In seventh grade, I had the privilege of discovering a small but passionately run soup kitchen when my two friends asked me to come with them to volunteer at one of the Friday dinners their church was holding. Since that day, I have regularly been volunteering at St. James Church, and have met so many inspiring individuals who want to make a change in others lives. St. James is located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and although they are a church, their soup kitchen is open to any person wishing to volunteer, regardless of their religious beliefs. The church runs the soup kitchen on Tuesday mornings and Friday evenings, and provides service to around 90 homeless individuals at each meal. Although I have gone many times, a Friday evening from earlier this year stuck out for me. I arrived with my two friends who belong to the church, and we began by helping chop vegetables for the meal. Others helped to set up the tables in the main hall, placing flower vases on each one, while more people brought bread baskets out to the tables. After we had almost finished prepping the meal, we came together for a moment of grace. I am not Catholic, and may not have been thanking God for allowing me to be there, but I was still reminded of how lucky I was, and how much this meal meant for the people receiving it. We continued prepping and serving the food, and I remember another volunteer running back down to the kitchen gasping that there was an extra vegetarian plate needed, asking if we had already sent the veggie plates out, and if there be enough food left. Her worries were resolved as we had extra and made up another vegetarian plate, which I brought upstairs. When I found the woman who had claimed to be vegetarian, and placed the plate in front of her, she looked at me with such a wide smile and without even having to speak, her eyes told me how grateful she was. I have come back to the soup kitchen many times after that night, but I will always remember the surprise vegetarian and her soulful eyes.
Going on the South Africa was a unique experience and a look into a society full of rich history and culture like I had never experienced before. The entire trip was full moments of great joy, and also sadness. I witnessed myself and my peers push through very difficult moments which occasionally placed us in some discomfort. However, by the end of the trip, I was exhausted but filled with inspiration and hope.
The entire trip was such an incredible experience for me, however, a day I particularly found moving was when we worked with the Youth Group from the Methodist Church we had visited the day before. We started our day around eight with breakfast from the mamas and once finished, drove over to the church. We were greeted by the church Youth Group with many of their songs and prayers. One of the church leaders then split us into small groups so we were mixed in with the members of the church. After learning about each other through icebreaker activities, we split into three groups and travelled with the Youth Group to neighborhood homes. In those homes we encountered ailing members of the community who were experiencing difficulty providing for themselves. Our task was to provide encouragement through songs and prayers as well as providing food for those community members.
We met people who were sick and hungry. We saw yards filled with trash and homes that were dirty and falling apart. The conditions made me uncomfortable and when I stepped inside the Shanti our group went to, I wondered if I would be able to live in those conditions. The people who lived in these homes were very strong and resilient. However, they still needed the support of their community. The church readily provided that support with love and compassion. I was struck by how many church members wanted to help their community, and showed up. Their support made me think a lot about the power of community and how much more we can be doing to
support our local community back at home. I am grateful to have had this transformative experience and I will carry the lessons it taught me into future opportunities.
In January, the ninth grade started a service project called YPI (Youth and Philanthropy Initiative) that would last until the end of April. We were put into teams, and were instructed to think of a social issue present in the New York City community that we felt passionate about. After sorting through a couple different options, my team members and I settled on the topic of LGBTQ youth discrimination. During the project, we conducted research on our topic, through the library archives, and the web. After we had found out some information about our issue, we made websites about our social issues, and choose an organization to partner with that supported our cause. My group chose to work with the organization GLSEN. GLSEN is the largest educational network for the LGBTQ youth population across the United States. They provide most statistics about the LGBTQ youth discrimination, and have many programs that help pass legislative laws, and support students in their local communities. We chose GLSEN because they are an organization that, although broad, really cares for the students they want to make a difference for.
Coming into the project, when our team chose the issue of LGBTQ youth bullying, I was a little uncertain. I didn’t know a lot about the topic, and although I definitely knew it was an issue, I have grown up in an accepting community, so I haven’t had the chance with hands on experiences related to LGBTQ bullying. However, when our group dove into our research, I found that the project helped my see how important of an issue the topic is. The thing that really changed my attitude though, was when we went on our site visit. My group met with Eliza Byard, the executive director of GLSEN, and she helped us understand what an LGBTQ student is going through. She told us how students who are discriminated against because of their gender, or sexual orientation can drop out of school, and get involved in bad situations. This kind of bullying can eventually lead to extremely low self-esteem, and possible suicide. The idea that bullying simply on how students choose to lead their lives can kill a person really hit me, and made me realize that although LGBTQ youth bullying may not seem as important as some of the other social issues in New York City, it should be held in the same light.
Over the course of the project, I also developed some skills that I can take with me into the future. I learned how to find proper information, and combine that information into interesting, thought provoking points. I also learned how to present in front of a large audience. Having to do a formal presentation taught me how less is more in terms of a presentation, and how to get a point across while engaging the audience. The project overall had its ups and downs in terms of difficultly, but the part of our service learning experience I found the most challenging was starting out. Because we started from the bottom up, the beginning was hard in terms of finding information about our topic. Our group also had trouble narrowing down our topic because there was a lot of information about the general LGBTQ community. However, it was a lot harder to find information about LGBTQ youth. The project also had many aspects that were rewarding. Helping others always has a rewarding aspect to it, but the part of the project that was the most rewarding for me was knowing that by presenting, and learning about the organization, I was able to spread the word, and have more people become aware of GLSEN, and the extraordinary work they do. Finally, in terms of staying engaged with GLSEN, because they are such a big organization that runs many events, there isn’t a lot I can do to stay personally in contact. However, they run many events in New York City, which I can participate in, and I can also simply spread the word. Even by telling others about GLSEN, I am able to help others who might find GLSEN a resource if they feel like they have no where to go.