For the HWS students accompanying Professor of Sociology Jim Spates this year on an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) volunteer trip to the South Bronx of New York City, the experience, they say, was profoundly influential.
The students, Nicholas Alexander ’13, Jesse Wilson ’13, Kristen Desmarais ’13, Maggie McNair ’14, Marissa Bodner ’15, Rachel Braccini ’15, Stephen Francisco ’15, Ryan Mullaney ’16, and Josh Serrano ’16 volunteered at the St. Ann’s Church afterschool program, as well as at PS179, a New York City public elementary school. Spates says that with both schools located in one of the most disadvantaged urban areas in the United States, it’s an eye-opening and humbling experience to volunteer with the remarkable children who live there.
“There is a great human spirit that resonates with these children, despite the often terrible circumstances surrounding their lives,” Spates says. “The idea of volunteering in these neighborhoods is to bring students as close to the reality of living as a child in the South Bronx. The experience is about getting to know that they are wonderful children, who happen to have had the worst luck for the situation they are born into.”
Offered for the first time this spring as an ASB volunteer experience, the trip to the South Bronx originates as part of Spates’ course, “Two Cities: New York and Toronto.” Traditionally, the course includes trips to each city, presenting students with firsthand perspectives on life in those urban centers and educating them on the disparities that exist there, particularly in the United States.
Spates says the students who went on the ASB trip to the South Bronx volunteered with the students participating in the St. Ann’s Church afterschool program directed by The Rev. Martha Overall. The students helped the children who attend the program with homework and worked with them in a modest computer lab. They also conducted a property clean up.
Reflecting on the experience, Alexander says the chance that just one life may be positively affected through the volunteer work was enough to help spark his inspiration for participating on the ASB trip. In addition, Alexander says the experience hits close to home, as he is a native of New York City.
“I’m born and raised in New York. I’ve seen different sides of the spectrum, but interacting and working in these neighborhoods was an entirely different experience,” Alexander says. “I really wanted to do something in my own home. It was important to be out their working with these children, maybe helping to change the life of one person, who could then go on to help others.”
As for Braccini, she says participating on the volunteer trip was the chance to gain perspective on the difficult circumstances the children have to face each day. She also says that it’s important to think about issues of disparity happening right in the United States, which often may be overlooked.
“It’s important to consider what’s happening in our own backyards and what we can do to give back on a local level,” she says.
Spates says that raising awareness about the disadvantaged neighborhoods of the South Bronx is exactly what author and educator Jonathan Kozol has written about in his books on the subject. Spates says students participating in his “Two Cities” course, as well as the spring break volunteer trip are asked to familiarize themselves with Kozol’s work, which includes books such as “Amazing Grace” (2012) and “The Shame of the Nation” (2005).
As part of the overall experience, and to establish a contrast, Spates says he brings the students less than a mile away from the disadvantaged communities of the South Bronx to some of the most affluent city blocks in all of the United States.
“The students were deeply affected that they were a part of this experience,” Spates says. “It really means a lot to them.”
In light of the experience, Francisco says going on the ASB trip helped to illuminate the reality of the disparities faced by many on a daily basis. He adds that through such experiences, participants can become more socially conscious community members.
“Being about to see both sides gave us an incredible perspective,” Francisco says. “It was very sobering to see how natural living under one set of trying circumstances was for them.”