As a group, my fellow volunteers and I went to a local university to see a showing of the documentary called A Place at the Table. If you are familiar with the film Food Inc., this movie will have a familiar feel – however, instead of exposing gruesome corporate injustice like Food Inc., A Place at the Table brings to light many hushed aspects of our government’s role in food insecurity.

One of my major responsibilities at the school in Little Haiti where I work is running the National School Lunch Program. This means I’ve dealt with everything from managing temperatures to reviewing applications based on income eligibility. As I’ve mentioned before, this school is in a very low-income neighborhood (and they do amazing things with the little resources they have). The reality remains that the vast, vast majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

One of the most common myths about federal food assistance – probably the myth that angers me most – is that hard-working tax payer money goes to giving handouts to people who are lazy and don’t want to work. This is simply not true. A researcher in this film points out that nearly 80% of those who apply for food assistance are actually employed or seeking employment. The truth of the matter looks much more like this:

In my short time at the school, I’ve encountered some of the hardest working parents I’ve ever seen. Once, when I asked one boy why his mother wouldn’t be able to make it to the parent-teacher conference, he replied that she’s only ever home for about an hour and a half in the evenings – her interim time between her two full-time jobs. Some people in our country work this hard just to feed their children. Often, this is still not enough. Nationally, over half of all children in the United States are on some sort of federal food assistance.
It seems that people think hunger is impossible in the United States. By all accounts, it should be. But hunger looks different here. So many of my kids come into school saying they had Mr. Pibb or Cheetos for dinner – food literally lines our streets, but for the 1 in 6 Americans who are food insecure, real calories are beyond reach.
I can’t recommend A Place at the Table highly enough. The entire movie is actually available to watch online on YouTube. If any Americans out there find themselves with a little spare time – this film is more than worth it.

2 months.

Just so you know, this blog is SUPER long-winded, as it is approximately 6 weeks worth of processing and life-alteration all packed into one day-long blogging session… so I want to start things off right (with a picture of cats… what else?) before the delving.

Going for a walk sometimes turns into being immobilized by 5 stray kittens...

Going for an evening walk sometimes turns into…


Just yesterday, I made an internal pact with myself that I would stop saying the words “I’m sorry,” so much. So when the first thing that came to my mind as I sat down to write this blog was, “I’m sorry for the lack of posts in the last month and a half,” I had to smile to myself. God has a way of bringing these things to our attention right when they need to be.

I don’t normally give a second thought to the word “sorry.” I say it (and hear it) so much in daily life that it sometimes feels like more of a greeting than “hello” and more of a parting word than “goodbye.” A lot of times, before I even say hi to someone, I’m blurting, “sorry I’m late,” or “sorry I didn’t return your text,” or “sorry I have cheese all over my pants, I had to break up a food fight today” (true life). I don’t even get to acknowledge someone’s presence before I’m thinking about all the things that I should or shouldn’t have done or all the things I should or shouldn’t be.

“Sorry” is an old friend of mine, but we’ve become especially re-acquainted over the last month and a half. If you asked me a month and a half ago, I’d say I didn’t think it was possible for life to get any crazier. But these past 6 weeks have proven that the first whirlwind was barely a breeze. If you asked me a month and a half ago, I’d have had had a big smile on my face as I admitted that I didn’t know in what direction I was heading or exactly what work God had in store for me in this year of service. I was armed with little more than a college education, a love of kids, and fresh-faced, perhaps slightly naive dose of excitement, hope, and optimism. If you asked me a month and a half ago, I’d have said yes to absolutely anything, be willing to give up any and all of my time and energy to be that “super YAV” who everyone seems to have in mind. A month and half ago, I was saying a lot less “sorry”s. I think that was all of us a month and a half ago, really.

