerings via Instagram.

Jett George – Prints and Stickers

Jett George is a former member of our New York Service Corps cohort. As their website says, “Jett is a non-binary trans artist, activist, jewexx, and sweet gemini baby. They’re here to make art aligned with their values of trans liberation, prison/police abolition, anti-racism, ending gender-based violence, and disability justice.” Stay up to date on Jett’s work via Instagram.

Kaetlin Ritchie – Graphic Tees from Golden Willows

Kaetlin was a DC Corps Member back in 2015. Today, she and her boyfriend, Jacob, run Golden Willows, selling shirts with hand-drawn, collage, and photography design elements. All of Golden Willows’ shirts are made from sustainably sourced cotton. “The images are meant to inspire and spark meaningful conversation.” 

Jordan Rubenstein – Affirming Merch from The Crafty Queer

Jordan was an Avodah Justice Fellow in New York and has been an advocate in many Jewish and non-Jewish spaces. They helped their spouse, Alister, launch The Crafty Queer, selling art and merch “for all your LGBTQ and recovery affirming needs.” Their products range from tote bags to earrings to baby onesies. In addition to checking out their shop, follow The Crafty Queer on Instagram.

Danielle Moyal – Watercolor Stickers

Danielle participated in Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps in New Orleans a few years ago. When Danielle’s not doing prison abolition or environmental justice work, she’s creating adorable watercolor stickers. You can check out her shop here and follow her on Instagram.

Amy Ravis Furey – Accessories by Little Furey

Avodah Service Corps alumna and current Director of our Kansas City Justice Fellowship, Amy, has her own shop, Little Furey. Through her colorful handmade ribbons, hair accessories, and more, Amy aims to raise consciousness “one stitch at a time.” Her Instagram includes shop updates and personal musings. 

Marlana Fireman – Art by Firelight Studio NOLA

New Orleans-based writer and artist Marlana Fireman was a Service Corps Member in 2017. Her Etsy shop, Firelight Studio, features spooky, fun, and sex positive art. With 3-packs of lovely postcards, packs of stickers, and framed prints, there’s a lot to choose from! If you don’t see something you’re looking for, Marlana also takes commissions. Check out her Instagram to see more of her work.

Lauren Lowenstein – Art for Always Ketubahs

Lauren is a former DC Corps Member with a background in social work and health care. She also runs ART for ALWAYS ketubahs, selling her own original contemporary and abstract ketubahs. Her Instagram is a gallery of past works.

Laurie Herschman Heller – LH Print Shop

Laurie came to the Chicago Service Corps with a background in art and communications. After Avodah, she traveled abroad and then made her home in Boston. She runs LH Print Shop, with designs created to “make your walls smile.”

Raina Fox – Cards on a Mission

Former DC Corps Member Raina Fox’s professional background intersects with many issue areas, including sexual health services, refugee support, and LGBTQ advocacy. Through an initiative called Cards on a Mission, Raina makes and sells block-printed greeting cards and donates the proceeds to racial justice and/or LGBTQIA+ organizations. If you don’t see something that sparks your interest, she also makes custom blocks for large orders. You can follow her on Instagram as well.

Jordan Aiken – Ketubot and Jewelry 

While participating in our New Orleans Service Corps, Jordan worked for a women’s shelter. She has since gone on to work in healthcare, legal, and LGBTQ advocacy spaces. Outside of work, she is also a painter, calligrapher, and jeweler. Follow her Instagram and view her creations here. You can also place a custom ketubah or jewelry order! 

Jamie Diamond – Jewelry and Art

New Orleans Service Corps alum Jamie Diamond returned to New York after her service year and now works for Hebrew Union College. In addition to her day job, Jamie makes sustainable, feminist-friendly jewelry and art. You can view her work on her website or via Instagram.

Are you an Avodah alum who creates and sells art, merchandise, or other products? Email [email protected] and we will add you to our directory of artists.

Pushing Back Against the Darkness: Reflecting on Chanukah as an Avodah Alumnus

Benjamin Altshuler (he/him), is the Rabbi of Mount Sinai Congregation in Wausau, WI and an alumnus of the Avodah Jewish Service Corps (Chicago, 2013-2014). He spent the year serving at Friedman Place, a supportive living facility for adults who are blind. He has served as Network Weaver and Alumni Justice Ambassador.

