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This spring break, I decided to participate in a community service trip to Bithlo, Florida. This was mostly because I had never had the opportunity to volunteer, and this was a chance to experience living conditions in other regions of the United States. Technically, Bithlo is part of Orlando, but unlike the booming and wealthy parts of town and the affluence of Disney World, Bithlo is an unincorporated and impoverished community. Bithlo has been neglected after the town went bankrupt in the 1920s, but along with UCF (the University of Central Florida), Millersville University, and other community members, we were able to provide some support to the community by cleaning the gardens, painting houses and aquaponics, and serving as mentors for the students at the local charter school.
When we first arrived, my first instinct was to be with the children, and the experience was wonderful. The kids ranged from kindergarten to 3rd grade and were so full of energy and enthusiasm. They wanted to learn all sort of things, from French to Spanish to Chinese, and even English! Luckily I speak both French and Mandarin and was able to teach them several words. The older students, ranging from 8th to 11th grade, had a great thirst for knowledge. Some of the students had been through many hardships and traumatic experiences at their young age, but I was able to relate to them nevertheless. I remember one student in particular, Stevens, with whom I shared a passion for astronomy, manga, and anime, and I encouraged him to attend college if he wanted to gain in depth knowledge and have access to books about astronomy. Other students aspired to be actors and actresses and video game designers.
One of my favorite memories was our time spent at Cocoa Beach, which was my first time ever to go to the beach! I went to the beach thinking that I would be able to purchase some coconuts, while relaxing on the sand, but there were no coconut trees nor coconut vendors in sight! Although I was very disappointed, I had a good time. At first, the water was very cold and I was scared of the waves because I cannot swim. However, with the help of my friends, I was able to relax and enjoy the gentle waves coming toward me. When I wasn’t in the water, I took a short nap and later convinced Melissa, one of the volunteer UCF students, to learn some pop-cultural dance moves using the “Bet You Can’t Do it Like Me” by DLOW. She quickly picked up the moves and so did the kids at the school!
Overall, the trip was worthwhile, as I was able to connect with various people and create relationships. I still miss the dynamic of our group: Nahui’s contagious laugh, Ray’s awkward remarks, Jacob’s boyish laugh, Jared’s sensual voice, Brad’s introversion, Savannah’s sassiness, Daisie’s shining smile, Thibault’s shocked facial and surprising verbal expressions, and Jess’ crazy anecdotes. Most importantly, I miss doing a dance move called “the dab” with Mike as our signature picture pose. I certainly will go on another service trip adventure!
Spring break is a time when many students travel to tropical islands for a week-long adventure, while several others venture back home for a relaxing time with family and friends. In the past, I’ve had both types of experiences, so for my final spring break, I decided to try something a little different. I had heard about an interfaith service trip to New Orleans, and while I’m not actively involved with a religious group at Juniata, campus ministry welcomed me with open arms.
Although I had always heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina, I thought that after 11 years the city would be restored. Although most areas of New Orleans have recovered nicely, the Lower Ninth Ward has not fully recuperated.
While in New Orleans, I, along with 17 other Juniata students, worked with an organization called Capstone, which aims to provide the citizens of the Lower Ninth Ward with free community gardens. To help out, we weeded, planted, and watered the gardens; constructed and painted boxes for honey bees; cleaned and fed goats and chickens; and helped with other jobs as needed.
Since this was also an interfaith trip, we explored and discussed different religions, such as Judaism, Christianity, and Unitarian Universalism. Additionally, we were able to learn about the culture of New Orleans by talking with local citizens, eating beignets at the famous Café du Monde, visiting a Mardi Gras museum, and touring the renowned Saint Louis Cemetery.
Lithuanian-American writer Ruta Sepetys once said, “New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture—even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels, and there’s a story lurking around every corner.” After experiencing New Orleans first-hand, I could not agree more.