Story posted April 16, 2012
Over spring break, 96 Bowdoin students dispersed to nine different sites, from New Jersey to Guatemala, to work with people struggling against poverty and other hardships. For one week, the students volunteered in communities quite different from their own, where they had the chance to personalize social issues and offer their assistance to the needy.
The McKeen Center's Alternative Spring Break program challenges Bowdoin student leaders to design and organize community-service trips during March break. If their trip is approved, the students recruit participants, plan logistics, partner with local organizations and lead the actual trip.
Every year, once the ASB students are back on campus, they all gather for dinner to share their experiences. This year, Perspectives night included a new twist — a variation on the Newlywed Game, led by Matt Frongillo '13, to test which trip produced the most bonded participants. As a testament perhaps to the closeness of the groups, there were no winners and no losers: Every team did exactly as well as the next.
The following are brief descriptions of the trips.
Providing Safe Passage in Guatemala: Education and Poverty
Student leaders: Dijoia (DJ) Darden '12 and Katie Woo '12
Students worked with Safe Passage, founded by the late Hanley Denning '92, to help severely impoverished people who survive by living off the city dump. “There’s no electricity, no running water,” described Takahiro Nakamura '14, a participant on the trip. Safe Passage provides education and support to the children there, and helps their parents earn income, for instance by coaching mothers to make marketable arts and crafts from the rubbish they collect. On the last day of the trip, Bowdoin students took some of the children to a water park for a “chance to let them be ordinary kids, like us,” Nakamura said. While the Bowdoin ASB students were in Guatemala, they ran into a Bowdoin alumni group, which demonstrated the strength of the connection between Bowdoin students, alumni and Safe Passage, Nakamura said, a tie he hoped would continue into the future.
Urban Promise: Urban Education
Student leaders: Johnny Coster '12 and Mary Ridley '12
For this trip, students traveled to Camden, N.J., where a large percentage of residents live below the national poverty line. They volunteered with a nonprofit called Urban Promise, which provides after-school programs for students. “We were there as worker bees,” participant Tim Sowa '14 said, and helped clean up sites around Camden. The group also worked with the children in the after-school program. Sowa described traveling around the city as “eye-opening,” a word that was used frequently throughout the evening.
Journey to Georgia: Refugee Resettlement
Student leaders: Matt Frongillo '13 and Sarah Levin '13
Students traveled to Atlanta, Ga. to work with recently resettled refugees from around the world, many of them girls ages seven to 18. Bowdoin students offered the younger students tutoring in math, chemistry and reading and writing, according to participant Kathryn Brady '14. “I always thought refugees wanted to be here,” she said, “but these girls just wanted to go home.” Nonetheless, she added that she and her group were impressed by the girls’ hard work and focus on education.
Healthy Lives in New Mexico: Education and Public Health
Student leaders: Meg Bunke '14 and Tracie Goldsmith '14
Bowdoin students visited a Native American reservation in Crownpoint, N.M., to teach classes on health education and nutrition at a tiny reservation school. They also visited a Native American health facility, where participant Kevin Wu '14 said it was interesting to see how healthcare practitioners “were reconciling traditional medicine with contemporary problems.”
On the Streets of D.C.: Hunger and Homelessness
Student leaders: Jordan Francke '13 and Mariya Ilyas '13
When the students arrived in D.C., they met with representatives from the National Coalition for the Homeless who challenged the Bowdoin group to “get to know and interact with someone who’s homeless,” said participant Jordan Lantz '15. Over the course of the week, the students had many chances to do that: they worked with homeless shelters and soup kitchens, as well as met with a homelessness advocacy organization and Sen. Olympia Snowe. After getting to know so many people without homes, Lantz said he learned that “if you can’t give them money or food, you can at least acknowledge they exist. You can tell them to have a blessed day.”
Building in Beards Fork: Community Development and Affordable Housing
Student leaders: Alexandra (Sasha) Davis '13 and Melanie Gaynes '13
Bowdoin students volunteered with the Southern Appalachian Labor School in West Virginia to “develop the community of Beards Fork and surrounding towns,” participant Micah Ludwig '13 said. Labor School does home renovations to support sustainable, affordable housing. “We did lots of manual labor, which is a valuable skill to have” for many kinds of nonprofit endeavors. Ludwig said he had observed that much of West Virginia looks like it has stopped in time in the 1950s. “Everything’s old and dated, and it creates a depressed mood, so it’s cool that this organization is trying to improve communities and make them look better. It gives the local people pride,” he said. The group also visited coal mining sites where mountain tops had been removed, depriving local people of potable water.
Operation Helping Hands: Environmental Justice in New Orleans
Student leaders: La’Shaye Ervin '12 and Teona Williams '12
Margaret Lindeman '15 said she was shocked to see how much of New Orleans is still in disrepair seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. “A huge amount remains to be done,” she said. Bowdoin students helped out at a homeless shelter and hung drywall on a home. They also worked at a nature preserve by planting grass at a salt marsh and assisted in a community garden. Despite seeing many homes that were still boarded up in the Lower 9th Ward, Lindeman said they also saw “a vibrant community trying to bring people back. There’s a lot of pride.”
A Fresh Start in Phoenix: Immigrants and Refugees
Student leaders: Sienna Kurland '12 and Kate Leifheit '12
In Phoenix, Bowdoin students worked with the Arizona Lost Boys Center, an organization that supports refugees uprooted by the Sudanese civil war. “It was inspiring to meet [the refugees] and see their resilience, warmth and intelligence,” Yimin Peng '14 said. Many of the Lost Boys had earned college degrees in order to return to Sudan to help their people. “It was amazing to see them working hard to give back to their country,” she said. The Bowdoin group also visited a women’s health clinic for women refugees, many of whom had not had adequate care before arriving in the United States. “It was inspiring to see an organization dedicated to helping women, especially for those thinking about going into medicine or public health after they graduate,” Peng said.