I’ve learned my limits very quickly here. But not painlessly by any means. The reality of working at the school in Little Haiti hit me hard about a month ago. Because it is a private school in the heart of an extremely low-income neighborhood, they have very little resources and sometimes have trouble keeping permanent staff. I’ve learned that they actually rely heavily on volunteer programs like YAV/DOOR to provide the necessary manpower to keep the school up and running. When I arrived, I expected to be asked do things like coordinate after-school tutoring, organize out-of-school activities for the kids, and perhaps be in charge of some extra office work – essentially picking up some slack in and expanding upon (what I expected to be) an already established system. However, when I arrived, they were in dire need of a new full-time teacher for their Special Education class. I spent the first few weeks working with some of these individual needs students as a tutor (which I loved, and the kids stole my heart), but eventually I was asked to step up to the full time teaching position. I had a lot of hesitation about this, as I had had no real training in education and had not been told to expect teaching my own full class. However, because I had been there long enough to see the dire need of the situation, (the special needs kids had been temporarily placed in the other classes according to age and weren’t getting any of the attention they needed) I agreed to at least try to step in.

It was soon very obvious that this was not the place I needed to be. I at least managed to keep the class under control for a week, but all the while I kept thinking back to all my training and study of irresponsible volunteering and aid work, when people (like myself) who were not qualified to take on a job (for example: teaching 12 special needs students on all different levels) do something that someone else could do much better and end up making the problem a lot worse. A lot of aid work and volunteering can become a band-aid, and in that class, that is what I was. So, after a lot of soul searching and a huge internal battle that I won’t get into because this blog is already going to be too long as it is, I decided to step down and offer my skills in other areas where I could be much more effective.

I am now working in the administrative side of the school, helping with everything from publishing the newsletter to the National School Lunch Program and a lot of things in between. I feel much more helpful and prepared for this kind of service. All day, the office is a blur of child noises, Creole, Spanish, accented and broken English – a medley of voices and sounds that I’ve become quite accustomed to. It replays like a soundtrack in my head every night before I fall asleep. I’m attempting to become proficient in Haitian Creole so I can communicate with a large number of parents who come in and need help with applications and legal forms. In this role, I get a lot of perspective on the school and its context as a whole. Every day, the office sees the convergence of so many factors that define life in Little Haiti, Miami, and especially life as an immigrant and in low-income, “at-risk” America. As I wondered about in one of my earlier posts, the poverty, isolation, and “trapped” feeling have already gotten to me more than once, and I am only living as a witness to it. It is sometimes crushing to see my students, co-workers, and new friends who live that reality every day. At points, my own small (but relatively huge) budget of $300 a month feels like another thing I have to apologize for. I’m sure many blogs following will involve me wrapping my head around the things I am seeing here this year. 

All in all, after a bit of a rough start, each day I am settling in more and more. I’ve learned an extremely important lesson already; one that I’ve heard YAVs don’t usually learn until much later in the year. Sometimes you can’t be exactly what someone wants you to be, whether that is a Special Ed teacher or someone without cheese on their pants. But God does not bring us challenges to show us what we cannot do. We are challenged because God will further our perseverance and creativity. If we walk around in constant apology, focusing on what we lack and the ways in which we cannot please someone, we will miss all the ways in which we ARE equipped to serve. Of course, knowing this doesn’t take away the sting of admitting weakness, but it did make it easier to get back on my feet and be of use elsewhere in the school. And, best of all, the former pre-school teacher agreed to teach the Special Ed class, and my kids are now cared for and have a much more qualified teacher than I would have been.

Summing it all up (I knew this blog would be super long-winded, and I hope you’re still with me) after a long time of feeling like I had to say a lot of “sorry”s, I’m settling in much better to the “rhythms of chaos,” as I like to call them. When I was going through one of the roughest parts of this month, my mother shared a proverb with me: “Tension is who you think you should be. Relaxation is who you are.” My apologies were me believing I should be someone I was not meant to be at that moment. My peace is trusting others, myself, and God that I am exactly where I am meant to be right now.

A Visual

As promised, some pictures!

I don’t have any pictures at the school yet because I can’t post any without permission, but it’s in the works!

Moving in - my own organic garden in my room!

Hey look, my very own organic garden in my room! Gotta love the tropics.

A taste of the bus system...
A taste of the bus system…

The beautiful bay at Morningside Park

The beautiful bay at Morningside Park


The Spanish corner

The Spanish corner (with pictures of what generally happens during Michelle’s lessons)

We found a SUPER old map of Miami according to nationality...