With the approaching celebration of Chanukah, I think back fondly on our celebrations of the Festival of Lights in the Avodah bayit (house) and ponder the social justice lessons that inform this season. Now, as the rabbi of Mount Sinai Congregation in Wausau, WI, I seek to bridge the mythology of our tradition with the values of our modern day. 

On one hand, a story of comeuppance, overturning hegemony, and rededicating sacred space is a highlight for social justice warriors. Chanukah reflects efforts to protect religious liberties, stand up to bullies, and celebrate unexpected victories by enjoying fried treats. But a closer look at the Maccabees, their guerilla warfare tactics, and the harsh treatment of other Judeans who opposed their zealotry makes me wonder how much to identify with the heroes of our narrative.

These days, Chanukah has become a celebration of identity, especially when juxtaposed with the traditions of other faith communities in the winter months. During my Service Corps year, we joined with several faith-based service corps for an interfaith holiday party. We sang songs, played games, and ate foods featured by the diverse traditions we represented. Our idyllic fête was a microcosm of unity and togetherness – one that does not reflect the realities of most peoples’ experiences during the holidays. 

The “December Dilemma” perennially poses the challenge of how to celebrate or offer holiday greetings without competing over grandest or gaudiest display. Gifts are great, and I love getting mail, but consumerism is not part of our Chanukah narrative. Why, Chanukah is not even a major holiday in our Jewish calendar. Therefore, let us focus on the small moments of togetherness and light.

Rabbi Benjamin Altshuler and his Avodah cohort in their bayit.

I will never forget gathering in the dining room of our drafty Chicago apartment with my Avodah housemates. We turned off the lights – it was already plenty dark outside with the early winter sunset and the lake-effect snow softening the streetlight through the weatherized windows. Next, we lit all the chanukiyot in the house and joined in the blessings together, our voices a joyful discord, the candlelight reflecting in our eyes. We didn’t have many gifts to exchange, but what we had was shared. I remember thinking about the darkness in the world – literal in the dusk hour, but also metaphorical, as the poverty and systemic obstacles we helped clients approach in our fellowship assignments every day. Like the candles before us, my housemates and I could push back against the darkness in small ways, bringing hope and illumination to others.

Gratitude is not Enough: Accountability and Action on Thanksgiving

As the name implies, Thanksgiving is traditionally a holiday about gratitude. While acknowledging the things we are grateful for is important, the gathering of friends and family also provides an opportunity for critical conversations on accountability. 

From as early as elementary school, many Americans are taught an oversimplified, inaccurate account of white settlers’ interactions with Indigenous peoples. In these white-centric narratives, Native Americans are often portrayed as either subservient allies to settlers or dangerous enemies. While the falsification of this history is becoming more widely understood, tribal communities across the country are still grappling with negative perceptions of their identities and cultural norms, loss of land, broken treaties and promises, and persecution.

Those of us who who are non-native or Indigenous must hold ourselves accountable for the roles we’ve played in perpetuating narratives that center white colonizers. To build a foundation of understanding for these conversations, consider the following activity from Jonah Canner, originally included in the Avodah Institute for Social Change’s High Holiday resource, “Transformative Teshuvah.” Begin by thoughtfully considering:

  • What do you know about the place you live?
  • What do you know about the people who lived there before European Colonization?
  • Research the Indigenous history of the place that you live and find a story that has been erased from the settler narrative that you were taught. 

At Avodah, our programs span six cities across the country, land that belongs to the Munsee Lenape, Lekawe, Canarsie, Merrick, Nissequogue, Secatogue, Shinnecock, Corchaug, Mannansett, Montaukett, Nacotchtank, Piscataway, Choctaw, Houma, Kickapoo, Kaw, Ho-Chunk, Myaamia, Potawatomi, Kaskaskia, Peoria, Kickapoo, Kumeyaay, and Cocopah peoples. 

Discussions of accountability are the first step toward actionable change. One way you can take action to support tribal communities is by joining them in their community-led efforts to combat climate change and push for environmental justice. In addition to the long history of injustice and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples at the hands of colonizers and governmental systems, they are suffering greatly from the increasingly rapid effects of climate change. In one of Avodah’s sites, New Orleans, tribal communities along the coast are watching their ancestral land disappear beneath their feet. 

