508 serves 901: FSU students volunteer in Memphis

The bunkhouse looked like the “arriving at college” scene from a generic teen movie. Rap music blared from TV speakers and kids in their 20s leaned against every available surface, joking and Snapchatting while balancing paper plates piled with takeout food in their hands or on their laps.

To add to the chaos, people were playing catch across the room with a plastic ball, occasionally nailing someone in the side.

But no more than 15 minutes later, the rowdy crowd had quieted and sat listening as group members shared thoughtful and occasionally tearful reflections on their day’s work.

That’s how nights went during Framingham State’s Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip – switching between raucous laughter and serious discussion – but during the day, students worked with local leaders in Memphis, Tennessee to learn how to serve the local community.

Alternative Spring Break at FSU does exactly what the name suggests – it gives students an alternative to a typical spring break by offering the opportunity to volunteer for a week.

In 2016, FSU’s ASB students went to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to volunteer with Boys and Girls Clubs and last year, the group volunteered with an organization in New Orleans, Louisiana to help rebuild houses.

This year, FSU coordinated its trip through Serve901, a group that houses college-aged volunteers and connects them with service organizations in Memphis.

Kirsten Hoey, a senior and one of this year’s ASB trip leaders, said, “When deciding on where to take ASB 2018, this mission and organization really stood out to me. Unlike most organizations, Serve901 is dedicated to helping students learn and develop skills that will help them in the future. Instead of focusing solely on service, Serve901 truly focuses on service-learning.”

As part of this “service-learning,” Serve901 representatives hosted panels and discussions with local leaders throughout the week to teach students about the social and political history of Memphis, in addition to the revitalization work throughout the city.

Jared Myers is the director of The Heights Community Development Corporation (CDC), one of the non-profit organizations Serve901 works with. He said Serve901 is an example of the type of organization more cities should be involved with.

It builds relationships with nonprofits and other groups, then funnels the “human capital resources of short-term missions into those areas when there is a need,” he added.

Myers said sometimes volunteers come in and tell communities what they’re going to do, but with Serve901, the focus is, “How can we best serve you throughout the days we’re here?”

Because FSU’s ASB group was comprised of 30 participants, they were broken into three smaller groups for the duration of the trip. Those three groups were sent to work   with organizations across the city.

Throughout the week, FSU students picked up trash and debris around the city, repainted bathrooms in a middle school, cleaned up after a huge church event, helped with urban gardening at Landmark Farms, played with kids at the Refugee Empowerment Program and boarded up vacant houses with Bored Up. Bored Up is an annual, four-day program run by The Heights CDC, which aims to tackle blight and safety concerns in the Heights neighborhood of Memphis.

The program runs during spring break for local middle and high schools. Student volunteers from these schools are grouped with outside volunteers – this year, college students from FSU and The University of Alabama at Birmingham – and assigned to an abandoned house in the neighborhood.

When houses are left vacant, they can become home to criminal activity, such as prostitution and drug dealing, Myers told the groups during orientation. At the very least, the broken windows and mildewed doorways can be unsightly, lowering the value of surrounding homes. By shutting up the homes with volunteer-painted boards, The Heights CDC hopes to stop some of the crime from occurring, while also brightening up the neighborhood.

The Bored Up groups measure the windows and doors of the houses on the first day, cut and prime the boards on the second day, paint them with positive images and messages on the third day, then install the painted boards and clean up the houses’ lots on the final day.

Abigail Salvucci, an FSU freshman who worked with Bored Up, said, “It was amazing to actually bond with the kids and using power tools for the first time was awesome. I’ve never boarded up a house before, and it was so much fun to learn how to use the tools.”

Olivia Rothwell, an FSU sophomore who also worked with Bored Up, said, “I loved having the opportunity to meet locals. They were really welcoming to us. One of them even taught me how to use a saw! It was scary at first and definitely out of my comfort zone, but after I did it, I felt great.”

Bored Up organizers said if the goal was just to board up eight houses, they could do it with one day of hard labor. But Bored Up isn’t just about boarding up vacant houses – it’s also about creating connections between the volunteers and showing younger members of the community how much of an impact they can make.

Bored Up was temporarily headquartered in Treadwell Middle School. Volunteers – high school and college students alike – would show up early in the mornings and play heated games of soccer and basketball in the gym. Afterwards, they were grouped by the houses they were working on and participated in icebreaker activities, like making their own group chants. Following the work day, all the groups would eat lunch together on the blacktop outside.

All these aspects of the program were designed to break down barriers and get people talking to one another. Even the work itself helped with this – nothing breaks down barriers like five newbies trying master a circular saw together.

And it worked. By the end of the four days, people were swapping stories and Snapchat codes and adding each other on Facebook to share upcoming prom photos. One afternoon, a group did “The Cupid Shuffle” together in the parking lot like it was a middle-school dance.

Emily Pachecho,  an FSU freshman, said, “I saw a community take something that was broken and ugly and saw it as an oppurtunity to bring beauty and love!”

