Archive | January, 2012

SEND in Ecuador

28 Jan

Nick and new friends in Ecuador

I began this blog with the hope of it being a place where others could share their own stories of community service – whether they be inspiring or disturbing, sad or funny. I suspect that the more memorable service experiences are some combination of the above, if the people involved just take the time to observe.

Such a keen observer is one Nick Frazier, who is on the verge of completing a double-major of Writing/Mass Communications and Graphic Arts. He’s excelled in the latter despite a considerable obstacle – Nick is color blind. But that hasn’t stopped him from pursuing his artistic interests – just as strange terrains don’t stop him from serving others. Last spring he was part of the Paul Belsito-led SEND trip to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota; less than a month ago, he left the country altogether, following Vinnie Sullivan-Jacques and classmates to Ecuador.

Below is an excerpt from one of Nick’s Ecuador entries; to read Nick’s blog, “Young and Just a Little Reckless,” try

It’s a terrific combination of visual art and story-telling, informed by the social conscientiousness and bold spirit of Nick himself.

Here is one of my favorite passages from Nick’s work:

     It was a sad realization when it dawned on us that these little kids don’t receive this kind of love or attention at home, so we agreed to pick every single one up. BIG MISTAKE. When you lift them up once they want it again. And again…and again. Nonetheless when we got inside the gate of the school a little boy named Leontel ran over to me and jumped. Luckily I had put the crate of bananas down because it was so unexpected that I was glad I caught him.

            He was small but a tough kid. He had a revolver belt buckle which made him awesome in my book. He pointed and shouted something I didn’t understand but I just decided to follow in the direction he pointed and it seemed to please him. When we walked into the stadium area, there were kids, EVERYWHERE. They all just starred at us. Pointing and whispering as if they had little secrets about the aliens that just walked into the room. We were asked to line up so they would follow our example and they did. Then we had to introduce ourselves, our favorite color and our favorite food. When it got to me I said,

            “Me llamo Nicholas, yo favorita colore es rojo y yo favorito food es burrito.”

            I immediately realized that again, I sounded like an idiot, and it was really stereotypical of me to think that since I am in South America saying burrito would make me sound cool…it didn’t it made me look like an ass. Regardless, we finished and the man running the program whose name was Ricardo, who would end up being awesome, released everyone to the big kid’s activity, the little kid’s activity or the homework room. The Rostro volunteer named Molly came over to explain what was happening and told us that she would split us into groups to help facilitate the kids in each area. She had us all sit on the bleacher where the little kids were assigned to go to and the second I sat down I had Leontel on my shoulders and two other little ones in my lap. The kids were beyond the cutest little beings I had every seen.


            What we didn’t know when we would walk in was that each of the kids would watch us walk in and immediately choose a favorite without knowing anything about us. So when we all started getting split up into groups, the little kids would chase after their favorites or cry out in desire to be with them. When the other Rostro volunteer began splitting the kids up to get into groups with each of us, the little kids clutched on to the arms of the Gringos that they wanted to stay with. When she got to Leontel he literally attempted to tackle my upper body. I guess this was body language for wanting to stay with me because when she allowed him to stay next to me he put out his fist for a bump.  This kid was awesome.

            Our group had about 10 little ones in it. It was the leader of our trip and me. We were given a book to read to the kids and have them pick out little fun facts in it. Finally my 3 years of Spanish started to kick in when I was able to read to them. After which we gave out paper and crayons. They begged for more crayons but we had to restrict them to 4 each. Do you know how hard it is to say no to a small child that you know has nothing in their life and all they want in that moment is one extra crayon? It is impossible. Sorry Rostro volunteers if I left the kids wanting extra crayons, but I gave them the entire bag and watched their smiles burst and their little hands fight for the ones they wanted.

            What happened next was one of I think 3 major moments during the whole trip which will forever be imprinted in my mind. The volunteer Molly came over to check on us. She asked how we were doing and we told her that despite the language barrier, we were surviving and seemingly doing well. She smiled and said “good”. All the kids wanted was attention. This was the only place they really got it. I looked over to see a little girl sitting on a bleacher alone. She was in a pretty little dress and was just sitting with her elbows on her knees and her chin resting on her hands starring at a little boy who was running in circles in front of her. The little boy was tiny. He had an adorable little striped shirt, a tiny had and tiny little shorts. Neither had shoes. I asked if I should get them to come over and join the group. Molly said, “It’s ok, we kind of let them do their own thing”. I asked why. She told me it was a difficult story.