An Avodah New Orleans Corps Member helps move displaced materials at the Grand Bayou village.

As a report from the Native-led First Nations Development Institute states, “In an irony lost to no one, the first peoples on the North American continent are generally the first to need to move as a result of climate change.  Climate change inevitably threatens ancestral Native cultural practices and resources as well as tribal sovereignty. Environmental shifts resulting from climate change link to cultural self-determination, and tribal identity. For these reasons, tribes have a vested interest, above and beyond that of other communities, in addressing climate change and in investigating and conducting mitigation strategies.”

After Hurricane Ida devastated much of the Gulf region, Avodah’s New Orleans cohort volunteered with elders from the Grand Bayou tribal community to help restore the local church grounds and community center. Little media attention was given to the devastation in the area, as the community is one of few still only accessible by boat. The Grand Bayou tribal community has been leading restoration efforts of the land, water, and air, even as their lands have washed away into the Gulf of Mexico. In spite of this, they continue to be a mostly self-sustaining community and are fighting to establish new ways to be subsistent and sustainable. You can support their efforts here.

Interested in an ongoing effort to uplift the voices of Jews of Color? Follow along as we highlight JOCs, including Native voices, on the Avodah JOC Bayit Instagram.

Placement Perspectives: Securing Rent Relief and Benefits for San Diegans Through Pandemic Housing Crisis

Thank you to Jewish Family Service for being a 2021-2022 Service Corps partner and supporting the launch of Avodah San Diego!

JFS gave Noa a warm welcome.

With the shared Jewish values of tzedek (justice), and tikkun olam (repairing the world), Avodah and Jewish Family Service work together to address the most pressing social justice issues facing the San Diego community — from hunger to homelessness, and beyond. For more than a century, JFS has leveraged the strength of the community to help people transform their lives. With an approach rooted in personal relationships and community partnerships, JFS delivers services to foster the health, skills, confidence, and resilience of every person served.

By working together to uplift individuals and families, we strengthen the whole community. Through critical relief and supportive services, JFS sustains families struggling to put food on the table or sheltering in their vehicles; helps older adults age with dignity; welcomes strangers with compassion; and fosters connections in San Diego’s Jewish community. 

Avodah Service Corps Member Noa Garfein serves as the Program Support Specialist for the JFS Center for Jewish Care, which seeks to end Jewish poverty and strengthen the Jewish community. Noa is an integral part of the team, supporting community members struggling to make ends meet. Noa’s work is especially crucial for those whose needs have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. She assists with identifying each individual’s most pressing needs, such as housing, nutrition or transportation, and helps connect them to services and resources within JFS and the broader community. This often includes navigating complex government benefits systems — Noa has become well-versed in local housing programs and the rental relief and eviction moratoriums made available during the pandemic.

Alumni Spotlight: Jewish Community and Career Path Clarity with Leah Starbuck Schuckit

After graduating from Washington University in St. Louis with a degree in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Avodah Service Corps alumna Leah Starbuck Schuckit (New York City cohort, 2018-2019) knew she wanted to try direct service work. When she heard about Avodah, two things came together for her in a way she’d been seeking for years — Judaism and social justice. 

Leah grew up in Carmel, Indiana, a suburb of Indianapolis, which had an extremely small Jewish community. In 2010, the Association of Religion Data Archives reported that, of her county’s 276,000 residents, fewer than 400 practiced Judaism. By the time she got to college, Leah was exhausted from the struggle of seeking community. 

“I had spent so much of my life being the only observant Jewish person in many spaces, and I felt I wanted to be defined by something other than being Jewish,” she says, “I effectively stopped participating in Jewish life.” 

After some time away, Leah wanted to re-establish her connection to Judaism, but wanted to do so in a way that intersected with social justice. In 2015, she attended a training session for Jewish camp faculty led by Avodah staffer Sarra Alpert, who is now the Director of the Avodah Institute for Social Change. It was through that meeting that Leah learned of Avodah’s programs and approach to Jewish social justice learning and career development.

Leah and her cohort celebrating their first communal Shabbat in the bayit.

