Alternate Spring Break 2014: Minneapolis
Although Spring Break ended nearly two weeks ago, it’s only now that I’ve made the time to write about what I did with mine. I mean, sure, a good deal of it was still wasted on Netflix and my Harry Potter re-read marathon—but the first half-week of it was spent someplace much more productive. This year, I worked with the UW-Stevens Point Student Involvement and Employment Office to be a part of the Alternate Spring Break program. I traveled with a near dozen UWSP students to Minneapolis for some service learning through a group called Urban Immersion. The subtopic of this year’s ASB was poverty and homelessness; the nonprofit organizations we were linked up with focused on different facets of this issue, and through service there as well as reflection at the Urban Immersion center we learned more about poverty and homelessness as complex social issues.
As a test drive student site leader, I worked in conjunction with a staffer from the SIEO office to keep everything running smoothly in the group for the duration of the trip. The volunteer coordinator who generally runs the ASB trip was leading another, larger group which spent a week in New York City. It was pretty easy for me in Minnesota, all told—Urban Immersion set up the locations in the Minneapolis area where we went to volunteer, they arranged our meals for us during our stay, and they provided us with shelter in their facility. We worked with a coordinator there, Laura, who ran nightly programming which helped guide our reflection. During our days there, after a rather early breakfast we were sent out into the area to serve. Over three days, we were sent to lend our hands to two different organizations: the Prince of Peace Mission Outpost food shelf and a large-scale furniture bank called Bridging.
Prince of Peace is a large Lutheran church whose Mission Outpost serves the seven city area surrounding the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Outpost itself is located in Burnsville, and it is /gigantic/. My area of specialization in FCS is food and nutrition, so my natural inclination was to be super-duper excited when I heard that we were going to volunteer at a very large food shelf. I couldn’t have guessed how emotionally touched I would be—I remember tearing up during the initial tour of the facilities and basically staying a half-breath away from crying for the next four hours.
Being a volunteer at UWSP’s itty-bitty Cupboard, I was totally unprepared for what I saw there. The place is absolutely immense, and what’s more it offers a range of services beyond what I’ve ever seen in person as a kind of entry-level volunteer. The area of nonperishable foods is more than three times the size of the entire Cupboard at Point. Prince of Peace is also set up and able to dispense perishable goods such as fresh eggs, yogurt, and meat to those who come in. But that wasn’t even the end of it—through support from the Salvation Army and partnership with a lot of corporate and local businesses, Prince of Peace is also able to provide fresh breads and bread products, vegetables, fruits, deli items, and greens to the families it serves. On a monthly basis, a family which is referred to Prince of Peace receives a good quantity of fresh and canned foods, and on a quarterly basis they can receive housing and clothing items as well. Each time they visit, an individual or family is sat down with a volunteer who looks after how they’re doing and is trained to refer them to other community services.
Part of the Prince of Peace’s objective is to see that every family is cared for, not just served. It seems that they’re on to something as well: the gratitude of those who used this service during my time helping to fill orders in the food shelf area was stunning. The sheer number of volunteers, most all of them regular weekly fixtures of the place, was beyond belief. While I was there forty or so families were served. Pat, the site manager, said that that was a pretty slow Monday and that frequently twice as many families will come through during their hours of operation. Getting to know the individuals serving, to work amongst them and speak to them, and to see the impact their generosity had on so many lives was just about magical.
The second location we volunteered at was an organization that serves individuals and families that are in transition to a new home, be it from a period of homelessness, as new arrivals to the country, at the end of a shelter stay, after the loss of a previous home to natural disaster, or due to any of a host of other reasons. The founder—whom we met—recognized that the resources that so many of us have when moving out aren’t available to everyone and then literally built a gigantic nonprofit organization out of that idea. He was probably the coolest guy in the universe to boot, being almost ninety years old and still hard at work. What a guy.
Not everybody can get free furniture from friends or family, or has the disposable income to prepare a new home without any aid. Bridging supplies such individuals and families with some of the essentials needed to start out a new household—furniture, some housewares, even some small appliances, art and décor. All of it is stored and catalogued in this giant warehouse, which qualifying families are led through by volunteer shoppers. Each person using the services there are able to pick from a pretty vast selection of items, and are able to select (according to some guidelines) whatever item they want. Bridging provides dressers, mattresses, kitchen tables, chairs, couches, pots and pans, linens, even lamps to those who need them. Nothing broken, overly worn, or even vaguely gross is accepted or handed out, which to me is as thoughtful as offering the items in the first place. Their warehouses (of which there are several in the Twin Cities area) are stocked by donation from individuals, stores, furniture outlets, and other organizations. Again, an immense staff of volunteers were there as we were, and it was crazy cool to see all the different gears that allowed the machine of such a large charitable organization to work so smoothly. I hadn’t anticipated how fond I could become of a place in a single day, or how good I could feel about lending my meager talents to something so much bigger than myself.
Everywhere we went, we were treated with such gratitude, respect and care. It was really humbling to spend entire days in service of so many people we’d never meet, and so many whom we did. Meeting those who organized and ran these operations—or who had founded them, or who returned day after day, week after week to serve—was indescribably inspirational. So too was dinner each night after we volunteered, as we were sent to local soup kitchens to break bread with those in need of the meal provided. Two nights in two different church basements, I ate dinner with a variety of men, women, and children who relied on the generosity of others to be able to have an evening meal. Meeting these people, getting to know them, eating beside them, and watching and being among them was not only horribly sad but comforting. The community of a place such as that is hard to describe, and it is hard to experience. Every eye that fell on me knew that I was a visitor, an “other” in some way, but I was never treated poorly. I was asked a few times if I was a volunteer, and I was asked /many/ times what brought me there (which led to a universally-confusing confession that I was on Spring Break and this is where I’d chosen to spend it), but I was always welcomed to the table.
I do not hesitate to say that I have never felt as if I’ve spent three days more meaningfully in my life, and I cannot emphasize enough how worthwhile the opportunity is to take a vacation and spend even just a portion of it in service. I could have spent a hundred hours in a classroom learning about poverty and homelessness before and still called that time wasted after having been amongst the strife and the service of its reality even for just three short days. I beseech each and every one of the four people who read this blog to find a doorway to such an experience wherever possible. If SIEO is available to you next year, I implore you to think long and hard about the next Alternative Spring Break. It was completely unreal, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Amy Vida is a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point majoring in family & consumer sciences and English.