Students Gain New Insights after Building Up Baltimore

By David Cifarelli:

Baltimore, Maryland is home to one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. (U.S. Census QuickFacts on Baltimore City). A 2015 article published by CNN Money reported that 24 percent of Baltimore’s population lived below the poverty line, despite Maryland being the richest state in the United States. The article also highlighted the ongoing tensions between black communities and the police, which continues to progress today. (Recent CBS Baltimore stories on police brutality)

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With this information still ringing in the America’s ears, ten students from Assumption College decided to dedicate their spring break towards building up Baltimore. The students worked primarily with the Chesapeake branch of the international, nonprofit organization, Habitat for Humanity. They spent one day at one of the local ReStores – where the proceeds from the store provide funding for Habitat houses – and the rest of the week on a build site.

Through their school’s mission trip, known as SEND, the students set out to inject some positivity into the Baltimore community while shedding a light on the impoverished conditions the city still faces today.

Visiting the city for the first time, senior Carolyn Crawford was “struck by how much trash was on the city’s streets and sidewalks, the number of homeless people on each street and corner, the number of people smoking cigarettes and the number of vacant/abandoned houses that we witnessed. Also, I could not believe that we saw a police officer or security guard in almost every building, store and restaurant that we walked into. That just shows how the city is not the safest place to be.”

SEND Baltimore was a first-time trip for freshman Nicholas Berte and sophomore Abigail Metcalf. Berte thought “SEND Baltimore was a perfect opportunity to become more of an active member in the Assumption community…and a chance for [him] to help the world become a better place.”

Metcalf, a Human Services major, was motivated to volunteer since she first heard that Assumption College provided SEND trips. “I have always had a passion for serving others and thought that this was a great way of turning my passion into action.”

SEND Baltimore was the second trip for senior, Human Services major, Kevin Merritt. Merritt discussed how his experience from his first trip to Trenton, New Jersey “was one of the most memorable and eye-opening experiences of [his] college career.” Afterwards Merritt knew he wanted to go on another trip. “I was drawn to Baltimore because I wanted to try out a Habitat for Humanity trip,” he stated, “I’ve also been involved with Habitat through Assumption, so I thought it would be cool to compare how the agency works in Baltimore versus the Worcester area.”

The students’ build site was in neighborhood just outside the city center. The neighborhood used to be run by one of the most notorious Baltimore gangs known as the McCabe. Students heard testimonies from recurrent Habitat volunteers, known as Red Hats, about the intensity of the gang’s violence before Habitat began reshaping the neighborhood. The area is now an up-and-coming section of Baltimore.

The students also learned about the history behind Habitat for Humanity of the Chesapeake. Baltimore was originally designed to accommodate one million people. Since the second World War, however, population numbers declined and much of the city landscape was left abandoned. The Chesapeake branch was founded in 1982 with the main focus of rehabilitating many of the iconic row homes in the Baltimore area.

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The SEND group was a part of this effort that still continues today. Over the course of their week the students installed baseboard, doors, cabinets and flooring within two soon-to-be completed Habitat homes – most experienced their first home restoration experience.

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The students were able to apply what they learned about Baltimore to their own lives and the privileges they enjoy. At the same time, the students were better able to understand how their work positively impacted the community.

Trip leader and Graduate Assistant, Sarah Mombourquette, hoped all the students would develop new ideas about the city after being exposed to the negative media attention surrounding Baltimore. “I wanted students to form their own opinions of the city away from the manipulation of the media,” Mombourquette stated, “I hoped that the students could discover the important connections between race, poverty and education in order to use that knowledge for the implementation of change.”

Berte said SEND Baltimore was an eye-opening experience. “I got a first-hand glimpse of what life is like for the less fortunate in American society. It is always nice to be enlightened with a perspective that is different from my own.”

“I think the biggest takeaway from this trip was how we should be fortunate/grateful for where we live, our family and the resources that we have,” said Crawford. “In contrast to the residents in Baltimore, we do not have to worry as much about where we are going to live, what we are going to eat, if we are in danger or not, the resources that we have etc. This trip really made me realize how fortunate I am to have the life that I have.”

Mombourquette weighed in on how SEND Baltimore differed from her past trips. “On past trips, I have found that it was difficult for students to get past the initial level of service in which you are doing good for others. “This trip was different for me because the students on the trip were so receptive and willing to discuss controversial topics such as race and police brutality. [They] took the next step in allowing the service to do good for them, changing their mindsets and allowing them to take new ideas back to their communities.”

Merritt came to the conclusion his service though Habitat was reinvigorated. “I didn’t know too much about the agency’s mission back at Assumption. In Baltimore, I learned more about how Habitat helps families build affordable homes, and the training home-owners receive to learn how to live more sustainable lives. I really gained a sense of how Habitat tries to reverse the cycle of poverty, and simply assist families in need.”

With his new understanding of Habitat and its mission, Merritt is “more likely to stay engaged with Habitat back in [his] own community, and to spread the word about the amazing work Habitat does for families in-need.”

The same reaction was seen throughout the rest of the groups members. After the trip, all of the other students are more likely to volunteer with Habitat, and possibly other agencies, in the future.

Berte said the “SEND Baltimore trip has helped me in my quest to be the best person I can be. After going on SEND Baltimore, I feel motivated to pursue more community service opportunities.”

“This trip positively impacted my community service because it made me realize that I am capable of making a difference in someone’s life,” said Crawford, “whether that difference is large or small. It helped me realize that I am capable of interacting with various populations and racial backgrounds and helping them in any way that I can. Interacting and assisting someone else not only brightens up the individual’s life but also my own. It makes me want to continue doing what I love to do for the rest of my life.”

Mombourquette spoke about the importance of SEND trips and their connection to Assumption’s emphasis on community service. “I think that it would be very easy for a student to go on a service trip, feel good about the service he or she did, and return to everyday life. The Baltimore trip inspires students to continue with service when they return home. In doing so, the SEND trips enable students to continue to serve others even after the trip has ended. This, in turn, could set an example to other students about the importance of service, ignite passions for serving others, and promote others to ‘light the way.'” (Assumption College’s Community Service page)

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