Shortly after, Leah applied to Avodah’s Jewish Service Corps and made the move to New York City to serve at Sanctuary for Families, an organization that works with victims and survivors of gender-based violence. Over the course of her service year, Leah realized what really energized her was public benefits advocacy and direct services work. In addition to helping her determine her career path, the experience fulfilled her need for Jewish community.

“Avodah was this intersection of the things that I cared about and the way that I was raised, and the values I wanted to apply to the justice work I was doing,” she said. “I was with people who would be doing justice work from 9 to 5 and then come home on Friday and bake challah and sing Jewish prayers. Avodah made me realize this is my Judaism — this is what I want my Judaism to look like for the rest of my life.”

After completing her service year, Leah stayed in New York City specifically so she could continue to be in community with her fellow Avodahniks. It was also a great move for her career; she was hired at Bronx Legal Services, a legal assistance organization that has been working to address systemic poverty for more than 50 years. There, she found even more Avodah connections with one Service Corps alum working as a paralegal, as well as a newly hired supervisor who had been a Corps Member supervisor at another Avodah legal placement organization.

“It was very affirming to be in a space where Avodah was recognizable,” Leah says “Applying to direct services jobs post-Avodah, I don’t think there’s anything more I could have done to be better suited to get a position. I was surrounded by Avodah people in the professional community — and it gave me more people to have Shabbat with!”

Her time in Avodah and at Bronx Legal Services confirmed that she wanted to go to law school, a decision she’d been teetering back and forth on since her college internships in D.C. Working with lawyers who were holding the government accountable and pushing for broader public benefits programs, Leah realized the client-based work of direct services was incredibly energizing, and the puzzle-solving of legal work scratched an “intellectual itch” she had as well. 

Leah and members of her cohort during the national Service Corps retreat during her Avodah year.

“I feel like there’s this prevailing idea that the way to make ‘real’ change is by affecting policy, but there is a need for justice work at every level,” Leah affirms, “If all I do my whole life is help individuals who are unable to navigate the system by themselves, that in itself is impact enough for me… I love to be able to sit across from somebody and say, ‘I know this is confusing and my job is to navigate this for you, so you can go to sleep at night and spend time with your kids.’”

Leah is now a law student at New York University and continues to be a big proponent of Avodah’s programs. 

“The Avodah service year is such a unique and special bubble of an experience. My advice to current Corps Members would be to just buy-in, 100 percent,” she says, “The best thing you can do for yourself, especially right out college, is to do something intensely different and powerful. You’ll walk away with incredible friends and having had incredible experiences you can continue to rely on for years to come.”

Placement Spotlight: Dreams for Change; Stabilizing Lives of Underserved Families

Image of Naomi holding a pamphlet for volunteer tax help.
Naomi serves at Dreams for Change in San Diego, where she is recruiting volunteers to help recover tax refunds for eligible families. Those unclaimed funds help to reinvest in the local community.

Submitted by Dreams for Change Development Director Kelly Spoon.

Avodah Service Corps Member Naomi Roter is spending her service year at the San Diego nonprofit, Dreams for Change. Established in 2009 by Dr. Teresa Smith, Dreams for Change aims to respond to the needs of communities through innovative and cost-effective programs that empower and stabilize the lives of underserved families and individuals. 

While there are many paths to stability, Dreams for Change has recently expanded its programming to become a site for the Internal Revenue Service’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program, offering free tax preparation to those who need assistance navigating the tax system. The program helps ensure refunds, adding up to millions of dollars, are put back into the community for people in need. Naomi serves as the Volunteer Coordinator for the VITA program, conducting outreach to local colleges and communities to recruit volunteers for the spring 2022 tax season. 

The VITA volunteers Naomi recruits will go through a free IRS-certification training, and then volunteer their time over the course of 13 weeks to complete taxes at multiple sites. Naomi’s commitment to outreach has helped Dreams for Change be one of the leading organizations for the VITA program, as well as led to several meetings with college faculty and the launch of a new, educational Zoom series. 

While getting volunteers is the first step, her work will pay off in the spring, when Dreams for Change receives their data on how many refunds were given back to community members. Until then, she will continue recruiting volunteers and looking forward to a great tax season. 

