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Acting Director of Service-Learning
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New York City - Spring Break 2012
The New York Service break trip was more than just an opportunity to volunteer at St. Johns Bread and Life in Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn (Bed-Stuy). This was an opportunity to learn about the true economics behind one of the greatest cities on earth. To begin, our purpose was to volunteer at St. Johns Bread and Life, and serve the less fortunate within the Bed-Stuy community. St. Johns Bread and Life is affiliated with St. Johns University of New York. It is a state of the art food bank that provides food services, tax preparation, and many other services to the Bed-Stuy community. Every morning, bright and early, we headed out to the facility, split up into groups, and helped the workers doing different tasks in the kitchen or the pantry.
We were asked to load food into bags to hand out to the community members. Some of us worked behind the pantry loading and unloading boxes, while some of us worked in the kitchen preparing meals for lunch. Every other day we would switch duties depending on what we did the day before or on who could perform the necessary tasks. While working in the kitchen, we were able to get to know almost the whole staff that worked in the pantry and the kitchen. We learned that a handful of the current employees at St. Johns Bread and Life were former customers of the organization. We heard a heartbreaking story about how one volunteer was on her way to college on a basketball scholarship when her plan was cut short after she was brutally attacked and raped. Still this individual volunteered almost every day while we were there. Had she not told us the story, we would have never inferred from the way she carried herself that she had such a difficult past.
Volunteering at St. Johns Bread and Life was only the beginning of the work day during our service trip. Dean Annarelli taught us so much about the dynamics of the economy of New York City and especially the Bed-Stuy community. We learned about the idea of gentrification and re-gentrification and how that affects the community as a whole. While we walked the streets of Bed-Stuy we could see the effects of re-gentrification happening with our very own eyes! The area seemed to be in a state of halted progression. Across from where we were staying, we could see the remodeling of an old building that has not been finished for quite some time. There was an “Applebees” in the middle of the neighborhood, and the area was surrounded by many tiny stores that served the community. We concluded that the area had plenty of potential,l but it simply has not met that potential yet.
The hope for an area like Bed-Stuy is that the city will grow and invite new businesses, investments, and eventually will become a flourishing neighborhood within the Brooklyn borough. However, with this hope comes a devastating downside. What happens to the families and the businesses currently within Bed-Stuy? The logical assumption would be that with the new wave of investments, property values would rise and the current residents and businesses would be pushed out. They would be replaced by chains, and middle or upper middle class residents, and those who were there before would have no place to go. I struggled with all of this throughout the trip. How do we revive a city without displacing its current inhabitants?
As an added bonus to our service trip, we were invited to a meeting at St. Johns University where we received a lecture on “poverty mapping” from Dr. Barrett Brenton. We learned about the many tools associated with poverty mapping. My friends from the trip and I still talk about that lecture, and I am hoping to incorporate it within my own research on poverty and its correlation to educational success.
“Amazing!” is the only way I could describe this trip. We left St. Petersburg, Florida hoping to make some kind of an impact on the Bed-Stuy community, but the Bed-Stuy community ended up making a tremendous impact on us. Along the way we made great friends, and if we did not love Dean Annarelli (also known those of us on the trip as “J-Money”) before we went on the trip, we practically idolize him now! One could feel how much he cared for the subjects he was teaching us throughout the trip. Whenever he talked about St. Johns Bread and Life, St. Johns University, New York City in general, or the Bed-Stuy community, Dean Annarelli made us want to do something about making effective changes regarding poverty. I am certainly motivated to do something about the issues facing communities like Bed-Stuy. Not just fixing the issues, but hopefully working to fix systematic problems that continuously hold communities back in the United States. I speak for my entire group when I say, “I learned so much from our service trip, and it was a sad day when we had to get on the plane and come back to Florida.”