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Alternative Spring Breaks: Bronx-Bound

Helping children through Junior Achievement

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Nearly 400 students volunteered in this year’s BU Community Service Center Alternative Spring Breaks program. Now celebrating its 25th anniversary, ASB paired students with 37 organizations around the country involved in environmental, affordable housing and homelessness, children’s services, and animal welfare efforts. All week long, we are bringing you first-person accounts of some of those trips.

When I was in high school, my image of college spring breaks was of students wasting away in a place similar to Margaritaville (nothing against Jimmy Buffett). I never imagined college students would choose to give up their one free week of the semester to serve others, but I just spent a week with 12 incredible Boston University students doing just that.

Most Alternative Spring Break trips require a 10- to 30-hour drive to reach their destination. Because we were headed to the Bronx, we had the luxury of taking public transportation, specifically a double-decker Megabus. Our group of 15 (2 coordinators, including myself, a chaperone, and 12 BU students) arrived at Boston’s South Station last Saturday and took over the entire back of the bus. To keep our energy from flagging, we inhaled an estimated 10 pounds of candy during the four-hour ride. The group voted Reese’s Easter Peanut Butter Eggs the champion of seasonal candies. Although we had only a short time to bond on the way to New York City, by trip’s end we felt comfortable enough with each other that we were singing “Empire State of Mind,” much to the annoyance of our fellow passengers.

After successfully navigating the New York subway system, with luggage in tow, we finally arrived at Casita Refugio, a converted convent in the Bronx, where we would be staying for the week. Our site contact, William Sanchez, was an extremely kind man who did everything in his power to make us feel comfortable and at home. We slept on cots, with two people to a room, and shared a communal bathroom and shower space. We also had a kitchen to cook meals in and a spacious living room, which was utilized for long nights of discussion, playing Catch Phrase, and “finger-fencing” (a game whose object is to poke your opponent first with your finger).

In preparing for our ASB trip, co-coordinator Krista LaForce (SMG’13) and I researched many organizations in New York City to work with before eventually selecting Junior Achievement. JA is the world’s largest nonprofit established to educate children in grades K-12 about the importance of financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and work readiness. The goal of the program is to show kids that they can make a difference in their communities.

As Junior Achievement volunteers, our week began with a two-hour training session. We were then given lesson plans for each grade. Our days started at 6 a.m. Each day, we traveled from the northwest corner of the Bronx to the South Bronx, arriving by 8:30 a.m. Once on site, we split into groups of volunteers. We worked throughout the week at two separate schools, both housed in the same building. On Monday and Tuesday we worked at the Metropolitan Lighthouse Charter School and Wednesday through Friday we worked at PS 93 Albert G. Oliver, a public elementary school for grades PK-5.

I and many of our volunteers had previous experience working with children, but never in a classroom setting. Teaching children, we all quickly learned, is much more difficult than babysitting them or being a camp counselor. It also is much more rewarding. One of our volunteers, Kirsten Johnson (COM’14) was initially anxious about the assignment. “I was really nervous to be in charge of a classroom at first,” she says, “but once I began to see that the children were able to make connections between the fun activities we did in class and their real lives, I felt really proud that I was able to give them that knowledge and also really impressed by the children for learning so quickly.”

Working in Junior Achievement definitely gave all of us a greater appreciation for the tremendously challenging work that teachers engage in each day. I was extremely touched that after working with these children for just one day, I could see I had made an impact in their lives. The volunteer experience reminded me what it was like being a child in school and the importance of having a great teacher. By the end of the week, I believe all of us on the trip felt empowered as leaders and more determined to help ensure that all children receive an excellent education regardless of the neighborhood they come from.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Besides all the incredible teaching we got to do, we also did some really amazing things in New York City in our free time. On Monday night we had a restaurant meal donated at a place on Arthur Avenue, known to locals and tourists as “the little Italy of the Bronx.” We got to indulge in both amazing food and conversation with the family that donated the meal. On Wednesday evening, a BU alum and parent took us out for authentic Greek food in the Hell’s Kitchen area of the Bronx and also donated tickets for us to see the show VocaPeople, an a cappella–bebop show that was like a combination of Blue Man Group and TV’s Glee. Just before leaving New York, the family of one of the coordinator’s for the Nashville ASB trip had us to their home in Throggs Neck, N.Y., on Long Island, for a meal of authentic Dominican food.

We ate very well during the week, and a few people claimed that if it weren’t for all the sightseeing and walking we did around New York City, they might have had to pop a button on their jeans! Sightseeing highlights included a sunny afternoon in Central Park, a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a ride on the Staten Island Ferry, and a trip to see the 9/11 Memorial at Ground Zero, as well as shopping in SoHo. Along the way, our group made a human pyramid in Times Square and was treated to a free break-dance show on the subway ride heading uptown to the Bronx at the end of a long night.

I couldn’t be more pleased with my Alternative Spring Break experience. After this, I don’t know why anyone would chose a trip to Cancun over a chance to have the kind of life-changing experience I had. I got to spend a week in one of the greatest cities in the world, with passionate, interesting people, doing something that made an impact in the lives of children. So, while I won’t be returning to BU with a nice tan, I can say that I’m returning a better person, and for that, I can’t rave enough about Alternative Spring Break.

Claire Sutton can be reached at chs@bu.edu.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Alternative Spring Breaks: Bronx-Bound

  • Bob Sutton on 03.19.2012 at 10:46 pm

    Claire,

    Mom and I are very proud of you. You and your classmates did a lot of good and learned some important lessons about kids and life. And as always we like the detailed reports about the food. Thanks for taking the time to write this lovely little piece.

    Bob Sutton (Claire’s dad in California)

  • Courtney Russell, MetLCS Principal on 03.21.2012 at 8:46 am

    Thank you on behalf of the scholars, staff, and parents of Metropolitan Lighthouse Charter School!

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