Alumni Spotlight: Hayley goes to Hungary

Avodah alum Hayley Rein (New York Service Corps, 2019-2020) has known for a while that she wanted to build a career helping people. Most recently, this aspiration has landed her in Eger, Hungary.

Hayley at the Danube bend

Originally from Brooklyn, Hayley studied psychology and sociology at Stony Brook University in New York. Her college studies helped her discover a love for public health and social science research, a passion she took abroad to India as a participant in the Edward Guiliano Global Fellows Program and recipient of the Gilman Scholarship. She graduated in 2019 and joined the Avodah Jewish Service Corps shortly after.

“I have always wanted to engage in advocacy work,” Hayley says, “I wanted to dedicate my career to helping people in a tangible way. Avodah gave me an opportunity to do that.”

Hayley spent her service year working as a paralegal for the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), an organization advocating for people experiencing poverty. In her role with the Evelyn Frank Legal Resources Program, Hayley assisted elders and individuals with disabilities with navigating the public health insurance system. By day two, she knew for sure she wanted to go to law school.

As she sought to continue advocacy work post-Avodah, Hayley’s former college fellowship advisor directed her to the U.S. Fulbright Student Program, a competitive grant that gives awardees an opportunity to work abroad for a year. Her application, requesting a placement in Hungary, was a success. In September, she made the 14-hour journey from New York to Eger, a small Hungarian city she describes as, “right out of the page of a Disney animator’s sketchbook.”

Hayley will spend the school year as an English Teaching Assistant at Eszterhazy Karoly Catholic University. Her Fulbright position also includes projects specific to Eger’s Roma students, an ethnicity which has its origins in northern India. 

Preservation and documentation of this culture is important, as centuries of persecution and prejudice have attempted to eliminate Roma altogether. One of the groups targeted by the Nazi regime, persecution of Roma people drastically increased in the 1930s-1940s. Historians estimate that 500,000 Roma were murdered during this period, but it is likely that many more deaths went unreported. In the 21st century, human rights violations, including forced sterilizations of Roma women, continue to be reported. Roma families are often still kept from equitable access to education and viable career opportunities.

Over the course of her fellowship, Hayley is collaborating with Roma students to produce a publication about their lives and culture (for example, a cookbook) and organize culturally affirming programs for students of all ages.

“The students are reserved and reluctant to speak English because they don’t want to get it wrong. I think it’s probably intimidating to try and speak English to a native New Yorker!” Hayley says, “But these students are some of the smartest, most innovative people I’ve met.” 

While she is technically there to teach, she’s committed to learning, too. Hayley wants to learn Hungarian, a notoriously difficult language. In most meetings at the university, she elects to forgo the use of a translator to better understand the language. 

“So far, I’ve learned to sit back a lot. I don’t understand what’s being said, but I can still understand the dynamics of the conversation — who’s cracking a joke, who’s leading the conversation… I’ve realized that so much of communication is nonverbal.”

Hayley’s interest in the Hungarian language and culture is personal, as she is from a family of Hungarian Jews. Her Jewish identity informs her interest and passion for working in social services and the public sector. 

“My family’s experiences in Central Europe and subsequent events in the U.S. have helped me develop a level of empathy that drives me to work with similarly marginalized groups,” Hayley explains, “Though my background is Hungarian Jewish, I recognize the extreme privilege I have as an American and a native English speaker. My Jewish identity and values system prompts me to want to leverage that privilege to help others and be a force for social change.” 

She also says that the work she did at her Service Corps placement influences how she works with the Roma students. “Working as a paralegal taught me about person-centered advocacy,” she says, “I can utilize my role as a platform for elevating the voices and perspectives of my students to ensure that their experience and expertise informs programming and direction.”

To continue following along with Hayley’s Fulbright journey, check out her blog.

NOLA Corps Member Katie Schmidt Helping Immigrants and Afghan Refugees

In mid-August, the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan, further worsening the Afghan refugee crisis. At the same time that advocates and organizations sought to help arriving Afghan families, Hurricane Ida was rolling into Louisiana, displacing thousands. 

Avodah postponed the arrival of our New Orleans Service Corps cohort due to the storm, but despite the delay, incoming Corps Member Katie Schmidt had already begun to help her placement organization, Home is Here NOLA, serve immigrants remotely. She serves as the Community & Logistics Coordinator for the organization, which is dedicated to supporting immigrants and refugees through housing and hospitality. 

