Twenty-six Illinois State students and five trip leaders traveled to Memphis, Ecuador, and the Galápagos Islands in mid-December for Illinois State University’s Center for Civic Engagement’s annual Alternative Winter Break (AWB) service trips.
On the Quito, Ecuador trip, the students taught English to children in a local school, and on the Galápagos Islands trip, students worked on trail restoration and the removal of invasive species.
A different group of Redbirds worked with Serve901 in Memphis, Tennessee, where they assisted the following groups: Hope House, Room in the Inn, JUICE Orange Mound, Jacob’s Ladder Community Development Corporation, and Lifeline to Success.
Due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, students and trip leaders were required to get vaccinated before the trip. All individuals also took a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test prior to departure and quarantined after taking the test up to the point of departure.
Illinois State senior photographer Lyndsie Schlink served as the advisor for the 10-member, weeklong trip to Memphis where students raked leaves, trimmed fence lines, wrapped donated presents for children, served food at a homeless shelter, cleaned beds, sorted donated food and clothing, created care packages for homeless people, and worked with former criminal offenders to renovate a church that will soon become a community center.
A few days before the trip to Memphis, a tornado tore through western Kentucky and Tennessee. Although Memphis sustained only mild wind damage, there were still a lot of downed trees, branches, and leaves throughout the neighborhoods where Illinois State students were scheduled to serve. The following is a snapshot of the experiences the Redbirds had serving Memphis.
On Monday, December 13, the group spent the morning and afternoon at Hope House Memphis, which serves families affected by HIV. Hope House is composed of three houses side-by-side in the city. Behind two of the homes are large playgrounds that were covered in leaves and sticks, making them unsafe for children to play. The students used rakes and shovels to remove and bag the leaves from the playgrounds.
“At first raking leaves seems like busywork, and it’s hard, but then you realize that the people at these organizations are super busy and don’t have time or the money to pay someone to do the yard work,” said sophomore Nikki Zavondy, an environmental science major and a first-time Alternative Break participant. “So when you look at the bigger picture, the time we spent and the work we did really made a difference in their lives.”
Two students worked inside one of the houses to wrap presents donated for the children.
Shortly before lunch, the group drove to Room in the Inn, an ecumenical ministry that provides an emergency shelter and meals to homeless people during the coldest months of the year.
Three students helped serve lunch. The rest of the students moved old furniture and stacks of floor tiles on the second story to a new location, and swept and mopped the floors to clear the way for renovations. After lunch was served, a few students picked up trash in the parking lots surrounding the building.
On Tuesday, December 14, the students spent the day at JUICE Orange Mound, working in a building that was being used as a relief shelter, filled with bunk beds and supplies for homeless people.
The Orange Mound neighborhood is the first community in the United States built by and for African Americans. “I’m just so grateful that I had the opportunity to come on this trip. It was just perfect timing for me in my life. This was a once in the lifetime opportunity to get a firsthand experience of Black culture in Memphis,” said senior Shaniece Cole, a sociology major and first-time Alternative Break participant. “It was challenging because I was the only Black person volunteering and having to explain our culture to the other students. It was inspiring too because they didn’t know what it’s like to be a Black person living in America. Now they have a better idea because of this trip.”
The students raked leaves and removed trash from the site and the lots behind the building where temporary housing will soon be built. Several other students worked inside to organize donated nonperishable food, hung up and organized donated clothing, sprayed beds with disinfectant, changed out bedding, and organized supplies.
On Wednesday, December 15, the students spent the morning at Jacob’s Ladder Community Development Corporation, a Christian nonprofit organization that is working to revitalize the Beltline neighborhood through partnerships with local residents, churches, and businesses.
The students raked and cleared leaves from sidewalks, streets, and yards on several blocks in the neighborhood, including a home that had been recently renovated and safeguarded for an elderly resident. They also trimmed fence lines and removed debris from ditches.
