TRAVELTEER: Where Travel Meets Volunteering

1 There is something incredible about Atlanta that I simply cannot convey through words. Out of all the cities I have visited, the ATL strikes me as a city you do not simply visit – but live. After the first half of the week, our post-volunteering adventures are no longer being filled with landmarks and tourist spots but instead, we find ourselves attempting our best “day in the life” of a local impression (despite surely being totally unconvincing). Over the later half of the week we have spent our time strolling through and soaking in the city’s many diverse areas via the Atlanta BeltLine. We’ve filled our craving for fried food, from all cultures, shopping around at international grocery stores, open markets, and small eateries in and around Atlanta. Most importantly, our best memories continue to be meeting the locals from, not only each volunteering opportunity, but also in everyday places such as breweries, karaoke bars, parks, and markets. I have to say there seems to be a wonderful diversity within Atlanta that makes each neighborhood stand out in it’s own unique way, yet they still share the same unifying awesomeness (It’s a word, trust me) that makes up Atlanta.

2 After a gorgeous weekend, I was ready to start my Monday morning early and eager to volunteer at A.G. Rhodes, a health and rehab center set on making a positive impact on the lives of their, roughly, 130 senior residents. Having a passion for music, I was ecstatic to learn that we would be volunteering with a music therapist named John Abel, who helps stimulate the motor and mental functions of the seniors through the power of music. Getting started, we began with a song and exercise warm-up, mixing acoustic strums song lyrics with tapping, stretching, waving, and clapping. I was sitting next to two amazing residents who were soon joining in rhythm to the interactive song and having a blast. John went on to take requests and we sang a mix of hymns and classic tunes that, as we learned from John later, help stimulate their minds and connect with them through nostalgia. Utilizing musical instruments such as tambourines, maracas, and my personal favorite, cowbells, we made joyous sound together. Despite my lack of rhythm, for the next few songs, my neighbors and I were able to make some quality music that would give T-Swift a run for her money.
During the second section, we played songs for residents during their physical therapy, to give them something to focus on during their exercises. Looking around the room, I could see the resident’s enthusiasm and involvement increase song after song. By the end of the third session, I was able to learn about a few of their lives. One woman, who was extremely young at heart, lived in the same area of Tampa that Travelteer had previously visited; another gentleman had seen Ray Charles perform live in his lifetime (and gave a particularly amazing rendition of “I Got A Woman”). In between lyrics, I made sure to insert a cowbell solo (or two), as everyone knows there is no such thing as too much cowbell. After the three sessions of music therapy and meeting a wide array of the lovely people that make up A.G. Rhodes, we ate lunch in the courtyard area with some of the therapists and other volunteers. We talked with John and Karen, who during their time at the facility have helped implement music therapy through these therapeutic sessions, as well as through their iPod shuffle program, filled with personalized music that helps the residence recollect memories. Seeing first hand and hearing the impact of music on the lives of these individuals was an amazing experience. Not to mention, being a part of the session and learning that the residents respond better to it when others are there to help with their involvement and encourage them just reiterated the need for volunteers to come to A.G. Rhodes and make a difference in the lives of the elderly.

3 After the wonderful time spent at A.G. Rhodes, we headed back to home sweet home in the Pittsburgh area of Atlanta to get some much-needed work done on our website and social media posts (Travelteer is a job too, despite my mom’s disagreement). Soon we were getting a little stir crazy and decided to check out a recommended craft beer brewery in the area – Monday Night Brewery…on a Monday night. Coincidence? I think not. Surprisingly, beer was not our only priority as we were in desperate need of a quality Wi-Fi connection to finish our work. Located in the Buckhead neighborhood, we arrived to a glorious a row of silos painted with bears, wolfs, and eagles in dress ties. I could tell this was the brewery for me. We soon realized we were not going to be getting much work done at the brewery. Upon entering this eclectic, Barney Stinson inspired brewery, I immediately got distracted by the most adorable puppy, a shiba inu/chow mix that was absolutely the coolest dog ever. After getting my pup fix, the bartender announced that they were doing an impromptu tour of the brewery on this special occasion (You guessed it, a Monday night). There we learned the history of Monday Night Brewing, which apparently started out as a bible study with the theory that weekends were overrated. After the tour, we got to try some of the beer starting with the Blind Pirate Double IPA. On my quest for the perfect IPA, I think I found one worthy of the accolade. I don’t know if it was the combination of puppies, the stone fireplace, or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Secret of Ooze being played on the projector, but I dare say this beer was perfect. With a motto stating, “Take Back Monday’s,” I say Monday Night Brewing did just that.

