What A Difference A Week Makes

25 Sep

Assumption’s Brittany Wilson, Paul Belsito and Marisa Reis (foreground)
with Tuscaloosa First Presbyterian pastor Charlie Durham and tornado survivor Dana Dowling.

When Katerina Reilly remembers the tomato fields of Immokalee, FL, one of her most vivid memories isn’t about what she did for others in her one week – but what the tomato pickers did month after month.

“It felt really important to see them running to busses in the morning hoping to get work, and to see them at the end covered with gunk,” said Reilly, speaking to a packed auditorium at Assumption College on Wednesday night, Sept. 19. “Each bucket they fill holds 50 pounds of tomatoes, so you can imagine how heavy that is.”

The Assumption student is no stranger to manual labor.

“I feel it’s really important to do something with my hands. Audrey Hepburn said one hand is for yourself and the other is to help others.”

Reilly’s audience was made up of people determined to do the same. She and many other community service veterans were there to share stories about their experiences in Students Exploring New Destinations (SEND). The program, started in 2006, gives Assumption students the opportunity to put in weeks of service in such far-flung places as Ecuador and Baltimore, South Dakota and Florida. Multiple trips are offered in the Northeast, but even those trips get students out of New England: Past places include the poverty-stricken New Jersey cities of Trenton and Camden, as well as the Bronx. (And, of course, more.)

Run by Campus Ministry’s Vinnie Sullivan-Jacques, SEND takes applications each fall and then conducts interviews. The application deadline this year is Oct. 5. Last year 125 students applied for 105 slots. Students raise some money for their trip, but Campus Ministry covers the rest.

Sullivan-Jacques, who himself found a similar trip important when he was an undergraduate, listed three reasons to do SEND.

“One is to put your faith in action,” he said, while stressing that “it doesn’t matter where you are in your faith.” One can still participate and have a meaningful experience serving others.

Sullivan-Jacques also cited the chance to form bonds with new people and to explore places different from what you’re used to.

Yethulsa Fingfing would heartily agree with the latter.

“A lot of people want to go outside the United States to experience another culture and another spiritual world, but they don’t realize you can do that right in your own backyard,” said Fingfing, reflecting on her profound experience last May at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. “What I learned there was so different from what I learned in third grade about Pilgrims and Indians.”

Yethulsa (left) and fellow Assumption student Justin
learning Lakota words for various body parts.

Having been fortunate enough to accompany Fingfing on that trip, I recall in particular her relentless questions at night discussions and her open disgust at the hypocrisy of our nation’s mistreatment of Native Americans. Yet Wednesday night she was quick to acknowledge the positive energy that radiates despite the sadness and frustration, the inspiration of residents and volunteers.

Turning to her co-presenter, Alyssa Lombardi, Fingfing laughed. “I didn’t even know you last year, and now you’re my homey!”

Katarina found the lighthearted side of that bonding in the Florida trip, apparent even on the trip down. “We were a nutty group and we couldn’t stop laughing,” Katarina said.

Meanwhile, Colleen Putzel found a remarkable friendliness in Ecuador.

“People will tell you their life story and they’ll start crying,” said Putzel, speaking of a community where people make less than $3 a day. “They’re so open in how they talk to you.”

Listening, I was determined not to intrude on the students’ time on stage, but it was hard to resist sharing myself. This year I’ve experienced two SEND trips: One as the official escort to Pine Ridge, the other as host to the group which came to my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, helping rebuild after the April 27, 2011 tornado that killed 54 people. Had I spoken, I would have shared how they also helped me build something – that being a profound link between my New England present and my Deep South past. I would have shared all the admiration and gratitude the locals expressed to me after the group left – evidence that, despite the transitory in-and-out nature of the experience, they each may have left deeper impressions than they will ever know. I would have shared that those SEND groups gave me two of the most joyous weeks in my 12 years at Assumption College.

But even that wouldn’t have come close to covering the rich range of what my SEND experiences were about – a rhetorical problem faced by every speaker on Wednesday night. “You can never understand what can happen in one week unless you experience it for yourself,” said Will Rein, speaking of his Baltimore experience.

His opening line reflected that reality.

“Oh man,” he said, shaking his head. “These trips …”

Lakota girl breaks in brand new porch with those who built it.

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