Morristown, N.J. (March 25, 2016) – College students see spring break as a rite of passage. A time to relax from the stresses of academic life and renew their spirits for the upcoming end-of-term requirements. Many choose to travel, enjoy recreational pursuits, or just stay home for a week. For 10 CSE students it was a time to serve.
Students Chinoye Uka, Fatima Brown, Al-Jannah Jackson, Bonetta Harvey, Njeri Johnson, Ju Young Lee, Ambar Mesa, Jochena Dort, Adriana Estanlisado Santos, and Tyla Eley, traveled to Camden, N.J., accompanied by Alaina Turse, director of volunteerism and service learning, Naima Ricks, director of student engagement, and Abigail "Abby" Cimorelli, campus minister. They participated in a week-long trip to Sacred Heart Parish and School where they spent time at the parish's Center for Environmental Transformation and the Cathedral Soup Kitchen and lived together in an old convent building. Their work in the Camden area ranged from urban farming to preparing and serving food to the homeless and concluding each day with prayer.
"One of our objectives was to live simply," explains Turse. "We decided that we would not have anything extravagant, but to live as closely to the poor as we could."
The time spent in the urban gardens proved that decent food can be grown in a difficult environment with some tender loving care. Several neighborhoods in Camden are designated as food desert since food stores are a distance away and residents have little or no access to them. Therefore, they rely on the local corner stores that do not have fresh fruits and vegetables.
As part of the Center for Environmental Transformation, programs are run not just for practicality, but also to teach local youth the benefits of growing and harvesting one's own food.
"We listened to the testimony of one young man who had been involved in the program," says Turse. "He credits it for keeping him on track and out of trouble. He aims to study engineering when he gets out of high school!"
The students also visited New Visions, which is a day shelter, and Joseph's Place, a night shelter, for the homeless in the area. They served meals, sang songs with the clientele (with Turse on the guitar), played board games, and just sat and talked getting to know the people.
"To say that the Camden service learning trip was an eye opening experience would be a huge understatement," said Ambar Mesa, freshman justice studies major. "Instead of me teaching the underprivileged, they taught me lessons that I would have never learned in any school about love, life, laughter, determination, and ultimately the pursuit of happiness."
The Cathedral Soup Kitchen was a lesson in compassion for the students. The venue is set up like a restaurant, with place settings and special treats for children. The diners are served at the tables and the food was quite good according to the visitors. It has a wrapping station for the diners to take home the leftovers. There are many skill-based programs associated with the Center and the soup kitchen to train the homeless in food and nutrition. The programs have become so successful that the soup kitchen has its own catering business.
The lessons learned were enormous for the CSE students. Many of them have taken a hard look at their own goals in life and are rethinking their direction.
Njeri Johnson '18, counseling psychology major, said of her experience, "This trip opened my eyes to the real problems we are facing in this world and also made me realize my role and my choice in trying to address them, starting in Camden."
Biology major Tyla Eley '18, echoed her sentiments, "The trip to Camden was such an amazing experience. It has opened my heart up even more to continue to serve others and stay involved in community service like I have been doing for so many years."
"This was the best service trip ever!" Turse concluded. "We started out the week as just CSE students and staff and returned as best friends. The personal and spiritual growth is evident in all of us."