Friday, January 8, 2016
Alternative Breaks have a huge impact, positive or negative, on communities across the country. Break Away, a national organization committed to promoting quality Alternative Break programs in 2014 had "1,551 trips at 184 Chapter Schools with 21,221 students serving 1,993 Community Partners." That totals over 1.3 million hours of service (http://www.alternativebreaks.org/2014annualreport/). I honestly question the effectiveness of these trips. I used to live in Washington DC and you "felt" spring break season of charter buses of kids from schools across the country visiting the nations capital. I wouldn't like to "feel" the arrival of hundreds of college students who believe they can fix or save my community through 4 days of service in a neighboring community garden.
However, I write this all to say that this trip has shown me the flip side of this argument. I want to share 3 stories that allowed me to perceive this differently:
Our first day of service brought us to Deborah's house. I instantly recognized the house, it was where we served last year. While we chose the same partner, the chance of being placed at the same location was slim. Deborah remembered me from the year before and we continued our project from the year before. Today she directly invited us back. While she has become part of my service journey, we have also become part of her life. We have the responsibility to honor this agreement, in our partnerships.
Today, students spent part of the time canvassing a neighborhood. My immediate thought was "Oh boy, a bunch of strangers to New Orleans walking around the lower 9th to promote the organization we were working with" -- however the response the students got was one of welcome and comfort. The community has not only enjoyed having volunteers, but has welcomed this as part of their life. We must always make sure we are welcome.
Lastly, we worked with two different community gardens, both which had little to no staffing. Our presence did nearly 2 weeks worth of work in each garden. This is of no criticism of the community who manages these gardens. Realistically, what community members have enough time to do maintenance on their gardens, or keep the weeds from over-populating. While managing a garden once, we went 2 weeks during a rainy period and had a situation that made me shudder. We have the privilege of spending a week of our time, collectively, to accomplish great things in communities.
I'll never feel comfortable with these trips -- students, often of privilege, heading to communities in a form of "poverty tourism" that we attempt to make more educational, reciprocal, and intentional. But while I continue wrestling with that - refusing to believe that there are not unintended consequences of my involvement, it is comforting to hear positive voices saying "come back and don't forget us."
Thursday, January 7, 2016
This morning we had the opportunity to help out at a community garden, which provides fresh vegetables to the community. In addition to the vegetables, the garden, which is actually a collection of different plots, also has honey bees and a fish pond, which help provide money for the community garden project. One of the wonderful things about this project is that it not only provides food by growing it and giving it out, it also has a program to teach members of the community how to grow their own food . They provide the people with the tools that they need to grow their own vegetables.
I thoroughly enjoyed working at the garden because I knew that even though I was doing something that was fairly simple, pulling out weeds, it was a great help to the people of the community because with all of us working together we were able to accomplish a lot of work in just a few hours. By putting in just a little time and effort we were able to do something that was meaningful because with our work we infuenced a whole community, and all it took was a little time and effort.
There's definitely work to be done here in New Orleans, that's without a doubt. This city is already so rich with life and culture, however, so many people and organizations are still suffering for the tragedy that happened a decade ago. This is unacceptable. The government may have given up on the city, put we the people have not. We see the potential in it and refuse to let that go to waste. We need bigger change and not abandon the vibrant life I've learned to love in New Orleans. New Orleans has this overwhelming perseverance to survive, and it's infectious. Here, in this swampy city, the test of real American opportunity, integrity, and willpower is put to the test. Hopefully, the rest of the country can see that.
- Jake Van Valkenburg