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In Depth: Spring Break Service

Doing art projects and discussing addiction with residents at homeless shelters in Charlotte over Washington Break was an eye-opening experience for first-year students in the Bonner Program, but helping a meals-on-wheels program during an unexpected crisis was just as memorable.

After Friendship Trays lost power to its facility during a bad storm, the Washington and Lee students had to help throw away hundreds of servings of pasta that had been held at unsafe temperatures. They transferred all that sustenance from the refrigerator to the trash, and they saw how the loss emotionally affected Friendship Trays’ kitchen manager, Lani Lawrence.

“She was visibly torn to shreds about the situation,” said Jordan Covelli ’19. “It was inspiring for all of us.”

Visiting with the less fortunate and experiencing the struggles of helping them on a daily basis is what the February service trip is all about for Bonner students, along with strengthening bonds with other students in the program. Marisa Charley, coordinator of student service leadership and research in the Shepherd Poverty Program, said the first-year service trip has been an annual tradition for at least a decade.

This is the first year the trip has been led by other students in the Bonner Program — in this case, Lainey Johnson ’16 and Peyton Powers ’18 — instead of faculty or staff. Johnson and Powers shepherded 10 first-years to Johnson’s hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina, where they partnered with an urban outreach ministry called CROSS Missions to do service work in the community.

They stayed together at a CROSS-owned house called Cornerstone House, which is also home to CROSS offices during the day.

“I think that in itself set the family atmosphere that the Bonner Program tries to provide,” Powers said.

During the four-day trip, the students volunteered at the Charlotte Rescue Mission, Charlotte Family Housing, Urban Ministries – ArtWorks, Moore Place, Crisis Assistance, and Men’s Shelter Charlotte, in addition to Friendship Trays.

“I loved this trip because it allowed us to come together and serve in a community that we were all unfamiliar with except Lainey,” said Elizabeth Mugo ’19.

At the Charlotte Rescue Mission, the students visited and had lunch with people fighting addiction, an experienced that Covelli said he found touching.

“The first question I was asked was, How do I stay focused? I wasn’t sure what they meant, and then they started talking about their specific substance abuse,” he said. “I can’t tell you how impressed I was by how much they were willing not only to speak [about their addiction], but also to accept it.”

At Urban Ministries, the students joined clients for a program called ArtWorks. The specific art project that day involved making dream maps, or artistic representations of how they would like to approach a life goal. For Powers, the differences between some of the Bonner students’ works and the pieces made by clients was striking.

For example, a student’s dream map might include a goal to study abroad, while an Urban Ministry client’s goal might be to repair a damaged relationship with a parent. Mugo noted that the clients’ dream maps also were more abstract.

“A war veteran did a dream map, and his was beautifully done, but it was more of the way he sees the world,” she said. “We as students are blessed to have a view of the world that is very different from the view of people who are experiencing homelessness.”

Each day, when the Bonner students got back to Cornerstone House, they took time to reflect on the day’s experiences and their observations, “just to bring everything full circle,” Johnson said. During reflection, they discussed the site they visited, the people they met, the work they did and how their service can impact the community. It was also a time for healthy disagreements and viewing the trip through different filters, such as individual faith.

“Everyone is doing the same service, but everyone is having a different experience,” Johnson said. “And they were very enthusiastic about the reflections. They raised as many questions as Peyton and I did.”

On the final day, the students volunteered at Friendship Trays, where they were dismayed to find that high winds had caused a power outage that would ultimately last about 18 hours. Friendship is the largest meals-on-wheels program in Mecklenberg County, serving some 700 clients.

The Bonner students said it took them at least an hour to throw away the potentially spoiled food, which local reports estimated to be worth thousands of dollars. At first, the task felt like taking a step backwards instead of making a positive difference, Covelli said, but then he realized that if the W&L students hadn’t been there to throw away food and clean out the storage space, the charity’s own staff and volunteers would have had to do it before they could start making sack lunches to replace the lost food.

At least three local television stations covered the crisis, and the B-roll included footage of Bonner students slapping together sandwiches. Johnson said it initially struck her as odd that Friendship Trays had contacted the media themselves to request coverage, then she realized that more attention to the program’s plight would likely bring support from the community.

Back on campus, as they reflected on the trip, Mugo and Covelli said it accomplished exactly what was intended. They had grown closer to the other first-years in the Bonner Program, and they had challenged their own views on life by looking through the eyes of others.

“I don’t feel as if I found the Bonner Program,” Covelli said. “I feel as if the Bonner Program found me.”

— by Lindsey Nair | lnair@wlu.edu