            My first thought, “shit, here it comes”. She explained that there were three of them. The tiny boy was 2, the little girl was 7 and they had an older brother in the homework room who was 9. The older sister and brother took care of the 2 year old because they had no family. I asked her to explain and she said that was it. They have no family. They have a mother that stops in once maybe twice a week and drops off a little bit of food. But the three of them are alone the rest of them time. When they would come to Semillas, the 7 and 9 year old would take turns doing homework and watching their little brother. Then afterward, they would walk home, in the mud, without shoes, make dinner for the little one, sometimes they got to eat and go to sleep. Then do the same thing the next day.

            I fought back tears hearing this. But Molly continued on. They usually do not let kids under the age of 5 to come to the program because they keep it as constructive as possible but these three little ones they made an exception. Especially what had happened a few weeks before. We asked what had happened. She told us that a 7 year old and 4 year old were in the exact same situation. About 3 weeks before our arrival, the older brother was making the younger brother dinner and a fire started and burnt down their house and the two adjacent houses. The 7 year old got out.

            The 4 year old did not.

            Three weeks before I was at a Christmas party eating cookies and opening presents. Puts quite a few things in perspective. This 7 year old was now homeless and without a brother. I never got the chance to meet him. But I wish I could have.

Frazier exhibiting some of his work.

Young and Just A Little Reckless, by Nick Frazier

28 Jan

Young and Just A Little Reckless, by Nick Frazier


More tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa County

28 Jan

More tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa County

Fortunately, the system that spawned eight tornadoes early last week did nowhere near the damage of the storms of April 27th, 2011. But two people in central Alabama were killed by the latest round of tornadoes. See the link.


Following through

22 Jan

Dewayne with gift from SEND crew

Tuesday Assumption College started its spring semester in typical fashion: With snow on the ground, a chill in the air, and students and faculty alike bundled up as they trod through sub-freezing weather. All of which is usually made easier to bear by the sheer adrenaline surge this extrovert feels when it’s time to throw himself into the mix of colleagues and students; after several weeks of being on my own, it’s usually a sweet relief to be back.

This past week, however, stacked up to be a different challenge. Instead of being away from Assumption students over the break, I’d spent a week with 13 of them, down in my hometown. I wasn’t the escort of the trip – official escort Paul Belsito was with them 24 hours a day; I’m guessing my average was closer to eight. But, of course, that was still more hours with students than the 48-50 I spend teaching any single three credit-hour-a-week course – and in the latter case, the students aren’t wandering my hometown, hanging at my mother’s house, or breaking out my four-decade old game of Battleship.

So how, I wondered, was this first week going to feel different from the first weeks of past semesters? Would I just ride the high of being with some of our most motivated students into a similarly fulfilling semester? Would the grim business of education – all that required reading, police work and grading – make my normal pedagogy a joyless business?

And, above all, how would bonds formed down in Alabama carry over into the semester, let alone translate into future service?

Our group, after all, was succeeded by other college crews, and there will be thousands more in the long rebuilding process in Tuscaloosa. As for the students, while part of a SEND trip’s appeal is the chance to throw one’s self wholeheartedly into a single intensive task with a single group in a single community, we all come back to scattered demands of our multiple communities, ranging from courses and committees to family and friends. And for our seniors, add to that the machinery of applying for post-graduate jobs.

Even though a week is too short a time to measure, I saw encouraging signs. One student managed to catch me at the office amid the turmoil; Nick DiAntonio talked for 20 minutes before my 1 p.m. class, and told me he still planned to take up a volunteer’s offer of tickets to an Alabama game next season. Other students stopped me around campus for handshakes and a few half-hugs; students who didn’t even go on the trip brought up rumors they’d heard about the Tuscaloosa adventure. On Friday afternoon, at the Living Learning Center Interest Circle initial gathering in Hagan, Erin and Kate showed up sporting their Crimson Tide hooded sweatshirts – of course, anyone actually from Alabama would have found them far too thin for the New England cold – and the three of us talked enthusiastically. They gave me the news that Dewayne Searcy, our foreman in Tuscaloosa, and his friend James Shackelford, who got us the reservation at Bob Baumhower’s restaurant for the title game, were still talking about a road trip north when things get a bit warmer.

