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Alternative spring break in New York was learning experience

Sunday, April 13, 2008 | 10:13 p.m. CDT; updated 11:18 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
From left, Philip Prouhet, Kate Simmons, Kyle Luke, Steven Adamski, Melanie Wright, Amanda Morgan, Katie Lappe and Sarah Nussbaum enjoy their final night of the alternative spring break over dinner in mid-Manhattan. Not pictured are April Choi, Candace Harris, Sara Stogner, Ericka Evans and Lindsay Durbin.

One by one, we packed our bags and ourselves into an overcrowded commercial van. As the door slammed shut, we could barely contain ourselves. Shouts of “Spring Break ‘08!” and “New York, baby!” came from every direction. What had I gotten myself into? I was about to drive more than 1,000 miles to the Bronx in New York with 11 rowdy strangers.

Safety concerns and financial worries raced through my mind. I had to stay strong and hide my doubts; I was their leader, and this was our alternative spring break.

For five months, I had been training for the trip as one of three site leaders. With the help of Kate Simmons and Melanie Wright, I would help our participants become teachers and mentors to, as well as friends of, some of New York’s underprivileged residents.

Since its start at MU in 1991, the Alternative Spring Break program’s mission has been to educate a group of students about specific social and environmental issues by immersing them in communities across the nation and engaging them in meaningful, direct service.

This year, about 100 students traveled to 10 locations across the nation. Some MU students went to South Padre Island, Texas. Others went to Boston.

We headed to the Big Apple.

New York brought different challenges and unique experiences for each participant. In one week, we would teach some of our nation’s youth, feed the homeless and even have a few run-ins with celebrities. These are our daily stories, filled with struggle, exhaustion and achievement.

***

The lengthy drive didn’t stray from the road trip rhythm of pit stops and bathroom breaks until we crossed the Indiana state line Friday evening. Sara Stogner, an MU sophomore photojournalism major, put the van on cruise control. A careless semitrailer driver who drifted into our lane forced us toward the median.

With inches to spare on either side of the van, Sara laid on the horn.

Melanie jerked her head away from the MapQuest-printed directions. Frantic screams alerted the snoozing passengers to our impending doom.

Ironically, the truck was advertising the Indy 500 “safety” car as it barreled into our lane. With a cool head and some careful maneuvering, Sara accelerated past the vehicle and avoided a horrific accident. An hour later, we made it to our halfway stopping point in Springfield, Ohio. We slept in a church for four hours before finishing the drive to New York.

***

Because Sunday was one of our two free days, we wanted to cover as much ground as possible in New York’s five boroughs. As the sun rose, we were greeted with a surprise: Someone had tagged the side of our van with illegible black lettering. We all thought of it as a “Welcome to the Bronx, good luck,” message. After a crash course in subway routes from some helpful locals, we spent the majority of the day looking for good deals on knockoff merchandise in Chinatown and on Canal Street.

On Monday morning, we worked with an educational program known as Junior Achievement of New York. We were trained to be teachers one day, and explained business literacy to sixth and seventh graders the next.

Heather Grant, the director of programs at JANY, grew up in Brooklyn and joined Junior Achievement in 2003. She arranged for us to teach in two charter public schools in the Bronx and Queens over the next two days. But first, we had to study.

For a lot us, business terms like “gross income” and “opportunity cost” flew right over our heads. We had to learn the basics of economics before we could even try to pass as teachers. After reviewing the coursework, we gave mock presentations to build confidence.

***

Our next stop was Nassau Street in Brooklyn where we worked with the Navy Yard Boys and Girls Club. That afternoon, we played dodgeball, table tennis, checkers — anything and everything to put a smile on those kids’ faces.

While playing basketball with the kids, sophomore Kyle Luke, 20, met a teenager named Jordan who challenged him to a one-on-one match. As Luke rebounded Jordan’s free throws, they discussed similar experiences with youth basketball leagues. In between shots, other children latched onto Kyle’s arms and pleaded with him to join their activities.

That was our challenge. More than 50 kids needed attention, and only 12 of us were able to give it to them.

Stogner was able to use her love of photography to connect with three curious girls. They were drawn to her complicated manual camera and begged for a chance to snap some photos. While hesitant at first, Stogner handed over her prized possession and explained how to focus and adjust the settings. She followed closely as the girls ran around the complex with their new toy. Even if the pictures don’t turn out, that memory was captured.

After that, it was time to head back to the Bronx and prepare to be leaders in the classroom.

We entered the Hyde Leadership Charter School in the Bronx at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Walking through the hallways, we noticed five principles covering the walls: destiny, humility, conscience, truth and brother’s keeper. It was our task to incorporate those themes into our lessons for the day. We divided into teams of two.