“It was great seeing the impact that our service made on not only the groups we were serving but also the residents passing by who would stop and comment on how wonderful the streets and sidewalks looked,” said junior Nicole Martin, a double-major in special education and first-time Alternative Break participant. “Hearing that from them firsthand really made me feel like I was like making a difference in their community.”
The students were invited to a Thanksgiving-style meal that was prepared by volunteers, including Illinois State alumna Shirley Langley ’72.
“It was fun to sit down and have a meal with them, and learn more about the people we were serving,” Zavondy said.
On Thursday, December 16, the students spent the morning touring the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
Several students started to tear up at the site of Room 306 where King was killed.
“From the moment we arrived at the museum, I was immediately taken back to the pictures in the books about Martin Luther King Jr. that I read as a child,” Cole said. “And here I am seeing those same photos, and actual artifacts, right in front of me.”
After touring the museum, the group had lunch at the historic The Four Way soul food restaurant, which was frequented by King during the Civil Rights era.
In the afternoon the students went back to Orange Mound, where they organized donated supplies and filled bags with hygiene and seasonal essentials.
“I’ve never been exposed to poverty on this grand of a scale,” said first-year social work graduate student Joie Pecoraro, a four-time Alternative Break participant and first-time trip advisor. “Some of the locations we visited were a little worse for wear from the outside, but then you walk inside and realize that the people are individuals with feelings, families, and histories.”
Zavondy agreed with Pecoraro: “We learned to have more of an open mind and not prejudge people based upon their circumstances, and to let the interactions with the community members happen naturally. The people were all so nice to talk to and were thankful for our service.”
On Friday, December 17, the students spent the day at Lifeline to Success, a group that enrolls, trains, and employs 41 ex-offenders, working to solve some of the biggest problems facing Memphis—crime, blight, violence, and joblessness.
The students started the day sitting adjacent to an ex-offender where the group discussed the goals of the organization, the importance of mental health, and anger management. After about an hour, the group took a trip to the local Walmart to pick out free toys for children of the ex-offenders. Next, the students worked alongside them to remove church pews, floor tiles from classrooms, and carpeting from what used to be a church, and will soon become a community center.
“Learning about Lifeline and seeing the program in action inspired me,” Cole said, “It made me wonder where organizations like this have been all my life. I know several people who’ve been in and out of prison and would’ve benefited from a program like this if it was available where they lived.”
After service on Friday, the group took a trip to the neighborhood near Jacob’s Ladder to drop off some children’s books. When they were walking back for lunch on Wednesday Martin had seen one of the little libraries along the sidewalk and when she opened it there were no books inside.
After service one evening the students went to a thrift store and Martin, Zavondy, Pecoraro, and senior Rylie Linn (a senior integrated marketing communication major and three-time Alternative Break participant) each bought 10 books to help stock the little library.
“I was grateful to be in a position where I could buy books for the neighborhood, and I’m hoping that children open the little library and are surprised to find it filled with books,” Pecoraro said.
Reflecting on their service
The students worked from 8:30 a.m.–4 p.m. Monday through Friday with an hour for lunch. Late afternoons, right after service, were spent exploring Memphis, including a trip to Sun Studios, Graceland and walking across the Big River Crossing from Memphis to Alabama.
Most dinners were cooked at St. George’s Bunkhouse, where the group stayed for the week. After dinner, the students reflected on their highs, lows, and ways to grow, and did team-building exercises.
“Students at Illinois State chose to give up a week of their winter break to aid a community in need,” said trip leader Victor Ventura, a senior sociology major and three-time Alternative Break participant. “It was a great feeling to be surrounded by compassionate and generous people who had a common desire to give back. Volunteering has given me the opportunity to try new things, set personal goals, and develop new skill sets. I get to witness firsthand the positive impact on individuals, communities, and society.”
As the group left the Bunkhouse for the last time, they took one last look at the image of Martin Luther King Jr. that adorns the wall with the quote, “Everybody can be great, because anybody can serve.”