They also serve who laugh: Dewayne renders yet another touching moment into hilarity.

But even more important than the relationships themselves is the inspiration and information the bonds continue to convey. Example: Erin and Kate showed me a text from Dewayne – which included a picture from the house on which we worked. It turned out Dewayne is texting daily photos of the house into which 82-year-old Appie Jones will move. (Never having texted Dewayne directly, I hadn’t seen them, although I got numerous Facebook messages from the man.) Dewayne taking the time to keep groups updated, letting them know they are remembered, is a classic example of how to meet the challenge that comes after the mountaintop experience has ended – the challenge of following through.

In some ways this is an individual task, which each person has to engage in his or her own way. Those ways might include individual volunteer work, keeping the communication lines open, and/or making donations, modest as they might seem, to an agency’s continued work. But Assumption also works hard to follow through on a communal level. As part of that,  Vinnie Sullivan-Jacques – the architect behind all these SEND trips – and I invite all the SEND students (and their escorts) to share their own service stories. Those stories need not be polished; they might be as simple as a single humorous or moving incident on a single day, or the story of a trip and what it meant to the writer. I do recommend you send some our way sooner rather than later, while the details are still fresh in your mind – but at the same time, I figure that every student who has engaged in service has come back with a few memories that will stick for a long time to come. (We’d also love selected photos, particularly ones that come with place and people identified.)

We may have left the geographic locales in which we first merged in the act of serving, but, despite all the distractions of our busy springs, we can find places in our lives to share memories, and build on the same.

This space is one of them.

Come by any time.

Tuscaloosa SEND crew, plus Dewayne and, yes, Mom

The Challenge of Change

16 Jan

I lingered on a sidewalk that cut diagonally across Birmingham’s Kelly Ingram Park, looking back at where we’d come from. I regarded the back of a statue of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., himself looking back at 16th Street Baptist Church, the plain, red brick church where, on Sunday, September 15th, 1963, a white supremacist bomb had killed four African-American girls. Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley had died not for being part of a protest, but simply for being among the children filing into the basement to prepare for the sermon, titled “The Love That Forgives.”

How could anyone forgive that? Let alone the scenes depicted by the other statues at the park, from a policeman commanding a dog to lunge into the face of a protestor to a canyon of other-worldly canine jaws, designed to threaten pedestrians into at least an echo of the fear protestors felt. The sidewalks also led us to pass between a fire hose and protestors leaning against a wall, bracing against an imagined impact – and between two children and the bars of their jail cell. Beneath the standing figures reads the inscription: “I Ain’t Afraid of Your Jail.”

But what exactly were our students feeling?

Assumption’s SEND volunteers were mostly quiet as they wandered in clumps. We’d been riding four days of good feelings, born of spirited work building the Habitat for Humanity house in Tuscaloosa, and this was our off day, a time to cut loose. But there were no goofy poses here, not in this spot, especially after touring the building across the street – the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.

The museum opened in 1992. Birmingham had changed dramatically since 1963 – the city’s first black mayor, Richard Arrington had been mayor for 13 years; he would serve for seven more before stepping down. Still, the Civil Rights Institute faced opposition from those who, remembering the horrors of the past, thought it better not to bring up the past.

But if some Birmingham residents resisted the Civil Rights Institute because of profoundly painful feelings, this day I was more worried about the opposite problem. How would our Assumption College students – all white, all from the Northeast, all born within a year or two of the institute itself, respond? How deeply would it register, even among students so idealistic, they’d decided to spend their winter break serving others? How would I feel if I weren’t from here?