I was paired with Sarah Nussbaum, a sophomore biochemistry major with a knack for teaching. I jokingly insisted that I should be the cool teacher who didn’t assign homework, while she would do all of the disciplining — actually, I think that’s exactly how it went. Working our way through six lessons, Nussbaum and I fed off each other’s teaching styles and personalities.

While our class paid close attention and actively participated, others weren’t so lucky.

Amanda Morgan, a freshman biology major, was exhausted by lunchtime. She lifted her head from the desk and sighed, “I don’t want to go back in there.” Nonetheless, she battled her way through the rest of the lesson plan hoping that one student would learn something. She had a new-found respect for teachers after that day. It’s not as easy as it looks.

***

On Wednesday, we woke up at 5:30 a.m. to start our two-hour commute into Queens. We taught the same lesson plan, but to a more attentive group of sixth and seven grade students at Merrick Academy Public Charter School.

The favorite lesson among the students incorporated a career path board game.

It taught the students through trial and error that staying in school longer would lead to careers with much higher salaries than if they dropped out of high school.

Once the dice started rolling, competition set in. Accusations of cheating and foul play came from every group. My patience was fading quickly. Over and over, I had to remind myself that these students were still in grade school.

At the end of the school day, each teaching team hosted a panel discussion about life in college. I was thrilled to see children so young thinking about college and career options. Questions ranged from Greek life to racial diversity on campus.

Some questions were more lighthearted. Lance raised his hand and directed a question at me.

“Mr. Phil, did you grow up on a farm?” he asked. “You have a weird country accent.” Having grown up in the suburbs of St. Louis, I was surprised that I sounded like a farm boy to these students.

“As we left the classroom, the most talkative student, Aren, came up and shook my hand. He told me how much I inspired him to think about his future.

As we shook hands, I simply said goodbye. As I turned to walk away, he held on to my hand and stopped me. “Don’t ever say goodbye,” Aren said. “Just say ‘I’ll see you later.’”

It was refreshing to see such a high level of maturity in such a young student. I don’t know if I’ll ever see Aren again, but I pray that I do.

***

We were done with kids for the week. On Thursday morning, we ventured to Staten Island to work at Project Hospitality, an interfaith program that feeds the hungry, shelters the homeless and cares for people with HIV and AIDS.

At lunch time, we all pitched in to help serve the day’s meal. Ericka Evans, a graduate student in English, prepared trays with plastic knives and forks. April Choi and Sarah Nussbaum filled plates with mashed potatoes, chili, salad and cake. “Please” and “thank you” followed every steaming meal.

After a short cleanup, we sat with 57-year-old Paul, who has lived with AIDS for the past 12 years. He explained his position on the disease as well as the government’s regulations on health care for those affected by AIDS.

Paul’s message was not one of defeat. He explained that he was living with the virus and fighting to stay alive.

“We’re no longer dying from...” he said. “We’re living with.”

His openness and sincerity spoke to all of us. His stories were humbling. Suddenly, the projects and midterms that I had struggled with the week before seemed unimportant. Paul showed us that there are bigger issues and battles outside of our comfortable college bubble.

On our last free day, we took in all the tourist attractions New York had to offer. We split into smaller groups so that we could coveras much ground as possible.

We all met that night at a trendy spot in mid-Manhattan to share our experiences over dinner. Candace Harris, a sophomore biochemistry major, could barely contain herself. During their shopping expedition, Harris and Sara Stogner spotted hip hop artist Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs as well as Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey in the streets of Manhattan. We were jealous, yet skeptical.

Later that night, we were all star-struck by one of the West coast’s leading rap figures. On our way to the subway station, I spotted Tracy Lauren Marrow. Better known by ‘Ice T,’ Marrow was with his wife, Nicole Austin, and son Tracy Marrow Jr. He was kind enough to stop for a quick photograph. I couldn’t believe we had met the self-proclaimed “Original Gangsta.”

***

Prior to the trip, there was little time to get to know all of the participants. My worries that we wouldn’t get along seemed ridiculous by the end of the trip. We spent the ride home poking fun at embarrassing memories from the week and then falling asleep on each other’s shoulders. After six days, I felt a connection with those 11 other participants that I don’t even feel with my lifelong friends.

At the end of our spring break, we didn’t have suntan lines or regrettable tattoos to show off. Our trip changed us from the inside out. New York had left a clear mark on us. And we left our mark on it.

Philip Prouhet, 20, is an MU journalism student from St. Louis. After graduation, he intends to join an international volunteer corps before pursuing a career in graphic design.

Editor's Note: A total of 13 students traveled to New York. Twelve rode in the van; one flew in later.


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