Bundled in scarves and coats, families lined up outside of Grove Christian Outreach Center on a frigid Wednesday morning, waiting for their turn to select from the food stacked on tables in the parking lot. Scattered among the tables, a handful of William and Mary students stood ready to provide help and information to the people in line, and in the process, learn a little more about their neighbors.
“Today, the gift that they are giving back to this community is that they’re first of all being educated about the need that’s here,” said Deena Walls, assistant director of the center. “In such an affluent community, it’s hard to see the poverty pockets that exist and this being one of them. For them to actually come out here, see the need and then serve it, it’s the total package of service.”
Many William and Mary students spent time volunteering instead of vacationing during winter break. According to Drew Stelljes, director of the Office of Student Volunteer Services, College students served in the Williamsburg and Petersburg areas as well as in six countries during the break.
This year’s returning winter break service trips included: AIDS Tanzania; W&M Medical Relief (Costa Rica and Nicaragua); Student Organization for Medical Outreach and Sustainability (Dominican Republic); Students Helping Honduras; and Orphanage Outreach (Dominican Republic). Students also participated in two new opportunities this year: the W&M Students for Education trip to Belize and a learning and service trip to Petersburg, Va.
Also new this year was a week-long Williamsburg service program that was built around the theme of "Service and its Role in Alleviating Poverty." Students spent each morning during the week volunteering with local service agencies like Housing Partnerships, Campus Kitchens, the Heritage Humane Society, and Head Start. Then, at night, the students reflected on what they learned and experienced during the day.
“I hope that by offering students an intensive and reflective service experience, this trip will help the students know the community where they live and learn in a new way,” said Long Vinh, a junior who created and co-led the trip. “By taking time to learn about the issues involved in poverty and then volunteering in a relevant organization, the students will be able to see how their efforts can make a difference in the community.”
Heather McConchie (’10) was one of the ten students who participated in the program. She said that, originally, she had wanted to do an international service trip over the break.
“But it’s so humbling to realize that there’s so much need right here in Williamsburg,” she said. “There’s so much we can do right here in our own community.”
While at Grove, McConchie and the other students helped with the weekly bread line. The center serves the people of the Grove community in James City County, which lies between Busch Gardens and Lee Hall on Route 60. As some students helped with food distribution, Patrick Gallegos (’10) and Lauren Ellis (’11) used their Spanish-language skills to help the center conduct a survey.
Ellis said that the people they served were not those one might expect to need help.
“Because of the economic downturn, it’s just really sad how hard it is for people to find jobs and to get by even when they do have skills and want to learn,” said Ellis. “We need to keep in mind that this can happen to anybody, so it’s good to keep involved.”
With all of the experiences the week provided, the group formed a strong bond and enjoyed in-depth discussions about poverty in Virginia, Ellis said. Additionally, she and Gallegos found a place to volunteer at during the year because of the experience.
“It’s been definitely worth it for me,” said Gallegos. “It’s great to help and I’m learning a lot.”
Vinh said that the trip turned out great, and he hopes that it helped both the students who gave up a week of their winter break for it and the community members they served.
“We might not be able to completely eliminate poverty in Williamsburg in one week, but I hope that the trip will be the start of a lasting and sustainable commitment to service,” he said. “In the long run, I think that by promoting an in-depth engagement between students and the local community, everyone benefits.”