The Institute certainly does everything it can to reach across the gap of half a century. It shares an intersection with 16th Street Baptist and Kelly Ingram Park, but it’s so smartly designed, it would pack a punch anywhere it was placed. we were greeted at the base of the steps; we ascended only after a guide asked to respect the reverence of the exhibits by not taking photos or using cell phones. While the tour was self-guided, the space imposed the same sense of progression on all of us: A short documentary lay the groundwork the city’s post-Civil War history, industrial and racial, that led to segregation; the theater screen then rose, revealing the first of several rooms which contrasted “white only” and “black only” facilities. We’d wound past photos and videos, statues and artifacts; we’d heard the impassioned voices of both Wallace and King ringing with seemingly equal passion, and lingered long in front of the exhibit dedicated to the four girls who died in that horrific blast just across the street. We’d walked across to the church itself – the group reflexively, but wanly, smiled for a group photo – then, of course, the park itself, where many confrontations went down. One seasoned war correspondent covering the protests said he’d never seen anything as disturbing, and the statues did their best to remind us.

Still, time passes – and I don’t just mean the almost half-century since the bombings. There’s also the mere half hour after the exhibit. Our paying of respects to the past gave way to a request for designer coffee and fru-fru yogurt, and from there, a drive up the mountain to the statue of Vulcan, symbol of Birmingham’s steel mill legacy. We went  up into the top of the statue – some giggling over their fear of heights, multiplied by the see-through metal grate floor. The ride back to Tuscaloosa evolved into spirited singing of country music standards and smart-phone updates of how Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos were doing against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  We watched the first half of the game at Dreamland Barbecue, a world famous black-owned ribs joint which made its reputation serving simply ribs, sauce, and a loaf of sandwich bread; white customers would flock to the gravel rural roads of Jerusalem Heights, then, and probably still, a mostly black neighborhood on the edge of town.

I was glad to have these positive examples of race relations, like our experience on the work site, to prop against the images of hatred. But as we headed home for the nightly reflection required for Assumption SEND trips, it all had me wondering what students absorbed from the day.

Once we settled down to talk, though, I was relieved to see that these issues registered far more than they let on. I had scribbled questions to pose, but they beat me to almost every one of them – including the troubling one of how they would’ve responded had they been born into the same culture in the same moment of history. Would they have been among those with the critical detachment to see the bigger picture – and the mind-blowing courage to act on it? No one seemed to imagine they would be a pathologically violent fomenters of hatred – one of the small minority who committed acts of violence – but some did have that uneasy feeling that they might’ve been on the wrong side of the issue … or, being on the right side, failed to act with the appropriate sense of outrage. Without being asked, they volunteered analogous issues facing us today, ones that went far beyond race itself.

When I asked them how their experience would influence their perception of Martin Luther King Day – at our college, a time of hustle and bustle, when students settle into their dorms before the first day of classes – a couple said they would think of the courage King and thousands of others showed in transforming a world deeply set in its racist ways. They also agreed the work was far from done.

After more than an hour of social critique and self-questioning reflection, it was time to wind them down  – they had a 7 a.m. shift on the work site Monday, followed by an evening of rooting for the mostly African-American stars of the University of Alabama football team. Searching for an upbeat benediction, I asked them what, if anything, was redemptive about this day of exploring the legacy of King, as well as the brave thousands who followed him.

“That,” one student said, her eyes moist, “people can … change!


13 Jan

Tiny shack in ruins less than 100 yards from Habitat project

Thursday afternoon I weaved through the wasteland once packed with homes and businesses – razed by 1-2 punch of the April 27 tornado and eight months of debris removal – and pulled up at 118 29th Street, the future home of storm survivor Appie Jones.

The Habitat for Humanity sign proclaims the house is sponsored by First Presbyterian Church and Nick’s Kids – but I’ll always think of this as the Assumption College house, where 13 big-hearted, hard-working students and escort Paul Belsito put in five vigorous work days. They caulked and sanded and puttied and painted, inside and out; they sawed and installed woodwork beneath the eaves, sheathed the porch columns, installed and stained doors.

Compared to that joyful commotion, the house seems lonely now, in the late afternoon light. The students flew out early Wednesday morning, on their way back to the frozen north while I lingered behind, getting in some quality time with family and friends. They had as productive and inspiring a week as anyone could expect from an immersion experience: Tuscaloosa isn’t known for its breathtaking peaks, but the students obviously had a mountaintop experience. I imagine a few of them might be wondering how to hold onto the high, perhaps even how much they have contributed in the grand scheme of things.

Out of sight, out of mind?