A SUPER old map we found of Miami according to nationality…

Kelly and me (not pictured) at Bayside Park by Biscayne bay!

with Kelly at Bayside Park!

A mural I pass each day on my way to work in Little Haiti

A mural I pass each day on my way to work in Little Haiti.

photo (20)



Moving in, meeting Miami, and the whirlwind known as YAV Orientation

What a CRAZY start to this year! Exactly two weeks ago I arrived at Stony Point retreat center in New York where I met all the 68 other Young Adult Volunteers who are now scattered across the US and the world. That week was one of the most intense things I have ever been a part of, and now just a week later it almost feels like a dream. Being surrounded by so many people who all shared a common vision was like nothing I’d ever imagined. Even though we barely got a moment to ourselves when we weren’t in seminars or training, all in all it seemed like a little piece of utopia, where everyone was so happy, grateful, caring and hopeful towards each other and about the future. Even the weather was perfect all week. Despite getting at most 6 hours of sleep per night, I couldn’t wait to wake up each day and soak in all the energy and hopeful optimism of my fellow young adults and our wise (less)young adult leaders 😉 This experience at Stony Point seems impossible to describe. If I simply talked about what we did, it would probably sound horrible, as we often sat in an auditorium for hours upon hours talking about everything from bodily self-care to how to combat the damage of centuries of globalization and Western paternalism. What really made it great for me wasn’t the what, but the why we were all there. Never have I ever felt so united in such loving purpose and common goal of peace and reconciliation – I truly felt like part of a community (of people I have never met!). After some rough battles with cynicism in my time, that week was exactly the dose of faith and solidarity I needed before starting this year.

Fast forward to Miami!

We arrived at MIA last Monday, exactly a week ago. Every day this past week, we have driven or bused around to different areas of the city – often we only have to go 10 blocks before I feel like we are in a completely different country. Miami is more dynamic than I could have ever imagined. In the airport I didn’t hear any English unless I was spoken to directly. On the bus I only caught one word of French Creole. In most parts of the city, it is me (someone who has been a member of the US American “majority” all my life) who is very clearly an outsider. As expected, Miami is un-definable, not quite here, not quite there, enormous, dynamic; like a huge Picasso that consists of many broken pieces of recognizable and familiar things, but is all together something foreign and impossible to capture. As NOT expected, there is something in me that has taken deep root – almost immediately – in this strange and ever-moving place. So many things are extremely unfamiliar here, and of course I am nervous (will I be a worthwhile asset to the wonderful men and women at my placement in Little Haiti, will I be able to navigate the public transit well enough to get to work on time every day, will the language barrier will be enough to cause rifts, or will the poverty and unjust power structures that exist in the city will start to get to me after a while… things like this) but despite the expected anxiety, I felt a peace settle over me right away when the five of us walked in the door of our new home. Having my fellow YAVs Michelle, Molly, Suyeon, and Kelly with me makes all the difference. Unlike traditional housemates or roommates that may have been put together at random with the sole purpose of mitigating rent, the five of us have been brought together very intentionally and have a very explicit understanding that we are not just living in the same house, but really living together. Each YAV house forms something known as an intentional community, where all members live with each other under the understanding that a service year is something that no one can do alone. So far, these girls and our site coordinator Heidi have been the best part of this journey – we’ve laughed uproariously on a daily basis, we’ve cried together on occasion, we’ve celebrated differences and rejoiced in similarities, we’ve dog-piled on the couch, and have all started learning each other’s five different languages – Korean, Spanish, Swahili, French, and ASL. I absolutely could never have asked for a better YAV family – I love you guys!


More pics and updates will be coming very, very soon! (seriously, like tomorrow, hold me to it). But I’ve GOT to get to bed at the moment for my first day at my placement at school tomorrow, more of everything come!

Peace and love 🙂


It’s almost here!

It’s tomorrow! In not even 24 hours I will be starting my drive down the coast. There is still so much to do – packing, goodbyes, making excessive amounts of mix CDs for the drive, etc. But, I feel ready. Perhaps not quite PREPARED yet, but ready.

Well, so far in this blog I’ve done a lot of pontificating about expectations, sentiment, and feelings about purpose; you know, all that soul-delving analysis one would expect from a fresh-outta-the-liberal-arts gal. So it’s time to get down to business – here’s what’s up!