4 The next day we were ready to get involved with back-to-back charities, first starting with Meals on Wheels Atlanta. Having previously delivered meals for them on Saturday, we were excited to be seeing what goes on behind the scenes. We were surprised to find it was Volunteer Appreciation Week, so the pressure was on us to live up to the hype and be worthy of the free Tropicana and pear we scored. Luckily with the guidance of some of the staff we were able to pack hundreds of trays for delivery, all consisting of a balanced and delicious diet. After packing meals, we went over to another Meals On Wheels program working with the senior community in their Adult Day Center to help with the daily activity – baseball. Although nervous at first since I didn’t bring my running shoes, I was fortunate to find out that senior baseball involves a corn hole board with slots representing the bases. With bases loaded I was finally up to bat…err…toss. The pressure was on. First ball curved right – STRIKE ONE. Second ball there must’ve been a gust of wind inside the building because it curved left – STRIKE TWO. With sweat pouring down my face, I knew this was it. The lovely ladies were all on base and it was up to me. I threw the third ball and boy did I throw it hard. It headed straight for the board at Babe Ruth speed…just to miss completely and knock a hymnal off the piano behind the board. My career was over – but luckily I was still cheered on by all the other participants. One thing I learned – trash talking improves with age, I was getting burned left and right! Better practice before I step back up to the plate next time I’m in Atlanta.

5 After Meals on Wheels, we caught a break at our favorite lunch spot – Neighborhood Eats. Practically regulars at this point, we were greeted by the owner and was thoroughly (and rightly) convinced to go with the pulled pork sandwich. My goodness, Jordan could vouch, a single tear almost fell down my face – it was one of the best sandwiches I have ever had. Following the best sandwich experience of my life, I went and volunteered at Open Hands, an organization we had worked with the previous Friday. Similar to Meals on Wheels, the non-profit makes over 5,000 meals a day to deliver to those in need. I was on the culinary side of things this time, getting to see where it all came from. They must have been thrown off by the apron I was wearing because they assumed I could cook! Working with local chefs, I was doing everything from stirring, marinating, baking, measuring, and evening creating meals. I’ve never had couscous before, but if there are any singled ladies who enjoy it, have I just learned to create the meal for you! After getting to do a variety of tasks, I was told that volunteers are always needed in the kitchen and was so glad I was able to help make an impact in a more “behind the scenes” setting.
We soon were headed to Buford Highway, an endless road of international markets, shops, and restaurants with food options from all over the globe. We stopped at The International Buford Supermarket, which is like jumping from continent to continent with every aisle. We tried an amazing hot bar consisting of a mix of Indian, Korean, and Russian foods at an amazing price! With our 5-day stay in our last minute housing find coming to an end, we had arranged plans to couch surf for the last two nights of Atlanta. A first time for both of us, we did not know what to expect, but we’re very grateful to have been invited by a man named Keary to surf his couch for the rest of the week. After convincing my mom we weren’t going to get murdered, we headed out to meet him and were greeted with a hug! Such a positive, outgoing guy, Keary has been part of the couch-surfing community for years and even has his own couch-surfers meet-up every week. Lucky for us, that was tonight – so we headed out to a bar on karaoke night (aptly named “tone-deaf Tuesday”), where I gave a head-turning (or was it ear-popping) rendition of a contemporary classic, Aaron’s Party. Soon after, we headed back for the long day of volunteering we had the next day.

6 The next morning we had to get up a bit on the early side to make it to our volunteering opportunity at Habitat For Humanity. Having volunteered with them in the past, we were excited to be involved with pre-construction prep, as we now would have done three major parts of the cause – volunteering at Habitat Restores where they fund projects, actually participating in construction, and now providing preparation for the build crew. We started pulling up carpet tack strips and cleaning out the debris around the house. Using kneepads, I channeled my inner Tim “the tool man” Taylor and got to work. Soon after, we began scrubbing down all the walls and windows for the painting crew. Being ahead of schedule we even able to paint the trim and door frames around the house! Using my skills learned in previous builds with Rebuilding Together, I was able to show off my doorframe Picasso skills. Having even signed the new white coat of paint with white paint, the owner moving into this house in four weeks better hold on to all these trimmings because they might be worth something someday.

7 Finishing up early, Jordan and I set out to get back in the tourist grind for the last day and enjoy the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Site. Arriving at the civil rights leader’s church, we soon explored the sanctuary and then ventured to his birthplace, burial ground, and his favorite place to hang out as a child, the local firehouse. Although a sad, reflective experience, it also became such an inspirational one, seeing how one man’s passion changed the course of civil rights forever; I hope we continue to grow and see his dream fully fulfilled. After spending time at the historic site, we explored a park along the Atlanta BeltLine and reflected on our time here as Travelteers. We came to Atlanta to experience a city and see what stood out. In an attempt to do so, we soon realized it offered something greater than that – a way of life. I can only hope Travelteer gets a chance to come back and not only experience it as a temporary resident but as a permanent one. Next stop, Nashville.