I wish they could see what I saw after they left – and what I’ll keep seeing, and feeling, every visit home, for the rest of my life.

Start with the house. It seemed quiet and modest enough when I cruised by, Habitat supervisor Dewayne Searcy either done for the day or working elsewhere, leaving only two guys pouring the sidewalk. But this single-story home stands tall against the backdrop – ravaged shacks a few hundred yards away, then a flat void where the tornado destroyed about 100 lower-income homes and killed six of the people who lived in them, then, still farther away, the gash that continued for miles to my right, exposing landmarks once unseen from this street.

The house, even amid the irrecoverable loss of 52 people and thousands of homes, has me thinking about something hopeful.

"Roll Tide Roll": My game-night uniform.

Something called transformation.

Transformation that is slow, transformation that is arduous, transformation made possible in large part by the fresh energy and enthusiasm of volunteers such as the ones who came to my home from Assumption.

Or perhaps I should say transformations, as some are conspicuously public – this particular house is easily seen from the thoroughfare of Greensboro Avenue –and profoundly intimate. It’s the latter that has me continuing to write this, on my mother’s kitchen counter, when I really should be packing for my own flight back to Massachusetts.

Bear in mind that while I am a native Tuscaloosan, for all practical purposes, I haven’t lived here since 1981. Three decades erode both the strength of emotional connections and the vividness of memories, paved over by newer experience that, I have told myself, are more relevant to who I am today.

But for the last 24 hours, I’ve felt a change. Yesterday I drove by a patch of campus I normally attach no personal significance to whatsoever – only now it’s the path we walked our first afternoon in town, when, despite exhaustion, the students were eager to see the University of Alabama campus, gawk at the massive stadium, and flood the bookstore – intent on buying shirts that would declare their allegiance to Alabama football and Tuscaloosa as a whole. While this might be dismissed as a typical souvenir-gathering impulse, it turned to predict a wholehearted investment on the work site, where they were anything but tourists. Meanwhile, the trip led me to places I’d never been myself. One example was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute – barely built back when I left Alabama – which I will write more about in this space come Monday. Another was the restaurant where owner (and former Alabama and Miami Dolphin star Bob Baumhower) went against policy to provide reserve our students a table, allowing them to watch Alabama’s 21-0 crushing of LSU in an appropriate setting.

Other places transformed include the very kitchen in which I now sit. It’s a relatively new home – miles from the house in which I grew up – but behind the stool on which I sit, what was once a nice but unremarkable dining table is now the place where, on their last night in town, our students abandoned more comfortable seating to huddle around Habitat supervisor Dewayne Searcy and his wife Heather. I won’t visit this space in the future without feeling a bit of the deep warmth, humor, and appreciation shared by Alabamians and Tuscaloosans.

Students, along with Mom, listen to point made by Dewayne, bottom left

On that night Dewayne told how his friend James, a coach and construction supervisor who set up the Bauhower restaurant experience, had told Dewayne on Assumption’s first day that while most groups who come in have one or two stars, he could look into the eyes of “each and every person” and tell early they were all fully engaged. Dewayne said it more eloquently than this, but at that point in the proceedings, I was too moved to take notes.

Fortunately I do have the notes of students, a whole paper bag full of them, left over the course the week by students as the spirit moved them. The first night student leader Marissa Reis taped up a small paper bag for each group member, plus a bag marked “Land family.

I saved the reading of mine until two hours ago – spreading them on this counter so my mother and I could experience them together. We marveled for a good half hour, feeling some of that warmth come back all over again; Mom also allowed as how this gave her that much more insight on why I loved working at Assumption, what makes all that snow and ice worthwhile.

I suppose this week’s experience is just a moving reminder of something true all along – that our past always informs our present. In this case, it took a group of students less than half my age to help me see my hometown, and my life, in a fresh and affirming light. But what I hope the students take from this is that I’m just one local, in the loosest sense of the word; who knows how many thousands the SEND students impact over the years.

They may not get to come back to see the lasting impact, and even if they did, the subtler changes I feel this morning give no outward sign. But they have all done their bit to transform lives – including, this morning, my own.


Telegram chronicles Assumption visit

10 Jan

Telegram chronicles Assumption visit

%d bloggers like this: