By Gara B. Field, PhD
Director of Global Education
We arrived at the Meeting House on the afternoon of March 22, 2017 for the 4-day Providence Friends Spring Break Service Retreat with a commitment to learning about and enhancing our community in authentic ways, being vulnerable to transform ourselves as individuals, and create a collective sense of social awareness in hopes of heightening our responsibility to one another and those around us. At Moses Brown, ethical leadership is described as living our core values of SPICES: simplicity; peace; integrity; community; equality; and stewardship. This immersive spring break service learning experience is a manifestation of our responsibility to learn and serve. It connects us with local non-profits, Providence Public Schools, and grounds our intentions to understand important issues of food insecurity in our city, and around the world.
We set up camp with blankets, sleeping bags, and aerobeds that filled every square inch of the Meeting House. Fourteen students and two faculty members began the retreat with a ride on RIPTA to a local supermarket in East Providence. Two groups of 7 students each divided into breakfast and dinner crews to budget, plan, and purchase food for the retreat. Senior Alasia Destine-DeFreece ‘17 remarked in our first night’s meeting for sharing, “It struck me that every single one of us had iPhones, yet one woman on the bus had no phone and was late to work because she missed her connecting bus. She asked us to help her figure out what bus she could catch next, and what time it was scheduled to arrive at her destination. I take for granted most days the fact that I have access to information 24/7 simply by accessing the internet on my phone. I was glad we were able to help her, but the realization of how many challenges working class and poor people face hit me in that moment.”
We were joined for a mac and cheese/chicken finger dinner by three Moses Brown parents who all work and serve in various capacities in Rhode Island, including Navyn Salem (Founder/CEO of Edesia https://www.edesianutrition.org; Cecily Zeigler (Immigration lawyer at Dorcas International – http://www.diiri.org; and Teddy Bah (Co-founder of the Refugee Dream Center with her husband Omar Bah – http://www.refugeedreamcenter.org. Each of these passionate and committed women discussed their varied yet connected experiences working with local refugees and those requiring support across the globe.
The next day, we went to visit and serve at Edesia and the Refugee Dream Center. It was an empowering and simultaneously humbling experience. We learned about four devastating famines that the world has not seen the likes of since World War II, and the work Edesia is doing to end them and save the lives of children in Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria, and South Sudan. We spent time with Omar and his team at the Refugee Dream Center (RDC), helping them to organize and set up tables for a free yard sale where many refugees came for clothes, toys, and household items. Learning about Omar and his willingness to share his refugee experience as a journalist who fled The Gambia for investigating human rights violations was shocking. Perhaps as important, was coming to see and understand his unyielding dedication to the refugee community in Rhode Island. Ife Olubowale ‘19, Luke Dow ’19, Georgia Griffin ’19, and Collin McCormack ’18 listened intently as Omar described so much of what he had been through, and why he founded the RDC. That evening, Brooke Nyman ‘19, Lucy Tang ‘19, Andrew Dorman ‘18, Kayla Ure ’17, and Jacob Crisafulli ’17 led the charge to put together care packages with Mylar blankets, toiletries, and hygiene products for people in need who we would connect with the next night. Little did we know, one of the people who gratefully accepted a care package would teach us so much in a brief, but unforgettable interaction.
We spent the final day of the retreat in Providence at Pleasant View Elementary School (where I was a principal for 5 years from 2011 – 2016). We engaged in the morning advisory with students and teachers, and then we worked for several hours cleaning up and putting together new equipment for the PV playground. Retreat co-leader and school psychologist Jess Stewart led a small group of persistent students, including Brian Greene ‘17, Andi Stallman ’18, and Halle Salem ’19 in building a new see-saw for PreK students. Seniors Kile Grinai ’17 and Jacob Crisafulli ’17 built a storage bench while Alasia Destine-DeFreece ‘17 and Kayla Ure ’17 swept sand back into its rightful place, and edged the playground. Kile Grinai ’17 was particularly moved by one kindergartener who made a lasting impression upon him. He watched her struggle with each step that she took in her Physical Therapy session. At our meeting for sharing that night, Kile reflected, “I had a moment today, and it stayed with me. It stayed with me at lacrosse practice when we were doing wind sprints. It will probably stay with me for a long time. I’ve never really thought about something as simple as walking being challenging for a child. I will never forget that little girl who worked so hard – just to walk. She was inspiring.”
On the evening of March 24, we distributed care packages that we put together for homeless and food insecure individuals at Cathedral Square with House of Hope (HoH) Case Manager Megan Smith, and her friends/colleagues from HoH and Brown University. There was a gentleman, affectionately referred to as Sarg, who stood out among the crowd. It became clear that Sarg is a valued and beloved member of his community, and he spent time talking to a few of us. We learned that Sarg is a Vietnam veteran who did two tours of duty and served our country with distinction. We talked about the state of our nation, the horrors of war, the complexities of life on the street, and the lifeline that the HoH and Cathedral Square communities have become to him. We talked about his childhood, his family, his favorite books, and his passion for cooking. He invited us back on a night that he cooks up a “mean stew.” Just as he departed, he got on his bike and said, “What you kids are doing out here means a lot to people. Thank you. I hope to see you again someday. Come back … even if it’s just to say hi, and share a bowl of soup.”
Each night, we had a meeting for sharing where we reflected on the most meaningful parts of the day for us individually and collectively. At times, we laughed, and at times, we cried. We reflected on what we saw, learned, and experienced in terms of poverty, physical challenges, immigration, worldwide famines, and food insecurity in the U.S. We reflected on life chance, privilege, social entrepreneurism, stewardship, and the arc of social justice in a complex world. Sophomore Lucy Tang ’19 noted, “To me, even though we are visiting local sites, we are seeing how our community can have a global impact.”
As stated by author and educator Dwight L. Wilson, “Personal perspectives on justice have been known to change with one’s degree of comfort. In response to this phenomenon, the 18th century Quaker, John Woolman offered guidance when he said, “Oppression in the extreme appears terrible, but oppression in more refined appearances remains oppression, and where the smallest degree of it is cherished it grows stronger and more extensive.” “Without social justice, there is no peace.” Andrew Dorman ’18 summed up his thoughts about the retreat in an honest and reflective way, “When I first got to the Meeting House, I found myself eager to get the whole thing over with, not really expecting anything to come out of the trip. Yet, each hour of the day spent bonding with kids I don’t usually talk to, and interacting with people at each of the places we went, really stuck with me, especially after the whole thing was over. The trip was so fun and thought-provoking. It was about people and compassion. Honestly, it felt good to talk to people who were struggling, and hear their stories. It made me ask myself who I want to be as a person, and how I can benefit someone else’s life, along with my surrounding community. I recommend the trip to every student at MB, even though there are a limited number of spots.” The next Friends Spring Break Service Retreat will run from March 14 – 17, 2018.