The new Monmouth College “family” of, from left, the Rev. Dr. Teri Ott, Kathleen Forrest, Jake McLean, Nick Mariano and Corbin Beastrom take a break during their poverty immersion simulation in Louisville, Ky. MC students who helped out at Habitat for Humanity included, in the middle row starting second from left, Sylvain Darville, John Bowles, Jacob Hutton and Shannon Sullivan. In front are, from left, Katie Murphy and Claire McGuire.
Monmouth College’s recent Alternative Spring Break trips to Kentucky and Iowa were a win-win. Not only did 10 students have the opportunity to serve residents in need in Louisville and Des Moines, but they were able to do so in weather that rivaled the conditions typically found in such Spring Break hotspots such as Florida.
The record-breaking temperatures were certainly appreciated by the contingent in Louisville, which was led by the Rev. Dr. Teri Ott, MC’s chaplain. Her group – which also consisted of students Corbin Beatstrom of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Kathleen Forrest of Deerfield, Nick Mariano of St. Charles and Jacob McLean of Silvis – took part in a poverty immersion program in Louisville’s Portland neighborhood.
The group spent its nights in an old renovated church building, which was rented by Urban Spirit, the organization that oversees the program. For 10 hours each day, though, that building was off limits, and the group “walked the streets,” learning their surroundings and doing community service in such places as the Neighborhood House, a community garden and Portland Plaza, a subsidized housing project for older citizens.
“We were always safe,” stressed Ott. “We lost our sense of insecurity with the neighborhood after the first day.”
Those feelings of insecurity quickly turned into compassion and admiration for the “amazing people” the group encountered.
“These are good people, living under extraordinary circumstances,” said Ott. “We met an ex-con, who was living in a halfway house. He was a good man, he made a mistake, and he told us so. We met an older gentleman at the community garden who lost all his savings when his wife got cancer and his health insurance was cancelled. He shared his story with us and taught us about life. That was a beautiful relationship that we had through the week.”
“(Meeting the man at the garden) gave me some insight on what the neighborhood was like, what it would take to change things around there, and how just to be happy with what you have,” said McLean. “After meeting with him, it is safe to say that I have changed my outlook on a lot of things. Furthermore, I want to help communities like that. I want to be able to create something better for many people, like he was doing with the community garden.”
There was also an “ex-con” within Monmouth’s group, as that was the card that McLean drew for the week-long simulation. Ott had it easier, as she was paired with Forrest, whose fate was that she had been “recently laid off.” Forrest and Ott were able to live in “subsidized housing,” which meant they had beds within the old church building. McLean’s group, however, was relegated to sleeping on a cement floor in the basement, which was meant to simulate living in a homeless shelter. And that was only the beginning of their troubles. They were also presented with the issue of having to raise a baby, and their computerized model required all the attention that a real one would.
“They just got hit so bad,” said Ott. “The baby cried all night, and they didn’t get any sleep.”
But there was laughter, too.
“I laughed constantly,” she said. “I’ve never laughed so much and been in such miserable conditions.”
As part of the program, the group had to report to the local food pantry to get its box of food, which included such items as tuna, Vienna sausages, saltine crackers, peanut butter and Ramen noodles.
“There was no fresh fruit or fresh vegetables,” said Ott. “That’s what we ate for the week. It was really horrible. That’s what stuck with me most for the week – the diet.”
Ott will also remember the bonds that were created during the trip, which she believes will have far-reaching effects.
“It was an incredible week and an incredibly transformative experience,” she said. “We were pushed and challenged, but the five of us feel like family now. The students who participated were all freshmen and a sophomore. I believe they will be transformative leaders, not only in the campus and local community, but in their homes. I am looking forward to having more experiences with them and helping them to meet needs as they see them.”
In writing about his experience, Beastrom was able to contrast the week to the extravagance he saw during a recent field trip to Chicago with the Pre-Law Club.
“As a college student, I am a part of the next generation, and the decision to continue the existence of this inequitable system is ours. We are all driven to succeed – and rightfully so – but we must realize that our success cannot come at a detrimental cost to others. It will behoove us to remember the messages behind our class readings, which guide us toward virtue and understanding. We should keep the theoretical in mind as we seek to create a more just and benevolent society, and we must never cease to analyze and reflect upon the world we live in. Though generations past have failed, we have the power and knowledge to redefine the world around the paradigms of shared prosperity.”
“This poverty immersion week was eye-opening and stressed me out to a point of extreme anger,” concluded McLean. “I went almost four days with no shower and very little to eat – and completely had the time of my life.”
Conditions were less harsh in Des Moines, where Billy Bernard, MC’s director of Greek life, leadership and involvement, led six students on a trip to assist the Greater Des Moines Habitat for Humanity.
“The Wakonda Christian Church graciously opened its doors to us and provided us with a place to sleep, shower and prepare meals,” said Bernard.
“The highlight of the trip for me was meeting all of the interesting people who work with Habitat for Humanity,” said Jacob Hutton, a sophomore from Sherrard. “They come from different backgrounds, and it was interesting to learn how they got into the organization.”
Claire McGuire, a junior from Monmouth, agreed.
“The people who worked for Habitat were very welcoming, and they were all very happy with what they were doing. I would recommend this trip to others in the future because it felt good knowing that I was helping out a family.”
Work included projects at the Habitat’s ReStore; participation in a “Rock the Block” campaign, where homes near a Habitat site are renovated; and construction of an actual Habitat home.
“I enjoyed the entire week, but that was a very exciting day,” said Bernard of putting up siding and attaching soffits to the roof.
Hard work during the day was an experience shared with the Kentucky group, but where their paths diverged was at night. While Ott’s crew dined on Vienna sausages, Barnard’s group sampled some of Des Moines’s most popular restaurants, including America’s Incredible Pizza, where they also went go-karting.
Of course, they also shared the beautiful weather. Said Bernard, “For everybody who doubted the wisdom of a Spring Break trip to Des Moines, Iowa, we proved them wrong.”