La Van helps families in New Mexico
FAIRFIELD — Fairfield native Elaine La Van earned a degree in fine arts from Iowa State University and was working at a photo company when she wondered what more she could offer in life.
She looked to her church, and explored the possibilities and opportunities in Global Ministries in the United Methodist Church.
La Van signed up for US 2, a mission outreach for young adults. She attended three weeks of training with other young adult volunteers in New York and Washington, D.C., in the summer of 2012.
“US 2 pairs 20-to-30-year-olds with nonprofits, and I chose to work with a program focusing on social justice,” she said.
La Van went to Farmington, N.M. in August 2012, and works at a domestic violence shelter, which houses women and children from all over San Juan County, N.M., and some of the surrounding areas of Four Corners, USA.
Farmington is the largest city (2010 Census, 45,877) of San Juan County, which is one of the largest counties in the United States, covering 5,538 square miles. San Juan County makes up the northwest corner of New Mexico, one of the four states in the Four Corners area, named after the quadripoint where the boundaries of the four states meet — New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado. It is the only location in the U.S. where four states meet.
“My job responsibilities are to meet the needs of single moms and their families who come here,” said La Van. “Some of the women who come here bring children, some are alone.
“Ours is a transitional shelter, rather than a crisis shelter,” she said. “Women can stay here up to a year. We get referrals from crisis shelters.”
La Van said the shelter has two houses, with a capacity for nine women and 18 children. Five full-time staff, including La Van, works on site. She also lives on the grounds, assigned her own trailer.
Women at the shelter have the opportunity to attend school — from earning a GED to a college degree at a local community college.
Children also enroll in nearby schools or continue at a school they already attended.
“Women are supported to look for jobs,” said La Van. “I drive the van a lot, taking women to job interviews, doctor appointments, counseling sessions or whatever they need.
“The program is set up to help women be independent in four to six months. Each situation is different.”
La Van described Farmington as not desert, but trees and shrubs grow more sparsely than in Iowa. It’s at a higher elevation, 5,395 feet above sea level, located on the Colorado Plateau.
“I’m a runner and when I first arrived, I had to adjust to living at a higher elevation,” she said. “The average summer temperature is in the 90s, the average winter temperature is around the 30s, and not much snow.
“We’re just a jump away from the Colorado Mountains. We can see snow.”
Higher elevation wasn’t the only adjustment for La Van. Farmington is about 10 miles from the Navajo Nation, covering 27,425 square miles occupying portions of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah and northwestern New Mexico. It is the largest land area assigned primarily to a Native American jurisdiction within the U.S.
The number of enrolled members of the Navajo Nation is 300,048, as of July 2011. The 2000 census reported 173,987 Navajo citizens, 58.34 percent of all ethnic Navajos, living on the Navajo Nation’s territory.
“I was surprised that living in the U.S. I could still have culture shock,” said La Van. “I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the women who come to the shelter are Navajo women. They have a different view of family structure. There is their immediate family and then clans, which is more than their immediate family but still like family. The women are very intertwined with family and it can be much more difficult for them to leave.
“A lot of Navajo women won’t make eye-contact when speaking, which was disconcerting at first,” said La Van. “We had some cross-cultural training before starting work, but I have learned so much from the women themselves.”
She is enjoying a new venture undertaken at the shelter. A natural herb/flower grows in the area, which the Navajo people traditionally collected and bundled, then brewed for large pots of tea, she said.
“Our staff and residents all collect this herb during the summer,” said La Van. “It is washed, dried,
processed and bagged completely by our residents. We sell it so it can act as a sort of fair trade project for our shelter. This is our first year trying it, so we’re still trying to get it up and running, but it’s been a great experience for all of the staff as well as something for our residents to be a part of and to get us involved with the community.
“We are selling it by the bag so supporters of this project can use it to brew a single cup. It’s a good project and has been a great way to be involved with the community.”
La Van has about six more months of her two-year commitment.
“I think about it a lot,” she said. “I’ve seen and learned so many things. I’m kind of re-thinking careers. I don’t know if I’ll stay in the southwest, whether I want to go back to school for social work, or just what I’ll do next.
“I actually have used some of my fine arts background here, too,” she said. “I helped with a website design putting my photo shop experience to work, which felt really good.
“I lead a group on Thursdays, which sometimes includes devotional time, sometimes it is sharing and talking and I’ve been able to incorporate art with the women in these sessions. It’s a nice change if someone doesn’t feel like journaling or talking, to be able to draw and use color markers to express herself.
“I never imagined I would be with a group of adult women coloring, but it’s really great,” said La Van.
She said running is one of the ways to de-stress. She has made friends through the local Methodist church.
“We like to drive to Durango, Colo., where there’s nice little shops and have coffee, or go to the movies, or get together and play games,” she said. “It is important to take some time away from the shelter site because I live there, too.”
La Van graduated from Fairfield High School in 2007. She is the daughter of Mark and Laurie La Van of Fairfield.