Next week, beginning Aug 19th, all future YAVs will be attending the universal orientation and training in Stony Point, New York. From there we fly to our respective sites and begin work at our placements. However, Heidi, our wonderful site director in Miami, extended me an invitation to drive down to Miami early and get moved in before work at my placement begins. Thankfully this means I don’t have to worry about lugging a year’s worth of baggage up and down the entire east coast on a plane. It also means I will get to have a car, a rare luxury. If you’re reading this – a million thanks again, Heidi 🙂

Living situation: I am blessed to be living with 4 other awesome girls in a sweeeeet house that is in a great location, right near Midtown Miami, not far from the beach, and also not far from where I will be working in Little Haiti (at least it doesn’t look far on Google Maps, but the internet could be deceiving me…) Here’s the only picture I have of the front of the house right now – I will get to take my own pics soon!

photo 1

Working situation: I am so happy about this! I will be working at a school located in the part of town known as Little Haiti, where many natives of the island have settled in Miami and established their own community. I have heard that aspects of Haitian culture are incredibly strong and prevalent in this district, such as families keeping little household gardens or farms and selling any extra produce on their front lawns. I’ve even heard that you can sometimes get your whole week’s worth of veggies for under 10 bucks if you know where to go! It sounds like it will take some getting used to, and I have to prepare for a HUGE culture shock, but once I get adjusted and learn the ropes I’m sure I will never want to leave. Anyway, about the school, it is a small Christian school located in Little Haiti and goes all the way from pre-K to 12th grade. They welcome students from any religion and ethnicity, though the majority of students are Christian and members of the Haitian community. It is a private school and therefore is allowed to ground teaching in a Judeo-Christian basis. I’m not quite sure how many students are enrolled there, there are still many facts that I will only know once I actually become involved. Patrick and Harmonie are the long-established Haitian couple who run the school, along with a few of their own children who hold various positions in the staff. You could say it’s a “family business!” As for what I will be doing, as a volunteer I could end up doing any or all of whatever needs doing, or that we find I fit well into. The most likely prospect at this moment is tutoring and working with individual needs. That’s about all the facts I know right now, and I’m full of excitement and anticipation to get down there and find out exactly what I will be called to do.


Will I remember?

It is now less than a month before I will be leaving for Miami. It feels like just yesterday that I set up this blog, got my fundraising pants on and things started getting real… but it felt like I had so much more time. With increasing excitement comes mounting nerves. This isn’t going to be the abstract anymore. I guess waiting is the hardest part now – like before giving a big presentation. It’s hard to settle my mind. I think it’s a fairly relatable feeling: you keep thinking about what’s coming next and if everything will go as planned. It’s hard to listen and concentrate on what’s around you because you’re too busy thinking… “will I remember everything?”

Right now my family and I are on vacation on Edisto Island, our little sanctuary that we visit at least once a year. We’ve come here every summer for at least ten of them, give or take. It’s a place with a million stories. In a way, it feels like the island has grown with me – and by that I mean it hasn’t changed at all – but I can think back to many moments when familiar places evolved in my thoughts and memories as I returned year after year to give them different meanings. For instance: we always stopped at this little easy store/gas station before we crossed the bridge – our traditional provider of redemptive slushies and a bag of Combos. But later, after I understood gas economics, this stop became the necessity before getting on the island (where there is but one gas option at a good 15 cents more per gallon). Another example: during my childhood, the bright beach moon was the beacon that told the all baby sea turtles which way to swim to their mothers. Not too many years later, the same moon made me wonder if the one I loved was gazing at the night sky and thinking about me too while we were apart.

I have a tattoo of a spiral on my right ankle. To me, it means: “experiencing the same things, but with different perspectives.” I once learned that the spiral is one of the only symbols in history that has not been taken by another group, institution or corporation and turned into a misrepresentation or perversion of it’s original meaning. For me also, it’s one of the only ideas that has stayed true and relevant despite the ever-changing world, and my 22 years of ever-changing brain chemistry.