Salvucci said the work made her realize she doesn’t do enough for her own community. “Going to Memphis, you see these kids giving up their spring break to work in their own neighborhood to board up houses and that’s just so commendable, because I don’t do that back home. There’s enough poverty for me to do that and yet, I ignored it.”

During reflection on the last day, one of the local high school students said the week changed her perspective on her own neighborhood and city. Having people come from hundreds of miles away just to learn about them and their community made her realize the unique aspects she’d overlooked.

After making connections with people in Memphis, ASB participants began to raise questions about the work they were doing. Some participants wondered aloud whether they were doing more harm than good by coming in, making connections with kids and teenagers, then leaving.

Salvucci said, “I don’t think I’m going to see those kids ever again. And there’s some type of guilt inside of me where I’m like, ‘They’re always going to think of me as just leaving.’ And no, I don’t think that’s going to be the only thing they think of when they think of me, but, you know, we bonded so much that week and all the sudden, we’re just ripped from them.”

Jace Williams, a senior who worked with a few different programs, said, “It’s still a weird thing, going for a week and then just leaving. These people live their lives there and we just pop in and try to help, then leave before it even gets too hard.”

Myers said he has always been cautious of short-term trips. “I believe that best practices in community development call for consistent relationships and to have residents play the lead role in neighborhood transformation. Short-term service projects can enable complacency within a community and also lead residents who witness these projects to feel helpless.”

Myers said when volunteers come into a community without fully understanding its needs and without acknowledging the need to empower a community instead of simply supplying resources, service can sometimes do more harm than good.

“In the past,” he said, “we’ve had groups kind of tell us what they want to do. And to me that’s not real, true community development. It needs to be a mutual respect and appreciation for where everybody is coming from.”

Jeff Riddle, director of Serve901, said, “It can be taxing and low return on investment of time for nonprofits to host groups. Nonprofits have limited resources, so coordinating the ins and outs of a service trip can be more demanding than rewarding for their time and resources.”

That’s why Serve901 aims to free up nonprofits by handling the details of service trips for them. Volunteers from service trips provide “extra muscle power” for nonprofits, said Riddle. There are projects that need to be completed for nonprofits to follow their missions, and “any leverage that can be given to them via volunteer assistance helps that mission.”

Short-term trips can sometimes benefit the volunteers more than the organizations and communities they go to help. Riddle said, “Many organizations in Memphis need long-term volunteers and mentors that are rooted in relationships rather than a week-long trip.”

And as for the volunteers, “It’s such a long list of benefits for them. It gives perspective, worldview formation and also community formation. The groups that I meet all form so many friendships internally through memories of their trip together,” added Riddle.

For FSU’s ASB members, this was definitely the case. Many of the members felt they returned with a renewed sense of purpose and with new friends.

Rothwell said, “I left Memphis with an abundance of knowledge from its community members. I feel that I brought back the resilience and strength that they have, and I hope to spread that to everyone around me.”

Salvucci said she’s had a real sense of confidence since she returned, which encouraged her to join SGA and apply to be an RA. She said she’s also come to fully appreciate things she took for granted before. “Like you have an 8:30 tomorrow, but you get to go to class.”

Williams said, “Since coming back, I tried to remember to be thankful for as much as I can. I tried to work as hard as I did in Memphis, putting my all into my own community as much as I did for their community.”

Ashleigh Whigham, a sophomore, said she was struck by how grateful everyone in Memphis was for the people in their lives and their opportunities. “I learned that everyone is able to help, but the real change starts when you make yourself available to do so, and that made this trip so memorable.”

ASB Trip Leader Hailey Small has been on three short-term service trips. She said, “A lot of times, service trips have a bad rap for kind of doing more harm than good. It’s definitely a legitimate critique of service trips, but with the way that I’ve interacted with service, we’ve always made sure that it was always something positive that we were doing, and that we were putting our complete all into it.”

She added, “I think that something that people kind of notice after they leave is that you go through life kind of on autopilot sometimes and you don’t always take a step back and look at what you’re doing and think, ‘Am I giving 70 percent? Am I giving 100 percent? Am I giving 2 percent?’”

Most of the students on the trip felt they’d done an overall “net positive,” as senior Karl Bryan put it, by participating in ASB.

Bryan said, “I hold the view that everything that helps. … It’s like what we were told down there: There are [thousands of] abandoned houses in Memphis and we did eight. But that’s eight that aren’t messed up anymore.”

Williams said, “It’s hard because sometimes kids get attached to the volunteers, for example. But in the long run? It’s better than no one helping.”

Salvucci said, “You can make a change in a week. It’s not this whole systemic change, but, you know what? If we ever go to Memphis, we can say that we boarded up that house. We made a physical change. We talked to those kids and we made an emotional change with those kids to look at college.”

She added, “It’s like that quote, ‘You can’t change the whole world, but you can change someone’s world.’ And I think that’s how I feel about the one-week trips.”

[Editor’s Note: Jillian Poland was a participant in ASB 2018.]

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