Carolina Service Council offers first international alternative break trip
Detroit isn’t what many college students would consider an exciting Spring Break destination, and many wouldn’t put combating urban blight before tanning and partying on a beach.
Yet Will Payne, the third-year political science student who organized Carolina Service Council’s alternative break service trip to the Old Redford neighborhood of Motor City, said the experience was “honestly as good as any vacation I’ve ever taken.”
The Dominican Republic seems a much more enticing locale, just as long as the lodging is a swanky resort on the coast and not a poor village smaller than three football fields. Yet more Council members gave up their week to serve just such as community, the rural village of Cruz Verde, on USC’s first international alternative break service trip.
Katie Parham, the fourth-year political science and French student who is the director of alternative breaks program for the Council, led the group of 10 in the Dominican Republic and oversaw the planning of the Detroit trip.
“I thought the university was desperately lacking in alternative programs abroad,” Parham said. “Compared to other SEC schools, we had none.”
Parham and her group partnered with the non-profit Sister Island Project to serve the residents of the destitute Yabacao region. According to the project’s website, “most of the local towns have only primary schools, most going no higher than 4th grade. To pursue further education, students must at times travel long distances, often at night, which is particularly dangerous for girls.”
The students aided the children of Cruz Verde by teaching them English at a local school. They also helped build homes with more durable materials and planted over 200 trees in a protected area as part of the country’s reforestation month.
“I went thinking that we were just going to help this community build houses and maintain the culture that they had,” said Claire Shannon, a second-year mathematics student. “But in the end we came away with a bond with these people that I don’t think any of us saw coming. At the end they said they felt like we were their family.”
Back stateside, the group of 11 in Detroit joined forces with Motor City Blight Busters, a group committed to counteracting the harm that the economic downturn and resulting population decrease have done to a city that what was once a symbol of American industry and ingenuity.
“It was home to something that provided so much for the U.S. economy, and now it goes from a town of 1.8 million people to a town of 800,000,” said Student Body President Ebbie Yazdani, who went on the trip. “It lacks the resources to continue to compete, but it has some people who are very determined to turn the city around.”
Yazdani and the other students were among those determined people as they worked primarily at demolishing abandoned properties. According to Payne, they helped jack hammer out a driveway and sidewalk, removed piles of bricks and garbage and erase a garage that had been destroyed by arson.
“There was definitely some physical work, but we also helped with a resident artist who has a project where he paints wooden butterflies to put up on abandoned houses,” Payne said. He said the point, other than the obvious rebirth metaphor, was “to show the neighborhood that they aren’t forgotten.”
Payne said John George, the founder of Blight Busters, started the organization 18 years ago when he moved into Old Redford and saw that an abandoned property next door was sheltering drug dealers. When the police didn’t respond to his complaints, he bought some plywood and boarded up the house himself. One day he saw one of the drug dealers drive up to the house, see that it was boarded up, and just drive away.
“This was just a regular person who just decided to take it upon himself to improve his community,” Payne said. “That’s at the essence of what Carolina Service Council is all about.”
Parham said all students should experience a service trip during their college careers.
“It’s the kind of thing that can add to your learning experience,” Parham said. “It’s called service learning for a reason.”