So as we’re back here on Edisto, catching crabs with our bare hands, chasing down the ice-cream truck (which is more of an ice-cream rickshaw) by bike, playing nightly games of cutthroat Pictionary and listening to Mom deliberate on how to tell a sky-blue puzzle piece from a sea-blue puzzle piece, the idea behind the spiral tattoo rings louder than it has since the needle first broke skin. The future looms in a hopeful but uncertain way, and occasionally, when the sea breeze picks up, I become aware that this is probably my last summer on the island. On the beach I close my eyes and imagine that it is two or three months later. I wonder… what might my other senses behold if I were doing the same thing on South Beach? What different sounds, smells, languages? Will I still feel hopeful, like now, or will I be worrying about new relationships, new callings, new responsibilities and new inadequacies? So much of life will be the same in Miami as it is here, eating, sleeping, laughing, learning, thinking, praying, crying, typing… even beaching. In fact, more will probably be similar than it will be different. But I can’t pretend that the differences won’t be big enough to radically challenge my comfortable life. Will I remember the serenity of Edisto… this place that has always been the same? Life away from the island spins faster and faster each day – will I remember my home base of love, comfort, encouragement, and inspiration? Most importantly, will I remember that serenity lies in perspective?
I hope I will remember my sunscreen, at least.

An Introduction

Hello everyone, and thanks so much for taking interest in my journey with Young Adult Volunteers. My name is Lanier Smith, a native of the small, quiet town of Camden, South Carolina. I just graduated from Presbyterian College with a degree in International Studies, and three minors in French, Film, and Theatre. Along with this diverse collection of studies, you might also say that I have taken a walk around the ecumenical block, having grown up Methodist, attended Catholic high school, and just received my BA from Presbyterian. Personally, I feel most spiritually fulfilled when I can surround myself with and learn from a very wide variety of God’s people. I love to explore and travel, and most of all to listen to what God has to say through all the different faces of this world. My biggest passion is trying to promote understanding and empathy between all people and nations. This is the main reason why I am so excited and grateful to be able to serve in the very diverse city of Miami during the coming year. I hope I can capture some of the essence of this journey to share with the wonderful people who support me back home and around the world. I can’t say a big enough thank you!

I think my wise pastor Steve Patterson put it best a few days ago, when he remarked that Miami isn’t quite American or foreign; not fully here nor there. In a way, I can relate to this on a somewhat personal level. I feel extremely connected and loyal to my home, my family, friends, and the way I was raised here in the United States. These things will always be the foundation of what has guided me in life. On the other hand, as I have grown and ventured from that home, I have gathered many new pieces of the world and experiences with others that have shown me so many new sides of life – new ideas and perspectives that call me just as strongly to live in a way that brings these many differences together into a reconciled whole.

As I seek to weave together so many differing ideas in myself, I imagine that the coming journey in Miami’s vibrant sea of endless cultures and lifestyles will be a very appropriate backdrop. The YAV program won’t only be about trying to be a force of reconciliation and harmony in our city, but also an inward journey of discovering how to meld together all the little wayward pieces that seem to comprise each of us as “young adults” in this day and age. As someone who’s definitely got a lot of little wayward pieces, I am extremely hopeful that this year I will begin to bring them together into someone who can better learn, serve, and advocate in this ever-diversifying world.

Whew… I suppose those are very high hopes for a girl who hasn’t even boarded the plane yet. Well, with this grand picture in mind, it’s important to start with the small steps.

This YAV year is of course something I never expected to be able to do alone. I have such a great support system of family, friends, and a faith-community that mean everything to me. Along with thoughts, prayers, and spreading the word, I am also looking to raise $6,500 to cover my living and travel expenses for next year. As of right now I have a little over $1,000 raised, which is great! However, I need to have at least $2,000 raised by mid-July, and am hoping for $5,000 by the end of the summer. If you’d like to help support me, there is an easy way to donate online through YAV’s partner organization called DOOR at:

Look for the DONATE tab at the top of this page – then on the secure payment form be sure to enter these words into the “Description or Designation” box: “LANIER SMITH: MIAMI.”

I hope you’d like to follow along for the rest of the year as I get out there. I’d like to say a big thank you again to the people who have supported me throughout my life, and continue to do so in so many ways that are much more important than financially. I can’t express enough gratitude!