The organization’s geographic focus is intentional — Louisiana is one of the major hubs for U.S. immigrant detention facilities. In December 2019, the ACLU reported that of the 20 new largest immigrant detention centers in the country, seven were located in Louisiana. 

“It’s an interesting position to be in because some people who already lived in New Orleans don’t have housing themselves right now,” Katie says, “We are working to figure out how to help our city because if our city hasn’t been helped, we can’t help anyone else. We are gifted that we have gotten a lot of interest from people who want to house Afghan refugees, but that poses questions, too. ‘How do we do that? How do we train them?’”

Katie was particular about her Service Corps location, having only applied to be considered for our New Orleans placements. Her interview with Home is Here NOLA confirmed she’d made the right decision. She says the conversation she had with Julie Ward, who is now her supervisor, gave her goosebumps.

Part of a ‘three woman team,’ Katie’s role has already encompassed a wide range of tasks, from helping develop curriculum for a college course studying the Afghan refugee crisis to translating videos into English. Hearing the stories of the individuals they are helping has greatly impacted how she thinks of her own place in life.

“Some of these people are my age and have gone through these beyond-life-altering changes,” Katie says, “Losing your country, fleeing for your life — it’s crazy. The work Home is Here NOLA is doing to secure immigrants’ release from detention centers and support them here in this community is amazing to be a part of.”

NOLA Corps Member Ellie Moskowitz Kicks Off Service Year with Hurricane Relief Efforts

Late this summer, we celebrated the graduation of our 2020-2021 Corps Members and prepared to welcome a new cohort across six bayitim (houses) in five cities. In addition to new Service Corps programming in San Diego and our Jews of Color Bayit in New York, our New Orleans (NOLA) team was excited to be expanding by offering more Corps Member positions in NOLA  than we ever have before.

And then, Hurricane Ida hit. The storm left more than a million homes and businesses without power and caused thousands to evacuate New Orleans — making the work of our Corps Members even more critical. 

To ensure their safety, Avodah postponed the NOLA Corps Members’ arrival and offered to find them new placements in one of our other cities — no one took the offer. Instead, they unanimously agreed to keep their commitment to the New Orleans community, even if it meant they could not do work in person for the first few weeks of the service year.

Ellie Moskowitz dove in right away, helping her placement organization respond to the disaster remotely. She serves as the Employment/Benefits Intake & Case Coordinator for Southeast Louisiana Legal Services (SLLS), which provides legal assistance to low-income individuals. In the wake of Ida, SLLS is helping families who were denied FEMA assistance go through an appeals process. 

“The work SLLS does is incredible, and they do so much across the board,” Ellie says, “I am doing so much post-hurricane work. Many people were still suffering from the impact of Katrina — there are so many issues to be addressed.”

In her role, Ellie is the first point of contact for folks seeking SLLS’ assistance. She conducts intake and helps ensure clients and the SLLS attorneys have what they need. A Michigan native, Ellie may be new to hurricanes, but she came to Avodah with an established passion for community work. Post-graduation from Elon University, Ellie knew she wanted to do something service-based.

Ellie with a furry friend the day her Corps Member cohort volunteered with the Grand Bayou tribal community.

“Avodah checked all my boxes. New Orleans specifically was a huge draw for me,” she said. “It’s a phenomenal city with such a rich culture and history. Legal services are not something I necessarily expected myself to try, but SLLS clicked for me. I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone and do more work on the ground.”

In addition to clicking with her placement, Ellie has enjoyed getting to know her housemates. While they are now together in person, our NOLA Corps Members kept in touch as they waited to move into their bayit (house). 

“We were talking virtually and texting all the time. I knew that once we were together it was going to be incredible. They are all such amazing people who are so passionate and care so much about this work. I am excited to be working with these folks and I can tell already I am going to be learning so much from them.”

While the work is difficult at times, Ellie is grateful to be able to contribute to Hurricane Ida relief efforts and help SLLS assist NOLA community members.

“I have definitely heard challenging stories,” she says, “If I am hearing from them, they have most likely been denied some sort of assistance. I may be talking to people about some of the worst points of their lives, but I get to be there for them that day and help them.”